SAN FRANCISCO — Television roles and movie stardom have come to dozens of past finalists in the San Francisco International Comedy Competition. Kevin Pollak placed second. So did Ellen DeGeneres, Dane Cook and the long time king of San Francisco comedy, Robin Williams.
Tom Simmons knew the history. It was no shame to be runner-up in the 34th Annual San Francisco International Stand-Up Comedy Competition. First place, however, not only sounded better but at $7,500, the check for winning was nearly twice as big as the one for coming in second.
So the stand-up from Greensboro, N.C. with 15 years performance experience under his belt was more than thrilled when he edged Los Angeles veteran and past winner Danny Bevins for the title. Simmons and Bevins were consistently in the first three show after show (with occasion interruptions by upstart Jarrod Harris) in the 20-performance event and it was a race to the end.
When host Jack Gallagher broke the news in front of a sold-out last-night crowd at Cache Creek Casino in the remote town of Brooks — about an hour and a half northwest of San Francisco — “I was relieved and excited,” Simmons deadpanned. “I knew whichever of us came out in front on the last night was going to come out in front overall.
“I had gone first and had a good set but felt like his set was incredible and connected. I gotta be honest; I thought he caught me. So, when I realized I was the winner I was thrilled and at the same time felt bad for my friend.”
After getting home two days later, Simmons said he was confident throughout the event but wary of judges who may have been swayed by Bevins’ hard-edged comedy vs. Simmons’ take on family life.
“I wasn’t sure,” the winner said. “I had been paying attention to the numbers and now I was in great shape because I had been consistent all week. I knew if I went on stage and performed the jokes with everything I had that I would be hard to beat…so I just rehearsed and tweaked the set, tightening it and then tried to go on and perform. After the set, waiting for everyone else to finish was hard.”
Producer Jon Fox wasn’t surprised Simmons emerged victorious “Most people relate to his common themes of childbirth and child raising, but he presents his stuff with so many different takes and such a pleasing persona, the audience becomes spellbound.”
The entire competition takes the contestants on a 3,000-mile jaunt throughout Northern California with brief touchdowns in Nevada and, for the first time ever this year, Oregon.
“From the beginning, we’ve been determined to take stand-up comedy to places where it’s seldom seen. In a way, it’s missionary work,” Fox said. “And the talent this year was exceptional.”
Though the semi-finals were tough, “the finals week was the most grueling. I think there was the most driving to do, plus each night was different,” Simmons said. “A neighborhood bar, a vets center, a ball room at a college, a ‘clean’ night, and the final night in a casino. I had to do a lot of prep work during the day to get ready. The college show had to be about 80 percent different, theclean set had to be rehearsed and words replaced… just working to make the right choices in material, and doing what it takes to be ready to perform it solidly was hard to do every night when you combine that with long drives.”
Simmons enjoyed the camaraderie with the four other finalists, yet, as his act
attests, he has family to fret about.
“The toughest part was taking the time away from my son in order to do this,” he said. “Actually, the toughest part was worrying about what the judges thought and standing there backstage as they read the results each night. The shows were in such awesome venues and so much fun to perform- it just was the only unfun part — standing waiting to hear where you stood. Then I had to watch comics who were my friends now not move on.”
Simmons fulfilled a promise he made to comic friend Darryl Lenox, who placed second to Bevins in the San Francisco Competition in 2000.
Standing left to right are Danny Bevins from Los Angeles, Jarrod Harris from Atlanta, Tom Simmons from Los Angeles and Maureen Langan from New York City. Seated is Rodger Lizaola from Seattle.
“Darryl made me promise him a few years ago that I would do it. This year it finally worked out and I didn’t have to break that promise again.”
Simmons said his wife was tickled he would be coming home with a large chunk of cash (actually it was a check that Fox wished him good luck trying to cash).
“She was very happy,” Simmons said. “I talked to her in between when I came off the last show and the results announcement and I was actually feeling sort of down ’cause I didn’t think I had done enough from the first spot to win. I couldn’t watch my friends and root against them so I just went for a walk and talked to her. She was great. Proud of me for being where I was. She has always been the best about comedy. She actually traveled and lived with me for three years in a Motor Home. That’s why we are married. She gets it.”
Simmons said the prize money helps getting a car paid off and repaired, a house insulated, “and I’ll pay off the credit card bill I ran up during the contest.”
As for advice to future contestants, “be prepared,” Simmons said, “The hardest part for me was getting out of the first round doing five to seven minutes. As the sets lengthened it got easier for the comics with the most experience. So be sharp, consistent and just bring the energy with you every night. There are a lot of good comedians who go on that stage and compete. Knowing your set inside and out is the key.
“Oh, and try to do it with a good friend like I did this year… makes the drives easier and cuts the expenses in half. Plus, you get to remind him that he lost to you for the rest of your life.”
Following Simmons and Bevins were Maureen Langan from New York City,
Jarrod Harris of Atlanta and Rodger Lizaola of Seattle.
After seeing semi-final sets of 12 to 15 minutes and finals sets of 15 to 20 minutes, Fox predicted good things for all the contestants.
“Bevins was a thoroughbred entered into a quarter horse race. As the sets got longer, his socially insightful material had more and more impact but he was really hard pressed to advance each round. Harris is probably the first contestant we’ve had from the South who pretty much concentrates on the topic of where he comes from. He’s a human cartoon so he may have the most potential of all for future TV stardom. Langan was the first woman to make the finals in 17 years which says a lot about her talents. And I was personally the most proud of Lizaola who is a minority taking on other minorities because he developed at the Comedy Underground in Seattle where I am ‘supreme commander.’”
In 34 years, Fox says his Top Five of all the competition entrants are
DeGeneres, Bobby Slayton, Carvey, Patton Oswalt and Tommy Savitt. Not that he consciously pulls for one comic over the other.
“I find I can do a much better job producing the event if I don’t get emotionally involved. I will say that I was in love with Ellen before I realized she was gay, and perhaps even for a while afterwards.”