Three Rivers Casino – Florence, Oregon
Casino shows can be brutal at best. Patrons who wander into a showroom without a cover charge, distracted by a possibly poor showing at the tables, are not the best crowd for comedy. At the Three Rivers Casino in Florence, Oregon the odds are stacked even further. The stage sits just a few feet from the casino floor, where slot and video poker machines clang and holler incessantly. The bar sits about a dozen people sipping watered down drinks and mindlessly chomping down baskets of deep fried food and 10 dollar turkey sandwiches while watching five screens, one of which is set on the World Series where the Giants are ahead in the top of the eighth inning.
In the showroom, about 20 people are sitting around tables or in booths, some of which have their backs to the stage. People stroll in, take a seat for a minute and then wander off, or worse, spend their time texting while opening act, Virginia Jones works hard to focus their attention on the stage. In order to reach over the din of the casino, the sound guy has cranked up the volume of the mic to an almost piercing volume, prompting Jones to ask him to turn it back down.
It is in this less-than-friendly venue that Auggie Smith, fresh off his win of the 35th Annual San Francisco Stand-Up Comedy Competition, takes the stage and proceeds to needle his way through an energetic, hour-long set. Ranting on everything from medical marijuana to road rage, to the overreaching arm of “The Man” when it comes to anti-smoking laws. It’s good, solid material served up with a rapid-fire, confident delivery that just isn’t getting the response he knows his stuff is worth. Smith pauses his act and turns on the crowd, lambasting them for their overall apathy and lack of engagement. “You guys suck!” he shouts, “Turn around and look at yourselves, and make sure you are never in the same room again,” The tirade actually animates the crowd, and they’re his for the remainder of the set.
After the show, more than a dozen patrons come up to Smith, shake his hand, buy a CD, tell him they thought he was great. One young man in a ballcap and Blazers t-shirt apologized. “Dude, if we were out of town and drinking more I would definitely be laughing my ass off. I laugh too quietly,” he said sheepishly before grinning and heading off with his date, leaving Smith to throw out a genuine, “Thanks, man” in his wake.
Such are the travails of the road comic – not out of the ordinary for this performer who’s spent 20 years practicing his craft across the country, starting out in Chicago clubs at the age of 19, bopping into Los Angeles and NewYork and finally settling down into the hipster mecca of Portland, Oregon, his current hometown. Throughout his career he’s performed at the Montreal Comedy Festival, Live at Gotham, the Rooftop Aspen Comedy Festival and has been a regular on the syndicated Bob and Tom Radio Show. Portland’s Willamette Week gave Smith an enthusiastic review. “Auggie Smith resuscitates stand-up with a dose of pop culture and jaded hip…his style will be part of a youth movement attracting younger, hipper crowds.” Auggie Smith resuscitates stand-up with a dose of pop culture and jaded hip…his style will be part of a youth movement attracting younger, hipper crowds to stand-up.
During the month of September, Smith took his rollercoaster act to the S.F. Competition, his second appearance, where he firmly established himself as a frontrunner in both the preliminary and semi-final rounds, taking the crown after a tense final performance in San Francsico. Smith talked about his experience at this year’s competition and past efforts, his early days on the road and getting ready for the Seattle Comedy Competition where he hopes to repeat his success.
Nikki Jardin: You had a been a contestant in the S.F. competition once before.
Auggie Smith: It was 2001. It’s funny because I was moving to L.A. and wanted to get in front of all the industry there, but I don’t know if you remember that in September of 2001 there was something else going on. We were in the first week of October, durig the finals, and not a lot of people were traveling and not a lot of industry were there, so I was actually kind of upset about that. A very funny comic named Bengt Washburn won it, and he deserved it. But, it was such a grind and I didn’t do any other contests for a long time, but over the last year I ended up doing a couple of them, in Boston and Nebraska and I started to really like working on the short set and hanging out with the other comics.
Even though you’re competing with each other you end up making some really good friends. I’m always amazed how few people I know in this business. You know, you end up seeing the same people all the time, but the other headliners I don’t know because I never work with them. So it’s just a treat to watch them, and in these contests are such a mix of young, funny guys as well as guys that have been around a long time and are polished. There was one kid this year (in San Francisco), Sammy Obay who has been doing it three years or something…phenomenal, he was great. I think the young comics are getting exponentially better cause they’ve seen how to do it. People are better stand-ups now. You know we’ve only had stand-up in the form we have now for like, 40 years. I think all art forms get better as they’ve gone on cause people have seen how to do it. There’s only been the club scene for a short period of time, so I think people are getting better quickly. It took me six years not to suck.
NJ: Where did you start performing stand-up?
AS: I was raised in Montana and moved out to Chicago for a year and then moved to Portland. I’ve left there twice – I went to LA and NY once and I keep coming back here. I mostly started in Portland. There was one open mic every Tuesday, and it was a great open mic, but I was trying to get better doing five minutes a week – so it took a little while. But then there was a lot of local gigs you could do and they were pretty good about (getting you out there). You had a half-hour pretty early to go out on the road with… even when you didn’t have a half-hour, maybe you only had 12 or 15 minutes and they’d throw you out there so you had to learn fast, you did a lot of rooms like this,” he gestures out at bar.
NJ: So you get into the S.F. Comedy Competition, what week were you in?
AS: I was in the first week where it was five hour drives everyday. Seriously, the first night was in San Francisco and then five hours to Arcata, another five back to Napa and then Lake Tahoe and the next day all the way back to Santa Cruz. It reminded me of the old days where you do these runs, you know you go through Montana and you’re in a different town every night where you’re in the car three, four hours, if you lucky, seven hours sometimes in the car every day doing those runs.
NJ: How did you feel going into this contest?
AS: I’ll be honest with you, for me, with comedy, you have to feel funny and when you feel funny everything just falls into place. And I went into the contest feeling really, really funny. And so the first week, when you do the five to seven minute sets I was just killing it every night to the point where on the Sunday I was just gonna ramble, cause I was already guaranteed the top spot – just so I can watch people’s faces. I wanted to see people go, what? This guy sucks! And I tried it for like, four minutes…and I just couldn’t do it. But I did do my most offensive material I could and I still came in second and I thought, man – I’m in my zone, and through the semis, it was amazing.
And then the first night of finals I hit a wall and I just don’t know what it was. That’s when everything got really, really tight and going into the final night there were four out of the five of us, anyone could’ve won it. Man, it was …and that’s when I started thinking, man, why the hell am I doing this? That’s when the nerves get to you so much. So then, finals night, I’m on stage and it’s the perfect scenario for me cause it’s a low ceiling, small room, you’re right on top of them. Well, I was killing, the first eight minutes were so good and then this hole opens up in the ceiling and water just starts to pour down…and I ignore it for a second and then I just have to stop and I’m like, c’mon! And so I got to talk about the water while they come up with a towel and wipe that up and I’m like. ‘I wonder if this is gonna cost me the contest,’ cause it just kinda kills that. And then I got second for the night and I thought there was no way but, however the numbers were, it was very very close, there were four of us that were incredibly close.
NJ: What was your favorite venue to play during the competition?
AS: There was a theatre in Mill Valley (Throckmorton Theater). It’s small, people come there to see a show, there are people my age (39) and older and…this is such a small thing, but…they were dressed. I love it when a guy’s not afraid to put on a jacket and a woman dresses up, ‘cause that means they put in some sort of effort for the evening and they’re gonna give you something back. And when you look out…you know, when I see a guy, and he’s out with a woman, and he’s in a t-shirt with writing on it, I want to punch him in his face. If you’re in high school, okay but…it makes me nuts. So that’s the thing, they were just an amazing crowd.
NJ: Tell me about the Santa Rosa gig. That venue has always been known for having a great audience.
AS: Yeah, Santa Rosa, you know George Carlin filmed his last show there….and you know, I was born in Santa Rosa so I got to open with that – asking them if I looked familiar. I look now like I looked as a baby so some of them may have recognized me.
NJ: You’re heading to Seattle next week to start the competition up there.
AS: I am. I haven’t done the Seattle contest since ‘97 and that was the year (Mitch) Hedberg won. I went up there, and I’m like the young hot comic in the northwest and I thought, ‘man this is my year to win,’ and that’s the year that Hedberg decided to edit his movie up there and stay in Seattle and do the contest and the first night I saw him it’s like, ‘there’s no way, I can’t beat this guy.’
And the story that I always tell, it’s Moses Lake and it’s a hotel convention room and they pack it for the contest. And there’s five people in the finals I go up fourth, and I get a standing ovation and I thought, ‘maybe, if I do so well tonight, then I have a chance of maybe getting up on him in the points.’ So Hedberg followed me and got his own standing ovation. At that time there was a possible 210 points you could get from all the judges – I got a perfect score of 210 – Hedberg got 209. It was amazing. I’m looking forward to getting up there again.
Auggie Smith performs during the first week of the 31st Annual Seattle Stand-Up Comedy Competition. Check out upcoming tour dates and video clips at his website: www.auggiesmith.com