With a blend of frenetic energy, precision timing and everyman observations, Don Friesen dominated the final week of the 30th San Francisco International Comedy Competition, becoming the first performer to win it twice.
“We opened the gates to a lot of past participants to come help celebrate this benchmark competition,” said Producer Jon Fox, who raised the first-place prize money to $10,000 for 2005. “We had a lot of experienced people who knew what it takes to succeed so it’s impressive for him win again in one of the strongest fields we’ve ever had.”
Friesen, who also won in 1999, is hoping to parlay his second win into the mainstream success enjoyed by past winners Dana Carvey, Doug Stanhope, Sinbad, Reno 911’s Carlos Alazraqui and Jake Johannsen. The list of past participants who haven’t won reads like a Who’s Who in comedy with such luminaries as Robin Williams, Dane Cook, Kevin Pollak, Ellen Degeneres, Roseanne Barr, Paula Poundstone and Steven Wright.
If he reaches those heights is yet to be seen but all signs are that he’s on the way.
“The goal was never to be a star but to pursue quality projects,” Friesen said. “This time around I have more maturity, more experience and I know exactly what my skills are.”
If the crowds at the 18 shows in the competition that saw him are any indication, the quality of his clean, clever and physically relentless act is undeniable.
“If I had to lose to anybody I’m glad it was Don,” said Dave Burleigh, who finished second. “He’s a great guy. Hopefully people will know how seasoned he is to pull off the feat of winning it twice.”
Cain Lopez of Fairfield took third, followed by Floyd J. Phillips of Portland and Kevin Avery of San Francisco. Each had done the competition before and with the exception of Lopez, the finalists all emerged from the same preliminary week.
“The shows were just smoking,” said Friesen, a husband and father of two. “When you have a bunch of guys who’ve been through these things before it’s just a more relaxed, mature group. It’s more fun and the shows are better.”
Burleigh said the comics were constantly ribbing each other as well as helping each other out with their acts.
“When you’ve done it before you know to watch out for guys putting roofies in your coffee,” Burleigh joked. “Don started to pull away once he started doing everyone else’s acts.”
Friesen didn’t need to do any “borrowing,” though, as he culled from ten years of road-proven material. He delivered different sets each night of the finals, never had to use a “drop night” in which comedians can remove their lowest score and he dazzled the diverse crowds with an energy that has been compared to Jim Carrey. But the month-long competition had its rough moments for him as well.
For Friesen the most grueling part of the competition came on the weekend of the final round. With three shows scheduled in three cites in less than 24 hours, Friesen set a personal goal of winning two of the three. After the Friday night show he noticed he was running low on gas and forgot to fill up, running out of gas a few blocks from the Fox Theater in Redwood City the following afternoon.
“I pushed it up a hill and parked about four blocks away,” he said. “There wasn’t any parking within three blocks of the theater. It turned out okay because if I’d gotten any closer I would’ve had to push it away from the theater to find a spot.”
If he hadn’t been so close to the theater, the incident may have given him pause.
“I hadn’t run out of gas since I was 17. I ran out about nine times that year,” he said. “Ironically, what I thought might be a bad omen turned out to be a great parking spot.”
Friesen made it to the show on time and with the help of Lopez, got filled up before heading to the next show. Over the 24-hour period he more than achieved his goal of winning twice by taking first in all three shows, mathematically locking up the contest with one show remaining.
It’s been a banner year for Friesen who released his comedy DVD “Inexplicable” and is selling out shows across the country.
“His comedy is so accessible,” commented Fox.
A big reason that Friesen’s comedy relates to all audiences is because he spent time on just about every rung of the blue-collar ladder before discovering comedy. He worked as a busboy, security guard, cab driver, vacuum salesman, and commercial real estate agent, before enrolling in the University of Southern California. He earned his business degree but not before discovering improv acting and comedy.
A year later he entered the San Francisco competition for the first time taking 19th and 18th place in his first two shows. But three years later he won the title and an appearance on the Martin Short show, which for the first time ever, held the audience over and asked a comedian to perform a second set.
Still Friesen said he didn’t feel quite ready for the Hollywood scene just yet.
“When he won six years ago he was a stand-up. Now he’s more like an artist, an original going beyond stand-up into theatrical presentation,” Fox said. “It’s not what comedy fans are used to seeing and the audiences really appreciated it.”
Fox said he plans to return next year to more fresh faces and is hoping to find corporate sponsorship to keep the prize money at $30,000 for the entire field.
“This was such an excellent year and we want to keep it that way so that anyone who makes it to the semi-finals gets a respectable pay day and the winner gets a super payday.”
The payday was nice for Friesen but the major reason for doing the contest again was to nail down his 7-minute set used to showcase for the late night talk shows. From there he plans to pursue television and film roles as well as the constant writing that keeps his comedy fresh and on point.
One thing’s for sure, he isn’t going to run out of gas anytime soon.