SICC-34: Finals Week-Night Five – The Final-Final

(L-R: Graham Kay-1st, Zoltan Kaszas-2nd, Dave Merheje-5th, Rodger Lizaola-4th, Trenton Davis-3rd, Brad Upton-MC)

Looking for a recap of the final night of the 34th Annual Seattle International Comedy Competition?

There is a bittersweet quality to the last night of the Seattle International Comedy Competition.  Certainly, there’s excitement because a new champion will be crowned and each of the five performers in the finals wants to secure their best finish possible.  There’s also a sense of relief that this competition–going on nearly a month now–is coming to an end.

Before it could end, however, there’d be one more show…for an absolutely sold-out crowd at Seattle’s Comedy Underground.  A club show, after doing a series of theater gigs, is always a little strange.  The crowd is so much closer (and potentially more disruptive, depending on when they started drinking) and they’re more aware of every little thing that a performer might do (compared to a theater audience, where everything has to be made bigger so everyone, even those in the back, can recognize.)

One other thing contributing to the bittersweet feelings about the approaching end of this year’s competition was a sense of frustration.  These five performers who survived through to the finals have sacrificed their time and a good amount of money–and they’ve put their reputations on the line to compete in this event.  As much as each one should feel proud for having accomplished so much in this event, the simple fact was that only one of them could end up as this year’s champion.  That means, for four of this year’s finalists…they’d fall short of what they’d hoped for.

And, because of the arcane math that this competition uses to determine how the judges scores are added up to determine the fate of these five performers, four of the five of them already knew, before this last show even began, that they were destined to not be this year’s champion.  (Ironically, the one who did not know–the one who did not work out the math for himself and chose not to believe the other performers who saw the writing on the spreadsheets, was the one who was guaranteed to become this year’s champion.)

Perhaps Zoltan Kaszas had the luck of the draw for this week.  In the finals, each performer has to go up first on one night and last on another night…but the spot in the show’s line-up is determined randomly for the other shows.  Zoltan hit the jackpot in the random draw–beginning the week going up in the coveted “3″ spot on each of the first three nights.  However, this meant that he’d go up last on Night Four (in Bremerton) and first on Night Five (at the Comedy Underground) and before the first show of the week, he knew that he’d need to score big when he was going up 3rd, because he knew it can be tricky when you go up either last or first.  And Zoltan delivered–taking second on Night One and outright winning Nights Two and Three.  (And he also took top honors on Night Four, as it turned out that going up last in Bremerton was not a bad thing at all.)

On this final night, the crowd was hot and host Brad Upton had kept things bubbling with another excellent warm-up set…and Zoltan felt confident enough that he’d pocketed enough good scores that he could change up what had been a very successful competition set.  He dared himself to do a bit about the American flag that he knew wouldn’t necessarily be his most crowd pleasing bit…and he didn’t do his “cat rescue” or “watching The Notebook” bits, that were definitely crowd pleasing throughout this competition. These changes did not diminish his ability to entertain an audience and he earned a strong “encore point cheer.”  (And it started a bit of a trend–as a few of the finalists would switch up certain elements from their sets, adding bits or not doing certain bits…or even reorganizing their.  They did this either to squeeze out a few more points from the judges or just to keep things fresh in their own heads.)

The two Canadians remaining in this competition followed each other on this night–Dave Merheje went up second and Graham Kay followed Dave.

Dave had certainly started the finals strong–taking both top honors from the judges and, determined by audience vote, the choice of the members of the Washington Athletic Club on that first night.  A solid third place finish and good score on Night Two kept Dave near the top of the leader board for the week…but he fell victim to the “Go Up First Curse” on Night Three…and he saw himself slipping down in the rankings.

The thing with Dave Merheje is that he’s a comedy avalanche.  If you get caught up in it, you’re helpless…and the avalanche tumbles you around and takes you wherever it’s going…leaving you breathless at the end.  Once caught in that avalanche, Dave never gives you the chance to stop laughing.  It certainly felt on this night (a night where Dave was one of the performers who switched some things up–which is saying something, considering Dave is always switching things up with every set he does) that the avalanche had gathered up everyone in the Comedy Underground.  Executive Producer Jon Fox  felt, after watching the entire show,  that Dave Merheje had the set of the night.  But would the judges agree?

As lucky as Zoltan might have felt with his performance order draw, Graham Kay felt that he’d been just as unlucky.  He had to go up first on the first night of the week and he took 4th place that night…and he had to go up last on the second night of the week and he took 4th place again on that night.

To an outside observer, a certain “bounce” that Graham had exhibited throughout the preliminary and semi-finals week was missing.  This competition saps the energy of everyone who competes in it–especially those who make it all the way to the finals…and the one night break for Thanksgiving couldn’t have come at a better time for Graham.  With a little extra rest, Graham came back strong–taking second place (just behind Zoltan) on both Night Three and Four…and would be in the coveted 3rd spot in the order for this important Night Five.

Rodger Lizaola had gone into this year believing that this was his year to win this competition.  This was Rodger’s fourth time competing in this event.  The first two times, he narrowly missed moving on to the Semi-Finals…and then in 2009, Rodger made the finals of not only the Seattle International Comedy Competition but, just before he did that, he’d also made the finals of the similarly formatted San Francisco Comedy Competition (it was quite a year for Rodger.)  Rodger had placed fifth in 2009…and in the four years to follow, Rodger honed his act to a brilliant shine.  He changed his image–dressing sharper on stage showing off the fact that he’d lost the extra weight he once carried.

He was consistent in this competition, delivering solid set after solid set, night after night. Other than a slightly different opening bit, Rodger pretty much kept to the same set he’d done each and every night.

Rodger knew the game.  He, better than anyone, understood how this competition can toy with your expectations.  But despite having crafted a set that he thought would have everything that he would need to win–it was both edgy and mass appeal, it had him show fearlessness and vulnerability, it hit every note that a winning set would need to hit…and yet, the scores weren’t quite what he needed to bring the championship back to Seattle (and oh, yes, Rodger wanted to win this competition as a Seattle comic–despite now being based out of San Jose, California.  In his heart, he’s still a Seattle comic.)

On this night, Rodger wore his sharpest suit…and delivered his sharpest set.  His edge was sharper, the vulnerability cut deeper…and Rodger knew that regardless of the scores, he’d done all he could do and he’d done it the best he could have done it.  And the bittersweet truth is that it would be the scores that would matter, no matter how well he’d represented himself and his comedy home.

And closing off the show was Trenton Davis.  Trenton came into this competition on quite a run–he’d already won two other comedy competitions this year, including the Sacramento Comedy Festival.  He parlayed a win at Emory’s on Silver Lake in Everett during his Preliminary Week into a ticket to the Semi-Finals.  He survived the Semi-Finals challenge, when other top contenders for this year (like Steve Hofstetter, Sam Demaris, Kortney Shane Williams, Lonnie Bruhn and Mo Alexander) had not.  He’s got strong performance skills–he can deliver on the promise that his engaging personality and style suggest–and his material was both personal and universal.

In the finals week, Trenton found himself neither struggling…nor winning.  He finished third, second, fourth and third on the four shows prior to this final night of the finals.  He was like Adrian Peterson being held to three and four yard gains–you could tell that he kept expecting to break free for a big run at any time.   Like Rodger and Dave, you could tell that Trenton was really giving it everything he had…every set he did.

While scores were counted, the crowd was entertained by the 2012 Seattle International Comedy Competition Champion, Michael Malone.  Michael was well-impressed by the talent of this year’s crop of finalists.  (When asked, cheekily, if he had been part of this year’s finals if he could take ‘em, Michael smiled and said “Oh, yeah”–but you could tell that he had great respect for the performers in this year’s competition.)

When the judges scores were tabulated, it was clear that they took their job of “creating some separation” between five strong performers seriously.  They saw a night with five strong performers and found ways to indicate who they thought had done the best in each category of their scoresheets–rather than just give everyone good scores.  This, too, added to the bittersweet nature of the night…because though the judges did a good job at the task that they were given, the scores were, perhaps, a bit too harsh for the quality of comedy that had been on display this night.

Here’s the order of finish for this night, the way the judges saw it:

SICC-34 Finals Week-Night Five Results
1- Graham Kay (Toronto, ON)

2- Zoltan Kaszas  (San Marcos, CA)
3- Trenton Davis (Chicago, IL)
4- Rodger Lizaola (Seattle, WA)
5- Dave Merheje (Toronto, ON)

What that order doesn’t show is that Graham Kay was the judges’ favorite by a significant margin–the largest margin of any show during this entire competition.  Another three yard gain for Trenton, another surprise for Rodger and an unexpected result considering the prediction from our Executive Producer regarding how Dave would do.

Give Graham Kay all of the accolades he deserves for an excellent set…and a well deserved nightly win here.  That said, this night wasn’t really about the scores…it was a celebration of the five performers who had made it to this point.  But, even for Graham, the night was bittersweet…even before it started.

You see, Graham, Trenton, Dave and Rodger had done the math.  They each knew, going into the night, that there was no way that any of them could have caught Zoltan Kaszas, no matter what happened.  Even if Zoltan  scored his lowest score of the week (and he did) and even if the person in second place going into the night got his highest score of the week (and he did), even if the person in second place got the highest score possible to score (he did)…the end result would be that Zoltan Kaszas would come out on top.

And so he did, by only four-tenths of a point.  A month long adventure with twenty-two shows over 26 days;  a sixth month process that chose 32 contestants from over 1300 that were considered and then the last month that winnowed that number down to ten and then to five and then ultimately to just one as they were judged by more than 100 judges generating 700 scores–and the margin of victory was 0.4.

Making the night even more bittersweet for the four finalists who did not win was that they all respected and liked the one who did.  While everyone wanted to win, I don’t think anyone begrudged Zoltan Kaszas for going out and doing it.

With three nightly wins and two second place finishes in the Finals, Zoltan Kaszas from San Marcos, California is the winner of the 34th Annual Seattle International Comedy Competition.

And there’s nothing bittersweet about that.

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