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America's funniest bone up for Laughing Skull Comedy Festival 

Stand-ups vie for the killing joke in comedy competition

GAG FEST: The crowd at 2010's Laughing Skull Comedy Festival

Lauren Grundhoefer

GAG FEST: The crowd at 2010's Laughing Skull Comedy Festival

When comedians from across the country converge for events like the Laughing Skull Comedy Festival, it's easy to imagine a stand-up version of an academic symposium. Wisecrackers would deliver scholarly monographs with titles like "If You Don't Stop, You'll Go Blind: Masturbation Jokes and Early-Onset Carpal Tunnel Syndrome" or "What Will Be the 'Dirty Sanchez' of 2011?"

Midtown's Laughing Skull Lounge seeks out the kind of lesser-known humorists who use comedy clubs as laboratories to test cutting-edge gags. The second annual Laughing Skull Comedy Festival will showcase progressive shtick that reverberates Midtown's epicenter to the far reaches of Buford.

Stand-up comedian Marshall Chiles opened the Laughing Skull in 2009 and says, both for the club in general and its festival in particular, he looks for entertainers who defy expectations. "We encourage comedians to do new stuff: 'Don't be afraid to fail,'" says Chiles. "When you watch 600 festival application videos, you start to realize what's overdone — jokes about TV commercials, jokes about masturbation, jokes about getting high."

A recent Thursday night offered a typical Laughing Skull lineup while sounding like the setup of a joke: "A black guy, a gay guy, an ex-con, an Indian-American, a tranny and a Korean-American sexual adventuress walk into a bar ...." The evening exemplified the club's diverse, idiosyncratic approach to performance. Headliner Baron Vaughn killed with an uproarious impression of lisping character actor Ed Wynn as a bumbling heart surgeon. Part-time Atlantan Margaret Cho played the banjo and crooned a surprisingly sweet duet of "Hey Big Dog" with female-to-male trans-guy Ian Harvie.

With a seating capacity of 74, the Laughing Skull could scarcely accommodate all 72 of the funny men and women competing at the festival. While the Laughing Skull hosts the tournament, out-of-competition events will take place at Roswell's Funny Farm, Midtown's Relapse Theatre, Buckhead's Basement Theatre and Buford's Buford Variety Theatre. It's almost like a citywide kum-ba-yah moment of comedy solidarity. Lineups for the out-of-the-Skull shows include "The Chick Show" (all women), "The Homegrown Show" (all locals), "The King Davids of Comedy" (all Jewish) and "The Beards of Comedy" (all hairy guys).

The competition began in November with preliminary rounds in 30 cities that winnowed 600 entrants down to 72. The last comic standing will receive $1,000, bragging rights as "Winner of the Laughing Skull Comedy Festival" and, most importantly, a six-month's guarantee of work from participating clubs around country.

Atlanta-based stand-up and "Beard of Comedy" Dave Stone, who considers the Laughing Skull his home club, was thrilled to make last year's semi-finals and compete against more established comics. Stone has a self-deprecating, drawling stage presence, but speaks thoughtfully and expansively about comedy off stage. He thrills at the chance to perform for industry bookers and other insiders, but admits to feeling ambivalent about competitive comedy. "It's not like sports, where success or failure is objective. When you're being judged by people who can make or break you, it's stressful."

Chiles finds that most comedy tournaments suffer from the flaw of choosing judges with no expertise in the craft of comedy. "You'll have a radio DJ, a hairdresser and a life coach — I'm not joking. They'll say things like, 'Oh, that was the best Crocodile Hunter impression ever!' While we'd be more likely to get rid of the guy who does the Crocodile Hunter." This year's Laughing Skull fest judges includes a talent agent, a booker for E!'s "Chelsea Lately" and an executive consultant with the Montreal Comedy Festival.

Stone hails from Canton, which he refers to as "Biscuitville" in his set: "Just drive north until you smell live bait and failure." He's a little disappointed that only two local comics — he and CL contributor Noah Gardenswartz — will perform in the competition, but feels confident in the face of this year's challenge. "We can't recycle material, so you can't do any jokes from the previous round," he says. "A lot of people have a great five minutes, but very few have a great 30 or 45 minutes." He likes to break up the rhythm of his longer jokes with five- to 10-second one-liners, such as "Fellas, you ever been ironing a pair of dirty blue jeans and suddenly smell chicken pot pie?"

Stone especially values comedy festivals for their off-stage schmoozing, which can boost a fledgling comics' career. Stone says, "I've been booked by personal references more than anything else." Chiles has scheduled such "hanging out" events as a kickball match at Piedmont Park and an after-party at the Clermont Lounge, where Blondie will doubtless become the new comedy muse for dozens.

The festival helps to validate Atlanta's coming-of-age as a major comedy city. "When I started four years ago, it seemed like Atlanta had about 25 comedians and four places to perform. Now there's easily over 100 comedians, maybe 150, and 20 to 25 places," Stone says, marveling at the scene's growth.

Chiles agrees with Stone's assessment and finds that Atlanta has both the supply and the demand to support a large comedy scene. But the scene's not big enough yet to support a full-time comic at the top of his craft, says Stone, who's moving to New York this year with the rest of the Beards.

According to Chiles, "It's taken a long time, but now Atlanta's on the second tier of comedy cities, with Chicago, Boston, Austin, Seattle and Denver. There's some industry here, like Turner, but the reality is that at some point, you need to move on."

Nevertheless, the Laughing Skull serves as a comedic proving ground, with the festival's jokesters putting their combustible material to the test.

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