Hilarity is an art. It takes skill, hours of creative energy and constant rehearsal to be a stand-up comic. Comedians must also be memorable. If they aren't funny, confident and original, they're forgotten as soon as the lights dim. It's a cutthroat industry, and for anyone looking to make a living in stand-up, it takes the same thing every wannabe in Hollywood needs: a big break.
Despite the seemingly endless filming in Downtown these days, Albuquerque is not Hollywood. There are seven listings for talent agents in our yellow pages. In Los Angeles, there are 370. That's not to say you can't get discovered in Burque. The chances are just much, much slimmer—unless you can get on the Russ Rivas fast track to the big time.
Laffs Comedy Club has been enabling the funny bones of Burqueños for nearly 20 years. Even better, the club has played host to many an opportunity for local comedians to hone their skills. Four nights a week, professional comics who make their living, or part of it, through stand-up comedy headline at Laffs. But before the professional acts take the stage on Sunday nights, local comics get five minutes of face time during an open mic. In Los Angeles, open mic stage time can cost as much as $50, Laffs owner and professional comic Russ Rivas says. At Laffs, it's free.
“They make you pay out of your pocket just for stage time,” he says. “I can't agree with that on any level.”
Rivas has been doing more for local talent than just offering stage time. Four years ago, he started a comedy contest, the Great Southwest Laff Off, designed to give up-and-coming talent an opportunity to make a career in stand-up comedy more than just a dream.
“[The contest] started to help people get out on the road ... to give them a way to do it. Something to shoot for and get excited about,” Rivas says.
This year is the Laff Off's third, after a brief hiatus last year. It started with 32 comics. At the qualifying event, each comic had five minutes on stage to entertain the audience. The audience voted on their favorite 12 comics at the end of the night, and they moved on to the quarter finals. To qualify for the finals on Sunday, Aug. 6, the quarter finalists must be voted the favorite out of three after a three-minute performance during the Sunday open mic. The comic voted the best after the finals wins their big break: one week of gigs at four comedy clubs including Laffs of Albuquerque and Phoenix, Loonees Comedy Club in Colorado Springs and Wits End Comedy Club in Denver.
“It's really, literally, an opportunity to change their life,” Rivas says. “To quit their day job and see if they have what it takes. ... When I put this contest together, I was thinking 'Maybe I'd give a $500 or $1,000 prize.' But then I thought, 'Why don't I try to help people change their lives?'”
Rivas says the winners of the past Laff Offs have become nationally touring acts, a fact this years' contestants want to hear. He also says he is looking to increase the local talent pool, something he values as he's not just the owner at Laffs, he's the booker, too.
“I am beyond pleasantly surprised with the level of talent this year,” Rivas says. “I think Albuquerque has a great talent pool.”
Who needs Hollywood?