Given the current topsy-turvy state of U.S. culture and politics, many of us are amused and upset at the same time, debating whether to laugh or cry.
Come Friday night, expect the tears to wipe out the fears.
The San Francisco Bay Area Comedy Competition — a major stepping stone to brilliant careers from the likes of Dana Carvey, Will Durst, Marsha Warfield and Sinbad — returns to the Vacaville Performing Arts Theatre.
A show for those 16 and older, Friday’s semifinals start at 8 p.m. in the city-owned theater, 1010 Ulatis Drive. For tickets, $22 to $39, telephone (707) 469-4013 or visit www.vpat.net.
While the competition most recently decamped from Cache Creek Casino in Brooks, John Fox, the competition’s owner and executive producer, said in an email, “We’re excited to be able to return.”
The preliminary rounds ended Sunday in Santa Cruz, and the semifinalists have been selected: Benton Harshaw, Davis; Drew Absher, Sacramento; Gary Anderson, Los Angeles; Josef Anolin, Oakland; Jose Contreras, San Francisco; Luca Cupani, London; T-Dot Kingsby, Milwaukee; Chad Opitz, San Francisco; Paco Romane, San Francisco; and Marcus Williams, Oakland.
Before arriving in Vacaville, the 47th annual competition continues this week at venues in Saratoga and Grass Valley.
Past Comedy Competition champ Ellis Rodriguez, who lives in Vacaville, will host the VPAT show.
A native of Boston, Rodriguez, one of nine children raised by immigrant parents from Panama, is a Marine Corps veteran but figured out his calling when he picked up a microphone and started entertaining people. He has headlined at West Coast comedy venues, among them Laugh’s Unlimited and the Laugh Factory, and has appeared in filmed showcases, including “Shaq’s All-Star Jam,” the Comedy Central cable channel, and “Kevin Hart’s Hart of the City.”
Interviewed by telephone on Tuesday morning, Rodriguez, relaxing and drinking coffee in his home off Leisure Town Road, where he has lived for the past couple of years, recalled winning the competition in 2017.
“It was surreal,” he said. “I had been trying to get in for years, since the comedy competition is a right of passage in the country and this area and I hadn’t been able to.”
“I was just having fun,” said Rodriguez, 44 and an “Army brat” who started in stand-up in Sacramento. “I wasn’t expecting to win. I was just relaxed the entire time. I was happy to be around other talented comedians. I remember the night I won. A really good buddy of mine was there. I’m walking out of the club and he said, ‘You just won the San Francisco comedy competition!’ That’s when it sunk in. It all came together in my head. My life has not been the same since.”
Just what the judges saw, heard and appreciated in his competition performances, Rodriguez was unsure. However, he was sure of the rigors of the competition schedule, night after night.
“Things can get skewed because of the judges’ tastes in comedy,” he said, calling the competition “a crucible.”
“Every venue was different, every judge was different, every crowd was different,” Rodriguez remembered. “If you win this thing, you got in. You go through too much for it to be a fluke. I just thought they picked me because I was able to stand up through what we had to do.”
For Rodriguez, the series of semifinals were the most difficult hurdle, he said.
“By the time you do the semis, you’ve been doing it a long time,” he recalled. “The crowds get bigger and bigger. I do remember being relaxed and having a good time. I was looking at the crowd in front of me and thinking, ‘How do I make them laugh?’ We were pro comics and a log of them had been doing it a long time. Win or lose, this was your reward, to be in the competition.”
Without a doubt, his 2017 competition win changed the arc of his comedy career, translating into more bookings, some short films and, most recently, a feature film, “Canceled.” However, the work has been suspended for the time being because of the strike by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA.
“I enjoy acting and I’ll take opportunities,” said Rodriguez, adding, “But I’m more of a comedian/actor. if the role is right, then I would consider it. I love stand-up and furthering the art. As soon as we get big, they want us to do film and other things, but I think I’ll always be mostly a comic.”
As host of Friday’s competition in VPAT, his job will be, he said, to come out and “just be really funny for a little bit and get everyone in the mood. There will be ovation points and audience appreciation. And at the end, I’ll make the announcement of how they placed. I’m excited to be part of this.”
Afterward, his plans include working the comedy festival circuit in Arizona and Las Vegas.
“This year, I’m making a return to the national comedy festival circuit,” plus some club dates, said Rodriguez.
After the Vacaville semifinals, the competition moves the following night to the 1,600-seat Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa, where it has sold out every year for more than four decades.
IF YOU GO
What: San Francisco Bay Area Comedy Competition Semifinals
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Vacaville Performing Arts Theatre, 1010 Ulatis Drive
Tickets: $22 to $39
Telephone: (707) 469-4013