A herd of traveling comics stampeded into the Bing Crosby Theater the other night and, boy, were their feet sore.
Sorry. With material that lame, it’s obvious I wasn’t participating in this Spokane leg of the 35th annual Seattle International Comedy Competition.
I did, however, play a small role as one of three judges Thursday night. We were asked to score the 14 stand-up comedians on criteria like material, delivery and creative use of the “F” bomb.
Or maybe it was audience rapport. The stygian theater made it difficult to decipher the small print on my scoring sheet.
The show had highs. The show had lows.
There were plenty of clever lines, such as …
• “I went to a family reunion recently. Or as they kept calling it – an intervention.”
• “I had sex with my third cousin. (Pause.) I can’t believe I’ve had sex with three of my cousins.”
• “I’m so poor I had to strip at my own bachelor party.”
After the final punch line, our judging sheets were confiscated like kegs at a high school beer bash.
Finally, the winner was declared.
First place honors went to Harry J. Riley, who, roll out the red carpet, was the only comic calling Spokane home.
Before shouts of “Fix! Fix!” begin, I swear on the lives of all your children that no funny business was going on.
Aside from what was on stage, that is.
Riley’s just that good.
Will our hometown humorist go on to win the whole Seattle International blah-blah-blah?
He just might. Riley took another first place in the Friday event in Seattle. You’re starting to believe me now, aren’t you?
But this is an ambitious competition. According to a news release, the event split 33 comics into two touring groups that will perform 22 shows during November.
The ranks will be thinned. Eventually, a comedy king or queen will be crowned and immediately have 32 more enemies.
But why rush into treachery? Today is about Riley, who deserves his moment of fame.
I liked him right off because of the way he built his humor through storytelling, rather than banging jokes from topic to topic.
Riley had the audience reeling with his story about a violent encounter with “a midget.”
NOTE: Yes, the columnist knows that midget is not an appropriate term in our more enlightened age.
But this was an edgy COMEDY SHOW, for crying out loud.
So to get to the long and short (har!) of it, the object of Riley’s curiosity took umbrage at being gawked at.
Then the little fellow made an insulting racial remark about the, ahem, color of Riley’s behind (the comic is African-American), which provoked Riley to dropkick the tiny antagonist into a sprawling sobbing heap.
At which point a horrified woman rushed over.
Slowly, Riley began to realize “it wasn’t a midget” he had assaulted but a “7-year-old with a really big-ass head.”
I almost peed myself when Riley reached this surprise twist to his tale.
After the show, I sat down with Riley to learn something about this funny man.
“To have my comedy seen by as many people as possible,” he said when I asked what his dream was. “I could die happy with that.”
A quiet, soft-spoken guy, Riley is nothing like his aggressive, over-the-top stage personality.
The U.S. Air Force veteran moved into the area when he was stationed at Fairchild in 2001. His plan to make the Air Force a lifelong career ended when he contracted lupus and received a medical discharge.
“I was so down on myself,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Friends suggested he give comedy a try.
“People were always telling me I was funny.”
Trouble is, Riley had spent much of his life trying to overcome a serious stutter. The battle had left him shy and lacking in confidence.
Riley thought, “I can barely talk to one person. How can I talk to multiples?”
Then one night in 2005, he gave stand-up a try at an open mic night in a Spokane comedy club.
It was like putting Keith Richards in a poppy field.
“I’ve never done a drug,” Riley said. “But the feeling that I get when people laugh, it’s such a high.”
Riley started writing jokes at every opportunity. He also got some mentoring from local comedy legend Jay Wendell Walker.
“He’s like a dad to me,” added Riley. “He gave me one of the best pieces of advice. And that was if people saw the love in me, they would love it, too.
“Right away, my material improved.”
The hard-knock nature of the comedian’s life is a cliché. Riley, however, has paid his dues and then some.
On Aug. 9, 2013, he suffered a serious heart attack.
“I thought it was bad pork,” Riley said of the elephant that was squashing his chest.
His girlfriend, Shawna Martin, told him he was having a heart attack and wanted to dial 911. Riley argued that a 32-year-old man couldn’t be having a heart attack.
“Just get me some Pepto-Bismol,” he said.
Martin ignored that and instead called for help, saving Riley’s life and giving her man a renewed passion for what he seems born to do.
“People don’t have that much time on this Earth,” Riley said. “So why not do what you love. And so far, it’s been working out.”