Stakes were high at Helium Comedy Club’s sold-out Portland’s Funniest Person competition on Wednesday night. Twelve comedians, who had survived a month-long gauntlet, had one last chance to win over the audience and judges. After two and a half hours of stand-up, host and previous champion Caitlin Weierhauser finally passed both crown and scepter on to this year’s winner: Alex Falcone.
Past winners of Portland’s Funniest Person, such as Ian Karmel, have gone on to receive Emmy nominations and write for late-night talk shows. Other winners, like Nathan Brannon, have recorded comedy albums and taken to the road for national tours. In addition to the invitation to open for headliners at Helium, winners also receive a comfy twelve hundred dollars. Oh yeah, and perhaps the most prestigious prize: bragging rights.
Falcone let loose an onslaught of punchline after punchline, each stronger than the last. He packed so much material into his set, it felt like a Netflix special. His set was also the only one that was thematically coherent; it was essentially a single narrative exploration of fatherhood and family. It all led up to a great closing bit about consent: “Talking to your son about consent is important,” Falcone says, “but consent is a bare minimum. What you’re looking for is … participation. ”
Falcone took home the big win, but second-place winner Mohanad Elshieky got some of the biggest laughs of the night. Elshieky is no stranger to the competition — he was second runner-up last year, and the Portland Mercury has dubbed him an “undisputed genius of comedy.” His set was arguably the most challenging. His perceptive jokes ranged from his experience as an immigrant, to superficial liberal solidarity, to gun control.
“A school district in Pennsylvania wants to arm students and protect them by giving them rocks. That would work only in one case,” Elshieky said, pacing himself and stretching the tension in the room, “ if the attacker showed up with … scissors.” Elshieky’s unpredictable rhythm and original perspective sparked spontaneous laughs from the belly, as opposed to performative laughs that supportive audiences muster for mediocre material.
Third-place winner Corina Lucas was both genuinely vulnerable and confident. Lucas came with the heat and didn’t waste any time. In one of her most successful bits, amidst an argument that we need deceit to sustain intimate relationships, she joked, “I only lie about the little things. I’ll tell them I only have six siblings, when in reality … I have chlamydia.” Lucas was able to establish rapport with the audience without resorting to self-deprecation, and she sustained intimacy and connection with the audience until the very end of her killer set.
Portland’s Funniest Person had some other great talent that didn’t place. Becky Braunstein and Riley McCarthy are two that stood out for their enormous energy and political insights.
Falcone brought down the house, and that is a fact. But his set was safe, unlike Elshieky’s or Lucas’s. Although Falcone’s craftsmanship and formal prowess are undeniable, his content was almost too neatly packaged and easily digestible to be deeply exciting.
To win a competition like this, you have to get the audience to like you as soon as possible. After all, you only have eight minutes. Comedians often employ self-deprecation to deepen connection with the audience by being (or seeming to be) vulnerable. Falcone’s disappointment about his sex appeal and his tales of being young and sexually inept worked to paint a picture of an instantly lovable character. Still, the result felt more formulaic than challenging.
Portland’s Funniest Person is an amazing opportunity for comedians to launch their careers to the next level. I hope Falcone doesn’t go to L.A. like past winners, and stays in Portland so we can watch him grow.