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Stardom Hangs by a Smile as Comics Compete for The Big Break

There’s a strange sort of limbo between stardom and obscurity in show business. It’s that middle ground performers reach when they have polished an act to where it’s just about as good as it’s going to get and they are mostly waiting for The Big Break. Comedy clubs are filled with performers caught in this fragile state, where the slightest snub or nod of approval can break or make a career.

Encino’s L.A. Cabaret is no different. Last Tuesday night, it was the site of the semifinal round of the 4th Annual Funniest Person in the Valley Contest, and the air was thick with a pungent mixture of hope and dread.

Among the weekend comedians who entered the contest on a lark were a few performers who take their comedy seriously, professionals who know how to work a room. But the room they had to woo was tough.

Audience members filled out ballots ranking the acts, and the night’s results determined who would advance to the final round of the contest. Comics who brought plenty of friends had an advantage; for those who were on their own, well, they had to be great.

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Only seven were chosen for this Tuesday’s final round, also at the L.A. Cabaret. Twelve performed in the semifinals, spilling their souls to a largely grim audience. Two of the acts most highly regarded among the comics themselves didn’t make the cut: Doug Benson, whose hip, subtle jabs of social commentary on media culture didn’t click with the crowd, and a duo called Piper and Tucker, the group that many of the competing comedians thought would win it all.

Instead, Tom Shiekman (brutal political humor), Jillian Bennett (wry bits on single life), Chris Hendrix (dating, relationships, the bar scene--the state of our current times), Ed Fitzpatrick (impressions), Reynaldo (no last names, please; he’s a super-cool Puerto Rican), Jamie Sweet (guitar, jokes) and Mr. “O” (kinetic comedy, ingenious use of props) were the chosen ones, the ones who have a shot at the $1,000 first prize and expanded exposure before important agents and talent bookers.

The contestants won’t have to rely on fickle audience preferences during the final round; the judges are professionals. Milton Berle, Avery Schreiber, Pat McCormick and Arte Johnson are among the celebrity comic judges. “Industry” types include Mark Teitelbaum from the William Morris agency, Jeffrey Patterson of the Spotlight Agency and Mary Downey, talent coordinator for the TV show “Star Search.” These are the kind of people who can save a comic from sweating it out in seedy hick clubs, or worse, a life away from comedy.

The final round of the Fourth Annual Funniest Person in the Valley Contest is Tuesday at L.A. Cabaret, 17271 Ventura Blvd., Encino. Call (818) 501-3737 for information.

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