It’s heartening to see so many stand-up fans at the very first heat of Sussex Comedian of the Year 2019.
Sometimes, the early stages of a contest can be a little awkward, with punters only showing up for the later heats or the grand final.
It makes sense, of course, because they’re waiting for the best performers to emerge before they spend their hard-earned cash.
Tonight is different though. The audience seem eager to catch a glimpse of a future comedy star and also prepared to face a set by someone who’s perhaps not as funny as they think.
Thankfully though, no one bombs. The acts may not all offer comedy gold – that would defy the point of holding the contest – but all of them get decent to big laughs and an enthusiastic round of applause.
First onstage is the evening’s compere Dan Evans. He introduces the event and returns between each contestant to crack jokes about getting older and living with baldness. In one intriguing digression, he even explores some of the more gruesome episodes from Horsham’s history with the help of knowledgeable audience members.
Like all good comedy hosts, he’s quick-thinking and good at turning people’s own words against them. He’s pretty bad at guessing their ages though.
The first contestant Tim Powell talks about being a stay-at-home dad, which gives him a somewhat unique perspective on fatherhood. However, his anecdotes about children’s fascination with toilet humour and the way parents compete to make healthy meals for young ones are actually highly relatable and get the right response.
The more risqué comedy of Ali Woods gets some louder laughs. He speaks candidly about going on a Ginger Pride March, hooking up with a woman in her 40s and dealing with his Dad’s envy of the Tinder app. Not every joke lands but, by this point, the crowd seem to have loosened up a bit thanks to the nearby bar.
The third performer, Beth Hodd, twists the evening away from the straightforward, blokey tone that the first two acts established, offering a more subtle, offbeat style with a bit of feminism thrown in.
Judging from her observations about living in Brighton, going gluten-free and dating a ‘narcissist’, it’s clear she’s embracing the alternative life. But there’s an ironic tinge to her delivery, suggesting she’s playing it up quite a bit, making herself the butt of jokes that are supposedly targeting others. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but it is funny and there’s a lot of cleverness condensed into Beth’s ten minutes.
The fourth act is the charming Bulgarian student Martin Durchov who immediately gets big laughs with his jokes about Bulgarian stereotypes. His comic timing is spot-on, and Martin mixes a warm and amiable delivery with some pretty blunt and self-deprecating gags that always have the intended effect.
The fifth contestant, Janis Haves, offers arguably the rudest material of the night, punctuated by parts of a sympathetic song about an evil queen, which is played live on guitar. It’s a mostly amusing set and it goes down well, but the jokes often tread that fine line between funny and awkward – a style of comedy that’s not for everyone.
Next, the chipper Canadian (and present Eastbourne resident) Cat Neilson provides some comparatively innocent jokes about dealing with British youths (and British accents), going on school runs and taking care of a labradoodle. Like many entertainers from across the pond, Cat is energetic, likeable and optimistic – perfect for a damp and chilly British evening.
The final stand-up, Joe Mounsey, does very well despite getting the toughest slot to perform in. Many people have had a couple of drinks by this point and the event feels like it’s winding down, but everyone still manages to follow Joe’s quick-fire, string-of-silliness style. Some of the jokes take a while to sink in – including a real groaner about a porn video thumbnail – but, if anything, this seems to work in Joe’s favour, creating a steady stream of laughter throughout his all-too-brief appearance.
Joe seems like a potential winner and the judges carefully make their tough decision while the viewers chat about who they think has come out on top.
Finally, comedians Kevin Precious, Dan Evans and Paul Kerensa arrive on stage, naming Martin Durchov the champion of this heat.
All things considered – performance, delivery, timing, audience reaction – Martin feels like the right choice and the audience leaves feeling enthusiastic about what the second heat has in store.
The Sussex Comedian of the Year has been organised by comedy experts Barnstormers and talent agency Andromeda Talent. It has received a grant from the Horsham District Year of Culture 2019 fund and sponsorship from district based business Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors, who are proud to be part of the Horsham District Year of Culture.
The next part of the comedy contest takes place on Thursday, March 14, at the Shelley Arms, Broadbridge Heath.
Click here to find out more.