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Boston Comedy Festival: 9 days, 96 comics, 1 survivor

istock photo; Globe Staff Photo Illustration

Local comic E.J. Murphy is a graybeard when it comes to the Boston Comedy Festival’s stand-up competition. When he picks up the microphone to enter the fray Sunday night at the Davis Square Theatre, competing in a field of 96 comedians of wildly varying backgrounds and experience, he will have appeared in 10 editions of the contest.

“It’s a no-brainer to do it, because only good things can happen and it’s local for me,” says Murphy. The 41-year-old Vermont native already headlines occasionally around New England and appeared on the second stage at the Oddball Comedy & Curiosity Festival, featuring Dave Chappelle, in September. But the career of a stand-up comedian is a matter of breaks both big and small, and the Boston Comedy Festival competition, which features judges from various sectors of the industry, has the potential to offer both.

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“You want to hit the ball out of the ballpark, and you’d [love] to have somebody from ‘Conan,’ any major late-night TV show, or Jimmy Fallon’s producers to see you,” says Murphy. “That would be a dream come true. But to me, it’s all worth it if you can network a little bit and maybe push yourself a little forward.”

The competition is only one part of the festival, now in its 14th year. Nationally known comics including Andy Kindler, Judah Friedlander, and Kevin Meaney as well as local headliners will be performing throughout the week at various venues around Boston. (Go to bostoncomedyfest.com for a complete schedule and ticket information.) The stand-up contest will culminate in a final round Nov. 16 at the Somerville Theatre featuring the last eight comics standing.

The judges in the eight-round preliminaries and four-round semifinals could include a booker from a local or regional club, someone who books cruise lines or military tours, or scouts from television networks. “They each look for different things, because a college agent books a different kind of comedian than a cruise ship [booker] does,” says festival founder Jim McCue. “The talent buyers may see something in one act that is more appropriate to what they’re booking.”

Some comedians get an immediate boost from getting into the semifinals, as Shane Mauss did when he carried a buzz from the Boston Comedy Festival to the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., his big career break. But the effect is usually more cumulative. “It can’t hurt for somebody to see me do really well,” says 33-year-old Weston native Selena Coppock. “Probably nothing will happen overnight, but maybe down the road they’ll be like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of the girl Selena Coppock here and there.’ Maybe if they’re looking for clients in six months or a year, they’ll think of me. Or if they hear about an opportunity, they’ll think of me.”

Coppock is participating in the contest for the third time, and the festival for the fourth time. Now based in New York, she has been on VH1 and released a book, “The New Rules for Blondes,” under the HarperCollins imprint It Books in April. Those gigs upped her profile, but it takes constant work to sustain a comedy career. “You’ve got to be very prolific and be performing all the time and hope that maybe there are some people in the audience who can make some breaks for you,” she says.

When Robbie Printz won the competition in 2002, he had just moved back to Boston from Los Angeles. It helped remind people he was back in town, and participating in future festivals got him lucrative work on the cruise ship circuit. “The winning just gave me a lot of positive press and gave me a good headline to put on promotional information,” he says. “It’s nice to have winning a competition under your belt.”

There is $10,000 in prize money for the winner, which is a consideration for most of the comedians, though in such a crowded field expectations are tempered. Coppock says the money would be a nice boost, and it might give a comedian some cash to invest in his or her career. “If you want to fly yourself out to do a bunch of gigs in Los Angeles, now you sort of have the cushion to do that and maybe stay there for a couple of weeks,” she says. “For a lot of comedians, it can just make life easier.”

For younger comedians, like 21-year-old Emerson student Jamie Loftus, the competition is more about the experience. “I’m not anticipating a win at all,” she says. “I think if anything it’s a cool chance to do a set in front of people who are more experienced than I am.” To Loftus, a screenwriting and radio major who graduates in December, advancing in the competition would be an opportunity to meet other comedians outside of her college community. “The further you get in this competition, the more people you’re going to meet,” she says. “The more people you meet, the better chance you have to work with them later on. It may be more of a networking thing than the actual title if you keep progressing and you keep talking to people. “

Though she has only been doing comedy for two years, this will be Loftus’s third competition. They have become a norm at festivals, even if that’s uncomfortable for some. Eddie Brill is the former talent booker for “Late Show With David Letterman” and creative director of two comedy festivals — The Great American Comedy Festival and the Woodstock Comedy Festival. He subscribes to the philosophy that artists shouldn’t be in competition with one another. But he knows it’s a way to create a buzz for a festival, so he runs one with the Great American Comedy Festival, but pays all of his comics in the competition the same money.

“I don’t like competitions, but I know audiences love them,” says Brill. “From a business perspective, it’s smart to have a comedy competition.” He says once a comedian is worrying about competition, that comedian has already lost. There are too many variables to worry about — a certain judge may not like a certain style of comedy, or a lesser comedian might have the set of his or her life while a better comedian has an off night. What attracts Brill as a booker is confidence. “The key is that you go in thinking of it as fantastic stage time in a great venue surrounded by like-minded, top-notch comedians,” he says.

Ultimately, the competition is a way to get into the room with people who might be able to help a comedian’s career. They still have to perform, and even winning the competition doesn’t guarantee anyone will pay attention. According to JoAnn Grigioni, vice president of talent at Comedy Central, it’s a nice credit to have, and she doesn’t overlook it, but evaluating talent is a personal job.

“Whether they participated and placed or maybe participated and didn’t place doesn’t ultimately have an effect on my decision,” she says, “because I’m evaluating someone on their own merits and how I feel they fit with the Comedy Central brand for whatever show I happen to be booking.”

Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at nick@nickzaino.com.
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