Amateur Hour: Comics Compete for Funniest in South Texas Title

From left to right: Bobby "B. Smitty" Smith, Larry Garza, Chandra Murthy and Jeff Stone
From left to right: Bobby "B. Smitty" Smith, Larry Garza, Chandra Murthy and Jeff Stone

Standing on stage at the Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club in front of an average-sized Wednesday night crowd, Chandra Murthy is fiddling with the base of the microphone, trying to remove it from the stand.

The balding, bespectacled 71-year-old India native hasn't told a joke yet. He's squirming now, trying to wrestle the mic free. It finally pops forward like a Champagne cork, bopping Murthy on the forehead in the process.

"Oh!" he exclaims as the mic hits him, and the crowd titters nervously, unsure if Murthy is doing a bit or if they're about to sit through six minutes of Mr. Magoo-level bumbling.

The former is true. Murthy searches for something on the stage like a contact lens. After a few seconds, he peeks his head up.

"I lost my dot!" he says. The crowd laughs, almost relieved, and they're in. Murthy's set for the Funniest in South Texas (FIST) competition is off and running.

FIST is an annual contest to crown the funniest comedian in the area, now in its 11th year. This year 96 comedians are vying for the top prize — $500, week-long residencies at both Laugh Out Loud Comedy Club and The Improv — San Antonio Rivercenter, a spot in the statewide Funniest in Texas competition and, perhaps most important, the cachet of holding the title of "Funniest in South Texas."

"More than the cash prize, they want the bragging rights. They want to say 'I was the Funniest in South Texas,'" said Robert Castoreno, vice president of operations for the comedy clubs.

Everyone competing in the contest must have some comedy experience, Castoreno said, but few are full-time comedians. Most of the contestants are open mic night veterans or up-and-comers looking for a big break. And the FIST competition — which runs from the end of January through the second week of March — could be just that.

The contest includes eight preliminary rounds in which a dozen comedians perform six-minute sets. The winner — as decided by a panel of judges that include club regulars from a variety of professions — advances directly to the semi-final round. Three runners-up advance, too, but have to make it through an additional set to make it to the semi-finals.

With 96 competitors, comedians from all walks of life flock to the event. But Murthy might be the most unique — or at least the person in the club you'd least expect to be a comedian. He's performed stand-up for about three years after spending 35 years as a mechanical engineer.

"After the retirement I said this is one of the good hobbies, to make people laugh," Murthy said. "I hang out with young people, it keeps my mind sharp. You write new comedy, you have to remember a half hour without any paper."

With a thick Indian accent, Murthy is straight from central casting, and he knows it; dressed on stage in slacks and a tucked-in, drab, button-down dress shirt, creases in his sleeves visible in the back row, he looks like an out-of-town conventioner who wandered into the club on a whim. He plays that up, at one point taking a fake phone call as a tech support specialist, identifying himself with the anglified moniker "Charles Morgan." Murthy calls everyone "sir" or "ma'am," eager to shake hands with any willing passerby at the club to thank them for coming.

Although Murthy takes comedy seriously and he hopes to perform for more people, it's ultimately a post-retirement hobby for him. For Bobby "B. Smitty" Smith, it's more of a job. Smith runs Comedy Defensive Driving by B. Smitty, which advertises "comedy and free food while getting a discount on auto insurance and your ticket dismissed."

Smith has been performing stand-up since 2006. He's ambitious. In addition to his defensive driving business and stand-up sets, he just finished writing a semi-autobiographical screenplay. He said that winning the FIST competition could be a boon for his defensive driving business, and he's taking the opportunity more seriously than in the past.

"Other years, I didn't really care. This year is the most important year. I want [2016] to be my year in comedy," Smith said.

If he won, he'd put the money into his business and into getting his movie made. Getting laughs out of all the hard work, he said, is "the greatest feeling in the world."

"It makes you feel good. If I had a rough, rough day and you get a pop, people explode laughing — even if it's not a joke I thought would get a laugh — it just takes all that stress away," Smith said.

During his set at the FIST competition, the pops kept coming for Smith. Wearing a black sweater with the San Antonio skyline set amidst a Fiesta-colored sunset, the Arkansas native joked about calling the cops on three white people to celebrate Black History Month.

"I felt good about it. Until I got arrested," Smith joked.

As Smith, Murthy and the 10 other comedians who performed on February 10 walked off stage, they were greeted by fist bumps and hugs from their competitors. After the last act, a guest comedian took the stage while the votes were tallied. Comics took seats in the audience with their friends and family, anxiety for some of them seeping through smiles, handshakes and back slaps.

In the end, both Murthy and Smith advanced, with Murthy taking the top prize. After the show, Murthy was ebullient, unable to suppress a grin or deny handshakes and pictures with well-wishers.

"I didn't know I was going to win," he said. "Everyone else was so good."