Andy Levine ’08 and Roberto Velez ’08, the newly crowned champions of Yale’s first-ever Last Comic Standing contest, will get to meet comedian Lewis Black DRA ’77 this Friday. But in the seven days since their riotous victory, Levine and Velez have been more struck by the peculiar trappings of campus fame.
“I went to a couple parties the night I won,” Velez said. “And one drunk kid at Psi Upsilon was like, ‘Last comic standing? In my house?’ And he gave me a high-five and everything.”
“I got like, five new friend requests on the Facebook,” Levine said. “Also, I’m convinced I have more people smiling at me.”
The two campus-celebrities-in-waiting arrived at Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall a full two hours before the house lights went down on Last Comic Standing last Friday night. Two hours, that is, before hundreds of Yale students snatched up every floor seat, every mezzanine seat and just about every other space they could shoulder their way into. Zach Marks ’09, YCC secretary, said the event was “hugely successful” — the organizers had to shut the hall’s doors 20 minutes early, and Marks was forced to turn away his own roommate.
Hanging out with their fellow Last Comic Standing contestants before the show, eyeing the growing crowd, Levine and Velez could hardly keep still.
“We were probably the most nervous of the entire group,” Velez said. “All the other comedians were rehearsing their material, and Andy was just pacing about, wandering around SSS. And I was busy looking for my family and freaking out.”
But for both winners, any trace of anxiety was chased away within the opening moments of his routine.
“Once I hit that stage, and once I got my first laugh, there was no more fear, no more nervousness,” Velez said. “I just did my show.”
Few of their listeners probably guessed that the only formal stand-up experience either of the comics — who received the highest marks from the five judges — could claim was a short set performed by Velez at a café night in the Pierson basement last fall. Levine said he had never done stand-up for more than a handful of friends before he took the stage last Friday.
But for both Levine and Velez, winning Last Comic Standing was an exhilarating, not-so-subtle affirmation of an ambition long nurtured with silence and circumspection.
“Stand-up is definitely something that I’ve always had a secret desire to do,” Levine said. “But you never want to come right out and say, ‘Oh, I think I’m funny enough to do that.’ … But suddenly, when something like this happens, you start to think to yourself, ‘Wow, maybe I actually could do this.’”
Levine, who cited Sarah Silverman as one of his comedic influences, said he can find something funny about almost every comic he’s watched. His delivery on Friday night was calm and understated, his punchlines issued with sly concision after several moments’ worth of measured, deliberate leadup.
“I’ve always been a good storyteller, and so I just kind of figured out that I could go up and do this in front of people,” Levine said. “And a lot of weird shit happens to me.”
Velez, a fan of Dane Cook, said that Last Comic Standing was a dramatic peak — but by no means a culmination — in what he privately hopes might become a much wider foray into the world of stand-up. He also claims comedian Greg Geraldo as one of his “personal heroes” — Geraldo attended Columbia College and Harvard Law School, practiced law for a year or two and then opted for a career in comedy instead.
“I just think it’s amazing that he went through the same thing my peers and I are going through — going through college, getting a graduate degree — and then realized at the age of 24 or 25 that he didn’t want to do all that,” Velez said of Geraldo.
Friday night’s event included an improvisatory component, in which contestants had only 5 minutes to prepare a 90-second segment on a given topic. Both Levine and Velez said that this was a particularly difficult task, especially since so much of the stand-up comedian’s trade relies on careful preparation.
“The way you say something matters,” Levine said. “I go through many changes in how I present something before I put it out there. The first 10 times I say something it’s not funny, and then I find the way I want to say it, and that’s when it comes out right.”
Velez attempted to start a student stand-up troupe last year, but was thwarted by scheduling difficulties and a lack of interest. Last Comic Standing, he said, might prove to be the germ of a stand-up culture on a campus dominated by improv groups.
In an evening dominated by curse words and riffs on virtually every offensive topic imaginable, Levine’s and Velez’s jokes constituted what was perhaps the cleanest (relatively speaking, of course) material of the night. While both comics said they weren’t necessarily aiming for this result, they also said they weren’t sure obscenity was essential to good comedy.
“Dirty doesn’t necessarily mean funny,” Levine said. “I think that’s a misconception.”
Velez said he hopes someday to take his act to a variety of other venues, and so he’s shaped his writing accordingly.
“I try to stay away from Yale-related topics, or from disgusting or immature college humor, and I try to get at things that I think a broader audience could relate to,” he said.
After Friday night’s success, the notion of performing stand-up in front of broader audiences is suddenly beginning to seem less and less quixotic to Velez.
“This show, and hearing people’s reactions to my act, has been really reassuring, to the point where I’m beginning to think that maybe I actually could do something with this,” he said. “So the dream is definitely out now.”