Leslie Norris Townsend had been a longtime veteran standup comic when she decided to try out some new jokes at an open mic near her Ohio home a decade ago. Nearly every comic around her that night was performing dirty material, a fact that surprised her, considering the fact she knew that clean comedy was infinitely more valuable to a comedy career. .
But that dispiriting evening inspired her to take a stand against the tide of onstage filth. She soon created the Clean Comedy Challenge (CCC), a twice-annual, three-day series of shows and seminars in which more than two-dozen comics compete each night to take home a top prize of $1,000, while also engaging in seminars with veteran comics and writers during the day.
The result has been a big success, with the CCC bringing clean, clever comedy to numerous cities nationwide. Its third go-round at the Ice House in Pasadena takes place Tuesday through next Thursday, with national headliner Bob Zany and former “Tonight Show” head writer Jimmy Brogan amid the judges and lecturers.
“We ask people all over the country who have a desire to do standup to apply, whether it’s a club comic who wants to learn how to work clean, Christian comics wanting to learn how to be user-friendly in secular environments and work cruise ships and clubs ,” says Townsend, who notes that the Ice House was the first club ever to hire her officially as a comedian. “Clean comedy is the way to go to make a living. Corporations want squeaky clean acts and for them to be politically correct also.”
The CCC mainly attracts participants through announcements each January or February on its website, cleancomedychallenge.com. There are no auditions involved, and the first 25 people to apply and pay the fee ($400 for full participation in seminars and performing) are accepted.
Participants perform three-minute sets each night, in shows that are judged by veteran comics, including Brogan and Zany, among others. The final night, on July 25, climaxes with the judges’ choice of winner for each of the three nights facing off alongside the audience-voted favorite.
The daytime seminars include a joke-writing session led by legendary comedy writer Gene Perret, who spent decades as Bob Hope’s head writer before launching his own successful line of comedy-teaching books. Other seminars cover career promotion and how to get booked in various formats of shows, in addition to the comics receiving in-depth critiques by the guest judges. Each evening features all 25 comics performing a different three-minute set in front of a different panel of judges.
“This allows everybody who has the desire to do comedy a shot at either realizing a dream, continuing a dream or possibly beginning the moment of a dream,” says Townsend. “It’s very exciting because everybody looks at comedy and thinks, ‘I can do that.’ It puts some meat on the bones because it’s not easy and this gives them three nights in a row to do stage time.
“Each night ballots are tallied and three rise to the top, and there’s a cumulative score because each night we have different judges and so you have different eyes looking at the jokes,” she continues. “The ultimate goal is to pick someone who has originality, joke writing skills, stage presence and the overall star quality which is hard to define.”
As the head writer for Jay Leno’s “The Tonight Show” from 1992 to 2000, Jimmy Brogan experienced the importance of clean yet funny comedy firsthand on a nightly basis. He has been a regular presence at the three Ice House editions of the CCC, serving as both a judge and seminar lecturer in addition to providing one on one critiques with the performers.
“In past years, I sat down with Jan Smith the former comedy booker there, and went through everyone’s act and gave them feedback,” explains Brogan. “Some performers are new to comedy and some have been around and are looking to make it bigger. I saw one woman named Angie Stokes from Anchorage who came back to do it again, and she was phenomenal in year two after just trying it out the year before.
“I always tell the comics that dirty comedy turns out not to be the choice that makes you feel good and that clean comedy is the choice that in the long run will make you more money because you can work any kind of event or TV show,” he adds. “It opens more doors than dirty. “
“A lot of times this attracts a person who has it on their bucket list to do a pro comedy club, and being around better comics, you learn,” adds Townsend. “The challenge is when you add a contest element to it, it steps it up another notch. People bring their A -game, edit their jokes, and do a three-minute set.”
The Clean Comedy Challenge takes place at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, and 7:30 p.m. next Thursday, July 25, at the Ice House, 24 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $10 per show. Visit icehousecomedy.com.