Danny Palumbo wins Funniest Person in Austin 2015, advances equal rights for facial hair
"It's nice that after consecutive years of white guys with beards winning this contest that, you know, a white guy with a mustache wins it. This is for diversity, everybody."
That was Danny Palumbo's commentary on being named the Funniest Person in Austin 2015, and his poke at the pale underbelly of our city's annual comedy competition was not lost on the crowd, which roared as it had for his stellar set of material earlier in the evening. This is, after all, a contest which has seen only five women winners over 30 years and even fewer comedians of color claim the crown. That said, with the FPIA, the bottom line has always been the punch line, that is, who brings the funny. Through the years, the crown has been denied to favored comics – even some white guys with beards! – because their finals sets just didn't sing, and upstarts on the scene have snared the title by hitting the stage with a lot of energy and eight tight minutes of well-crafted, smartly delivered jokes.
Palumbo's set on Monday night certainly qualified in the latter camp. He opened not with a set joke but with a response to the closing bit by the comic preceding him – Yusef Roach unbuttoning his shirt to reveal a T-shirt with the message "Kill All Whites" – and that playful riff earned Palumbo some extra love from the packed house that he used to springboard into his prepared material, beginning with a hilarious sequence on talking to his mom on the phone, then sailing through tales of being day drunk, not using cocaine, the confidentiality of therapists, and how he quit smoking. ("Every time I wanted a cigarette, I took a Vicodin. Every time I wanted a Vicodin, I took a Vicodin. [beat] I really like Vicodin.") And it wouldn't be a Palumbo set without this food-industry worker weighing in on that subject. ("Every time I go to Subway, I ask the same question: Why is this sandwich wet?") How much his facial hair may have tipped the scales in Palumbo's favor is a question for the judges, but I can assure you – I joined Lietza Brass, Bart Coleman, and Adam Segal in judging this year's finals – that it was the comic's presence, jokes, and sterling delivery that stood out against the other 11 finalists and, indeed, all 230 competitors in FPIA's 30th year, earning him the title and $3,000.
Second prize in the competition went to Ryan Cownie for the second year in a row. His repeated promises to get to his scripted joke material after dispensing with certain contractually obligated product mentions and disclaimers was the running-gag gift that kept on giving in his set and set up an extended commentary on Mountain Dew that included tragic news about his niece, who did not consume the soda responsibly: "She died of an overDewse" – a pun that plays better than it reads, because it won Cownie Joke of the Night honors and $100 on top of his $1,000 cash prize. Third place and $500 went to Ella Gale, a self-described nerd whose exceedingly clever set began with a comparison of her sex life to 18th century Japan – "Interesting, meaningful things are going on, but outsiders are not involved." – then went on to include travel to Guatemala, how what she wants out of a relationship relates to dog crates, the realism of Harry Potter, and a hilarious extended dissection of the thigh gap. "Do you know what a thigh gap used to be called? The rickets. You know who has a sweet thigh gap? Gollum. March that down the Victoria's Secret runway. 'What has it got in its pocketses? Trick question: Skinny jeans don't have pocketses.'"
As for Palumbo, the Pittsburgh transplant was already enjoying a busy year, hosting the stand-up showcase Live at Coldtowne, then taking over co-hosting duties for the stand-up showcase Jazz Cigarette from Joe Hafkey and 2013 FPIA Mac Blake, and earning international attention for his satirical restaurant website Abbrev's (austinchronicle.com/daily/food/2015-02-03/the-new-abbrevs-small-you-care-to-eat), a follow-up to his other fake foodie site, lil' buco ("fine dining for kids"). All of that means you'll have plenty of opportunities to catch Austin's new reigning king of comedy in person, starting with his appearance at Austin Sketch Fest Thursday, May 21.
Danny Palumbo performs with Rachel & Dave and Girls With Brown Hair Thursday, May 21, 8:30pm, at Spider House Ballroom, 2906 Fruth. He co-hosts the next Jazz Cigarette Monday, May 25, 9:30pm, at Spider House Ballroom, and hosts the next Live at Coldtowne May 29, 10pm, at Coldtowne Theater, 4803 Airport.