What It Means to Be Funniest Person in Austin
Tyler Groce’s victory shows Austin’s comedy scene is thriving and diversifying
In Rocky's iconic training montage our hero climbs the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, turns to face the city before him, and raises his arms in the air with a sense of victory. On Wednesday, September 21, Tyler Groce emerged victorious as Cap City Comedy Club's Funniest Person in Austin (FPIA).
The victory was a shared one. It marked the return of the 30-plus-year annual contest tradition after a two-year hiatus. It marked the return of a sellout crowd eager to see who is among the city's rising stars. Lastly, it marked a crowning achievement for a club hitting its stride in its new location. Chandy Kurzwell, Cap City's general manager, said, "It was a thrill to see the incredible turnout for our first FPIA in two years. Cap City's heartbeat grew stronger and louder with every contestant's set and we couldn't be more grateful."
On finals night, as I wandered a lobby abuzz with excitement, I saw comedy luminaries – including previous FPIA winners Enzo Priesnitz, Doug Mellard, Matt Bearden, and Andrew Murphy – along with fellow comics and fans ready to cheer on the finalists.
Fifteen preliminary rounds (about 250 comics), three semifinals, and one magical finals night brought a sold-out crowd and a panel of judges together at last. Who would earn the right to don the royal red cape and puffy red royal hat? Not that winning (or losing, for that matter) is a definitive stamp of approval to one's comedy credentials – plenty of runners-up or non-placers have achieved greatness (Vanessa Gonzalez, Martin Urbano, and Andrew Dismukes, to name a few).
Host and 2019 FPIA champion Andrew Murphy's opening words were that he "was the longest-reigning champion due to major technicalities." (A hiatus caused not only by the pandemic, but Cap City was shuttered until it reopened under the Helium Comedy brand.) Watching the stage gave me the audience's perspective, but Murphy shared an insight about sitting in the green room located behind the stage. "At one point I walked back in and the performers were wowed by the roar of the crowd alone, it was thunderous." Imagine the nerves and pride of sitting in that room and hearing an audience eager to laugh and applaud your hard work. This after performing every single night (sometimes to nonexistent crowds) to rework a joke, whether by adding movement or switching word order. In fact, in the span of a week, I watched a comic perform a joke at a local showcase, then again at FPIA semifinals, and again at FPIA finals. Each time, minor tweaks were made to the joke to earn maximum audience laughter.
The panel of judges got to see the culmination of that work for nine comics, and while some deliberations take a long time, the deliberation for the 2022 contest winner was fast. Bob Fonseca, co-host of the Mornings With Matt and Bob on KLBJ-FM, has judged the finals at least 20 times and told me that "FPIA Finals is not about favoritism, reputation, or potential. It is only about that night." Fonseca shared that the comics this year were "more rehearsed and deliberate onstage than I had seen in many years' past." He wondered, was it the glitzy new location or the influx of talent into Austin? Either way, top-tier comedy talent has certainly become emblematic of our city.
By the time Tyler Groce came to the stage, five finalists had already explained why we shouldn't have sympathy for the cocaine habits of turtles, how one comic's voice had destroyed his karaoke game, getting bullied by fellow theatre kids, how being a stripper is akin to being a life coach, and one comic's harrowing experience trying to rent a car.
I'm embarrassed to share my notes on Groce's performance: "Great presence, great sentence structure." 2022 marks his third year competing in FPIA and his second time reaching the finals. I've watched Groce perform over the last few years, and his wordsmithing has always set him apart. I've also watched enough FPIA finals to know that sentence structure and stage presence can be key differentiators for top prize getters. Groce delivered a perfect set with act outs, self-deprecating takes on his life, and plenty of memorable phrases. One of my favorite lines came a few minutes in after giving us the impression that he's a soft person: Then he declares, "I'm a hardass n**** but my aura is genuine." That kind of sudden pivoting and word choice is what Groce does best. We also got a heartfelt and funny introduction to Groce's politics, dating life, and his experience as a light-skinned Black man. A few days after winning, Groce admitted that for his FPIA set he "wanted to make a set that flowed, that went well, that made sense, that first and foremost, was who I am."
In 2020, I interviewed Groce for my podcast, Comedy Wham, after his return from a year in Amsterdam performing for legendary improv incubator Boom Chicago. Working overseas helped him learn how to perform for audiences that don't share the cultural knowledge and biases of American audiences. What set Groce on a path to victory was learning and putting into action how to make his comedy universal, all while remaining uniquely personal.
Groce seemed genuinely happy that his parents got to see him win this year. Having seen his hard work firsthand, his parents shared with me that Groce had always been witty and had a gift and a talent that everyone should keep an eye on. Lucky for us, winning the crown earns Groce a spot on the 2023 Moontower Comedy Festival. Winners also land coveted headliner spots around town and opening spots for touring comics.
FPIA's top three winners have not always represented the diversity of the Austin comedy scene, but 2022 chipped away at that history. Third-place winner Sawyer Stull, while fitting the "cis white male" label, charms you with his "me, oh my" interstitials and Western wear during his sets composed largely of one-liners and one impeccable impression. Second-place winner was Clara Blackstone, a trans woman whose dark humor gave us disturbing visuals ("milking nipples") and perfectly constructed jokes.
After the finalists performed, Blackstone sat by me and mentioned how much she needed the prize money. This is the forgotten story for performers. Most dedicate their lives to performing comedy and the financial payoff doesn't come (if at all) until many years of investment of time, drink tickets, and notebooks. The FPIA contest isn't just a chance to get noticed by the judges and comedy tastemakers; it's a chance at not only recognition, but financial stability.
Every champion crowned on FPIA night shared a few words with the audience, and in his acceptance speech Groce said, "You can't make comedy by yourself." Sure, you're the one writing (and rewriting) the jokes in your notebook, but you rely on audience and fellow comic feedback to push you to improve, until hopefully, if you're lucky, you get to grace the stage at Cap City Comedy club on FPIA finals night. And if you're Tyler Groce, forevermore, you get to say that you are the Funniest Person in Austin.
Valerie Lopez is the executive producer of the Comedy Wham podcast. comedywham.com.