The third time was the charm for Lashonda Lester when it came to the finals for the Funniest Person in Austin Contest. The Detroit native, a third-place finisher in 2014, took the stage Monday like a force of nature and copped the crown – a win that was most timely, as Lester has been dealing with kidney failure and dialysis for the past year.
Lester shared that news with the sold-out house at Cap City Comedy Club after being named the winner of the 31st edition of the contest. It was the kind of candid admission that made you gasp a little if you weren't in the know and then feel even more surprised because Lester showed no sign of illness or frailty in her finals set. Earlier in the day, she had posted on Facebook that she was "ready to rock the mic," and indeed she was. How else to explain a set that opened with her mocking bitcoins ("I'd rather have Chuck E. Cheese tokens!"), then leaping into a dissection of slutshaming ("Are you saying I can't talk about ho's no more? Who says that – the Huffington Post?"), then leapfrogging to her account of an audition in which she was asked to react to her scene partner's big news: that she was bipolar. After making sure the audience was clear on her Motor City bona fides – "I'm from Detroit … the Murder Mitten" – Lester sealed the set with the line, "Either you is crazy or … [pause] you is crazy as a motherfucker!"
Print doesn't do justice to Lester's crafting of that line into a gut-buster. Suffice to say that she earned her crown last night and shattered whatever glass ceiling has hung over the FPIA since 2000, when marvelous Martha Kelly was the last woman to take the title. And Lester's win was not only a welcome affirmation for female comics in the ATX but African-American stand-ups, too. Others have attained runner-up status but never placed first, so last night was, to borrow a meme from elsewhere in our comedy nation, a #BlackLaughsMatter moment.
Culture was also on the mind of second-place winner Andrew Dismukes, who took the stage asking if there were any Cajuns in the house. But what sounded like a lead-in to a set taking pride in swamp music, crawfish boils, and laissez-in' les bons temps rouler turned quickly into a confession of the lameness of Cajun customs and heritage, like "white people making up a culture" for a class assignment, which they put off and put off and then wing when they have to give the report, as with his hilarious recipe for gumbo, which began with "You take a pot full of water from the river Styx …." Such touches of surrealism informed the rest of his set, which took ordinary topics and took them to mad extremes, as with the resistance to Target's restroom policy, which Dismukes bent into an outraged father's over-the-top rant that the chain was forcing him to take his 5-year-old son out of the store, pull down his pants, have the boy pee into his cupped hands, then carry the urine into the store and dump it into the toilet! He was no less extreme in his discussion of the difference between razors for men and women ("36 blades" for the guys!) or the TV ads for attorney Jim Adler, "the Texas Hammer," whom Dismukes imagined bellowing, "My father was a dragon, my mother was a laser beam, and I've never cried in my life!"
By comparison, third-place winner Vanessa Gonzales was almost understated. But actually, her extended description of a trip to Schlitterbahn with her boyfriend – "a big step in the relationship," with his desire to ride on the Black Knight slide with her being comparable to a proposal – was a highlight of the night, a personal story that grew progressively more hilarious not from the addition of carefully crafted punch lines but through a comic narrative that Gonzales kept pushing to greater and greater heights through her relation of character and dramatic stakes. It reached explosive levels of laughter as she described the crucial moment when, at the top of the ride, the speaker repeated the announcement that, "For the safety of the riders, the heaviest rider must go in the back," and they both knew who that was but didn't want to go there. It was a story that the audience loved and was as tightly built as any set-piece of the night.
The week stays busy for Lester, who plays the Stand Up Empire first anniversary show tonight at 8pm and stars in the 25th installment of her ongoing Weird! True Hollywood Tales series – this one covering the Beatles – at Salvage Vanguard Theater on Saturday, May 21.
Lashonda Lester performs tonight at the Stand Up Empire first anniversary show Tue., May 17, 8pm, at Empire Control Room, 606 E. Seventh.
Weird! True Hollywood Tales, Episode 25: The British Are Coming! takes place Sat., May 21, 8pm, at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. For more information, visit www.weirdtruetales.com.
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