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Friday, July 25, 2003

After Dark

The Orange County Register

Vince Harper didn't care if people thought of him as the funniest person on the face of the Earth.

He didn't even care if people thought of him as the funniest person in Orange County.

The comic insists that he entered last year's "Orange County's Funniest Person" competition with only one goal in mind - to be thought of as the funniest person at the corner of Springdale and Edinger in Huntington Beach.

And guess what? It turns out that Harper was the funniest person at the corner of Springdale and Edinger. That was a little bonus title he got after being named the funniest person in Orange County.

Harper won't be back to compete in this year's contest, which begins Aug. 7, but he will host and perform at the finals Sept. 6.

The Orange resident, who gave up performing full time in 1998, joked that he didn't retire after winning the title and pocketing the $500 first prize.

He kept his day job as a car salesman but performed weekends at clubs and social events.

"Entering the contest was not an attempt to get back into comedy full time," he explained. "I did it for self-confidence. I wanted to see if I still had it. Or at least still had some of it."

In fact, Harper, 46, still had it over 35 rivals in the competition, which drew capacity audiences to the Martini Blues nightclub. This year, the contest has been expanded to a field of 60 and will be held twice weekly, on Thursdays and Saturdays.

The contest is the brainchild of comedian and promoter Bill Word, who came up with the idea to build on his already successful Thursday-night comedy shows at the blues club. The overwhelming reaction to his idea surprised him.

"I couldn't believe how big it got so fast," he said. "It was popular with the comics, the public and even the media. We had NBC in here last year doing a segment on the contest.

"We've already had calls from people wanting to make reservations for this year's shows."

The rules have been altered slightly this year. Last year, only comics who lived in Orange County were eligible. Now, a comic has to live here, have been born here or have graduated from an Orange County high school or college.

The comics are selected by Word from performance tapes. When he created the competition, he thought he might have a few talented amateurs included, but all of the competitors turned out to be professionals.

"Tapes made in someone's basement in front of the family pet just aren't good enough," he said. "The tapes I picked were the ones made in front of real audiences.

"I didn't want to pick someone who didn't have a chance to win, and you're not going to win without some experience."

However, last year proved that you don't have to have 20 years' experience (like Harper) to impress the judges.

College student Marc Takemiya came in second, and he had less than a year's experience performing in front of paying audiences.

"He's a natural," Word said.

But Harper clearly was the class of the field, and Word said there was no question he would win the contest.

"In a competition like this, you have to perform the set of your life, and Vince had the best set in the finals," the promoter said. "He was the most effective when it counted."

Word said Harper performed a "flawless set" that was well-constructed and had a "lot of laughs per minute."

Harper said he was elated that he was able to prove something to himself.

"I did it for the stage time, but ended up testing myself under pressure. It even got me some jobs at the Comedy Store."

Ten comics will perform for eight minutes in each of the preliminary rounds. They will get nine minutes to strut their stuff in the semifinals and 10 minutes in the finals. A noncompeting headliner will host each round and perform. Admission is $10, with a $10 minimum on food or drink.

This year, the comics will compete for a $600 first prize and more than $2,000 in total prizes.

More important, they will compete for the honor of being the funniest person at the corner of Springdale and Edinger.

Martini Blues, 5874 Edinger Ave. (at Springdale Street), Huntington Beach (714) 840-2129. Starts Aug. 7.

Barry Koltnow's nightclub column appears Fridays in Show.

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