What do you get when you invite a bunch of comedians to compete in an all out stand-up battle for the title of “Funniest Person in the World” before a panel of scrutinizing Japanese judges? Happy Contest Time! The show originated in Toronto and eventually made it way its way to Los Angeles thanks to co-creator and host Deborah Etta Robinson. Born and raised in Canada, Robinson was a member of the award-winning sketch group The Boom, who were showcased at Just for Laughs and have entertained audiences at the Atlantic Fringe Festival, Montreal Sketch Fest, and the Toronto Sketch Fest. The current version of HCT is a collaboration between producer Christina Thiele and the quick-witted Robinson. Happy Contest Time is currently enjoying a run at the NerdMelt Showroom so we thought we’d pepper the women in charge with some appropriate questions. Enjoy!
Nerdist: Deborah, tell us how you came up with the concept of Happy Contest Time.
Deborah Etta Robinson: When Desiree [Lavoy] and I came up with the concept as part of Chuckle Co. [a weekly night at Comedy Bar], our sole mission was to say “yes” to any idea, no matter how outlandishly weird. We just wanted to make each other laugh, embrace that anything is possible and not give a shit about anything else.
N: How would you describe the show to future audience members?
DER: The most commonly used phrase by audience is – “I don’t know what hell I was just watched?” It’s kind of like a live-action action show in a lot of ways. Action-packed. It’s interactive and almost more of an elaborate monthly prank on everyone involved.
N: Deborah, how has the show evolved from it’s humble Toronto beginnings?
DER: In the beginning, Desiree and I co-hosted. I played myself and she played a robot called 725 Originals, who traveled far and wide (after her planet exploded) to find the funniest place in the galaxy.
It was also WAY more humiliating for the comics. We made them do stuff like chug “shrimp milk,” have wasabi doughnut eating contests and lick chocolate pudding from a donkey’s butt.
Whereas the Canadian comics are a lot more eager to please, the American audiences and press have embraced us a bit more than Toronto. The show started out like backyard wrestling, we’d end up all drunk and someone would always get hurt.
Here in LA we feature Inessa Frantowski and Jon Schabl, also from Canada.
N: Christina, how did you get started producing Happy Contest Time?
Christina Thiele: I was slowly fading out a couple of other shows I had been producing and was open to starting something new. Deborah and I met through a mutual friend and it’s easy to say that it was one of those “love at first sight” friendships. She had just moved here and was eager to start HCT, so she asked me. I said yes and the rest is history!
N: How do you go about recruiting judges for the show?
CT: Deborah had lived in Japan for a year, so she knows the language and culture. She has a bunch of Japanese friends from her travels and from language meetups that she goes to, to brush up on her Japanese. Our judges are usually friends or friends of friends.
N: What’s been the most hair-raising incident booking guests for a show?
CT: It was our first show at NerdMelt – we had a great lineup and a packed house. Deborah was doing an opening bit where she jumped out of a box, we had to put her in it before the guests came in; she was in there for over 20 minutes. I was without Deborah, the judges were late, I couldn’t find her phone to contact them and I was getting word that our biggest comic of the night had to cancel. I’m pretty sure I yelled at my friend Zack. (Sorry Zack!) It all worked out of course and we had a good laugh about it. At the end of the day, it’s comedy!
N: Deborah, you were a member of the award-winning sketch troupe The Boom in Toronto. Do you think your sketch background makes you a stronger host and generally more creative performer?
DER: Yeah, totally! Without the Boom there would be no Happy Contest Time.
N: Do you ever get recognized in Los Angeles from the work you did as a comedian in Toronto?
DER: I actually get recognized a lot! But because I have one of those faces. One time a stranger introduced me as her goddaughter and another time a little 2 year-old girl wouldn’t let me go cause she thought I was her mom. Idiots!
N: Christina, are the judges ever TOO distracted by their cell phones during the show?
CT: Why yes, sometimes they are! One show at Three Clubs, they just chit-chatted while the comics did their thing.
N: When HCT was running at Three Clubs what was the most memorable performance by a comic?
CT: Bil Dwyer had one of the funnier sets there – he threw out all of his material and just played with the judges. He even took one of their phones and she fought him to get it back. Buddy Cole (Scott Thompson) was also a very memorable performance.
N: Do comedians ever get annoyed that they are not chosen as the “Funniest person in the world”?
CT: Yes, I have had some comics ask to be on a second time just to prove they can win. I get it, I’m competitive too.
N: Deborah, at the first NerdMelt HCT performance you hid in a large box for what seemed like 10 minutes before the show started? Do you often come up with ideas like this for dramatic/comedic effect?
DER: 10 minutes?! I wish! I was in there for over 25 minutes. I always wanna one-up myself.
N: Have you ever been injured during a performance, say during the recurring solo dance at the start of the show?
DER: No, I am an Adonis.
N: Has the “heckler” been part of the show since the Toronto days?
DER: Yes, he was one of the first characters we came up with. He was based on all the belligerent drunk people who would yell out supportive things during our stand-up shows. The world is full of wonderful, kind, gentle but overly verbal beings. When I look into their eyes I want them to kill themselves.
N: Which comedian has the most Happy Contest Time wins in Los Angeles? Who do you hope to book in the future?
CT: Hmm the most wins. I think that would be Debra DiGiovanni – she won the HCT Tournament of Winners last August. She has a trophy and everything!
N: What’s it like being roommates with the HCT host?
CT: Well, just like with HCT, there’s never a dull moment! We have a really fun and cute place. We’re both from big families and love having people around, so there’s always someone crashing on the couch – actually they’re crashing on 2014’s top selling air mattress!
N: There are some promotional videos on the HCT site. They are wonderful and bizarre. Do you find they are an accurate representation of just how weird HCT can be?
DER: I’ve always been annoyed that the promo vids aren’t bizarre enough.
N: What was it like bringing Happy Contest Time to the Riot LA fest this year?
DER: It was awesome! I’m always down for getting a fresh new audience. Riot was one of the festivals we really wanted to get into this year and it didn’t disappoint.
N: What do you have in store for us at the second NerdMelt performance of HCT on February 17th?
CT: You’ll have to come to find out!
N: Where would you like to take Happy Contest Time in the years to come?
CT: I am having so much fun producing the show at NerdMelt right now. We have some things planned for our future, but nothing set in stone just yet.
Don’t miss tonight’s performance of Happy Contest Time at the NerdMelt Showroom! It will be one for the ages.