The Tempe Improv’s “Up Next”: Comedy and Competition Collide


by: Will Sherman

A few minutes before 11 pm the final comic stepped off the stage of The Tempe Improv, the overworked microphone rested, bruised from the decibels (and gnarly headbutt) it sustained. The audience was drained from the sheer volume of laughter and comedic variety (audible from the restrooms) they withstood for nearly three straight hours. Fifteen comics had pumped out their tightest material in an effort to claim the throne in this leg of a national competition, Comedy Central’s “Up Next” talent search.

The host for the evening, James Pietragallo, took the stage to eat time as the judges debated, scouring over their hastily scribbled score cards. Some of the most genuine and improvised moments came as Mr. Pietragallo tried to wrangle the restless audience, while his comedian friends bellowed heavy guffaws from a dark corner (to a comic, watching a friend grasping for jokes in a sea of unending time is priceless). At last, the votes were in, and, with a sigh of relief, the winner was crowned. There was much to debate, as the evening was a cornucopia of comic stylings. A casual comic fan would receive his jollies from the local humor displayed, from the Palo Verde beetle to the regional cuisine. For the seasoned veteran and low-brow seekers, word-play and musings on human anatomy are always key and were in plentiful supply. The crowd’s energy ebbed and flowed throughout the night, along with the “attack you with energy” and “sit back and wait for it” specialists. Overall, the crowd seemed very pleased with the pick-your-poison $5 evening.

The deserving winner of the contest was Chicago-born Phoenix resident Kirsten Alberts. Her set came early in the night, as she brought a cool, matter-of-fact presence to the stage. The expertly-crafted jokes drew a crowd-pleasing mixture of wild cackles and bewildered amazement. She left behind a “Did she say REALLY say that?” resonance that stirred through the audience. The gift she gave everyone was a comic who put it all on the line, with honesty and a twist of well-placed words.

Kristen will be appearing at the semi-finals in the next few weeks in either Chicago, San Francisco, New York or Florida. After the winner was announced, I had the chance to ask her a few questions about the evening and her views on comedy:

How would you describe your comedic stylings?

My stylings go from self-deprecating to self-defecating…. so you get the full spectrum of my sad,depressing life.

When I win at something I really like to get into the competitive spirit. I’ll hold a pointer finger in the air (suggesting I’m #1) or “Boo” the losers if they walk by or try to speak to anyone or communicate in any way. How did you celebrate your win?

I’m not used to winning things, I try to be the least competitive, unless it’s an underachievement competition. The only thing I’ve ever won before this was a competition with my sisters in parental disappointment…and I am the champion.

When I win something, I celebrate by eating a Chocolate Chip Peanut Butter Cliff Bar, that’s the extent of my partying.

Where can we find you throughout the valley performing?

I occasionally get the chance to perform at the Tempe Improv and Stand Up Live. And I perform almost every Friday at the Tempe Center for the Arts.

How long have you been performing and do you have any advice for people starting out?

Two and a half years. Write about what other people are not writing about. Pay attention to thoughts you usually ignore because they are weird and dark and you feel like they’re bad to have, and write them down. Those are where the funny is.

Do you think the practice of “putting down” (mercy killing) comedians who lose competitions is becoming a little outdated?

Most comedians are really supportive of each other. Honestly, the experiences I’ve had have always been positive.

My inspiration is Oprah’s best friend Gayle King. Who’s your biggest influence?

Hmmm…my biggest influence is every comic. I watch new ones and experienced ones and I like to see where their minds go and how I can learn from what they are doing. Some of my favorite comics are Kurt Metzger, Laurie Kilmartin, Maria Bamford, Brian Regan, and Louis CK. And if you haven’t heard of some of them – LOOK THEM UP!!

I don’t want to rain on your parade, but once I was only twelve jelly beans off in a, “Guess the Amount of Jelly Beans are in this Jar” competition. How do you think you performed and what does winning this leg of the competition mean to you?

I think I had a solid performance. There’s always people that I feel don’t like me when I’m on stage because I am a weird person and I always feel like I’m being judged (which in this case I was), but I thought it was a good show, and everyone had great performances.

I find your jokes to be really well crafted. What tools do you use to craft a joke? And how about that movie, “The Craft”?

The Craft is a good movie. But Harry Potter would smack those chicks up. I think the most important part of telling a joke, is getting to the point as quickly as possible, so the audience doesn’t lose interest. Also, saying something that the audience isn’t expecting.

How are you going to prepare for the next level of competition? What performance enhancing drugs do you take?

I don’t do any illegal drugs, but I’ll definitely be amping-up on some triple shot soy lattes. As far as preparation, I will just keep performing so I get some more experience under my belt.

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