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Comics vie for finalist at the Craterian

Five comedians bucking to win the annual San Francisco International Stand Up Comedy Competition will waste no time hitting audiences with their funniest puns and one-liners when the Craterian theater hosts one of the final shows Friday night in Medford.

The finalists in the 34th annual competition were announced Saturday at Montbleu Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nev. Danny Bevins and Tom Simmons of Los Angeles, Jarrod Harris of Atlanta, Maureen Langan of New York City and Rodger Lizaola of Seattle will spar at 8 p.m. at the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater, with the finalist announced at a show to be held Saturday at Cache Creek Casino near Sacramento, Calif.

"It will be exciting. This is the granddaddy of all comedy competitions," says show emcee and Portland comedian Dwight Slade. "Contests like these take comics out of their comfort zone and force them to get to the funny material as fast as they possibly can. They find out if they're funny in a high-pressure situation. Win or lose, they'll come out of it as stronger performers."

Slade knows this from personal experience. In 1995, he and actor and comedian Dane Cook went neck-and-neck through the competition.

"If I went on stage first, I would finish first," Slade says. "If Cook went on first, he would finish first. We're both kinda loud, geeky comics, and whoever went out first would steal the other's thunder. We had a great time hanging out backstage, though."

Slade met the 2009 finalists at three of the semifinal rounds he anchored last week around the San Francisco Bay Area.

"I've worked with Lizaola before. He's a newcomer," Slade says. "Langan is one of the first women to make the finals in a long time. The finalists are a good example of the diversity of performers in the competition. The show will include a little bit of everything. You'll see five of the top comics in the nation who are on their way up."

So far a woman hasn't won the competition. Comedienne Maria Falzone was a finalist in 1992. Ellen DeGeneres came in second to Sinbad in 1985. Langan will be up against past winner Bevins, known for biting social commentary, who won in 2000.

Harris' act delightfully castigates the South, Lizaola has a bone to pick with other minorities and Simmons can describe his wife having a baby as never heard before.

The finalists have honed their acts in the previous rounds and will each perform a 15- to 20-minute set in the finals. Hundreds of comedians auditioned for one of the slots to win a total prize of $25,000.

"Winning a competition like this one puts a comedian on the map," Slade says. "It makes people aware that you're a professional. It's also a great way to hone your skills and step up your game."

Slade was born in Seattle, attended high school in Klamath Falls and now makes his home in Portland. Cook, from Boston, wound up taking the finalist title in the 1995 competition.

"It can be disappointing for some," Slade says. "But it strengthens a performer as much as winning."

Slade entered the Boston Comedy Festival in 2008 and competed against 96 other comics. He was one of eight finalists and ultimately won the competition.

"I'd been touring a lot of comedy clubs. It was time to put myself out there again," Slade says.

What followed was an invitation to the Chicago Comedy Festival and TBS' Las Vegas Comedy Festival. The latter included a slot on a television special, "The Very Funny Show," that will be aired this fall.

Slade's two-disc DVD, "Right & Raunch," was released in March. One of the discs is family-friendly — the other is not.

The San Francisco International Stand Up Comedy Competition is part of Craterian Performances' 2009-10 lineup of entertainment that is tailored toward the local economy, and tickets to the show are low-priced.

"Comedy is recession-proof," Slade says. "That's because comics are into cheap humor — and we all need a bargain."

This is the first time the finals of the San Francisco international competition will be presented in Oregon. Judges have been selected from the community and will include Craterian production manager Brad Nelson, Casey Baker with Radio Medford and Miles Kehoe, a past contestant who now makes his home in Grants Pass.

The show may contain adult language and themes.

Portland comedian Dwight Slade will emcee the show at the Craterian Theater. - www.myspace.com/dwightslade