Brian McDowell has mixed feelings about comedy contests.

“Judging any art or any comedy and saying one is better than the other is kind of weird to me,” he said. “It’s all up to personal taste.”

This is the point — about two minutes into my phone interview with the St. Louis-based comedian — that I tell McDowell I’ll be judging the upcoming Laugh Hard Challenge which he and about 25 other Midwest comedians are competing in over three rounds this month at The Speakeasy, Circa ‘21 Dinner Playhouse Theatre’s secondary and next-door venue in downtown Rock Island.

He asks me which of the contest’s two preliminary rounds I’m judging.

“The 15th,” I say, to which he replies, “I’ll be there. So, you’ll be accepting bribes, then?”

Unsurprisingly, he’s joking.

The 43-year-old full-time comic is not kidding, though, when he says, “That’s not a position I’d like to be in. You can objectively say one tennis player is better than the other one, but comedy is so subjective.”

That position includes hearing more than a dozen comedians perform for four to six minutes and selecting the top five to move onto the final round, set for Sept. 29. The winner gets a $1,000 prize.

Since I have McDowell on the line, I ask him for any pointers.

“Read the room,” he said. “Keep in mind the collective response of the audience. There are comedians I don’t like, but I respect that they do really well in front of an audience.”

This is the third year for the Laugh Hard Challenge, an event that attracts comics from around the Quad-Cities and the region and one that Brett Hitchcock, Circa ‘21/The Speakeasy’s director of audience development, calls a “tremendous success.”

"Comics tell us on a regular basis it's their favorite room in town to perform in," Hitchcock said in a press release announcing the competition. "The last three years, we've been hosting a regional stand-up comedy competition that brings all of these talented comedians together for one event. It's going to be a great month of comedy.”

Of this year’s participants, McDowell, who made it to the final round of the Laugh Hard Challenge in 2016 and 2017, is possibly traveling the furthest distance.

Why make the trip?

Reminder: The reason is not his love of comedy contests.

“It’s one of my favorite venues,” he said. “For a comedian, I just want to get stage time in at a fun venue.”

McDowell wouldn’t waste his second wind in comedy with a not-so-fun event.

After previously working in the industry for a decade, McDowell didn’t set foot in a comedy club for “a solid five years,” he said. He did end up writing a humor column for a newspaper in Kansas, though. 

In early 2016, he moved back to his home base of St. Louis to be closer to family and to work “what I thought would be a decent job.”

The job didn't work out. 

“I was frustrated about that," McDowell said. "So I turned to comedy to work out that frustration." 

He’s been back at it for the past two years and gets help, financially, from Uber driving.

“Now, I feel like I’m back in fighting shape,” McDowell said.

Not that his main goal is winning any comedy fights.

Each time he takes a stage, McDowell hopes to improve his "ranty, complainy and a little loud" style of joke-telling.

"You know those things that people are afraid to say in polite conversation?That’s what you can articulate in comedy," he said. 

And he hopes to make people laugh.

"Laughter is addictive," McDowell said. "That's what keeps us going out there." 

If his jokes don't make an audience member laugh during the Laugh Hard Challenge, he's OK with it.

"At something like this, there are a lot of different styles of comics," McDowell said. "If you don't think one is funny, just wait for the next one."


Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).