Imagine standing in front of a room full of people who expect you to make them laugh. You can’t stutter, your timing has to be just right, and you better not hear any pins drop. This may sound like a recurring nightmare you’ve been having, but for three comedians in Charleston, it’s a dream come true.

In January, Theatre 99 is transformed into a laugh factory with its annual Charleston Comedy Festival. In years past, Theatre 99 has hosted a stand-up comedy competition that concludes on the first night of the festival. This year they’ve already chosen the three finalists, and on Jan. 21, they’ll showcase their award-winning skills.

The competition had about 60 participants, and after three gauntlets, Dusty Slay, Roz McCoy, and Devon Gollinge were named the top three finalists.

“They definitely deserve it,” says Brandy Sullivan, co-owner of Theatre 99. “The three of them could not be more different. They’re a really great sampling of the talent that participated in the competition this year.”

First-place winner Slay says he was pleasantly surprised with his success this year. “I went in to this thing saying I don’t care if I win or not, but it’s a confidence booster, that’s for sure.”

This wasn’t the first time Slay competed for the title. He came in third place five years ago, but he admits that he never made it to the final round in last year’s competition. He says the difference this year had a lot to do with how much more he practiced. Each week, he hosted open mic nights and trivia nights around town to keep his stage skills fresh.

“I do a lot of country comedy. I’m from Alabama, so I definitely draw on a lot of that stuff,” Slay says. “I really like Ron White. I think his delivery is great. But then again I don’t think that’s my whole shtick. I try to bring in different aspects that are a little unexpected.”

While Slay’s sets are usually written-out and timed, second-place winner Roz McCoy’s acts are basically whatever comes to her mind. “I’m 50 years old, I’m retired from the Navy, and I’m a mother. I have plenty to talk about,” McCoy laughs. “I feel like if I can just get out there and get them to like me, then I will do well. That’s 95 percent of the battle.”

Though her likable personality wins many battles, it doesn’t necessarily prevent them. At one of her performances in Virginia, a quarrel in the back of the club escalated into a shooting. “It had nothing to do with me, but I was just glad I had military training and knew to crawl to my car,” she says. “See, that’s why I do stream of consciousness. I could talk about that for a good four or five minutes in a routine.”

It’s a strategy Charleston audiences took a quick liking to, something the Jacksonville native feels pretty proud of, considering she didn’t know anyone in the Charleston area before entering the contest. “I’ll tell you, Charleston and Theatre 99 has one of my favorite audiences ever,” she says. “I’ve performed in a lot of places, and that audience is more receptive than any other audience I’ve been in front of.”

Devon Gollinge feels the same way about Charleston’s audiences. He performs most of his stand-up in Myrtle Beach, where he lives and works full-time. Though he likes his hometown, he says Charleston is a nice change of pace. “Charleston is a lot more open and receptive,” Gollinge says. “I’ve gotten used to the slightly older crowd in Myrtle Beach, so it’s really refreshing to come here and see people my age who actually get comedy.”

His routines have a mixture of storytelling and what he calls “jokey jokes,” but he thinks his self-deprecating brand of comedy is what landed him the third place position in this year’s competition. “I think it’s sort of endearing because people like it when you know how to laugh at yourself,” he says. “I poke fun at myself for looking really young, and everybody always seemed to go for the small dick jokes. I just try to keep it energetic and have fun with it.”

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