The long, hard road to the Charleston Comedy Festival began Friday with the first Charleston Stand-up Competition preliminary round at Theatre 99. The sold-out crowd was peppered with plenty of the performers’ friends, based on host Brandy Sullivan’s query early in the night. Each comic got five minutes to do their bit, and Sullivan kept the ball rolling swiftly and smoothly while earning some of the biggest laughs between sets.

The 13 performers included familiar faces as well as out-of-towners competing for a chance to make it to the finals in January. We saw some solid contenders, some total duds, and quite a few forgettable newbies whose acts could use some polishing. Equal opportunity offender Michael Clayton, wearing a Gryffindor hoodie because he’s “allergic to pussy,” mimed having a masturbation race with his girlfriend and cracked on Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and black zombies. Local comedy vet Derek Humphrey’s set was smart and self-effacing — we liked the joke about keeping Olive Oyl in a cool, dark place. The night’s biggest dud was Teresa Rogerson, who fumbled through her set before earning gasps for saying that Charleston should be called a Partial Africa city instead of All-American. Following that crack, she lost even most of the pity laughs, and she left the stage with her head hanging.

PJ Butland, whose name alone got some giggles (he compared it to a Siegfried and Roy theme park), talked about wild adventures in Daytona Beach. Andrew Rider, looking positively Mormon with an incredible pair of ginger sideburns, talked about his stint in Christian porn and the high school Shy Club. We recognized country boy Tommy Ramage, and a few of his jokes, from last year’s competition, while Hilton Head’s Laura Yacso talked about life as an aging waitress. Justin Bieber lookalike Justin Cook went into overtime with his story about running into family members in jail, and Neil Bansil wrapped things up with arguably the funniest set of the night, talking about racial stereotypes and misunderstandings as well as his father’s attempts to trick him into admitting that he’s gay. 

The audience members voted for their favorite two comics, and a few minutes later, the four winners were announced: Neil Bansil, Andrew Rider, PJ Butland, and Derek Humphrey. They’ll move on to compete in the finals. The second round of prelims will take place Sept. 9. If you’re funny, sign up to compete. If you just like laughing at people (funny or not), get your tickets early because it will probably sell out again.