May 29, 2008 — Kathleen O'Brien was used to getting laughs from her friends during her days as a University of Virginia student.
But it wasn't until the second semester of her fifth year at U.Va. — she just wrapped up a master's degree in teaching — that O'Brien started making strangers laugh with a stand-up comedy routine.
On Saturday night, as one of the four finalists in the National College Comedy Competition, she'll do an eight-minute routine in Aspen, Colo., in hopes of claiming the $1,500 first prize — and perhaps even the attention of some talent scouts.
In the championship round, O'Brien will compete against comedians from Duke, the University of North Carolina and Xavier.
The competition will be webcast live, and the winner will be selected based on online voting. Details are available at www.rooftopcomedy.com/events/college. The finals start at 8:45 p.m. EST on May 31.
O'Brien received her master's degree in teaching in the Curry School of Education on May 18 after earning her bachelor's in English in 2007. She'll start teaching high school English in Woodbridge High School in the fall.
"I'd begun doing some improv comedy back in January and had started writing some standup jokes when I saw the notice about this competition," O'Brien said in a telephone interview from her home in Montclair, Va., where she was packing for Aspen and practicing her routine on her family.
"My friends told me that I ought to try it, and it did seem like a good way to test whether or not I really was funny or my friends were just laughing to be nice."
The tournament began with on-campus competitions at 32 schools. The top eight vote-getters in the U.Va. competition went to Arlington, Va., where they had a head-to-head competition with the winners of George Washington's on-campus event. O'Brien won that event and emerged as one of 17 semifinalists from around the country.
Videos of those 17 were posted to a Web site. Over a nine-day period, visitors could watch the videos and cast their ballots. O'Brien admits she did some lobbying to encourage voters, and she emerged as one of the four finalists.
The college event is held in conjunction with the two-day Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival, bringing together about two dozen professional standup comedians.
In her previous appearances in the tournament, O'Brien has created three-minute routines. This one will be more than twice as long, but she surprised herself by coming up with so much material that she's having to pick and choose what she uses.
"The jokes just come to me from everyday life," O'Brien said. "It's how something I hear or see strikes me."
Her comedy is based, at least in part, on personal experience, including a riff about helping her grandmother get a profile on match.com, a popular dating Web site.
"I actually did set my Grammy up on match.com to try and get her a date," O'Brien said. "She doesn't know how to use a computer, so I had to make her profile for her."
In addition to trying some jokes out at local open mic nights, O'Brien has been practicing on her family and friends, and said her brothers are her toughest critics.
"They don't want to admit that their sister is funny," she said. "I know if they think something is good then it really does have a chance to get laughs."
Win or lose in Aspen, O'Brien said she'll probably keep working on her standup routine and expects to share a few lighthearted moments with her students, too.
"When I was doing my student teaching, I did try to inject a little humor now and then," O'Brien said. "I think this experience will help me in front of the classroom. If you can use a few jokes to get the students interested in something that might not otherwise interest them, why not?"
NOTE: Kathleen O'Brien did not win the championship but viewers of her comedy routine on the Rooftop Comedy site did award her four of five stars. The winner of the event was Tim Ball of Duke Unversity.