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See grin-worthy stand-up

Comedian Nate Jackson of Lacey works the crowd while hosting a weekly comedy night at The Vault at Varsity Grill in downtown Tacoma.
Comedian Nate Jackson of Lacey works the crowd while hosting a weekly comedy night at The Vault at Varsity Grill in downtown Tacoma. The Olympian

In April, Nate Jackson seemed a long shot to win the Bay Area Black Comedy Competition, a high-profile contest that has bolstered the early careers of Jamie Foxx, Katt Williams and Nick Cannon, among others.

The Lacey man was the first Northwest comedian to even make a blip on the competition’s radar screen in 24 years. He was relatively unknown, going up against performers who had appeared on HBO, Showtime, BET and Starz.

“With no TV credits at all, a lot of people would be intimidated going up against people like that,” said competition founder Tony Spires. “He wasn’t even an underdog. He was someone who people weren’t even checking for.”

But far from fazed, the 26-year-old Jackson prevailed against some of the most promising urban comedians in the country. Since then, he has parlayed his win into more opportunities – new management, possible TV appearances, tours of Japan and Bermuda in the works – and a higher profile for his weekly Super Funny Comedy Show, held Thursday nights at the Vault, the banquet room at Tacoma’s Varsity Grill.

“He’s funny, he’s energetic, he’s intelligent,” Spires said. “He has a lot of crossover appeal. He has good, funny physical comedic skills, and his material is funny.

“Put all those things together with the fact that he’s hungry and really, really wants it,” he said. “What he did was he took (the competition), and you have to respect when someone takes it.”

Varsity Grill owner Jon Tartaglia also admires Jackson’s tenacity. “It wouldn’t surprise me if he made it big, between his personality and his attitude. He’s a hustler and a go-getter,” he said, noting how hard Jackson works passing out fliers around town and spending time with fans after every show.

“One of the reasons I think he’s going to be famous – like, somebody we’re going to see in movies or on TV – is because he is such a great self-promoter,” he said. “He does a great job of promoting his brand. He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen.”

But it wasn’t always clear that Jackson was headed for the big time. Like many comedians, he found some of his first audiences in the classroom, much to the chagrin of teachers at River Ridge High School, Nisqually Middle School and Seven Oaks Elementary School in Lacey.

“I got in so much trouble with my mouth in fifth grade, I had to switch classes, which doesn’t happen in elementary school,” recalls Jackson, flashing a big grin during an interview at the Harmon Hub. “I talked and joked and laughed my way all the way to another teacher’s classroom for a fresh start.”

His career in stand-up got properly started at the Pence Union Building at Eastern Washington University in Cheney where he would hang out with friends. One coyly asked if he thought he was brave and talented enough to take first place in a comedy competition.

Feeling cocky, Jackson answered, emphatically, yes. “I turned around and there was literally a banner that said ‘Student only comedy competition,’ ” he recalls. “It was for Wednesday coming up. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve gotta get ready for a show.’ ”

Jackson had never done stand-up before, but was a natural and took second place (behind the friend who’d challenged him). He was hooked, and by 2008 he had developed enough to finish second in the Seattle International Comedy Competition, an experience he said prepared him to perform in front of 3,000 people at the Bay Area Black Comedy competition.

“I learned from my experience,” he said. “The other comedians, some were used to it, some weren’t. But I was like, ‘I already know what time it is.’ ”

Jackson moved to Los Angeles and started booking and promoting his own comedy night at the Improv in Ontario, Calif., in 2007. He started booking in South Sound late the next year.

“I was just coming home for Christmas break and thought, ‘Let me grab a couple of rooms and make some money,’ ” he said, “and it ended up being a long time running.”

His Super Funny Comedy Show started at the Log Cabin Tavern in Lacey and has since migrated to The Vault in Olympia, the defunct Sixth Avenue Bar & Grill in Tacoma, and Cheers in Puyallup.

In June, the show may have found a permanent home at the Varsity Grill where it draws 200 to 250 a week to see a national headliner and the best in regional comedy, hip-hop and R&B. (A musical act opens each show.)

In its first few weeks, headliners have included Terry Hodges, the original host of “Showtime at the Apollo;” Lav Luv, a winner of TV One’s “Bill Bellamy’s Who’s Got Jokes;” and Anthony “Scruncho” McKinley of “How High” and “BET’s Comicview.”

Jackson believes it’s his win in Oakland that allows him to draw big names in urban comedy.

“A title helps validate the hard work you’ve been putting in and it validates what you’re doing,” said Luv, who reached out to Jackson after the win. He had never performed in Washington before, but seems anxious to come back. “It was a crowd that definitely came to have a good time,” he said. “If Nate calls me again, I’ll be there.”

Ernest Jasmin: 253-274-7389, ernest.jasmin@thenewstribune.com

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