In front of a packed Bagdad Theater, they entered sudden death. Kyle Kinane and Doug Benson had bested three worthy challengers to make the final round of the Bridgetown Comedy Festival's Iron Comic, a live contest modeled on Iron Chef—but instead of ingredients, comedians get topics to build new bits.

Iron Comic would be decided in the lightning round. (Full disclosure: I was a judge during the preliminary rounds. Audience members chose the winner.) There, audience-submitted topics are rattled off at the comedians, who volley back jokes as quickly as possible. Benson stepped up first and stumbled—his bewildered stoner style didn't fit the format. Kinane's first topic was "useless college degrees." Immediately he fired back: "Got one." He was off and running.

And so, for the second straight year, Kinane took home the Bridgetown honor. It was fitting, really—sort of a coming-out party. Kinane's played every year of the Portland festival, and each time he's come back better than before, growing from unknown to under-the-radar-hype to a must-see event.

Kinane infuses a gruff, hard-drinking, blue-collar everyman with ceaseless self-loathing and occasional flights of surreal fancy. Last May, after a decade performing, comedy finally became a full-time job. Right before a show in Bloomington, Indiana, Kinane and I spoke briefly about his journey.

His first stage time came in a band. "I wasn't good at music," Kinane says. "But I had fun making jokes between songs." From there he tried an open mic, which was "terrifying," but didn't "suck bad enough for me to not go back."

"I had no idea where it was gonna go," Kinane continues. "I just knew that I had to do it. And that's still how I feel now. I have no idea where I'll be in 10 years. I just know that this is what I have to do."

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There's no real plan, the LA-based comedian says. Though he's open to any work that might come his way, TV, movies, and acting aren't on his radar.

“I don’t have anything I’m trying to break into right now,” Kinane says. “It’s just trying to get further with stand-up. That’s it. I look at guys like Louis C.K. and how did they get there? Well, they just kept doing stand-up and busted their ass for years and years. All right, if that’s what I have to do, that’s what I’ll do.”