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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019 1 month ago

Sarasota comedians find laughter laboratory in local open mic nights

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Open mic nights are where comedians experiment. But what keeps them going?
by: Niki Kottmann Managing Editor of Arts and Entertainment

Frankly, it’s an awful night for an open mic. It’s a hot-as-hell July evening in Sarasota, so the crowd is slim, and it appears that 15-some minutes after it was supposed to start, only two comics have signed up. (The host, who goes simply by Yourm, hustles the crowd to boost his sign-up count as he jaunts from table to table, clipboard in hand.)

The 10-ish audience members huddle around picnic tables and lounge on lawn chairs in the backyard of JDub’s Brewing Co. & Tap Room, the venue for this not-so-fine evening’s festivities. Honestly, most of them look blissfully unaware that there’s a show supposedly about to start.

I’ve come to find out why comedians subject themselves to this painful form of performance, when I find myself wondering why I’m even subjecting myself to it — and I don’t have to go up in front of strangers and tell jokes.  

The thought of “screw it, I’ll just come back next month” runs through my mind as sweat pours down my back, but I realize that might be an even worse idea — would August really be better? 

So, armed with a grapefruit IPA and a Nikon DSLR, I trudge into one of the many empty seats as the meager crowd  awaits a show that makes no promises to be funny.

First up is Sarasota native Mike Stevens. Come Aug. 27, he will have been doing stand-up for two years. He understandably considers himself an amateur. But he has wanted to pursue comedy since he was 12, the same year he attended his first stand-up show. Sinbad was the featured performer that fateful day, and the comic’s unique ability to make anyone in the room laugh — even those well below the average age of a comedy show attendee — made something click into place.

POTION PLAY

Ever since his first set at the McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre boot camp nearly two years ago, Stevens hasn’t been able to get enough.

“It’s like an addiction,” he says. “It would be like asking, ‘Why does a boxer go into an arena?’ The irony is that for a stand-up comic, nothing happens if it doesn’t work out. Other than complete humiliation.”

But it’s that threat of failure that thrills Stevens. For Angel Salvador, the second comic to take the mic, it’s having the power to captivate the attention of a whole crowd that’s enticing. If he’s doing well, he’s getting both attention and laughs.

Sarasota native Mike Stevens, 27, got his start by taking a security job at McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre. Photo by Niki Kottmann

 For comics, laughter is a sweet, rare elixir that gets them closer to complete ecstasy with every drop. But to snag that seductive concoction, the first step is mustering up the courage to get in front of an open-mic crowd.

Salvador didn’t start by seeking laughter, though. He was just a broke college student desperate for some freebies.

“I got into open mic comedy back in college around 2008 or so in Springfield, Mo., because of the free food they would put out,” he says with a laugh. “The main reason I keep going is for the stage time, practice and exposure.”

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

Stevens agrees that rehearsal time is crucial. He equates performing at open mics to going to the gym. Bodybuilders go to health clubs to test their strength, and comics go to open mic nights to test material on people other than loved ones who have already heard enough of it.

“You have to go and try that s*** out,” he says. “You could practice [a song on] your guitar in the garage with nobody around and immediately come to the conclusion that it’s either really bad, somewhat decent or good because you can hear it. … You don’t have that luxury in comedy. You have zero proof that it’s hilarious.”

Stevens sees it as paying his dues. Nobody becomes the next Dave Chappelle overnight. And for true comedy fans, he says it’s the best way to experience comics in their most raw form — comedians who might be on Comedy Central or HBO in 10 years.

Seasoned comic BC Murphy was raised in the small black box theaters of New York City, so it makes sense why his comedic performances are one-man stage shows — most currently “Dadism." Photo by Niki Kottmann

There’s a method to the madness. Sarasota — and especially the greater Tampa Bay area — is home to several such events, and budding comics frequent this open mic circuit until they’re good enough to land a spot in a comedy showcase.

But what about the whole public humiliation part?

“It is intimidating at times to get in front of strangers, but it usually gets less intimidating with time,” Salvador says. “You build up confidence in presenting material to an audience regardless if they may be ready to laugh.”

He adds that every open mic is also a new opportunity to network and meet other emerging comics. The wider his network, the more people he has to workshop ideas with and grow as a comedian. It also gives him the rare opportunity to occasionally connect with people who can book him a set.

STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM

Stevens, who guesses he spends about 20 hours a week working on jokes and other aspects of his stand-up, recently reached a whole new level: competitions. He landed in the top three at the McCurdy’s satellite competition of The World Series of Comedy, and now he’ll advance to the finals Sept. 23 in East St. Louis.

Yourm fills in as host from time to time at the JDub’s Brewing Co. & Tap Room open mic. Photo by Niki Kottmann

He’ll continue to train using open mics, but Stevens says the set he’ll bring to the national finals is completely different than what he does at open mics. The latter are for trying new material, but competitions are about presenting his tightest, most polished jokes that are also proven crowd-pleasers.

“At an open mic, you’re not trying to put on a show,” Stevens says. “You’re not playing at the NBA finals; you’re playing basketball at the local Y.”

The goal of every open mic performance is only to impress himself, he continues, because it’s his laboratory to experiment on not just new material but also new inflections, facial expressions, etc.

But do the skimpy, often unenthused crowds get tiring?

Anything’s better than his worse crowd to date: a group of men in a strip club on Father’s Day.

“I knew it was going to be awkward and weird, but I did it because 

I was definitely going to get a story from this,” Stevens says.

That, and they gave him and two of his pals $100 each to perform for five minutes.

“Some DJ pointed at me and said, ‘Go up,’ and I went in front of an audience who didn’t want a guy to talk to them … They were not the best kind of people — let’s put it that way. So I was standing in front of 10 or 15 creepy dudes and told them why I think vegan food isn’t the best option, and nothing worked.”

It was Stevens’ first bomb and first “hell gig,” as comics call it. It taught him the importance of getting up in front of as many types of audiences as possible because the more you perform for, the better you’ll be at working different types of crowds.

Angel Salvador moved to Sarasota in 2014 from Springfield, Mo., where he would clean bathrooms at comedy clubs in exchange for more stage time. Photo by Niki Kottmann

Salvador says his worst bomb was at an open mic as a Missouri State University student when, by the time his set was over, everyone had walked out — including the bartender.

He also recalls the night he tried to ignore the man yelling nationalist remarks over his jokes and pretend he wasn’t afraid of a potential confrontation.

The bombs and wild stories are part of the process, he says, because afterwards most comics in this community are willing to offer each other suggestions and constructive criticism. 

Stevens sees the existence of open mics as a sign that local venues are supporting comedy — respecting it as an art form that’s an important part of our culture.

“People will always want to laugh,” he says.

FUN AND GAMES

This JDub’s open mic night ends with veteran comic BC Murphy leading the emerging comics in an improv game. Every joke has to start the same: “A blank walks into a bar.” The small but suddenly vocal audience blurts out suggestions.

One man yells “a Republican!” and the comedians look at one another reluctantly. The evening has been free of politics until now, and they seem unsure how to breach the topic.

But this isn’t Murphy’s first rodeo. He turns the table on the man and asks him, “Are you a Republican, sir?” The man nods and chuckles.

“All right, so YOU walk into a bar ...”

I'm the Managing Editor of Arts & Entertainment here, which means I write, edit and share stories about our multifaceted A&E scene in Sarasota. I graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Journalism and a French minor. Reach me at 941-366-3468 ext. 356

See All Articles by Niki

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