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McCurdy's celebrates 35 years of comedy in Sarasota

Les and Pam McCurdy share their secrets for mixing business with pleasure.

Les and Pam McCurdy opened their first Sarasota comedy club in 1988, the year after they got married.
Les and Pam McCurdy opened their first Sarasota comedy club in 1988, the year after they got married.
Photo by Monica Roman Gagnier
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If you’ve ever been in theater or on TV, you most likely know the “green room” is an inner sanctum where you wait until it’s your turn to go under the lights or in front of the camera. But at McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre in downtown Sarasota, The Green Room is a bar where the audience members can enjoy a drink before or after the show.

This green room is like a museum — it contains dozens of framed magazine covers and newspaper front pages, awards and proclamations that Pam and Les McCurdy have racked up during more than three decades in the comedy business.

This month, Pam and Les will have to make some room on the walls for the latest round of tributes. They are celebrating 35 years of providing a clean, comfortable venue for comics and teaching people from all walks of life the fine art of making a joke. (No timing isn't everything, but it's very important.)

Told that a recent father-and-son team had attended McCurdy’s Comedy Camp even though one was a professional marketer and the other a successful actor, Les wasn’t surprised. “It’s on a lot of people’s bucket lists,” he said. Like skydiving or visiting Yellowstone National Park? “Sure,” says Les.

The McCurdys met in 1982 while they were both working as servers at Bennigan's in Sarasota.  Both were interested in working in the arts. Their romance took a hiatus in 1984 when Pam graduated from the Asolo and moved to New York City. Les, meanwhile, took his comedy act on the road and helped a boyhood friend run The Comedy Catch in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Starting out at the Holiday Inn

Pam eventually joined Les in Chattanooga, where they got engaged and married in 1987. The following year they opened their own comedy club on June 15 in Sarasota at the now defunct Holiday Inn Airport Marina. They later took the club to the Big Kitchen on Clark Road before renovating the old Teatro Movie Theatre, where they remained until 2014, when they moved to their current location.

Pam and Les McCurdy on their wedding day, July 25, 1987, the year before they began hosting comedy in Sarasota.
Courtesy photo

Making people laugh is harder than it looks, especially during a typical performance of about 20 minutes. What’s even harder is keeping a marriage alive and growing for 35 years.

The McCurdys aren’t planning on adding couples therapy to their repertoire. But they do have some tips for sustaining successful relationships. 

Les wastes no time in offering advice. “No lying,” says the Chattanooga native, who often wears a straw cowboy hat.

What about white lies? “No lying of any kind,” Les says more forcefully. One lie leads to another, he says, destroying credibility and trust. 

But there are other kinds of lies besides “I went out after work with the guys” or “my friend thought this dress looked so cute that she bought it for me.”

Communication is key

Lies of omission can be fatal to a relationship, Les says. They can lead to years of built-up resentment that like shifting tectonic plates ever so slowly move toward an earthquake. “Everyone thought they were so happy because they had been married for 20 years and then ka-boom,” Les says. 

Some things like chemistry, love and mutual respect can just come naturally.The McCurdys don't have to work too hard on those. 

Communication is key, Pam says. But you’ve got to make time for it. “It doesn’t always happen by itself,” she says. Les agrees.

While some professional partners who are also in a romantic relationship try to keep business separate from pleasure, that’s not feasible in their line of work, the McCurdys say. Even vacations involve scouting for new talent. The McCurdys' most recent vacation was to the Boston Comedy Festival, where they were wowed by the talent of the show’s winner, an African immigrant.

Les still does some performing of his own. At a recent performance during the first week of June, he appeared before a group that included about 20 visitors from Indiana. The Hoosiers seemed surprised when Les McCurdy informed them Indiana is home to one of the world's largest collections of sex paraphernalia.

It’s part of the archives at Indiana University, where sex researcher Alfred Kinsey was based in the mid-20th century. This piece of trivia was news to the Indiana comedy fans and their reactions provided grist for Les’s mill.

Better than getting 'hammered in the backyard'

Interacting with the audience and quizzing them about what brought them to Sarasota and to McCurdy’s generated plenty of risque material from Les. There were jokes about special birthday presents, aging and online dating. When something wasn’t getting any laughs, he quickly moved on. When a camera flashed, he calmly said, “Don’t do that” and immediately segued back into his routine.

McCurdy's Comedy Theatre is at 1923 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota.
Sidra Wali

Like many intelligent Southerners, Les plays his aw-shucks routine to the hilt. The Florida transplant didn't get lost in Margaritaville, telling his audience recently that coming out to a comedy club is a lot more fun than “getting hammered in the backyard.”

Along with being able to size up someone in an instant and other formidable soft skills, Les has great respect for hard numbers. “If you don’t have a handle on your alcohol and food costs, you’re not going to stay in business,” he says.

That’s where Pam comes in, dealing with vendors, making sure deliveries are accurate and on time. Her soft skills are pretty impressive, too. They come in handy when managing staff in a time of service industry personnel shortages. Pam also handles press and publicity inquiries and other housekeeping issues. The latter literally means making sure McCurdy’s shines.

Les volunteers that one of his patrons once came up to him and said, “Your men’s room is so clean that I decided to take a dump there.” Clearly, bathroom humor comes as naturally to Les as jokes about sex.

In restaurant or theater parlance, Pam is in charge of the back of the house, while Les' domain is the front of the house, scouting and booking talent for the shows and the Humor Institute.

Building a brand

Although the interview was organized by Pam, she mostly let Les be the star of the show. But she doesn’t hesitate to speak her mind. When Les started talking about their predecessors in Gulf Coast comedy, she gently interrupted and said, “I’m sorry, Les. McCurdy’s did put Sarasota on the map when it comes to comedy. We have a recognizable brand.”

To support that brand, servers at McCurdy’s wear T-shirts with the tagline, “This place is a joke,” adorned with signature McCurdy’s stick figure holding a microphone that also graces the outside of the building. McCurdy’s merchandise can be purchased in the Green Room, which, like the main club, can be rented out for parties. But the McCurdys don't use a hard sell approach to club swag and generally let their headliners push their own T-shirts and hats.

Many well-known comedians have come to McCurdy’s over the years, including Amy Schumer, Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy, Chris Rock, Tommy Chong and Rosie O'Donnell, to name just a few. Famous funnymen (and women) often come back to McCurdy's when they’re on the road, especially if they’re looking for a cabaret setting. 

Not every comedian can fill the Van Wezel the way former Tonight Show host Jay Leno did in March. Among the household names who will be coming to McCurdy’s in the coming months are Pauly Shore and Andrew Dice Clay.

In these polarized times has comedy been forced to retreat from the no-holds-barred style of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor? Not according to Les. “It doesn’t matter what a joke’s about if it’s funny,” he says.

New neighbors joining McCurdy's downtown

Comedy venues have come and gone in Sarasota. With its signature royal purple paint, McCurdy's is the last club standing. Like many other businesses in the performing arts, they were knocked flat by Covid. They were able to qualify for government assistance to stay afloat.

With the pandemic mostly behind it, McCurdy's is sitting pretty. Their 2014 move downtown to the former location of Shaner's Pizzeria looks exceptionally shrewd, given the development now going on in their part of downtown.

Sprouts recently signed a 10-year lease for 23,000 square feet at Main Street and Links Avenue. The natural grocer will have space in Aster & Links, a two-story building with 424 luxury residential housing units. If residents are in the mood for a laugh or two, they can walk around the corner to McCurdy's.

On the McCurdy's website, Pam and Les say they plan to celebrate their 50th anniversary at their downtown comedy club. With their 35-year track record, they're not kidding.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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