By Kim Hackett
“Whether you are a president or a garbage guy, people are the same.”
Funnyman Les McCurdy and his wife, Pam, have been presenting Sinbad, Jeff Foxworthy and the like at McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre on North Tamiami Trail for 26 years. This spring, they’ll move to a new, 7,100-square-foot club on Ringling Boulevard in hopes of attracting a wider fan base and helping to create a new entertainment district. McCurdy opened his first club in Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1985.
A few years later, he and Pam, an Asolo Conservatory grad, started McCurdy’s in a Holiday Inn on the North Trail. While Pam runs the business side, Les is the public face, booking talent and warming up the crowd before Darrell Hammond and other A-list celebrities take the stage. We asked Les about his years in the business.
I fluked into comedy. I came out of theater and planned to go to L.A. to work in television. On the way, I stopped in Denver to spend some time with [my friend] Ken Sons. He’d done a couple of documentary films. I started to play with his cameras. We’d record little comedy shorts and try them out at a comedy club on open-mic night. We found out it was an emerging art form. The comedians I knew were making a lot more money than my friends were making in Los Angeles or New York.
My favorite charity event is The Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce Small Business Awards. Every big shot in town is there, and I am the only one who can be inappropriate. They trust me. They know I’m not going to push to the point that anyone is going to be greatly uncomfortable. Whenever I perform for a major corporation, all I want to know is ‘Who is the boss?’ That needs to be the first person I make a little fun of. I have to go after the biggest person in the room. Now it’s a level playing ground.
There’s a Zen teaching that means a lot to me. A Zen master goes to a royal wedding. He finds himself in awe of the prince and can’t be himself. When he comes back he says, “I must go back into training. All men are the same and if I can’t see [that], I am not a Zen master.” Whether you are a president of a corporation or the garbage guy, people are the same.
The creative process is ongoing. It’s not like I sit down and say I’m going to be creative right now; it’s kind of running around in my head. Sometimes ideas come to me when I’m lying in bed at night. I might be working out on the treadmill. On my phone I’ve got a place to put notes. It’s just packed.
If you flop, it’s not the audience’s fault. The first time I headlined in Montreal in a small, well-known room, I got on stage after some good comics. I got up and started into my show, which I had done for 20 weeks. I had wonderful shows; it was kill, kill, kill. So I walked up and did my first five minutes in Montreal and they stared at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I’m shaking and thinking, ‘Wow, that’s my good stuff.’ It messes with your head. You go back to that hotel and think, ‘What can I do tomorrow? I’ve got seven more shows.’ I never did have a good time that week. I could not connect with that audience. It’s rare, but it can happen.
Comedy is delicate. I’ve had situations with private events where it wasn’t set up right. Then I change my contract and it never happens again: No one standing up in the back while I’m performing, no awards or speeches before me. You learn not to put yourself in that position.
There is no way to overcome stage fright offstage. Get on stage as much as you can. Preparation is the best thing; you don’t want to be thinking about what you are going to say. Start with small crowds, working in front of 10 of your friends. Get in front of crowds where it’s not do-or-die. Take acting classes.
I pay close attention to technology. I have a guy doing my social networking and website. One of the hardest things theaters deal with is getting audiences to put their mobile devices away. We’ll have nights where we let you bring your mobile device out and interact with the screens. In an improv situation, typically I would say to the audience, ‘Give me something.’ Now I’ll throw my Twitter up there on the flatscreen and they can tweet with me on stage. We might let them take video at a show while we are streaming it live on our YouTube channel and interfacing with our Facebook page and Twitter.
Downtown is vibrant and people want to be where there’s a lot going on. Although we’ve had no problems on the North Trail, a lot of patrons are not comfortable coming to an area that is more low-income. We already are considered one of the best comedy venues in the country. What we didn’t have were amenities—a full kitchen and front lounge—so if you come before the show, you can come in and have a cocktail.