Divine Comedy

By staff November 1, 2002

When Brenda Ferrari-better known as Etta May, the Queen of Southern Sass-came to Sarasota to do five nights of stand-up at McCurdy's Comedy Theater, she came straight from the Sarasota-Bradenton Airport to the club, which is in a rundown strip center along the North Tamiami Trail. The parking lot was what you might expect on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the summer. Pretty empty, that is, except for a couple of cars in front of Video Library and Dollar General, and, near a curb, an overturned shopping cart and an empty bottle of booze in a crumpled paper bag.

Etta May sized up the neighborhood and said, "When you see the Dollar General, you know exactly what part of town you're in."

Ferrari had just arrived from her home in Lexington, Kentucky, with a couple of big black suitcases, and she was hot and hungry. After she'd finished putting her promotional flyers on each of the little tables in the theater, she wanted the owner of the theater, Les McCurdy, to take her to lunch and then to the hotel. They discussed which car was big enough for her, her luggage and a few other people. That's the life of a touring comedian, she wryly noted. "Glamorous, huh? Usually people send someone to the airport in a Miata and the air conditioning is broke."

Yet Ferrari-who for the last decade has been one of the most successful female headliners in the comedy business with TV appearances, a six-figure income and the American Comedy Awards' 1999 Best Female Stand-up Comic award-says she won't perform in any but the best clubs. McCurdy's-even with the Dollar General out front-is one of them.

Ferrari is not the only nationally touring comedian to hit McCurdy's. In the year since Les McCurdy opened his doors at the North Trail Plaza (he's had clubs at other local spots for the last 15 years), other top comedians such as Bob Goldthwait and David Brenner have performed there; on weekend nights, the parking lot is packed with cars. Business has been so good that McCurdy anticipates bringing in at least two celebrities a month this year. This month he has three nationally touring comics: Bobby Collins, Sean Morey and Jeff Dunham.

All of this is a bit surprising, really. During the '90s, it looked like the comedy club industry had died-and for good reason. Back in the '80s, everyone with a space and a microphone tried hosting stand-ups. The club market was glutted with mediocre talent while cable TV and Comedy Central were bringing viewers the hottest comics in the country. Why spend the money to go to a local bar and listen to painfully bad jokes when you could hear the best for free on your couch?

But in the last two to three years comedy clubs have been seeing a "huge resurgence," according to Los Angeles' Judi Brown of Power Entertainment and a senior producer for HBO's Comedy Arts Festival. "The general population has made a leap," she says. "They know they can see people at local clubs who have been on TV or who might make it on TV."

Comedy, it turns out, is serious business. "I've been doing this for 16 years," says Brown. "It's a very big business, a very lucrative business." Today, there are about 225 full-time clubs around the country-this doesn't include the Holiday Inns and Best Westerns that host stand-ups on the weekends-with revenues of about $2 billion. Most of the new clubs are 400-seat, million-dollar theaters in destination-type places owned by chains like The Funny Bone and the Improv Comedy Club, which has clubs in Tampa, West Palm and Miami. They offer first-class environments and pay top dollar. "There are very few Mom-and-Pops left," Brown says.

McCurdy's Comedy Theater is one of those exceptions. With a black ceiling and fuschia and purple walls, McCurdy's was formerly the site of the quirky 99-cent Teatro movie theater. The Teatro's original nude statues still stand in niches along the walls. "It looks like a bordello," said one first-timer. But the place is well-kept-the bathrooms are ultra-clean-with friendly, efficient waitresses serving a two-drink minimum and snacks like hot dogs, soft pretzels and nachos. And it's safe, too. Randy, the gargantuan bouncer who stands at the gate to the courtyard, says he rarely has problems. "The only people who challenge me are short men and middle-aged women," he says, and then adds apologetically, "Maybe they've got a little buzz on and they get a little friendly." McCurdy's is small as comedy clubs go, seating only about 225 people. McCurdy says comedy clubs usually thrive in markets of one million people; the Sarasota-Bradenton market is about 500,000. He survives, he says, because he knows the market.

"Les," agrees Brown, "has booking talent. And at the end of the day, that's what you rise or fall with. He's got good taste and good business ethics. The market knows they're going to go out and see a good show, even if they haven't heard of the act, because he's made them laugh before." And McCurdy's has brought in some phenomenal acts this past year: Brett Butler, Elayne Boosler, Tommy Chong, Michael Winslow and Kevin Pollak-major, major names to comedy fans-have all performed there.

How can a small club in a small market attract names like that? Brown says it's because for McCurdy, owning a club is not only about making a buck. McCurdy is a comic (he still does an act called the Bermuda Mavericks with his longtime comic partner Ken Sons) and often opens for his club's headliner. To him, stand-up is an art, probably the most difficult performing art there is. "In other performing arts, you're not judged until the piece is over," he says. "In comedy, you're judged moment by moment, and it's all you. There's no faking it. You have to get a reaction."

McCurdy's appreciation of what a comedian has to go through makes him popular in the business. "Les was there in the beginning, he was there when things weren't so good, and he's there now," Brown says. "He truly loves comedy. Comedians are some of the biggest cynics around, and they have a loyalty and respect for him that goes a long way."

As she puts on her fat suit and huge cat glasses to become Etta May, Ferrari agrees: "He's here running it every day. Some owners hire 25-year-olds who used to run a strip joint."

Ferrari, 40, began doing stand-up 15 years ago after leaving her Des Moines farming roots and heading to L.A. At first she took a job as a production assistant for a film company. Then, on an impulse, thinking it might be a way to make friends, she took a few improv classes and discovered she was funny and "had timing." She also had something else she says nurtures the comic spirit-a reservoir of pain.

Today, before she changes from her shorts, T-shirt and baseball cap to become Etta May, she looks fit and athletic-and in fact, she was a scholarship softball and volleyball player in college. But she also was fat-reaching 250 pounds before a gastric bypass in 1995. She still carries a laminated photo ID from middle school in her wallet that shows an overweight adolescent with glasses and a cereal-bowl haircut. "I was just an ugly kid, just a loser kid," she says. Her comic persona, Etta May, seems like the perfect best friend for a relentlessly teased child-impervious to criticism, always on the offensive and proud-to-be-trailer-trash. Etta May dresses in Goodwill polyester, cuts through the niceties and knocks the beautiful, wealthy and sanctimonious off their pedestals. "She dresses like my aunt and acts like my father," says Ferrari.

Most stand-ups start as amateurs, doing some jokes at open mike night. Then they make a few dollars. Ferrari followed that well-worn path. "You make $50 bucks a night and you suck and you don't have your routine down," Ferrari remembers. Brown says the life stinks: "They live out of cars-because why keep an apartment when you're traveling all the time?-share condos in different cities with other comedians, eat ramen noodles and beg food off of club owners."

Then, if they get better (which means they get about one good laugh every 30 seconds) they eventually move into headlining-a process that can take 10 years, says McCurdy. Brown figures successful regional or "middle" headliners make about $1,000 a week. Once you subtract expenses, it's down to $35,000 a year, she says. If they make it to the next level, which means they're enough of a drawing card to put customers in the seats, they're nationally touring comics with six-figure incomes who get a cut at the door. The ultimate goal is to be discovered-a la Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, Rosie O'Donnell, Roseanne or Jon Stewart-and get your own TV show or film. Then you make millions, perhaps agreeing to do a few $250,000-a-night gigs for lucrative corporate events and maybe a few Vegas shows for a few extra dollars or to freshen your act.

Ferrari is one of the rare exceptions to the 10-year climb to headliner. She rose to the top in only three years after taking that first improv class. At the time of her breakthrough, she was working as a Hollywood tour guide during the day, pointing out the houses of the stars. At night she was doing stand-up. Then she auditioned for Mitzi Shore, the owner of the famous Comedy Store in L.A. "She made me a paid regular that night. Two weeks after that, I was in Vegas because she had a place at the Dunes. I was making $6-7-800 a weekend at The Store and $2,500 a week in Vegas."

As Etta May, she's been on Late Show with David Letterman and Oprah, was a regular on the former sitcom Davis Rules and was even asked by Comedy Central for a screenplay-she came up with what she describes as a "white-trash Martha Stewart" concept that, for whatever reason, didn't fly with the execs. Eventually, after years of living in a small L.A. apartment, Ferrari says it was time to get out of California and make a life for herself. She bought a house in Lexington, took summers off to work for Habitat for Humanity and decided to tour only 20 weekends out of the year. "You can get to a place where you start to hate it," she says. "It's lonely. It's hard on relationships."

On this particular night, though, Ferrari is purely professional. Single and childless in real life, on stage Ferrari turns into a poor Southern housewife with four bratty kids, someone, she says, "who tells it like it is." Audience members within a couple rows of the stage need to be prepared: Etta May is unabashed about pulling them into her act. In fact, a few minutes before her show, Etta May always checks out the audience. "I like to find out if the audience has come together," says Ferrari, "find the laugh leader, the person whose laugh gets everybody else going." She's also looking for a man with a goatee, since making fun of goatees is part of her routine. Ferrari makes a point of pouring her own beverages and retrieving her snacks herself from the kitchen, and then talking to the waitresses and helping them bus their tables. "Always be nice to waitresses," she adds. "Their attitudes can be the key to profits. It doesn't matter how great your show was, if the customers aren't getting their drinks fast enough, it's all they remember." In the end, she says, her real job is "beer and butts"-getting people in the seats and making sure they stick around and keep ordering drinks.

After she's walked around the room a bit-it's surprising that a woman in a headscarf, sloppy sweater and big glasses attracts no attention-and locates her targets, she watches the stage from the back of the room while the audience is yukking it up with Les McCurdy. McCurdy's act is built on interacting with the audience, and he does it well. He eventually spots a pretty young woman in the front row who's celebrating her birthday and discovers her name is Barbie. Then he finds out her tablemate is her mother, who's also named Barbie. It's too perfect to ignore. "Etta May," he calls out. "We've got two Barbies in the front row."

After a few more minutes, he finishes, and introduces Etta May.

Ferrari bounds on stage and peers at the audience over her glasses. She instantly asks a question-"Have you ever sneezed and peed in your pants? I just did that at Walmart." Then she slowly turns to a table in the front row. "Well.Baaarbieee, has that ever happened to you?" And, of course, that kind of thing never happens to beautiful Barbies, and the audience immediately sides with Etta May.

For more than an hour, Etta May rails against snoring, lazy husbands; greedy, materialistic kids; snotty PTO presidents and thin, beautiful women. It's an act she's done thousands of times before in hundreds of places all over the country, and she keeps the audience in stitches.

After the first show of the evening and during her stroll to size up the second audience, she talks to a spectator who is staying for both shows. She notes that although her act sounds fresh and impromptu the first time around, repeat audience members will see the jokes coming-even what seems spontaneous, the repartee between Etta May and audience members. There's always a man with a goatee, always some type of Barbie, always someone just about to get married.

She's right, of course; headlining is about practice and repetition and preparation as much-or more-than free-flowing brilliance and glamour. But then, at least she's not in Des Moines anymore. "I'm very lucky," she says. "My life has turned out better than I ever thought."

Sixty minutes later she's on stage again. She looks down at the first row-a fortuitous lineup of five or six pretty young women with ample chests on display in tight, low-cut shirts. "Well," she sneers, "what do we have here? Titties on the half shell?"

The girls giggle nervously while the rest of the audience breaks into bellows of laughter and smiling cocktail waitresses scurry around McCurdy's taking orders for drinks.

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