Comedy Tonight

By staff May 1, 2007

Les McCurdy is having a bad day, and it’s barely 8 a.m. His headliner for the weekend, Caroline Rhea, is stuck in New York, a victim of the Valentine’s Day snowstorm, and the slate of publicity appearances he has lined up for her is crumbling before his eyes. Right now he’s at Clear Channel in Northgate Industrial Park, appearing on radio station WSRZ, and he’s doing his best to keep laughing.

At this point in his career, keeping things funny is second nature to Les. He’s in the studio with morning show hosts David Jones and Christina Crane, and the banter is fast and furious. True, Caroline is not there, but at least they’re talking about her. And her boyfriend, Costaki Economopoulos, is filling in. Costaki is also a standup comic. He has, in fact, been appearing at Les’ comedy club for the past two nights, and will “open” for Caroline during her schedule of five shows to take place over the weekend.

As I listen in, it occurs to me that a DJ and a comedian is virtually the same thing. Each has to keep talking no matter what, and each is expected to be witty and quick and spontaneous. Consequently, with four experts in the tiny studio, the pace never slows down.

Most of the humor deals with Costaki’s position as Caroline’s boyfriend. “Her boy toy, her Stedman,” as David puts it. Les is mostly silent but chimes in now and then. His job at the moment is to keep reminding the listeners that, snowstorm or not, Caroline Rhea will be appearing at McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre starting tonight.

Free tickets are offered to the next caller. Christina watches the little switchboard in front of her. A line immediately lights up. In the fluster of winning and suddenly being on the radio, the caller can’t remember her last name—a stroke of luck, humor-wise.

While on the air, the four of them are on a roll of jokes and one-liners. Christina tells the audience I’m in the studio with them, writing an article for SARASOTA Magazine. “Can you make sure I’m skinny in your article?” she begs. When the show goes to break, the jokes continue, but they soon give way to what comedians like to do more than anything else—gossip about other comedians. Les describes the stage fright he’s seen in some of the performers at his club. One would throw up just before going on stage, just from sheer nerves. Then the name Mitch Hedberg comes up, and a little murmur goes through the studio.

Hedberg, who died of a drug overdose in 2005, was a comic’s comic. His stage fright was so bad that he would perform with his hair covering his face or his back to the audience. But his jokes were good. “A severed foot is the best stocking stuffer.” And, more ominously, “I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.”

“Oh, God,” says Christina, looking at me. “I hope this guy doesn’t write that all we talk about is heroin addiction.”

Costaki manages to reach Caroline, who’s sitting in an airport somewhere, on her cell phone. While they talk to her on air, Les takes me out to the hall to fill me in. The snowstorm has dealt him a serious problem. He even considered chartering a plane to get her down here, but the price quoted to him was $17,000. He whoops with laughter. Then he recounts the best itinerary Delta could come up with—she drives to Hartford, Conn., flies to Reagan National Airport, transfers to Dulles, flies to Atlanta, changes planes for Gainesville, then drives from there. He whoops again. The itinerary is so improbable, so extreme, so perfect, that it has already entered his comic repertoire.

Will Ferrell once called standup “hard, lonely, and vicious.” Its practitioners are often thought to be flawed personalities, full of anger and unhappiness, driven by inexplicable demons into drugs and alcohol. The list of famously unhappy comedians goes on and on. In addition to Mitch Hedberg, there’s Sam Kiniston, Richard Pryor, Jerry Lewis, Phil Hartman, John Belushi, Paula Poundstone, and most recently, Michael Richards. It goes all the way back, in fact, to the man who virtually invented the art form, the brilliant but all-but- forgotten Frank Fay. Before him there were comedians, to be sure, but they wore funny clothes and told broad jokes in ethnic accents and squirted each other with seltzer bottles.

Then one day at the Palace Theater in New York, the management decided that instead of announcing the vaudeville acts via placards on an easel, they would have it done live, by a master of ceremonies. A Broadway actor named Frank Fay was thrust into the role. He came out impeccably dressed in white tie and tails and was matinee-idol handsome. As he introduced the acts he would make little remarks about them, seemingly off the cuff. He would comment on what was in the news. He would banter with the audience. One woman told him she was just back from the beauty parlor. “What happened?” he asked. “They couldn’t fit you in?” With that joke, insult comedy was born.

Fay was a sensation. He was mean, to be sure, but he was meanest to himself. He cultivated little onstage mannerisms that hinted at enormous vanity, ego, jealousy and pretension. He would examine his fingernails. He would fuss with his hair. His mincing gait—the famous “hint of mint” as he walked on stage—was stolen by Bob Hope. And Jack Benny. And Johnny Carson.

He was also the archetypal tortured comic. He was a drunk. His peers hated him. Milton Berle said Fay’s friends could be counted on the fingers of an armless man. Fred Allen said he saw Frank Fay walking down Lover’s Lane, hand in hand with himself. Today he is remembered, if at all, as the prototype for Norman Maine, the drunken Hollywood has-been Judy Garland tragically marries in the film A Star Is Born.

Yet this man invented an art form. Jay Leno, David Letterman, Jerry Seinfeld—Frank Fay is their artistic grandfather.

Fortunately, Les McCurdy doesn’t seem to have inherited Frank Fay’s self-destructive genes. He leads a famously pulled-together life. His comedy club is one of the top clubs in the country, attracting all the big names—Jackie Mason, David Brenner, Chris Rock, Jeff Foxworthy. He runs a standup comedy school. He and his performing partner, Ken Sons, conduct seminars for big businesses. He’s a fixture on the social scene, in demand as an emcee and auctioneer at charity events. He’s been happily married to his wife, Pam, for 15STILL C HECKING THIS years (she manages the club and is a former FSU/Asolo Conservatory actress). His 13-year-old daughter, Taylor, even seems to like him. I noticed a picture of her appears when he turns on his cell phone. She makes sure he gets a new one each day. And it turns out that her teacher from McIntosh Middle is coming to see Caroline Rhea tonight. 

So are a lot of other people. Three phones are being worked in the office, each staffer taking reservations and giving out information—driving directions, beverage service (full bar), food availability (microwave only—“We have no grease pit,” as Les puts it). He thought about serving real food but opted against it. He and Pam decided they were in the comedy business, not the restaurant business.

The club is located in what many old-time Sarasotans still call the Teatro, an old movie theater on the North Trail formerly famous for its dollar admission price. The McCurdys leveled the sloping floor and changed the layout slightly, putting the stage along the side. This gives it a perfect comedy club layout. There are no pillars, and no seat is more than 40 feet from the stage.

The club can break even with as few as 40 people in the audience. Tonight, though, they have 240 reservations for the first show alone, as many as the fire laws allow. The second show, the Friday-night late show, will not sell out. That’s the nature of the business. Even for as big a star as Caroline Rhea, there are, so far, only 80 reservations. Friday-night late shows are dreaded by most comedians. The crowd is tired, they’ve been working all day, they’ve been drinking since happy hour, they’re unfocused and hard to please. And there are fewer of them. “Someone asked Steve Martin why he stopped doing standup,” Les tells me. “He had a four-word answer: Friday night late show.”

Les has had three great loves in his life: his family, comedy, and Sarasota. When he and Pam were just starting out as struggling performers, their master plan was to conquer the entertainment business in either New York or Los Angeles and then retire to Sarasota and go to the beach. The epiphany of his life was the realization that maybe he didn’t have to leave Sarasota at all.

Les’ love for Sarasota is that of a kid from Chattanooga. He likes the weather, the beach lifestyle, the hanging out with friends. When he was in his 20s—he’s 51 now—it seemed the perfect way to live. But Sarasota played a trick on him: Instead of turning him into a beach bum, it made him an entrepreneur.

That’s the strange dichotomy of Les’ life. He’s an innovative and highly successful businessman disguised as a laid-back, happy-go-lucky joke teller. It’s easy to figure out where his work ethic comes from. His grandfather owned a restaurant back in Chattanooga, and the whole family pitched in to run it. “It was across the street from the high school, the high school hangout. I learned how to work hard and I learned how to work fast,” Les says.

As a kid, Les was famous for his mouth. “They thought I’d be a lawyer or a preacher. I loved to talk,” he says.  Instead he chose to go into acting. After attending the University of Memphis, he decided to head for Los Angeles and become, he says, “the next Gabby Hayes.”

He made it as far as Denver, where his old friend from grade school, Ken Sons, was living. The two of them began working on material they hoped would get them an audition for Saturday Night Live. It didn’t, but while trying it out at local comedy clubs, they discovered they made a great comic team.

Les was hooked. He spent the next eight years performing in clubs and helping to run them, something his family’s restaurant business had made second nature to him. His first club in Sarasota was at the Holiday Inn at the airport. When the motel was sold to new owners, he moved to the Big Kitchen on Clark Road.

He and Pam began looking for a more permanent location. The old Teatro was available, though everybody warned against it. The McCurdys were scared. It was a major risk. There were bank loans, renovations, the hard work of building up a new business.

Then one night Les had a long talk with nutrition guru Harvey Diamond. Harvey, the best-selling author of Fit for Life and a Sarasota resident, often dropped into the club. When Les explained the dilemma he was facing, Harvey had some advice. “All you have to do is believe it,” he told Les. “You’ve moved to Sarasota and created all this positive energy. Of course it will work. How can it not work? You have the laughter place.”           

It’s almost 10 p.m., and Caroline Rhea is about to begin her Friday night late show. The early show was a triumph. A packed house, including state Sen. Mike Bennett and former congressional candidate Jan Schneider, rocked with laughter at her hour-plus of material. I sat in the back and watched in amazement. Good standup, when it really works, can be exhilarating. Clearly, it’s what God put Caroline on this earth to do. There is not a moment when she is not in complete control, not a moment when the audience isn’t totally with her, their facial muscles sore from laughing so hard.

Her comic persona is that of the funny, slightly overweight girl we all knew back in high school, the one who had such a gift for mimicry and the pointed barb that she kept all her classmates in stitches. Her forte is recalling embarrassing moments, as when she tells the story of how, back when she was a “cater waiter” in college, the Crown Prince and Princess of Japan were being honored at an official event and through a strange but perfectly logical series of misunderstandings, she thought the Crown Princess was calling her a whore. What happened next was so perfect and so bizarre and so completely humiliating for both her and the Princess that the audience had tears of laughter running down their cheeks.

But that was the first show. Can she do it all over again?

Les opens all his shows with a series of music videos projected on a screen onstage. This gets the energy going. Then there’s a short comedy film—tonight it’s comedian Mitch Fatel doing one of his “on the road” pieces for The Tonight Show. It’s very funny, plus it promotes Fatel’s upcoming appearance.

Then Les comes out.

At the first show he just introduced Costaki as Caroline’s opening act. For the late show he takes more time. He talks about a recent safari he and Pam went on to Africa and the problems of leaving the tent to pee in the middle of the night not knowing what wild animals might be lurking in wait.

Costaki does pretty much the same routine he did for the first show, about 10 or 15 minutes of observational stuff. He’s in an awkward position. He certainly can’t be funnier than the headliner, but in this case the headliner is also his girlfriend. What primal tensions must exist in that relationship. Fortunately, they do the only thing they can—turn the situation into a joke.

Then Caroline enters. She’s wearing a ski parka; the weather is freakishly cold and unusually humid. Her hair doesn’t look right. One side is awkwardly awry. She mentions this to the audience. “There will never, ever be a shampoo called Sarasota,” she tells them.

Her second show is much like the first. Most of the stories are repeated but not all. The Crown Princess does not make an appearance, but Caroline does include her signature routine, “What is it you can’t face?” This is based on a line from the movie version of The Sound of Music. The Mother Superior is talking to Julie Andrews, and she ever so slightly mispronounces the word “can’t” in such a way that we couldn’t possibly publish it in a family magazine.

Off-color material is the lifeblood of standup. “People expect it,” Les tells me. There isn’t anything said at McCurdy’s that wouldn’t be said in a group of close friends, but the fact it’s said out loud in public seems to liberate the audience. It isn’t so much the shock value, although that’s certainly part of the equation. It’s more about allowing the comic to connect with the innermost, uncensored brain of the audience. The truth is often vulgar, sexual, scatological or politically incorrect, and standup is one the few art forms where this fact is crucial and often made part of the aesthetic. (But Les realizes it’s not for everyone. He regularly presents “family shows,” where no alcohol is served, kids are welcome, and the jokes “are so squeaky clean you can bring a five-year-old.”)

Les watches Caroline while standing up in back. It’s his habit to watch the audience more than the performer, checking the room, making sure that things are running smoothly. But the comedian in him gets caught up in Caroline’s act. He has never booked her before; indeed, he has never seen her perform. He was a little apprehensive, as he is with every new act, but he catches Pam’s eye and they both grin. Caroline Rhea is a hit. The McCurdys will have her back as often as they can.

Caroline is still onstage when Les leaves. Costaki, standing on the sidelines, begins to give her their little signals that it’s time to wrap things up. She notices them but forges ahead. She’s high on performing. “Sometimes the problem is getting her to stop,” Costaki whispers. He’s ready to head back to their suite at The Colony. Maybe he can beat her at tennis in the morning. “She’s old and she don’t move so good,” he jokes.

Les takes one more look around and then slips out the door. Everything is going great and they don’t need him anymore. It may be the Friday night late show, but at the laughter place, things are every bit as funny as they should be.

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