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The laugh track

Budding comedians must overcome hecklers, quiet crowds and their own nervousness in the hunt for good jokes and maybe even a paycheck.

EMILY NIPPS
Published August 13, 2004

TAMPA - A young woman wearing a pink dress and glasses climbed onstage at Tampa's Side Splitters, took the mike and announced that she lost 60 pounds.

The audience clapped, and the woman continued, "Yeah, every time I tell people, they ask, "How'd you do that?' I say, "Heroin.' " She got a few weak chuckles from the crowd of about 60.

She launched into her best fat jokes, making cracks about shopping at Lane Bryant and comparing her rear end to a Titleist golf ball. When those were over, she kidded about women who sleep with rich athletes, brought up the Iraq prisoner photos, did an imitation of Tigger and Piglet making sexual overtures to each other. She ended with a spoof of a Britney Spears song, an awkward finale to what was otherwise a decent performance.

Later, some of the more seasoned comedians congregated at the Side Splitters bar and had some advice for her: You lost the fat, now lose the fat jokes. The woman, Kelly, who wanted her last name kept private so her employer wouldn't find out that she does open-mike comedy (she works at a theme park), started to protest but eventually nodded and scribbled some notes on a pad.

"The audience won't buy that you used to be 60 pounds overweight," house emcee Maurice Jovan told her as he sipped a cocktail and smoked a cigarette at the bar. "You're going to offend about half of the people in the room."

"But I really did lose 60 pounds," Kelly insisted. "I have stretch marks on my arms to prove it. How about if I brought a picture?"

"If you have to bring a prop," Jovan said, "the joke doesn't work."

* * *

As in any other business, networking is everything in comedy. Moving up the ranks - from open-miker, to guest sets, to house emcee, to feature sets, to headliner - is pretty much impossible without it.

Classroomlike workshops aren't for everybody, but they're offered every Saturday at Side Splitters for the timid beginners. At the Improv in Centro Ybor, house emcee Tony Gaud prefers a more informal jam session, and he invited the regular open-mikers to come out on a recent Sunday and share their material.

Only two budding comedians, Patrick Melton and Brian Davies, showed up. The three spent most of the two-hour session making fun of each other's jokes.

Not too long ago, 24-year-old Melton got called out by the elder Davies for copying his smoothie bar joke. Davies, who is slightly overweight, has a joke that goes something like: So I injured myself at the gym today. I tripped on a towel on my way to the smoothie bar.

Soon, he noticed 6-foot-5, 320-pound Melton telling another version: You ever notice that people at the gym all look like they belong at the gym? The only place I look like I belong is the smoothie bar.

"Dude, you're copying my smoothie bar joke," Davies told Melton one night after a show.

"It's different," Melton said.

"I say lose both of them," Gaud said.

Melton also has a dyslexic Santa joke that conflicts with Gaud's dyslexic Santa joke. Gaud's joke goes: Dyslexia must be tough on kids, especially at Christmas. Every year they get cards that say "Satan is coming to town." Melton's joke: I have a feeling Santa is dyslexic. Last year, I got a stocking full of cola.

But Melton knows to limit his Santa joke to shows when Gaud isn't around. An important rule when you're trying to break into comedy: Never, ever step on the toes of those who can get you gigs.

* * *

Under his breath, 28-year-old Jim Gray revealed that he's only been doing this for three months. He didn't want the other open-mikers at the Side Splitters bar to hear and get jealous.

Gray opens boxes at a warehouse for a living, but he always felt like he has a gift for making people smile. He tried to get an agent who could help him break into acting, but the agent wouldn't take someone who was starting from scratch and suggested that Gray try open-mike comedy.

It didn't take long for Gray to establish a comic personality that set him well apart from other open-mikers. His act took on somewhat of a mean, sexist streak, and his material consists of derogatory jokes about homosexuality and the mother of his 6-year-old daughter.

"That's not really me," he said one night after a show. "The truth is, I love the mother of my daughter and we're getting married soon."

It goes against the bare-your-soul ideology that some believe is the key to true comedy, but it works for Gray. He's already getting paid (guest set) gigs, including ones at Side Splitters.

Eventually, house emcee Jovan said, he's going to grow out of the sexist act and he'll have to develop a more honest approach with his audience if he wants to take the next step.

"If you're an alcoholic, you have to say you're an alcoholic," Jovan said. "If you like pot, you have to say you like pot."

* * *

No matter how funny the jokes are, no matter how easy the audience is, no matter how perfect the routine may be, there's one variable that can ruin any comedian's night: the heckler.

More experienced comics have some surefire comebacks ready to go. But for a fledgling comic, a heckler can be disastrous.

One night at the Improv, Gray got onstage and started his open mike routine with, "Hi, my name's Jim Gray."

About five tables away, a guy yelled back, "Hi, my name's Jim Gray!"

Gray nervously continued with his opening joke, and the guy in the audience echoed the joke back to him.

"Everything I said, he said," Gray said. "It was awful.

"I bombed. I bombed hard. The audience wasn't listening to me, they were listening to him."

Ignoring a heckler rarely works. A heckler must be addressed but should never be outright insulted or attacked, at the risk of upsetting the audience and the club owner.

Melton once went onstage, and before he could even get a word out, a woman in a big safari hat stood up and yelled, "I like big men!"

He let the audience laugh a little, then tried to continue. Halfway through a joke, the woman yelled, "Can you cook?" Eventually, the club owners threw the woman out as she screamed and protested, "It's because I'm black!"

"It's because you're drunk!" Melton yelled after her.

* * *

Minutes before show time at the Improv, the floor wasn't full. This wasn't good for the 15 open-mikers scheduled to perform, and several of them paced in the back of the room as they watched people trickle in. An empty house is a quiet house.

Some studied last-minute jokes they had scribbled on napkins. Others ordered more beer at the bar, hoping to calm their nerves.

Melton, who has performed more than 200 times since he began nine months ago, had a bad feeling. Even surrounded by familiar faces - another overweight guy who was pretty funny the last time, a guy named Dam-O who uses flamboyant dance as part of his act - he felt uncomfortable.

The music started up, and Gaud flew up the stage steps to warm up the crowd. He begins his act, which is highlighted by an imitation of American Idol's William Hung singing, "Talk to me/ Tell me your name . . . I have no professional training!"

A few folks snicker. Someone coughs.

"This crowd is kind of dead," Melton whispers from the back of the room.

Melton mouthed Gaud's jokes as Gaud told them; he's seen this routine so many times. The room filled with more people, but none seemed too happy to be there.

"Come on . . . laugh," Melton said nervously. "This is horrible, horrible."

He stood up and started pacing as Gaud finished his intro. "That's my time. . . . Are you ready?" Gaud asked the crowd. He called up the first comic, a young guy named Ace West.

West grinned as he pulled the microphone out of the stand, but his confidence crumbled almost immediately. He told a long story about a date he went on, interspersing jokes here and there about funny things that happened on the date, but it wasn't working.

The few laughs West got seemed to be out of sympathy, and he seemed to draw a blank at one point during his routine. When West's five minutes were up, he stuck the mike back in its stand and people clapped. "Give it up for James . . . West," Gaud yelled over the speakers.

Melton was up next.

He loped toward the stage in a hurry, rushed up the steps, grabbed the microphone and let out an enthusiastic howl.

He plunged into his favorite jokes, which are often politically incorrect, to say the least.

He came up with one of them after reading a news story about an Easter egg hunt for blind kids ("I mean, if you're blind, isn't life one big Easter egg hunt?"). He told another about some friends who named their kid Christian ("You don't see Jewish people naming their kids Jew. . . . You don't see Muslim people naming their kids Insane"). On another joke insisting that women with PMS should have their own reserved parking spaces ("The sign should say, "Only for women who are crampy and bloated. . . . Period."), his delivery was perfect.

He raised his eyebrows to enhance his punch lines, paused to stare at the audience at the right times and moved around the stage just enough to be entertaining.

As a result of it all, something remarkable happened.

People laughed.

- Emily Nipps can be reached at 813 226-3368 or nipps@sptimes.com

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