Florida comedy is a unique beast. I can't speak to it much, because Stefan and I haven't spent a lot of time on the road here. From what I've heard, local headliners can make a living on the road in this state alone. From what I know of the state — dotted with spring breakers, Disney families and retirement hotspots — I imagine the Florida comedy circuit has all the charm of a cruise ship with the pay of a Midwestern bar (with fewer free drinks).
Tampa's Side Splitters Comedy Club, at least, is an exception. On almost any given weekend, the club boasts in-demand talent from around the country. (On a few, it boasts puppet shows, but whatever. Nine outta 10.)
Now that we're not on the road in different clubs every week, Side Splitters is my oasis in this life where I've somehow become such an adult I almost opened an IRA last week. It's a place where life doesn't start until after dark, no one talks about the weather and I can say faggot without guilt. (Not at someone. Jesus. You know, like in a quote.)
Old school to a T, Side Splitters comes complete with a two-drink minimum, a lengthy introductory slideshow, full meals shoved inside fried dough balls; and a boisterous, ball-busting owner.
If it weren't an hour drive from our place in downtown St. Pete, I'd be at the club Thursday through Sunday for all of my favorite comedians. But I can't convince Stefan the commute is worth it (probably because he's not insane), and I'm not doing it alone (because last time I did that, I ended up divorced and following a comedian around the country for five years). Lucky for me, he had no choice last weekend, because he was booked to perform on the show — along with one of my favorite comedians, Mark Normand.
Mark Normand, of "Tuesdays With Stories" fame, as far as I'm concerned. He definitely has real credits, but my discovery tends to come from the bottom up. I've been a fan of (read: obsessed with) the podcast for about two years and have subsequently fallen in love with any comedy I can get my hands on from its hosts. Stefan and I saw cohost Joe List at Side Splitters last year — and will again when he's there in about a month — but I'd never seen a headlining set from Mark. (Not even when he was in Miami last year with our friend Mike Stanley, because we were still broke then, and I couldn't convince Stefan the five-hour drive was worth it for a comedy show... probably because he's not insane.)
When owner Bobby Jewell (name has, incredibly, not been changed to protect identity) called Stefan out of the blue to schedule a weekend at the club, I was surprised Stefan accepted. He'd all but quit comedy about a year earlier; he was on stage three times in 2016. But I was excited to see him perform and just hoped he wouldn't dread it too much. When he told me he was going to be opening for Mark Normand, I thought he was fucking with me.
Seven shows and four nights with my favorite comic? Give. me. this. please.
I spent the next five months debating my opening line... *shake hand*, "Nice to meet you. I'm a big fan of the pod." Don't say pod; you sound like a nerd. *small wave*, "Hey! Love the podcast!" Too much excitement; you'll never pull that off. *bear hug* "I've always loved you." Nailed it.
Side Splitters puts on great shows and fills the showroom most nights. The drink specials are enticing, the food is fine and the waitstaff are all appropriately agitated.
What I really love about a good comedy club, though, are the conversations (the jokes, too, but I figured that's assumed). Good clubs bring in good comics, and good comics are my favorite people in the world.
When I told Mark I don't drink, he asked, "So, did you drive a truck through a playground — or is it just a choice?" That was our first conversation.
When I tell people in the real world I don't drink, they stare quietly and politely refrain from asking why. Maybe that's what you're supposed to do; I don't know. I learned how to socialize from comedians.
I spoke with the 22-year-old host, who was distressed over a crowd shutting down when he mentioned Trump. I wanted to bake him cookies, stroke his hair and softly whisper, "Let it out."
A comedy club bar — once all the patrons have cleared out — is my milieu.
The energy of good comedians recharges my batteries and clears the gunk from my brain. Hearing a well-crafted joke makes me want to be a better writer. Reminds me to keep producing, even when I'm not sure what it's for. Encourages me to search my soul every once in a while and feel things, as unpleasant as that is.
I've filled my calendar with the must-see comics booked at Side Splitters in the coming months — Joe List, Joe Machi, Sean Donnelly, Theo Von, Liza Treyger. I don't think I'll convince Stefan to accompany me for seven shows each. I might try. But at least I'll get a quick hit. A few jokes, a hand shake, an awkward "I love you" and a clearing of the complacent dust from my brain to get me through Florida for another few months.
Surviving Florida is a series of people, places and things this Wisconsin girl with NYC dreams doesn't hate about the lawless swamp she currently calls home.