Comedy seems like a violent pursuit. If you’re making the audience laugh, then you’re “killing it,” but if they aren’t laughing, then you’re “bombing.”
The best way to move from bombing to simply killing, according to comedians who travel the Florida Panhandle looking for the laughs, is to get on stages wherever you can and just do it.
“Open mics are incredibly important — that’s where new material is honed,” said Justin Butler, a stand-up comedian who formerly lived in Panama City and is now based in Pensacola. “You don’t want to make a habit of testing out new material on a booked show. That’s a risk for all involved.”
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Jason Hedden, a Panama City Beach resident and co-founder of Panama City Comedy, noted that many people are funny in social situations with friends and co-workers, but being funny on stage is a totally different skill. After finding success as an actor and teacher (he is chairman of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City) Hedden expected stand-up comedy to be easier than it was.
“About three years ago, one of my former theater students invited me to my first comedy open mic,” Hedden said. “I expected to find all local performers, but there were only three of us. The others drove two hours just for the stage time. To comics, stage time is gold.”
Brian Hilario, another former Panama City resident now based in Pensacola, believes just being a comedian in the Panhandle is “an interesting experience” because the cities are smaller and the comics have to support each other. Travel is part of the game.
“Unlike bigger cities where you can find a plethora of open mics, many times comedians have to band together to put together (a show) in the Panhandle,” said Hilario, who co-founded with Butler an improvisational comedy show called Wildly Unnecessary. “This causes a situation locally, where the audiences at open mics tend to be the same people, with the same sense of humor.”
Emma Franco is a co-producer of Panama City Comedy, strictly producing — not performing stand-up — for almost two years. A Panama City resident for most all of her life, she works for a local contracting company and is a team leader for Northstar Church students.
“I love this community, and I love helping to build Bay County,” Franco said, referring to both the rebuilding in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael and to lifting up the local comedy scene..”It’s been a whirlwind to say the least.”
A self-described “comedy fanatic,” Franco would travel hours to see some of her favorite comedians before joining Hedden with Panama City Comedy.
“We are fortunate to be able to bring in so many out-of-towners and a lot of comedians who are doing tours in the Florida area. We have four local comedians who we also love to utilize, along with comedians between Pensacola and Tallahassee,” Franco said. “One of our local comedians, Janet Fortune, was able to get a weekly open mic up and going a month ago and it has been a huge success.”
According to Hilario, testing your material solely at a local open mic means you’re only ever getting one point of view. That isn’t helpful, because you can’t tell if your material is really good or bad, only whether that particular audience likes or dislikes it.
“For comedians in the Panhandle to really get an idea of what they’re doing is good or not, they have to travel to other cities,” Hilario said. “When I was in Panama City, I took as many trips as I could to Tallahassee to get a new audience, and now in Pensacola, I will pop back to Panama City, or over to Mobile to build that diversity of audience.”
Open mics are only part of the equation, and there’s only so many times a local audience will sit still for a comedian to hone a joke they may have heard before. That’s another reason traveling to new venues and trying material on new audiences is so important.
“Your jokes might work for the same room in the same city on the same night every week, but without travel, you will never know if your jokes appeal to a wide audience,” said Butler, who is also an actor, writer and filmmaker. “You run the risk of getting creatively complacent if you are playing to the same crowd over and over again.”
Butler said area comics are fortunate to have a healthy and supportive scene that stretches from Tallahassee to Pensacola (and even to Mobile, Alabama). That means getting in front of new crowds isn’t that difficult — as long as “you are kind to your fellow comics and showrunners,” he added.
And don’t forget to tip the waitstaff.
Comedy rebounds post-COVID
The pandemic obviously put a pinch on comedy shows. The venues where people could gather for a show closed and many comedians turned to Zoom as an outlet.
“We stopped shows from mid-March to mid-October” in 2020, Franco said. “We opted to start back in October with one show to see how things would go, and we were pleasantly surprised with the turnout. Since then we have been doing three to five shows solidly a month.”
Franco said she was able to recruit a bunch of great comedians who were looking to perform again, because Florida was one of the only states allowing comedy shows at the time.
“Before COVID, our numbers were pretty solid and I could count on a certain number of audience members for each show,” Franco said. “When we started back in October, it was unpredictable on how many people we would have, but that was expected going back into it.”
“I think I got up on stage for stand-up a total of three times in the last year and a half,” Butller said. “You start to feel like a neglected tool that’s beginning to dull and get rusty. Now that I am fully vaccinated, I am very much looking forward to diving back in and getting the work done.”
Butler said getting back on stage feels like starting all over, in part because he has changed so much with all this time to reflect on who he is as a person and an artist.
“I am reassessing most of my old material and feel like I am in a better place creatively after taking a pandemic-induced step back and getting some distance from the sets I have been doing over the last few years,” Butler said. “I really think I have grown as a writer and performer in this chaotic time, and I hope audiences feel the same way.”
Butler also pointed out the very successful P3 Comedy Fest (Pensacola Pre-Pride Comedy Fest) that happened over Memorial Day weekend in Pensacola as an example of how comedy shows are making the public laugh post-COVID. The shows May 28-30 featured 25 of the best LGBTQ+ comics performing to raise money for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), which provides mental health and financial services to grieving military families. Follow Facebook.com/p3comedyfest for updates.
Audiences are ready to laugh, Hedden said. They’re ready to gather in dark places and hear about someone else’s pain — the origin of all comedy, according to Mel Brooks, who said, “Tragedy is what happens to me, comedy is what happens to you.”
Many say comedy is therapeutic in that way. Not for Hedden, though.
“People do comedy for many reasons,” Hedden said. “For me, comedy is not therapy, but it can be therapeutic for both the performer and the audience. It has also allowed me to make friends with people from all walks of life. Some of the friends I have made through comedy I never would have met any other way, and I value those relationships.”
Hedden pointed out that an audience is one of the requirements for comedy to occur. Like the definition of sound, comedy doesn’t exist without the listener.
“In stand-up comedy, we are expecting the laugh. We are mining and shaping and crafting to find the laugh,” Hedden said. “Stand-up comedy is not a monologue. It’s a dialogue. A conversation with the audience. Their lines are the laughter.”
Where to find comedy shows
Many of the regional comics are also becoming show runners, booking agents and producers.
“Lots of times, comedians have to also become producers just to get a stage to work on,” said Hilario. “It’s harder to only be a comedian, much like a lot of the other artists and creatives in the Panhandle. You end up having to learn various skill sets just to survive when all you want to do is focus on your craft.”
Hedden’s next gig will be opening for Henry Cho June 10-12 at the Stardome in Birmingham, Alabama. He’ll be back at his Panama City stomping grounds June 17 for a Comedy Night at House of Bourbon (7:30 p.m., $10 cover); then join a slate of comics at the June 18 Summer Pop Series Comedy Night at Emerald Coast Theatre Co. in Miramar Beach (7 p.m., $30 general admission). See more of his upcoming dates at JasonHedden.com.
Panama City Comedy hosts open mic nights from 8-10 p.m. every Wednesday at The Lie’brary on Beck, 1123 Beck Ave., and on every third Thursday at House of Bourbon, 1201 Beck Ave. in Panama City ($10 cover). For more upcoming dates, check the schedule at PanamaCityComedy.com.
More comedy nights are regularly hosted at Panama City and Panama City Beach venues, including Newby’s Brew & Booze, Buster’s Beer & Bait, Off the Hook Bar & Grill, Slapsticks Cue & Brew, Capt. Anderson’s Event Center, The Barn at The Wicked Wheel, Hangar 67, and Wild Root Coffee & Apothecary in Lynn Haven.
Butler recently appeared on a comedy show at A Little Madness Brewing Co., 9838 N. Davis Highway in Pensacola, which hosts open mic nights every Wednesday at 7 p.m. Get more details at Facebook.com/ALittleMadnessBrewing Co.
Or follow the comedy producer YIKES! at Facebook.com/YikesOpenMic; the group also runs open mics every Monday at Big Top Brewing Co., and every Thursday at Emerald Republic. There’s also an open mic Tuesdays at Rodeo Rock in Pensacola, and comedy shows monthly at Dolce & Gelato and at Whiskey Runners Saloon.
In Tallahassee, catch open mic night at Birds Aphrodisiac Oyster Shack every Wednesday. Try out Timber Creek Distillery in Crestview, and The Block on Eglin Parkway in Fort Walton Beach has “The Comedy Zone” every Saturday with nationally touring comedians.
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