YBOR CITY — They sat in the first two rows of the dimly lit theater at the yellow-brick Cuban Club.
An accountant. A former news anchorman. An ultrasound operator. A Catholic high school student. A stay-at-home dad. A personal trainer. A psychiatrist.
It was a Monday night and a professional comedian was sitting on the steps to the stage, saying that in five days he could get all of them up on that stage. For five minutes they would be standup comics. Their family and friends would laugh. He guaranteed it.
Jeff Lawrence, 47, teaches comedy in New York City. Usually his students are other comics. They've practiced on YouTube, done lots of open microphone nights at comedy clubs. It takes years to become good at it. Many wanna-bes never get past doing fart jokes.
This group? Mostly neophytes.
The psychiatrist, a slender man with dark curls, said he was funny at parties. After a few drinks.
The retired TV news anchor did a decent JFK impression.
The personal trainer had been dragged there by her workout buddy who thought she was hilarious.
Most of them were doing this for a lark. They weren't hoping to be the next Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock. They'd never given any serious thought to what makes somebody funny; you're just born with it, right?
But Lawrence — he looks a little like Harrison Ford with a shaved head — told them that to be funny they would have to dig deep. Tap that part of themselves that made them most uncomfortable. The humor is in the pain.
If they were nervous before, they were afraid now. More than one of them wondered: What if I reveal my secrets and no one laughs?
How does a gay Jewish guy from New York end up teaching comedy at the Cuban Club in Ybor?
So this South Tampa woman named Susan Guidi had this crazy life. A controlling Cuban mother who criticized her in a screechy voice. A job with an erectile dysfunction doctor that involved scanning men's penises with an ultrasound probe. A gay ex-husband who was always more interested in clothes and cooking than her.
For years, Guidi, 54, had kept her life to herself. But now her three children were mostly grown. And every time she told stories about her life, people laughed.
Like the time police led her away from her South Tampa home in handcuffs for failing to file a financial affidavit in her divorce. In her workout clothes, she landed, sobbing, in a holding cell with prostitutes and drug addicts. A man with dreadlocks came over:
"Hey, lady, what they catch you doing?" she mimicked his Jamaican accent. "Jogging?"
It felt good to tell everyone what she'd been through.
"Comedy," she said, "gave me a voice."
She traveled to New York for comedy classes. She performed her routine at her 35th Tampa Catholic High School reunion. As they say in the comedy trade: She killed it.
So many people asked her about doing standup that she decided to get a class together.
Guidi recruited Lawrence, who ran the Laughing Buddha Comedy School in New York City, to come down for a week. She encouraged her friends and her 17-year-old son, Jean-Claude, to take the class. Money raised at the Saturday night show would go to a charity she supported, Voices for Children.
Lawrence had been a rock singer and a drug addict. His school slogan was "reveal yourself," and that's what he did in his comedy.
"Audiences don't hate me or love me because I'm gay or Jewish," he said. "They love me because I'm honest and original."
Frank Robertson hopped up the stage steps. The former news anchor wore khaki shorts, a pale blue polo, sneakers.
He'd watched Guidi get up and do a routine about her dysfunctional relationship with her mother. The psychiatrist had done a bit about being single and childless and loving it. The accountant had focused on his bossy wife. The stay-at-home dad was lonely.
Now it was his turn. He'd been reading news for 36 years, the majority at Channel 13. He did that back-and-forth banter well in front of hundreds of thousands of people on TV. But delivering his own jokes was far more nerve-wracking.
Robertson, 60, leaned into the microphone stand, looked down at the sheet of paper in his hand. His smooth news voice, deep and rich, carried throughout the empty theater.
"As many of you know, I was an anchor man for many years," he began. "A self-centered, arrogant" — here he used a surprisingly vulgar term for male genitalia — "who reads the news because you can't."
He did a joke about having to pay his urologist to stick his finger up his rear end, another about how a skin irritation on his wife's legs had kept her from wearing underwear.
He was just getting started.
"The best cleaning product ever invented is Windex because it's so versatile. It's not just for cleaning windows . . . I even clean my balls with it . . . and my clubs too."
When he was done, there was silence. Lawrence smiled a little.
"It's interesting," he said. "You are a respected newscaster in town and now you are writing jokes about masturbation. It's a tricky thing."
How would crude humor play to older crowds? Is that how Robertson wanted to be identified?
"I'm repressed," Robertson joked.
Lawrence had another idea. What if he probed his news career further? What would he say if he could say whatever he wanted?
Robertson nodded, leaving the stage to begin reworking his material.
Heather Ashman, 35, trudged up there in his place. The personal trainer wore a black gauzy halter dress and flip-flops. Her blond hair was pulled into a tiny bun. She was visibly uncomfortable.
The day before, she'd said: "I'd rather go on stage naked."
She flipped through a couple of pieces of paper, dropped one, picked it up, finally made her way to the microphone.
"Heyyyy," she said in a voice like Fran Drescher from The Nanny.
She began to read a story about when she was 5 years old. Her mother had a party and she couldn't go because she wasn't an adult. So she stuffed her shirt with balloons and painted her lips red, and her mom told her she looked like a prostitute.
"She told me sex was the way adults expressed themselves in a loving manner. I was amazed at how often my mother wanted to show off her manners within such a short time of meeting a man."
No one laughed. Ashman's story was personal, like Lawrence wanted. But it wasn't particularly funny. In fact, it was kind of sad.
"Heather what are you trying to say to us?" Lawrence asked.
"I don't know," she said, looking down.
"You are dancing around something," Lawrence said. "But you can't dance around this. The audience wants the truth and they want it now."
The anxiety was building.
The psychiatrist's stomach was twisting in knots. Why am I doing this to myself, he asked himself more than once.
Guidi could tell Lawrence wasn't crazy about her dysfunctional mother routine. She had been struggling to write lines about her ex-husband and her erectile dysfunction job.
But Ashman was probably most scared of all. She had a secret, a big part of her life that she was reluctant to share. She'd told Lawrence about it and he'd told her it was a comedy treasure trove.
Lawrence turned to her, sitting in the front row.
"Get up there," he said.
"No, no, no, skip me," she said. "I want to switch out my material."
"Can you just talk to us for five minutes?" Lawrence prodded.
Ashman hesitated. Then she got up, headed to the stage in 4-inch heels with faux diamond buckles.
"What's up b------?" she said, setting down her notes and taking the mike in her hand. Her manner was sultry, her voice throaty. "How's everyone doing tonight?"
The other students whooped and clapped.
"I happen to be one of Tampa's finest, except when I pat you down, it's going to cost you $165 and . . . there's a pole nearby and I'm swinging from it."
She paused, wiping her brow.
"You're doing great talking to us," Lawrence said, encouragingly.
"Ahh," Ashman said, lifting her arms. "My armpits feel like sprinkler systems."
When she stopped a couple of minutes later the other students clapped supportively.
"That was so scary," she said. "This isn't funny though. I feel like I'm in therapy."
"You have a lot of stuff to pull from because you have been open and honest with us," Lawrence said. "I've lived a dark life too."
"Who says it's dark?" Ashman said with a laugh.
With encouragement from Lawrence, three of the students — Guidi, Robertson and Ashman — signed up for open mike night at the Improv in Ybor.
Lawrence turned to Robertson. "You ready?"
Robertson shook his head, took a sip from his Bud. "Not tonight."
Ashman, the personal trainer, and Susan Guidi, the ultrasound operator, were also having second thoughts. They got up to leave. It was late.
"I'm terrified," Guidi said, as she walked back to her car.
"So am I," Ashman said.
Guidi's son, Jean-Claude, had been phenomenal earlier. Lawrence said he was going to kill at the show. Guidi was proud, but she had doubts about herself.
"I thought after four years of doing comedy. . . ," she said. "But I messed up entirely. I'm scared out of my mind. I cried myself to sleep last night."
"I didn't sign up for all this soul-searching."
Back inside the club, a guy in a bow tie told a particularly flat masturbation joke. A tall man with dreadlocks faltered over a joke about a sex toy. Robertson ordered another beer.
"Frank?" Lawrence looked at him. Robertson set down his beer.
Up on stage, Robertson leaned into the mike and spent a minute or so on a story about his Protestant upbringing, his grandmother, his interest in a Catholic girl.
"For many years I was a news anchor," Robertson said, "but there's something newsworthy I was never allowed to say to you.
"F---!," he yelled at the top of his lungs. He stretched the one-syllable profanity for 15 primal seconds.
The crowd screamed with delight and just like that he had them. Then he pretended to read the news — "Some f------ a------ robbed a bank" — and they laughed more. Robertson had them for his next bit and the bit after that.
When he came down the steps, there was a big smile on his face. He whispered in Lawrence's ear: "Wow, what a rush."
Friday: Last chance
One after the other, they took to the stage to rehearse one final time.
No one was getting any laughs. They'd all heard each others' routines so many times by now. It was hard to know if any of it was really funny anymore.
And there was tension. The stay-at-home dad didn't really want to follow all of Lawrence's advice. The accountant argued with him over how to end a joke and got so mad that he thought about not returning the next day. Guidi, the ultrasound operator, thought he was being mean.
Lawrence knew he was being hard on them. But he felt he knew comedy better than any of them. He wanted the show to be good. And some of them were getting lost in wordy jokes with no punch.
Still he was quick to tell them that he'd seen great progress.
"What you guys are doing is really extraordinary," he told them before sending them off for the night. "I'm amazed at what you have done in four days."
The theater with its painted cloud ceiling began to fill with people who had paid $20 to get in. In all, 173 people showed, many of them friends and family of the performers, but that didn't seem to calm any nerves.
Robertson was trying to prepare his friends and colleagues. You may be shocked, he told them.
"I don't know, he's making me redo my whole skit," Guidi was telling someone.
"This isn't funny," the accountant was saying to Ashman.
The stay-at-home dad went first. Then the psychiatrist. Then the accountant, who despite his fears scored with a joke about paying for college:
"Why did my kids have to be so damn smart? Why couldn't I have had white trash that runs away from home never to be heard from again? I could afford that."
Bottom line: No one was flopping.
Waiting off stage, Ashman's stress level had increased dramatically.
"The boss for my day job is out in the audience," she whispered. It was the owners of the gym where she was a personal trainer. Guidi had invited them. "I feel like this is my coming out," she said, "which it is, after 15 years."
And then she was being introduced as the Blond Bombshell. She peeled back the black curtain and disappeared onto the stage: "What's up b------ and wallets? How's my a-- doing?" They loved her.
Then Robertson launched into the newscast he'd always wanted to deliver: "Our top story tonight: Coalition forces continue to pound the living s--- out of military targets in Libya. Yet Moammar Gadhafi remains defiant and f------ delusional." He got a standing ovation.
Guidi's son, gangly, with dark hair and hazel eyes, loped onto the stage in a white shirt, dark tie and black jacket.
"My name's Jean-Claude," he began in a somber voice. "I'm 17 years old. I go to an all-boys Catholic high school. I don't drink, I don't party, and my mother keeps a dildo in her office."
Lawrence was right; the kid was a natural.
In the back of the theater, as the audience whooped and clapped, Guidi stood looking at her son with wet eyes and a huge smile.
As he made his way past his mother, she grabbed him. "I'm so proud of you," she said.
Then: "I can't follow that."
After the show, all of the performers stood with buckets, trying to collect money for the charity. Jean-Claude's bucket was full, as was Robertson's. Within two weeks, he would be booked for a show in Punta Gorda. Guidi had done remarkably well, too.
Ashman stood by herself with the empty bucket. At the strip club where she worked, she might earn hundreds of dollars performing. But even though her bucket was empty, she was happy. She had mesmerized the crowd, made them laugh.
An older woman in square-rimmed glasses and black sling-back heels approached.
"Are you really a stripper?" she asked.
Ashman nodded awkwardly.
"You are adorable," the woman said. "You are so comfortable in your own skin. I was very engaged with you. Keep it up."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8640.