By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
The best comedy clubs make laughing look easy. Doors open, customers are seated and served, and soon jokes are rolling from comedians on stage.
Nobody thinks much about what happens before those doors open.
For clubs like Ybor City's Improv, Tampa's Side Splitters and Coconuts in St. Pete Beach, the task begins weeks, even months before with bookings and travel plans. Hiring comedians and keeping them housed and happy is the stuff of punch lines.
Like comedian Jim Norton's take on the "comedy condos" that clubs like the Improv and Side Splitters maintain for visiting acts.
Norton's headliner status at the Improv got him a comfy hotel room. He refuses to stay in comedy condos. If walls could talk in those places, they'd be washed out with soap.
"It's disgusting," Norton said. "They're dirty and somebody else is always in your space. Sometimes you share a bathroom. You've got to sit in the kitchen and act like you like everybody. It's horrible."
Side Splitters general manager Brian Thompson laughed off Norton's comments, a common riff among comedians.
"They make them out to be worse than they are," he said. "To be honest, comics know comics and they just have a vision of the things that were going on there before. They're like: 'Oh, man, if the last guy was like me I don't want to sleep on these sheets.' "
Filling the schedule
Each club has a different system of hiring comics, seeking the same hilariously profitable results. The Improv's main bookings come from its Hollywood headquarters, while Side Splitters handles everything in-house.
Coconuts founder Bob Shoemaker needs only to answer the telephone. After 24 years, comedians hoping for a gig with beach resort accommodations know his number.
"Even if I don't pay much, they get mad at me if I don't have (a date) for them," Shoemaker said. "I pay one-fourth or one-fifth of what they could get somewhere else but they want to come here."
Coconuts depends on the industry's road warriors, largely regional acts driving from club to club. The Improv and Side Splitters fly their nationally known acts to Tampa, setting up hotel rooms in areas that comedians prefer: Ybor for partiers; the West Shore district for killing daytime at the mall. Dinner is on — and cooked in — the house. Fifty-two weeks, 52 contracts, some with unusual demands.
"Each one is a completely different set of rules," Improv general manager Bob Joyce said. "One comic makes us buy him a pair of shoes. We had to get a lava lamp for one guy. We still have it."
Thompson later recounted a rider in Norm MacDonald's contract calling for a turkey sandwich, mustard only, and grapefruit juice before showtime. MacDonald had no idea why.
"I think it was just something that agents do out in Hollywood, to make us jump through hoops just to see if we would," Thompson said.
Surviving the boredom
Back at the Improv, Joyce was occasionally interrupted by text messages from the manager of that night's headliner, Norton, whose flight from New York was behind schedule. Norton was due at a radio station to plug his gig, at the hotel for check-in and later at the club for his first of five shows in three days.
"You can imagine being on the road, if you're a salesman or an entertainer," Joyce said. "It can be relentless."
Shoemaker is sympathetic: "The hour they spend on stage, they'd probably pay me to do that. Other than sex, that's the best thing for them. It's the other 23 hours that kills them."
The grind shows later on Norton's face, at least one side. His other cheek was buried into a green-room couch at the Bone 102.5 studios, dozing before quipping with Cowhead and his afternoon drive crew. After the show, this firebrand comic revealed with typical candor what comedians may do with spare time in strange towns.
"Comedians shop, get laid, a lot of them drink or get high," Norton said, still rubbing his eyes. "I don't drink or get high, so for me it's mostly sex on the Internet. Anything when you're bored and comics have a lot of time to kill.
"Hopefully you write (new material). Then you're in good shape. But most of the time we don't write; we just sit around and (goof) off."
That explains why some comedians arrive early to the club, which is always a relief. Each night is a chance for something to go wrong, for "putting out fires," as Shoemaker said, with comics delayed by stalled cars, late flights or getting lost in a new city.
Even after confirming that Norton's flight landed, Joyce wouldn't relax until his star reached the Improv.
"We're going to have a show tonight and I'm 97 percent sure it's Jim Norton," Joyce said.
A few hours later, it was. The doors opened and nobody laughing cared how he got there.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at tampabay.com/blogs/movies.