Thirty years ago B.C. (before comedy), Bob Shoemaker managed a rock and roll band, and all the baggage coming with it.
"I was so used to going to Europe with seven or eight guys, a sound man," Shoemaker said. "We'd have 60 road cases, all this crap, and everybody complaining about their hotel rooms. Then I'm looking at comedy, seeing one guy up there with a mic stand, and I'm going, hey, this is easy."
Shoemaker, 68, was watching stand-up comedy for the first time, and certainly not the last.
This weekend, the Coconuts Comedy Club brand Shoemaker created celebrates its 30th anniversary of funny business, a St. Pete Beach tradition with satellite shows at hotels and restaurants across Florida. Name any Sunshine State comedian who made the big time and Coconuts is likely on his or her resume.
One alumnus of Shoemaker's school of hard yuks is Mike & Molly star Billy Gardell, who dropped into the St. Pete Beach location after a local gig last year, just to say hello and thanks again.
"I've got a real soft spot for Coconuts," Gardell said by telephone from Los Angeles. "Starting out in Florida, that place was vital, man. To me, it always seemed — and I hope Bob doesn't take this the wrong way — that it was the best triple-A system for stand-up comedy that I'd ever seen."
One reason was Shoemaker's patience with new comedians, allowing time to hone their material.
Other club owners "used to leave report cards on the table, and if you didn't get graded well, you just didn't come back," Gardell said. "But Bob, the only thing he required was that you show up on time, and you pay your bar tab when you leave. The beautiful thing about that was, it really left you room to be as creative as you wanted, or thought you could be."
Danny Bevins, a Coconuts favorite since 1996, seconded Gardell's thoughts.
"As long as you were funny, (Shoemaker) didn't give you any grief," he said. "Bob was just like, 'Get up there, do what you do, and you're not going to be beaten up for it if it doesn't go well every time.' Because of that, it became a place the guys loved."
Walls at Coconuts are lined with photographs of successful comedians who worked there: Gardell, Larry the Cable Guy, Saturday Night Live's Jim Breuer, Carl Faulkenberry, Dennis Regan. Many were just starting out when Shoemaker boosted them to headliner status, what he then called a "K-mart of comedy" approach.
"I was noticing that the guys (headlining) the shows, half the time weren't as funny as the guys in the middle, who were on their way up," Shoemaker said. "The (headliners) were like, 'Ah, it's a banquet room in a Mexican restaurant. (Forget) this, I'm off to Vegas next week.' But the other guys were striving to be the top guys."
Coconuts' original club manager Jim McKenny confirmed Shoemaker "has never been known to pay the most money on the circuit, as they say. But he made a lot of good friends, gave people chances to headline. It was big stepping stone for a lot of people."
Bevins compared the Coconuts experience to "where (Mike) Tyson started in a gym with a coach." Gardell noted the satellite gigs were important to his development on stage.
"Some of them were great spots, nice hotels," Gardell said, "and some them were in crazy places where you really had to grow a thick skin to get good."
Home base is St. Pete Beach, where tourism provides comedians with fresh eyes and ears while working out their material. Comedy clubs are two decades past their prime popularity, before cable TV and Funny or Die stole away audiences. McKenny said the fact that Coconuts survives "is really an accomplishment."
Of course, Shoemaker said, it's "easy."
"There's no way I'm ever going to retire," he said, "because what I do for a living is easy, number one … and I'm always looking for the next big act. Always."
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.