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Dare to laugh

(ran PC edition of Pasco Times)

Bobby Jewell's path from mortgage lender to stand-up comic and comedy club owner began with a dare.

To hear Bobby Jewell tell it, his path to comedy began like one of his many old, stale jokes: A dentist and a mortgage lender went out to play golf one day.

Though a priest and a rabbi never joined the game, the outing in 1987 delivered quite a punch line for Jewell. His dentist dared him to take his wise-cracking antics before an open microphone, and thus began Jewell's transformation from financier to funnyman.

"I said, "You set it up, and I'll go,' " said Jewell.

Jewell was a hit at a local Palm Beach club, so much that he was invited back. He subsequently began touring as a stand-up comedian, and with the helps of two friends, opened Side Splitters off N Dale Mabry Highway in 1992.

Nine years later, and 14 years after that golf course dare, the former mortgage lender is now laughing his way to the bank.

"I just dig laughing," said Jewell, 40. "That's the best part of having fun with your friends."

Drawing on his finance background, the occasional Santa suit and his brand of old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness, Jewell has built an institution in Tampa's competitive comedy scene.

These days, his club attracts some of the day's top touring comedians, from Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond), to Bobcat Goldthwait to Tommy Chong (Cheech & Chong's not-so-straight, straight man).

"I don't like to go too long without doing that club," said comedian Dom Irrera, who performed at Side Splitters on Super Bowl weekend and has another date scheduled this July. "Some clubs I avoid for two years. I like Tampa. I love Bobby."

Irrera said most clubs are owned by businessmen. Jewell is a former comedian who still does stand-up. The two are set to perform together at a club in Minneapolis this month during the final weekend of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

"He takes it seriously, but he's still a goof ball," Irrera said.

To run a successful comedy club, it helps to understand business. Jewell, a New York native, went to work on Wall Street after college in 1983, crunching numbers for mutual funds.

After about two years, he received a promotion to supervisor. A few weeks later, he quit.

"That means you come in, you work seven days for five weeks straight, and that first day off, you come up Broadway with that wind whipping up sleet and snow," Jewell said. "I quit the next day."

Florida's warm climate called him. He moved to Palm Beach and became a mortgage lender. On a softball team he met Michael Westcott, soon to be his dentist, golf partner and catalyst for life.

Westcott noticed right away that Jewell had an unusual talent for comedy. The softball team often went out for beers and Jewell kept the group laughing with memorized routines by other comedians.

"He's the type of guy," said Westcott, "who could say something, and if you or I said it, it wouldn't be funny. But if he says it, it's funny."

On his way to meet Jewell for a golf game, Westcott listened to the radio in the car. The station announced an open mic night at Laff Lines, a local comedy club. Later on the links, Westcott proposed the idea.

"He took the dare," said Westcott. "It didn't take much."

Though his routine consisted of what he now calls "old, stale jokes," they were good enough to attract the club owner's attention. He called Jewell the next day and asked him to return. In the ensuing months, he performed weekly at the club and started hosting shows.

"Next thing you know, I'm getting another gig at another place, and it started to take off," said Jewell, who began appearing at clubs along the Interstate-95 corridor from Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale. He kept selling mortgages while touring, and eventually opened Side Splitters with friends Rick Consolo and Ron Battista.

The first two years were tough, and the club did not turn a profit. His partners discussed closing.

But Jewell had seen the alternative in New York's financial district and Palm Beach's real estate market. He decided to see it through alone.

"I was never going to get an opportunity to do this again," said Jewell. "I was young. So I said, "If there is some stick-to-itiveness, give me 12 months.' "

Out came those old financial skills. He cut the kitchen staff and ushers, relying on a few waitresses to keep the food and drinks flowing. He continued running his mortgage business in Palm Beach via the club phone in Tampa. He personally stuck fliers on hundreds of cars and passed out free passes on a June afternoon in downtown Tampa dressed as Santa Claus.

But he also took chances. In 1994, with limited funds available, he shelled out seven times the normal fee to invite child star Danny Bonaduce, television's Danny Partridge, to perform at the club.

"I thought, there's a novelty act that may attract some attention," said Jewell. It worked. The act filled the club. "We did pretty well, and he was funny."

Since then Jewell says the club has turned a profit every year. Like the restaurant business, comedy clubs can come and go. He's managed to keep packing them in, while others packed it up.

Theresa Vera, a waitress and Jewell's first hire nine years ago, said Jewell can be serious during business hours.

"He's not walking around cracking jokes during a show," said Vera. "It can get pretty intense."

Things may get a little tougher this year with the recent opening of the Improv Comedy Theater and Restaurant in Centro Ybor, a New York City club that branched out into a chain of national clubs drawing top-shelf comics.

But Jewell declined to talk about the competition. He prefers to tell jokes.

On stage this month, he talked about the traffic in Carrollwood, learning to speak Spanish at Taco Bell and banks charging their customers for asking questions.

How much money do I have in my account?

$300. Well, $297.

Excuse me?

Now it's $294.

"Bobby is a natural at what he does," said Mitch Horan, a childhood friend and former colleague on Wall Street. "Being a people person, being entertaining, being funny. Bobby was the class clown. That's how all comedians are."