It first hit me five years ago while watching Neal Brennan’s comedy special 3 Mics.
He was pointing out the absurdity of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “the most famous song of all time,” having received 10,000 dislikes on YouTube.
“Your music stinks, bro,” Brennan sneered, impersonating one of those downvoting bozos. Punchline: “And I know music. I’m from Tampa.”
People long ago realized that comedians pick on Tampa. I once wrote a story about Amy Schumer describing Tampa as “horrendous,” then joking she wasn’t scared to put that in her memoir because no one in Tampa “has ever read a book.”
But Brennan’s joke felt like part of a growing phenomenon I’ve detected over too many hours of television viewing. An unmoored, Mad Lib punchline: Name of city here.
That had to mean “Tampa” had become inherently funny, right? Would Cleveland or Bakersfield have worked? Perhaps. But a veteran comedy professional made a deliberate choice that got a big laugh, and that choice was Tampa.
For a few years I added to a running list every time “Tampa” was uttered on scripted TV. It grew long enough that a trend felt undeniable, so I started polling residents.
“This is a thing, right? I’m glad I didn’t imagine it,” one woman wrote back on Twitter. A Criminal Minds fan in Tampa said she was sure the writers “have a thing for us.” Another local who’d perked up when a character on Powerless criticized Tampa as “not even the nicest place in Central Florida,” texted a friend “When did Tampa become the Nickelback of cities?”
My own list, plus others’ submissions and a scouring of TV show transcripts, turned up close to 90 such references – a bounty of Tampa trashing that I arranged into a sort of joke taxonomy. Tampa as racy, unrefined, generic, a bargain hunter’s vacation: There had to be a perception that made these jokes work for the masses. I wanted to understand.
“These joke patterns appear and it seems sudden, or random, but they obviously reflect the zeitgeist,” Joseph Boskin told me. He’s a professor emeritus of history at Boston College who has written two books on American humor. “These jokes rise from something in the cultural soil.”
I went back to my list, searching for that something.
1. The Tina Theory
Maybe there was some particular writer out there with a thing for Tampa, Johnny Appleseed-ing the city into pop culture through their scripts.
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I looked up the writers and producers on every one of the episodes I’d noted, then cross-referenced them — and found that if there is one prime suspect, it’s Tina Fey.
With her writing and producing partner Robert Carlock, Fey is responsible for at least 12 episodes of television containing Tampa jokes over at least four different series. The references date back to the mid-aughts hit 30 Rock, on which a character studied “stage acting and game show pointing at the Royal Tampa Academy of Dramatic Tricks,” and they continue today. A recent episode of Mr. Mayor has a Hollywood location scout, learning there’s an issue in Los Angeles, lamenting: “We’re going to have to shoot the La La Land sequel in Tampa. Tampa!”
Maybe she infected others. Matt Hubbard wrote on 30 Rock under Fey and went on to produce and write for Superstore, which had several Tampa jokes of its own.
What is Fey’s deal? Unclear. She’s been photographed at Disney World, so we know she’s dabbled in Florida sights. But I could find no evidence she’s ever visited Tampa Bay.
She did not return a request for comment through her publicist, leaving our potential Patient Zero as yet untested.
2. Theories of Sleaze
Amid the cornucopia of Tampa putdowns, one major theme emerges: Tampa as the capital of lowbrow culture. This is a mythical Tampa where top local attractions range from tattoos to a “gutted-out Applebee’s you can fight in,” (Saturday Night Live), where residents want to make Hulk Hogan president (American Dad), and where a radio station, according to Girls5eva, carries the call letters WTIT (“If you think our name is crazy, check out our advertising rates!”).
30 Rock had Tampa hosting a competition called Miss Nude Divorcée on Christmas Eve. A character on One Big Happy says it’s nearly impossible to “find a doctor in Tampa who does anything but breast implants.” On Undateable, Tampa is where “stripper talent scouts from the big leagues” come from.
“I’m almost certain we got (the strip club) reputation from that first Super Bowl, and then again with the 1991 Super Bowl,” said historian and Tampa Bay History Center curator Rodney Kite-Powell.
Tampa’s 1984 Super Bowl was billed as the town’s “coming out party” as a major city, and reporters brought us sustained national attention for the first time.
“Any drive down Dale Mabry, particularly back then, they’d see the spaceship on top of the strip club,” Kite-Powell said, “and the stories would write themselves.”
That reputation may have been cemented a few years later when the city’s battle with “strip club king” Joe Redner over a ban on lap dances made national headlines.
Tampa and strippers are now so intertwined that the jokes don’t even have to make sense. “Look at those Tampa airport stripper moves of hers,” says a character on The Carrie Diaries, mashing together exotic dancers and another thing Tampa is well-known for — a lovely airport.
3. The Bland Masses
There’s also Tampa as an unglamorous budget destination. In these jokes, the humor often comes from some fool ironically holding up Tampa as impressive. A character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine wins $70,000 betting on dog shows and tells his romantic interest, “Pack your bags, we’re going to Tampa.” A pharmacist on Superstore brags how women love his timeshare in Tampa “because it’s only, like, 12 miles from the beach.” A trip to the “greater Tampa metropolitan area” was the coveted prize for selling lots of Tupperware on Reno 911.
The perception could have something to do with who migrated here, Kite-Powell said. When transplants from other states first began streaming south, more urbane and well-to-do northeasterners concentrated in south Florida and along the east coast. Tampa and Florida’s west coast attracted more midwesterners, often stereotyped as friendly but bland.
Let us consider Tampa’s contributions to national culture. The city was significant in the rise of pro wrestling and some of its biggest stars. The most prominent brand yet to spring forth from Tampa might be Australian-themed chain Outback Steakhouse (1,000 locations in 17 countries!). Both are beloved. Neither would be called highbrow.
“I think in the case of Tampa, it is seen, correctly or not, as a very middle-class place in a non-culturally elite ... way,” said Gary A. Fine, a sociologist at Northwestern University who has written about humor’s role in culture. “Kind of a white-bread community.”
Yes, Tampa has its Cuban influence, but the city’s not known nationally for being diverse in the way Miami is. In an era when comedians may be more sensitive to whom they offend, Fine said, “I think it’s tougher to use Miami as a source of humor.”
4. Assorted hypotheses
There are simpler theories.
“The word Tampa just sounds funny because it has two syllables and two hard consonants,” said stand-up comedian John Jacobs, a resident who created the satirical news site Tampa News Force.
It could also be a matter of geography. The city’s premiere comedy club, Tampa Improv, is in the heart of party central Ybor City. If a comic goes from the airport to Ybor on a Saturday night, their idea of Tampa might be a bit skewed.
“That’s how you get a moment on Joe Rogan’s podcast on election night where Bill Burr, Doug Stanhope and Rogan were all making fun of Tampa together,” Jacobs said. “So on the biggest platform possible, Tampa boils down to drunk, messy Ybor.”
He went on: “It’s almost like these people’s lives are miserable and they want to s--t on us because we’re happy. We’re such a fun, peaceful place. Tampa is here for a good time.”
Tampa, he said, doesn’t have zealous defenders. “Nobody is going to come after you for making fun of Tampa.”
5. Nowhere, Fla.
Many of the jokes seem to play on the idea of Tampa as the generic nowhere. “Tampa isn’t a place you go,” exclaims a character on Happy Endings, “it’s a place you end up.” When a character in Last Man on Earth becomes fixated on moving what’s left of post-apocalyptic humanity to Tampa — “We could already be in Tampa right now, sipping from the fresh waters of the Hillsborough River!” he announces — it’s funny because it seems so inexplicable.
Finding a catchy, cohesive identity to present to the world as Tampa’s brand has long been a challenge.
TV writers, who like making fun of Florida in general, say Tampa is in a sweet spot: big enough that people know its name, but otherwise a blank slate. Maybe that’s why when Jeremy Renner played Tampa mayor “Fat Deuce” Derek on Saturday Night Live, he sounded puzzlingly, but hilariously, Cajun.
“If I’m a comedy writer and I love s--tting on Florida, but I want to be specific, I start cycling through the cities there and very quickly I’m going to land on Tampa,” said Victor Quinaz of Miami, who wrote the episode of Big Mouth in which the characters travel to Lakeland. “In some way, congratulations. People are talking about you.”
“Miami is sexy. Orlando is family. Tampa seems to have very little identity,” Neal Brennan wrote on Twitter after I asked him why he chose to make his Beethoven hater hail from Tampa, and not say, Phoenix. Then he asked why I wanted to besmirch the good name of Phoenix.
Gil Ozeri is one of the writers credited on a different episode of Big Mouth where a body hair says to another, “Are we in Tampa? Cause it’s hot, and stinky, and I don’t want to be here.” Whether he wrote it, he couldn’t recall, but he agreed there was something intrinsically funny about “Tampa.”
“I guess Tampa works,” he said, “because it typifies Florida without having any other connotations that distract you.”
He’s never been here, so I asked him, gun to his head, what could he tell me about it?
“I would say hot and wet probably, uhh, you know, America-friendly? I don’t want to say dirty — well I guess I did just say it — but I don’t want to say that. It feels like the people are probably very nice,” he said. He asked if the Buccaneers actually play in Tampa. I told him he was probably thinking about the Rays. “That feels very Tampa to me, that your baseball team plays in another city.”
“You get off the plane at Tampa International, and first thing there’s a sign that says ‘Tampa, home of the world’s longest sidewalk,’” said Laura Chinn, a proud Clearwater native who wrote and starred in the sitcom Florida Girls. “It perpetuates the idea of Tampa becoming a city, but it’s really still a small town.”
I asked her if there was some other city we could pitch to writers so that Tampa could be retired gracefully. “I think Fresno has potential,” she said.
“Some cities have a particular ‘flavor,’” a recent report from Visit Tampa Bay concluded. “Austin likes to keep Austin weird and Nashville is known for their live music. Not all visitors were able to describe the ‘flavor’ of Tampa Bay.”
Focus groups and a survey revealed something of an identity crisis. People — well, those who were able — described Tampa as “less pretentious,” with “something for everyone, mellow, and relaxed.”
Janette Carter, vice president of marketing for the agency, takes note when Tampa pops up in pop culture.
“They always say no exposure is bad exposure,” she said. “But a lot of stuff I try not to talk about while marketing the city. Of course I have a sense of humor about it, but certain things, like Dale Mabry, we stay away from.”
What’s a “mellow” city to do with its most eye-popping sights off-limits to marketers?
“We don’t have a beach, or Mickey Mouse ears or the Golden Gate Bridge. ... We kind of just have to embrace the lifestyle we have here.” Carter said Tampa’s brand is “exciting and relaxing. ... We want adventure seekers who are curious. We have city living but also a laid-back beach vibe.”
Dipayan Biswas, a marketing professor at the University of South Florida, said that from a marketing perspective, it’s great to have people mentioning you that much, as long as the jokes aren’t too negative.
People make fun of Walmart, Biswas said. “It’s not a flattering reputation. … No one brags about shopping at Walmart. Now Google Walmart. It’s the largest company in the world in terms of revenue.” OK ... true ...
6. It unites us
It’s unflattering, perhaps, but speaking to Tampa residents, politicians, historians, I couldn’t find anyone from Tampa who didn’t chuckle at a good Tampa joke. Maybe Tampa, as a punchline, doesn’t carry the meaning a tourism agency would dream up, but, until the jokes peter out, they’re something we share.
“Everyone wants to feel like they’re from a place,” said native Floridian Alex Borgella, a psychology professor at Fort Lewis College whose research has focused on disparagement humor.
He thinks the jokes may build community in a way that, “ironically, might make Tampa stronger.”
Maybe Tampa’s most defining trait is that it’s in on the joke. Or maybe we just need a little time.
Philadelphia was once a punchline, said Boskin, the historian who writes about humor. When Vanity Fair asked celebrities in 1925 to write their own epitaphs, the comic W.C. Fields replied, “I’d rather be living in Philadelphia,” the joke being that the city was only slightly better than the grave. A century later, Boskin said, that joke doesn’t really land.
“So there is hope for Tampa.”