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McCurdy's at 25: It's been a long, funny ride

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Les and Pam McCurdy are celebrating 25 years of McCurdy's Comedy Theatre. (Herald-Tribune staff photo by Dan Wagner)

Without his wife, Pam, Les McCurdy might be just another starving stand-up comic.

Instead, here it is 2013, and their McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre is coming up on its 25th anniversary next month, big-name comics are coming through to help celebrate, and the McCurdys, the king and queen of Sarasota-Bradenton comedy, are pondering the future.

Les and Pam McCurdy reached this point as a team. But Les freely admits Pam is the spark. She jokingly refers to their business relationship as “The Tortoise and the Hare.” She’s the hare — the one who makes quick decisions, jumps at opportunities and prods people. He’s the tortoise — he’s slow and methodical, and yes, he’s the one Pam is usually prodding.

Together, they are formidable, wholly successful and charitable small-business owners. Apart, they’re still pretty darn funny.

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

In 1985, Tennessee-born-and-raised Les McCurdy and his childhood friend, Ken Sons, founded The Comedy Catch in Chattanooga, Tenn. (It’s still there, under new management.) They left after two years and Les moved to Sarasota, where his future wife, Pam, was an Asolo Conservatory graduate. Sarasota already had a comedy club at a Ramada Inn but, McCurdy said, “it was terrible.”

“I went to them and proposed that for $200 a week I will be your house emcee and run this room,” Les said. “The general manager said thanks, but no thanks. I said, ‘Well, you know what? Sarasota deserves something better. I’ll open up something else myself,’ and the manager said, ‘Good luck with that.’”

They then set their sights on the Holiday Inn Marina on the North Trail. The owners turned them down twice before relenting the third time. They took over a banquet room that was formerly the Moonraker Lounge and it was dubbed McCurdy’s Comedy Club. Working out of their garage, with no advertising budget and no media coverage, the McCurdys booked five shows over a weekend in June 1988.

“Pam and me hit the streets with fliers, free passes, everything we could throw out there, and by the second week we made a profit,” Les said.

TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL

In some people’s eyes, “a comedy club is just one step up from a strip club. They’re thinking we’re just a bawdy backroom,” Les said, so the McCurdys wanted to move up another notch. They wanted a big name ... a real big name.

“We thought, ‘Jeff Foxworthy, he used to work for IBM here,’ ” Pam said.

Foxworthy, who was voted “Best Stand-Up Comic” at the 1990 American Comedy Awards, cut the McCurdys a good deal for their 1990 New Year’s Eve show. And if it bombed, oh well, they would work something out.

The McCurdys were nervous. They had sold hardly any tickets in the weeks leading up to the show. Then the Herald-Tribune’s entertainment section put Foxworthy on its cover, and “it just exploded,” Les said. “That was the power of the press right there. The phone would not stop ringing. We had to leave an answering machine message saying ‘Just show up at the club, we’ll sell you the tickets there.’”

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Les McCurdy opens the show at McCurdy's Comedy Theatre last week. (Staff photo / Dan Wagner)

HIGH TIMES

So many big-time comics have taken the stage at McCurdy’s over the years: Soupy Sales, Jeff Dunham, Bobby Collins, Pam Stone, Tommy Chong, Diane Ford, Larry Miller, Chris Rock, Michael Winslow, Darryl Hammond ...

... and a former Tampa radio personality named Dan Whitney, a comic from Nebraska who liked to take on several personas on stage; one in particular — Larry the Cable Guy — caught Les McCurdy’s attention. “I said, ‘Dan, that Cable Guy is pretty funny, you should do your whole routine around him,’ ” Les said. “He’s like, ‘Naw. Really?’ But he followed my advice, and look at him now.”

Some of Les McCurdy’s favorite memories are of Chong, one half of the stoner legends Cheech & Chong.

“So, I go to Tampa airport to pick Tommy up, and Ken Sons is with me,” Les said. “We have five radio stations we’re going to for interviews, between 6:30 and 9:30 in the morning. At each station, there’s at least 10 fans in the lobby waiting for Tommy to sign autographs. Each time he signs an autograph, the fan would hand him a joint. He’d say, ‘Thanks, man,’ and he’d put it in his shirt pocket.

“At the end of it all, he’s got like 30 joints in his pocket. I look at Ken and I turn to Tommy and I say, ‘Tommy, how often does happen?’ He said, ‘Every day, man. They give me joints everywhere I go, man. I take them home.’

“I said, ‘Tommy, but why? Why do they do it?’ He said, ‘Because I’m Tommy Chong, man!’ I said, ‘You know, you’re right ... you are Tommy Chong.’”

CHANGE OF VENUES

After 14 years of marriage, the McCurdys finally wanted to settle down and raise a family. Les stopped going out of town for his own stand-up shows, and they adopted their daughter, Taylor, in 1994 (she’s an aspiring comic now). Meanwhile, the family-owned Holiday Inn Marina went corporate. Without notice, they were told they could no longer have their club there.

“We already had comics booked and we had five days to find a new place,” Pam said. “Jerry Gibbs, the owner of The Big Kitchen on Clark Road, said they had a room that could fit 99 people. I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ” They intended on staying there six months, but it took them two and a half years to find a new permanent home: 3333 N. Tamiami Trail, in a nondescript strip mall called Trail Plaza.

Fast-forward to Sept. 11, 2001.

“That morning, they’re going to lay down carpet in our new place and the tables and chairs are going to be delivered,” Pam said. “We know we had to be there early, so we take our cars separately and I’m driving down the Trail when all of a sudden these sirens are blasting and limos are whizzing by. I pulled over, and one of the cars nearly sideswiped Les.

“I turn on the radio and Bubba the Love Sponge says, ‘There’s another one hitting the towers!’ I figured it out. That was the president’s limo that went by us; he was rushing to the airport.”

Two weeks away from opening McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre, they figured comedy was the last thing on people’s minds. Les called around to other club owners across the country: Should we open? What should we do?

“One of them told me, ‘We are a designated place to come laugh. Anyone who walks through the door, they need us. That’s why they’re here, to laugh,’ ” Les said. David Brenner was their first big draw at the new McCurdy’s, about two weeks after 9/11.

“I approached the shows at McCurdy’s as I always did on every stage everywhere, and, that is, to make as many people laugh, as heartily and as long as they could, taking them far from the horrors of the world and their personal lives,” Brenner said. “The audience that night and all the nights I stayed on my tour, Laughter to the People, until I had performed in all 50 states, they were the best and most rewarding nights in my career, because laughter was never needed more in our lifetimes.”

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Les McCurdy chats with guests before a show. (Staff photo / Dan Wagner)

NOW WHAT?

Even though the bottom fell out on the economy in 2009, McCurdy’s stayed in business. Things, though, didn’t truly improve until January this year. Credit Pam’s business plan and keeping overhead reasonable. Now the McCurdys are deciding what their future is in the Sarasota-Bradenton area.

“Do we stay where we are or do we move?” Les said. “There’s a lot of commercial property available out there. We’re just not sure yet. We’re looking at our options, and we feel we’ll make a decision in the next year.”

No matter what, they love their club. “We have a passion for this,” he said. “We enjoy what it brings to the community and us personally.”

RobSchneider

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McCURDY'S COMEDY THEATRE
Rob Schneider, May 24-25 / Les McCurdy & the Mad About Comedy Players, May 26 / John DiCrosta, May 29-June 2 / The Midnight Swinger, June 5-9 / Louie Anderson, June 14-15 / Michael Winslow, June 21-23. 3333 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. 925-3869; mccurdyscomedy.com.
Last modified: May 23, 2013
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