McCurdy's celebrates 20 years of funny

Tommy Chong. Louis Ramey. Jeff Foxworthy. Gilbert Gottfried. Chris Rock. Larry the Cable Guy. Besides the fact that they’re all well-known, established comics, there’s another tie that binds them.They, along with many others, have performed at McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre and Humor Institute, where two decades of humor have been enshrined. This week, the Sarasota comedy club is celebrating its 20th anniversary with comic panache, featuring special variety shows and comedians. Owners Les and Pam McCurdy can’t believe they’ve made it to the big 2-0. “It kind of flips us out that so many years have gone by,” said Les.In that time, the comedy club has become the hub of laughter in the Bradenton/Sarasota area. But somewhere along the way, the theater has become something of a solace to residents near and far.Since opening in 1988, there’s been story after story of how the club has lifted the most desolate of spirits, Les said.“We’re proud of the fact that it’s an oasis of laughter for this community,” Les said. “It’s the heartbeat of humor for this area.”Just think of what life would be like if the comedy club had never existed. It almost came to that.Pam said she had to convince her husband to start a club after an earlier attempt in Tennessee failed just a couple years before. “I did have to twist his arm, I have to say,” she said. “We failed big up there. We made a lot of mistakes. We were so young. Then we got here. I just knew the big picture. I said we could do it again.”Les, a comic, and Pam, an actress, met in Sarasota. Their careers later took them to New York separately where they met up again, married and moved back to the place where they fell in love. Les wanted to save enough money to buy a house. Pam wanted a house and a comedy club. “To buy a house, we would have been very happy,” said Les. “We so loved this area. If the comedy club would support us totally, that was a bonus.”So they took things step by step, with careful planning. They opened a club at the Holiday Inn Airport/Marina in Bradenton. Circumstances had them floating from various locations, sharing spaces with bars and other hotels, for several years. In 2001, they opened their first stand-alone club in a shopping center off Tamiami Trail, a place that was all their own.Nothing prepared them for the grand opening of their new location, which was a few weeks after 9/11. The country was still in mourning.“We pretty much at that point thought, ‘We’re dead. Comedy is the last thing people want to do, to be comical,’” said Les. “But we were amazed. People said, ‘We need this now.’ If you don’t have the ability to laugh (things) get so morose and depressing. It was something we didn’t expect.”Through the years, the club has brought in innovative programs, shows and celebrity guests. It also has attracted an estimated 80,000 “fans” who subscribe to the theater’s newsletters. Les has a treasure trove of memorable moments. Some of his favorites include the grand opening events featuring comic David Brenner and Dan Whitney, who is known as Larry the Cable Guy. Les persuaded Whitney to do his Larry the Cable Guy character in a stand-up act at the club. The strategy made Whitney an overnight sensation that launched a celebrated career nationwide.Those memories make up a small portion of what has made the club so special. Les has other fond memories of the people he has helped over the years through the theater’s humor institute, which teaches the ins and outs of stand-up comedy. Such classes have been therapeutic, pulling people out of a deep depression caused by a death in the family, cheating spouses and even suicidal thoughts. But they decided to try a comedy class as a last resort to feel better about life, Les said.Then there was the development of Special O’Laughics, a program Les started “for fun” that teaches the developmentally disabled how to perform stand-up comedy. The program has received rave reviews from family members and teachers of the participants. Many said it helped their child become more articulate and extroverted.A documentary film was also made out of the first Special O’Laughics class, which was entered into this year’s Sarasota Film Festival. Les and business partner Ken Sons, who filmed the project, are planning to enter it in other national film festivals across the country and implement the program in other places. The McCurdys also are proud that comedians have given the club praise for its professional atmosphere and crowd, though many of them have been known to joke about the club being located in a strip mall. Such jokes are done with love. “Most every comic that has played here said that this is one of the best venues in the United States,” said Les.It also has been one of the few places where every sector of the community has converged, he said. The rich and poor, young and old, working class and professionals.It just goes to show that the McCurdys’ brand of laughter can work wonders.“Many said, ‘It just changed my life’ to go there and laugh,’” Pam said.January Holmes, features writer, can be reached at 745-7057.