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Yamil Piedra swabs his shaved head with one bar napkin and then grabs another to smooth his dark, caterpillar-thick eyebrows.
At six feet four inches and 230 pounds, with silver dog tags and two crosses dangling from his neck, he grabs the mike and looks out at the 170 people crowded into the dark main room of the Miami Improv in Coconut Grove.
He doesn't smile. He sips from a bottle of water. "If you don't laugh at my jokes, I will not respond to your friend requests on MySpace," he says.
Some do laugh.
For the next seven minutes he tells jokes that garner cheers, chuckles, and an occasional groan.
"I recently lost a lot of weight," he pronounces in a deep monotone. "People say, 'You look awesome. Oh, what did you do?'"
He pauses. "AIDS."
Should-I-really-be-laughing chortles follow.
His towering frame leans into the mike to sing a breathy, glam rock rendition of the theme song to the Eighties sitcom Charles in Charge.
The crowd howls.
It's July 11, and there are two competitors left before the four judges will choose the funniest comedian of the night at this Open Mic Fight. The winner will receive a shot at $10,000 and a chance to appear on Comedy Central.
This is the serious side of funny. It takes work, more than Yamil has invested so far.
After Yamil's set, a tall drunk guy in a polo shirt passes him on the way to the bathroom: "That's Miami humor, man. It's good shit."
Yamil, too nervous to watch the other comics, chitchats at the bar. "Look, I don't want to win. Just fifth place," he says dryly, and then adds, "I'm kidding."
Miami, and the Sunshine State in general, are not known as a laughter hotbed. Comedy Soapbox, a Website for comedians and fans, lists 40 comedy clubs in Florida compared to New York's 180 and California's 192. Even Michigan counts more: 49. There is one club listed in Miami, paling to New York City's 130.
"Our open mikers a couple of years ago were just bad. You would sit through 13 comics and they had nothing funny," says René Harte, part owner of the Miami Improv. "A lot of people think Miami likes it fast and dirty, and sometimes they do, but it just wasn't funny."
But these days, it seems, things have improved. The Improv's open-mike nights every other Wednesday sustain a month-long waiting list for comics and attract crowds of 200-some people, Harte says. "Miami's freaking funny."
Forrest Shaw, a 34-year-old marine biologist who is a frequent MC at the Miami Improv and travels across the peninsula for stand-up gigs every week, has been doing comedy for three years. Besides Yamil, Shaw was the only other Miami contender chosen for the July 11 Open Mic Fight. "People think there's no one really funny down here and it's just the same old crap, but I would put the top-end comics in South Florida against any other city," he says. "I'm not just saying that because I'm from here."
On Miami's comedy scene, 29-year-old Yamil Piedra falls somewhere between rising star, naive newcomer, and slacker. He's funny. He's had middling success. In his first stab at stand-up five years ago, he was chosen to appear on BET's Comic View, and his 2006 Last Comic Standing audition made it to the small screen. During a recent two-year stay in Hollywood, he got, maybe, five minutes of network TV face time — as a crook on the show Las Vegas and an asshole on Boston Legal.
These days he lives with his parents, says he made only about $23,000 last year, and drives a Chevy that was a gift from his dad. He spends most days on the computer or wearing bad wigs in front of his Sony VX2100 camcorder to add to his MySpace videos about flavored farts or pink "gayo" mayonnaise; sometimes he lip-syncs Spanish ballads from the Eighties.
"I've been trying since I got back to do stuff," says Yamil. "Not a lot goes on here in Miami." He has gone on about a dozen auditions, mostly for commercials, since he returned from California in December 2006. He has scored only one role, a bit part as a cop on a Telemundo soap opera, Dame Chocolate.
Yamil was only two years old when he left Cuba with his mother and father on the 1980 Mariel boatlift. In Miami, after years of working 60-hour weeks, his parents opened two banquet halls and later a catering business and put Yamil in a private school in Coconut Grove, La Salle High, where they ran the cafeteria and where young Yamil discovered he liked being a ham.
"His high school teachers would say, 'He was born for the theater,'" says his 63-year-old father, Eduardo, who named his catering business — Yamil Catering & Parties, Inc. — after his only child.
Yamil spent seven years at Florida International University. He attributes the extended enrollment to a lackluster academic performance. He didn't like school. Plus he switched majors from theater to advertising because professors got annoyed when he cut class to audition. In 1997 Yamil helped start Impromedy, a sketch comedy troupe, and at age 25 cofounded A Pair of Nuts Comedy duo with friend Johnny Trabanco (an advertising account executive for Miami New Times).