As The Dissident, J.J. Colagrande turns his critical eye on Miami culture. This week: Should the Miami Improv do more for local comics?
The South Beach Comedy Festival is in town, bringing big names like Sarah Silverman and Seth Meyers to perform here in Miami. It's the one time of year many Miamians pay attention to comedy at all -- and that's sad, because this town is full of very funny talent.
As the festival approaches this weekend, I began to wonder: Why does Miami's comedy scene remain so untapped? And based on my experiences, I've come to the conclusion that the city's most established comedy venue, the Miami Improv, is at least partly to blame.
I'm a person who studies comedy for the art of it, and to me, it seems the Improv organization isn't interested in fostering art; it only cares about money. When I've been a patron of the Improv, the venue has seemed greedy, with a two-drink minimum that feels immoral, if not illegal; overpriced, watered down drinks; disgusting food; uncomfortable seating rules; and thuggish bouncers.
Once, my group arrived a little late to the Improv, but still before the headliner started his act. Some bulky thug in a black suit, the type you'd see outside Mansion, wouldn't let us in, citing a rule about it being too late. By the time the manager arrived, the headliner had begun his set, and he told us, "Sorry, too late, the headliner's on."
The time before that, my group had to practically sit on top of strangers. We ordered a few specialty drinks (not priced on the menu) and nachos; the tab was close to $100, and the food made me sick.
Experiences like those have repercussions beyond my own budget and bowels. If other Improv patrons are treated this way, they're less likely to attend another comedy event in Miami. And that leaves the city's funnypeople without an engaged audience.
One must wonder if comedians feel the same way. Many seasoned comedians in this city will tell you the Miami Improv is their favorite room: the energy, the green room's décor and location, the layout of the venue, the networking opportunities with A-list talent, the pay scale. But do they say this because they have few other rooms in Miami to play in?
Rising in comedy at the Improv -- and in most comedy scenes in the country -- is very much like a baseball farm system. You start with taking classes at their comedy school; think of it as high school or college ball. Then there's the minor leagues, which basically means participating in open mics at the Improv. Performing well at an Improv open mic can lead to hosting open mics at the Improv, which can lead to the Big Leagues -- paying gigs at the Improv, as either a host (who does 10 minute sets on a weekend) or a feature (who does 25-minutes on a weekend). Eventually, through hard work and serious practice, the effort may lead to headlining gigs, on the road, maybe at home.
But this is a rarity. Though the Improv hosts open mics monthly, the bulk of comedians who aspire to headline, who spend time and money to climb through the ranks of the Improv, go nowhere. It must confuse and frustrate local comedians, who've paid their dues by performing at open mics, and who've brought friends out to the Improv, time and again. See, the Improv has a rule that to perform at an open mic you must bring at least ten people to the club. Even if you're an open mic regular, the rule stands for each time you take the stage. That makes it difficult for inexperienced locals to get the stage time they need to improve. Maybe bringing ten people out occasionally is okay, but if you've been attending open mics for awhile, it's hard to keep getting your friends to come out. (Perhaps if the venue's service and food and beverage offerings improved, the Improv wouldn't need comics to bring their own audiences?)
Another problem for Miami comics: There are few other rooms to choose from. Plenty of places have regular comedy nights - Lester's Mustache Ride shows, for example, or Casa de Ha-Ha at Sweat Records. But venues dedicated to comedy are scarce, and can hardly compete. The Comedy Inn in South Miami, for example, can't match the Improv's prowess in promoting, infrastructure, connections with media outlets, and most of all, ability to bring in A-list talent.
The cliché goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Right now, the Improv holds almost all the power in Miami's comedy scene. Shouldn't it take more responsibility for supporting that scene, by providing better audience experiences and developing local comedic talent? Or, is it ultimately just about making the biggest buck?
Nowadays, it feels better to support a small room, like the Comedy Inn in South Miami, or a special event, like local monthly comedy nights or the South Beach Comedy Fest. For patrons and comics alike, the Improv is out of laughing gas.
J.J. Colagrande is the author of the novels Headz and Decò. Follow him on Twitter.