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).
In May 2003 Yamil took off for Hollywood with his girlfriend Darlene. During the next two-and-a-half years, his parents helped him a handful of times with his portion of the $1500-a-month rent for a two-bedroom. "Over there I'd go on a lot more auditions and a lot bigger stuff," he says of his tryouts for CSI, CSI: Miami, and sitcoms. At times he went on two auditions a week. Then there'd be a two-week gap of no work. "A lot of times, obviously, I would watch TV and play videos," he says. "Go to Target. Get groceries."
After Yamil and Darlene split in November 2006, he took the cat, Teela, and moved back in with his parents in Hialeah. Yamil wanted to break onto the Miami scene. He tried to score commercial work, with little success. But the videos he has posted on MySpace have attracted a following beyond his college and high school buddies. Yamil's most popular clip — in which he lip-syncs to an Eighties song while wearing a blond wig, a black wig, and dark stubble — has received more than 9000 views. "I get comments from Mexico and all over the world," he says.
He thought the July 11 gig might change his luck. In early May he sent a tape to Comedy Central, and scouts chose it from more than 700 submissions nationwide.
About 15 minutes before the 8:30 p.m. start, Yamil arrived in a black T-shirt with a gorilla printed on the front. He drew the number six slot. Then he introduced himself to Ángel Salazar, a 47-year-old comic who was sitting on a barstool and sucking a mojito. Salazar was the headliner for the weekend, but wasn't slated to perform with the amateurs that night. Yamil recognized him from his 1983 role as Chi Chi in Scarface. Piedra gave a quick rundown of his resumé.
"Cool, man, cool," the senior comic responded. "I always tell young comics ... 'It can't be a plan B. There's no plan C. It's got to be plan A.' Now give me some coke and I'll tell you more."
Then Yamil introduced himself to Shaw, who has had moderate success on the local comedy scene. Shaw looked spent after finishing his routine for the judges. "I kinda recognized you," the comedian said before ordering a drink.
Next Yamil, cool and detached, did his routine. He made fun of the voices in American movies translated into Spanish.
"Why do kids always sound like Mickey Mouse?" he said, sending his deep voice up an octave. "Oye, papá, vamos a comer una hamburguesa."
He took a sip of water.
Yamil ended the set with his potentially offensive bit "gay lips" — puckering up in a way he says can make anyone look gay, even if he is boxing, fishing, doing karate or pulling a truck with a chain.
Shortly after 11:00 p.m., the judges announced Na'im Lynn, the dude in a Captain America shirt from Philadelphia, as the winner.
Yamil's pals and parents surrounded him, waiting to hug him as if they were in a mourner's line at a funeral. "It was probably one of the best performances I've given," Yamil said. "I was shocked I didn't get at least runnerup, but you never know about these things."
Anne Harris, a Comedy Central judge, said he scored high in delivery but lower in material and originality. "Yamil was a strong contender," she said.
Fellow comics say he needs to grow.
Finally Miami Improv owner Harte was asked her opinion.
"Umm, off the record?"
"I'd like something for publication."
"He was really funny, [but] he lost me only onstage when he said, 'Okay, now, I know I won this thing,'" Harte said. "He could go to the B-rooms and just work on his material.
"He's no Al Jackson or Malik."
Jackson, age 30, is an ex-seventh-grade North Miami Beach teacher who moved to New York City eight months ago to hit the scene harder. He began doing stand-up at an Irish bar in Hollywood, Florida, four years ago and recently finished shooting Live at Gotham for Comedy Central. He has never heard of Yamil. "If you're in Miami and I've never heard of you, you're not doing comedy," Jackson says. "If I've never heard of you, you're not doing enough.... Tell Yamil just stay on the ground and get out more."
But Yamil's slow run could be changing. A week after the Comedy Central contest, the Miami Improv called him to appear in a 30-minute slot in Salazar's "Sheck It Out" Latin Comedy night. "It's going to be pretty big for me. Hopefully it will bring more work."