Whatever they have left behind in the daylight hours – hectic routines, busy travel schedules, stressful jobs – they are all here for the same reason: to laugh.
They have congregated here during that time of night when this section of Tampa, called Ybor City, is in full swing. The sidewalk bars and restaurants are teeming; thumping music and blasts of artic air escape from dance halls through opened doors; cigar smoke hovers in the ether; and people-watching is at its best.
Outside the Improv Tampa comedy theater and restaurant – located in a red-brick building in this historic part of town that once housed cigar factories and neighborhoods full of Cuban, Italian and Spanish immigrants – a line of people waits to get inside.
They are clusters of girlfriends, some in tight-hugging skirts and high heels, others in dresses or blouses and jeans. Small groups of guy friends wear polo shirts or jackets. There are couples on date nights out on the town, their children left at home. For no one under 21 is allowed past these doors.
Since the slowdown of the 1990s, Improv comedy clubs that once cast their spotlight on the likes of Richard Pryor, Billy Crystal and Lily Tomlin, have made a comeback alongside a new generation of talent, from Jamie Foxx to Dave Chappelle to Sarah Silverman. In the last decade, the Improv comedy clubs began to expand, opening in new cities in the United States and Canada, including Tampa and West Palm Beach.
Five Florida cities now host Improv clubs, offering residents and visitors alike more nighttime entertainment. Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Orlando and Tampa provide a nighttime adult oasis for visitors after daytime hours spent at the beach and theme parks or while on a hiatus from a cruise.
Visitors can check out the schedules online to learn who’s in town and when, planning nights out to see comedians like Godfrey or Tom Wilson or to attend special events with such big names as D.L. Hughley and Gabriel Iglesias and Mo’Nique.
On this evening, for local Tampa residents Ron Palacios, 50, and his wife, Janise Palacios, 42, it’s date night.
“I needed to relieve stress from work,” says Janise, a retail manager, originally from Wisconsin before she joined the military, which is where she later met Ron, who is now based at the nearby MacDill Air Force Base. She did a search on the Internet and found that comedian Felipe Esparza would be at the Improv. After seeing one of his acts on television, the two jumped at the chance to see him in person.
Janise, dressed in a red cocktail dress, moves with Ron and the crowd through the entrance and the bar section, a cozy way-station with a long wooden bar, tall tables and lime-green and brick walls, continuing the feel of the historic district outside. Inside the show room, couples and larger parties are seated on a first-come-first-serve basis at tables radiating out from an intimate stage as well as upstairs in the balcony seating. Walls are lined with photos of some of stand-up’s greats: Jerry Seinfeld, Carlos Mencia, Chris Rock. Waiters get busy taking food and drink orders. Ron and Janise luck out and get a table several rows out and straight in front of the stage.
After two warm-up acts, Esparza, a winner of the seventh season of “Last Comic Standing,” takes to the stage in faded blue jeans and a T-shirt under a blue, button-down shirt that is snug over his large belly, a favorite butt of his jokes.
His face is often covered with his long, disheveled curly black hair, which he frequently sweeps out of his eyes. He immediately launches into stories and jokes on topics like race, immigration, his family and how he is unlikely to ever have a date with two women at once – though worded a bit differently.
“This is a turn-off-the-lights body,” he quips, rubbing his belly as the audience roars. “A leave-your-shirt-on body. This is a tell-no-body.”
The rest of the show is filled with jokes and stories on everything from relationships and dating to what it’s like getting into a car accident with a motorist who doesn’t have insurance “either.”
When it’s all over, and the lights come up, waiters busily clean up the tables as the crowd starts filing out. Ron and Janise try to relax their face muscles. They certainly found what they were looking for. Their cheeks are stiff from more than an hour-and-a-half of laughing.
If you go…
Improv Comedy clubs are located in five Florida cities, including Tampa, Orlando, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. To find clubs by city and for a schedule of comedians and ticket information, visit http://improv.com/index.cfm