Making way for laughter

Stand-up comedian AJ Wilkerson tells the crowd at World of Beer in Tioga Town Center that he wears a turban to the airport and puts a kitchen timer in his pants to make sure he gets a thorough pat down by the TSA. 

Ha, ha, ha. The crowd laughs at the thought of this and Wilkerson is energized by the response. Wilkerson goes on, running through his routine as he sets the stage for an evening of laughs arranged by Keg of Laughs. The group scouts and secures local and national comedy talent and then books them at bars, restaurants and other venues through Gainesville and Alachua County.

A slew of talent follows Wilkerson and a range of jokes touching on topics from sharing a bathroom with two sisters to racial profiling, college debt, bucket lists and current events such as the coronavirus. 

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Some comedians are there to get noticed, make people laugh and hopefully jump to a fulltime career while others are performing because it’s a calling they consider to be a hobby. 

University of Florida TV Production Professor Houston Wells said he performs comedy several times a week to fulfill his childhood dream. “Every since I was a kid I watched stand-up comics on TV,” Houston said and added that he wanted to have a family and a job that didn’t require him to be on the road. “I’m pushing 50 now, and still keep coming back to it,” he said. “So two or three nights a week I try to get out.” 

Keg of Laughs Manager Bob Smith, 59, has been part of the local comedy scene since the 1970s when he was a fan watching performers such as Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and Bill Cosby take the stage at comedy venues or at the annual Gator Growl.

In 1991, Smith said he was in the right place at the right time when Coconuts Comedy Club opened in the local Holiday Inn. He was one of the first people to perform there. “It brought in national touring people,” he said, until the Clarion Hotel took over and got rid of the comedy program.

Fellow comedy advocates Jamie Morgan and Monte Allen approached Smith and asked if he would help them with teaching and running the Gainesville Comedy Showcase and after five years Smith left that venture and came onboard to help manage Kegs of Laughs.

It took off and that lead to the arrangement with World of Beer in Tioga Town Center where the Manager Kerry Brock welcomed them. “They wanted us to be there and it started to grow,” Smith said.

When Brock took over the 34th Street World of Beer location in July 2019, Smith was asked to add the showcase to that venue. “And it has just snowballed,” Smith said.

Now, on Sunday afternoons at 3 p.m. aspiring stand-up comics gather at WOB to practice their craft and receive feedback from their peers.

“Depending on how many people are there they offer suggestions,” Smith said about the workshops. “It’s a group writing dynamic. Your material will grow with all those people helping.”

Smith said that comedy is not easy. “Of all of the performing arts, it’s the hardest one. With comedy it’s magic with words. You know right away when people don’t like it.”

Smith’s goal for people who want to get into the industry is to attend the workshops and continue to practice. “We help people find their voice,” he said. “We give them a platform, educate them and then graduate them.”

In February, The Keys restaurant at Celebration Pointe decided to push its dueling pianos aside and added a Wednesday night weekly comedy series arranged by Gainesville Comedy Showcase.

General Manager Axel Giaccone said the stage and layout of the restaurant are a fit for comedy. “Being a new restaurant with a venue like this, we were thinking of alternative entertainment for people in Gainesville,” he said. “It is becoming a draw.”

That draw has convinced Brock from WOB to add another night recently. “Comedy is one of the many options we do to add to the value of the guest experience,” he said. “The offset of that is that is does bring in additional people.”

The 34th Street WOB has the right set up for comedy, Brock added. “This location has a private room which is conducive and we added a second night, open mic Wednesday along with the comedy showcase on Fridays at 8 p.m.”

The trend of adding more stage time is giving comics more places to hone their skills and more places for people to enjoy their routines. Additional nights and venues are on the rise at other locations in Gainesville and beyond. Comedy acts are booked at The Midnight on Main Street in Gainesville, the High Dive Gainesville and the Woodyard Grill in Newberry.

This is good news for Smith who takes the stage occasionally but has put his role as mentor above performing. “With as much talent as we have here now,” he said, “I don’t have an inclination to go back on the road again. 

“When I’m at the shows I sit by the stage timing everybody and giving them the light when it’s time to wrap it up.”

About the Author

Suzette Cook has been a community journalist for 30 years. She was a journalism instructor for 15 years and earned her MAMC from the University of Florida. She is covering the County, school board, religion, environment and arts for Mainstreet Daily News.


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