It takes years to build a strong stand-up comedy act, so you know that the comedians who put in that kind of time are dedicated. But the ones who have been doing it for at least 25 years are more than dedicated. They might even be a bit crazy.
In any case, they love the stage and crowds love their experience and comfortable presence in front of the mic. They have long resumes, memories and staying power. These are the comedy "lifers," and three of them will be showcasing their talents at 25 To Life, held at Tampa Improv tonight at 8 p.m. In advance of the show, we had a semi-serious discussion with comedy vets Carmen Ciricillo, Steve Arik and Mike Rivera about performing and persevering over the years.
CL: At most of your shows it's basically you in the headlining spot, with less-seasoned performers opening up. How do you feel about doing a show like 25 To Life where you get to work with other performers at your experience level?
Carmen: I love it. When you get to reunite with comics that you've known for years it creates a more enjoyable overall show experience for me, and I think for the audience.
Steve: It takes away any pressure. I don't even have to be funny and the audience will still get their money's worth!
What is it about stand-up that's kept you involved for so many years?
Steve: I'm actually a pretty shy and introverted person. If I didn't get in front of audiences, I would never do anything or meet anyone.
Mike: It's just become part of my life. If I'm not doing a show on the weekend, I start getting antsy about 8:30.
Who are some household names that you knew personally before they became famous?
Steve: Carrot Top, Larry The Cable Guy, Jim Breuer, Darrell Hammond, Billy Gardel...and Mike Rivera.
Carmen: Drew Carey, Brian Posehn and Steve Harvey. Not too many. Most comics that hung around me never made it!
Mike: How about some comics I have worked with over the years who should have been household names? Please look up Larry Bubbles Brown, Steven Pearl and Lank and Earl on Youtube. They are the comics who influenced me and would stack up with anyone.
Do you still get nervous before you go on stage? Any "pre-game rituals" you still stick with?
Steve: I cross myself as I walk to the stage. It has nothing to do with religion; it's mimicking a prize-fighter entering the ring.
Mike: Always nervous; I feed off it. I always write out an outline of my set. I shut down before a show. Also, wherever I am, I call my kids for good luck.
Where's the weirdest place you've done comedy?
Carmen: The front room of somebody's house. There wasn't enough room, so people watched me from the kitchen and the other adjoining rooms.
Mike: Mugs and Jugs...with the lights and every TV on during the NBA Finals.
When you started out, you were young and probably didn't have the responsibilities you have now. How do you draw new material from what you experience as you get older?
Carmen: Whatever is prominent in my life at that time is what I'm talking about. Since I'm married with three kids, two dogs and constantly blowing money, there's plenty going on.
Steve: I have become way more irresponsible as I get older.
Mike, you were recently named "America's Funniest Teacher" after your performance on ABC's The View. How does comedy affect your teaching style and vice-versa?
My teaching style has always been to make the kids laugh and learn. They're over the "America's Funniest Teacher." That's old news to them, and they love to remind me of that. Crowds expect me talk more about teaching and keep in on the PG-13 side. It will come, but it's the logistics of working out the material.
Carmen, you've built a name for yourself as "The Construction Comic," with comedy and music CDs, and appearances at everything from private conventions to NASCAR events. What is it about your stage presence that people relate to?
Carmen: They get the humor in the character's flaws - he's late on the job, is over budget and maybe not completely above board. Even with all that he's likable because he makes fun of himself. Actually, I have no idea!
Steve, you have plenty of accolades, including a previous nod as "Best Local Comedian" in Creative Loafing's annual "Best of the Bay" awards. What kept you going when you were first starting out and struggling to make a name for yourself?
I started in the 80s when they treated comedians like rock stars. It was sex, drugs, and limo service. It's been years since a club sent a limo for me.
How about a quick road story?
Mike: Many years ago, I was doing a show in Louisiana. KKK alum David Duke was running for governor and was at the so-called height of his 15 minutes of fame. I find out before the show that he and his Aryans would be in the audience. I made some jokes about it in an intellectual fashion hoping they would go over their head. The whole time on stage, thoughts of myself being found in a ditch the next morning raced through my head. I survived, and Gene Hackman and the FBI did not have to come down (Mississippi Burning reference).
Carmen: Had a gig in Valdosta, Georgia at a theater. Huge crowd, show was going great — except for this girl in the front row who would not shut up. I did my best damage control, confronted her and got the crowd on my side, but she was still distracting me and everyone around her. She was so oblivious as I was performing that I was able to get her purse without her knowing. Once she realized it was gone and that I had it, she stood up and threw a beer on me. I immediately dumped her entire purse on the stage. The crowd was not happy. I told one more joke and got the hell out of there before they beat the crap out of me!
Steve: Most of my road stories are far too X-rated to print.
One G-rated story: I was working a club in Ohio that was located inside of a hotel. The week that I was there, there was a dog show going on, and every entrant was staying in that hotel. The other comic and I went out and bought dog whistles and roamed around the halls at 3 AM blowing them. It was amazing how, once one dog started barking, they all joined in. We called the front desk and complained about the noise. Since our rooms were already comped, they gave us free meals in the hotel restaurant to compensate us for the inconvenience.
The 25 To Life show is tonight at 8 p.m. at Tampa Improv, 1600 E. Eighth Ave. in Ybor City. For more information, visit iimprovtampa.com or call 813-864-4000.