Following Comedy Central success, J.B. Ball returns to Tampa for in-person stand-up sets

The BOTB-winning comic headlines Side Splitters this weekend.

click to enlarge Following Comedy Central success, J.B. Ball returns to Tampa for in-person stand-up sets

This weekend, Side Splitters brings in a nationally-touring headliner with an impressive list of credits.

The club does that every week, but this time it's a little different. This headliner grew up, and got his comedic start, right here in Tampa Bay. 

J.B. Ball would hit open mics and jump on shows throughout Tampa Bay for years, honing his skills until he could move to a bigger comedy scene and get noticed. That scene would be Los Angeles, and he quickly got noticed by Comedy Central and other production companies.

J.B. Ball
Thu.-Sun. Sept. 10-13
Side Splitters
12938 N. Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa
(Seating is limited to 50% capacity, so four-tops will only hold two people. That also means you should tip the servers and bartenders like your money is on fire)

Now, the former Best of the Bay (Best Comedian) winner is back on tour with a stop at Side Splitters, where he can reconnect with friends, play his old home club and share his thoughts on what's been happening in the world. 

We caught up with Ball for a Q&A that covers what he's been doing since he moved, the NBA bubble and his new comedy album, Ball4President

Five years ago you had already won the Florida's Funniest Comedian competition and were named Best Stand-Up Comedian at CL's Best of the Bay awards. Then you moved to Los Angeles. Catch us up from there. 

In 2016 I was selected for "New Faces" for the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, which is the biggest and most prestigious comedy festival in the world. I performed there, found my management, and it became clear that I would need to move to either L.A. or NYC for bigger opportunities. It took a lot of hustle to financially get to a place where I could make the move, but eventually I was able to (move to L.A.).

So I've only been in L.A. for two and a half years. I wrote a couple sketches on my third day there based on news stories I read that week, my manager sent them to representatives at Comedy Central who liked them, and just like that I had a meeting with Comedy Central. 

Not long after, we produced a sketch I wrote called "National Friendship Day" which was like a funny PSA about the concept of the holiday that gets out of hand. Not long after that I wrote "Who's The Goat: MJ vs Lebron" which went on to become one of Comedy Central Digital's most successful sketches. I think we got over 3 million views across social media platforms in only two weeks. The success of those led to me creating more sketches for Kevin Hart's company, LOL Network, where we had to pull off filming five sketches all in one day which is just insanity to accomplish. I'm wildly proud of them.

So to my point, I went into L.A. with no connections to the sketch comedy community going in, impressed some people in a role of power, and started to form a team of people that I absolutely love to work with in that space. Now two-ish years later I know so much about what I'm looking to accomplish with a sketch, what we'll need to accomplish it, and who to call to make it happen.

Obviously, the L.A. scene has a lot more opportunities than the Tampa Bay area. But after seeing both up close, is there anything we do better, or that you missed after you left?

To be fair, it's hard to really say what we do better than one of the two largest comedy hubs in the country. But what comes to mind, honestly, is Brian Thompson and Side Splitters Comedy Club. I mean that truly. Having a club that actually cares that much about being invested in developing comics is so much more rare than people know. I've nearly performed in every state in the country at this point, and Thompson's interest in how to help local talent improve truly stands out.

If it weren't for Brian and that club, I may not have achieved any of things I have up to this point in my career. It's not enough to have drive and skill. You also need people who care to help you succeed, and that club and staff has supported me in abundance. 

You use a lot of different media to stay creative, but stand-up comedians like to perform stand-up comedy. How much work have you lost due to the virus, and how did you deal with going for long stretches without getting on stage at all?

Oh, the pandemic essentially eliminated nearly all work live performances from my calendar. I was never interested in doing any kind of virtual shows, not that I'd say they aren't worth a watch. But for me personally, I couldn't see myself having fun the way I like because I wouldn't feel the fun of connecting with the crowd. So I've used this time to creatively search for new ways to share jokes with people in a high-quality way. I decided to write, produce, perform, and film sketches that I would typically pitch to Comedy Central or LOL Network on my dollar, and give them away for free on my YouTube and Instagram pages for people to enjoy.

You're coming back to Side Splitters not as a guy looking for more stage time, but as the out-of-town headliner for that weekend. Do you approach it differently when you're in that role? How is performing here going to be different than being in any other city?

Yeah, it's always nice coming home, but there is this odd dynamic of being slightly foreign now. I wish I could say that I approach the show differently, but the truth is I really don't. I just try to make sure I have some new material to share so that people never feel like I do the exact same show. And I make sure I have something unexpected planned that even I don't know how it'll be received—just so we can all share a unique experience together that you couldn't get from someone else's show.

Ball4President is your new comedy album. Is it a soundtrack for your music comedy sketches, or is it a collection of your comedy songs that all have elaborate videos? Which part came first, the audio or the video?

Yeah, the way I see the album is secondary to the videos themselves. The intent was to take stand-up premises of mine and just turn them into funny music videos for people to enjoy instead. I tried to focus on making the songs as catchy as possible, though, so that if you just wanted to be able to enjoy the songs, the album gives you the option to download or stream them at your leisure. So you can say the audio came first, but with the absolute intention of filming a video. None of these are supposed to be songs you only listen to.

You've released a lot of successful sketches in a short period of time on various platforms. If you could make everybody watch one sketch of yours that sums up what you do, what would it be?  

That's such a hard question because I set a goal to make a wide variety of sketches, so none of them feel like each other. There are unique things I genuinely love about each sketch that the others don't have, but my personal favorite at the moment is Training Day on LOL Network's YouTube page. I just love it so much because it's an idea I had for like 15 years and I got to act so absurd spoofing Denzel's character.

Your Champs to the White House comedy sketch features cameos by a number of Tampa comedians (and Best of the Bay winners) like John Jacobs, Rahn Hortman and Matt Fernandez. Fernandez is also your feature this weekend. What's it like to see and work with your Tampa comedian friends after spending time apart?

To take it a step further, the rest of the cast of basketball players were all players I grew up playing basketball with in high school or in college. It was like finally getting to blend some of my favorite people from both parts of my life. I'm really big on community. My friends are my family (my family is also my family just to be clear). But John, Matt, and Rahn already know how I feel about working with them since day one. It's always been my dream to be able to work with them in bigger capacities and every chance I have to include them in something of mine, I will. As far as I'm concerned, if I win, they win.

You clearly don't ignore COVID-19 entirely, but how much do you plan to discuss it on stage? 

Oh, I intend to talk about it, but not to the point of exhaustion. It's too relevant to not address, but I wouldn't talk about it if I didn't feel like I had something special to say. I'm pretty sure I've got some things to say that might allow people an opportunity to laugh through the hardship instead of feeling weighed down by it, at least for a little bit.

You were a star basketball player at the University of Tampa. What are your thoughts regarding the NBA bubble, the playoffs so far and how you'd feel about playing the game in front of no fans? 

Man, that feels so long ago now. Personally, I've been loving the NBA Bubble games. I think it's been put together so well. The level of play hasn't gone down without a crowd (to my surprise) and I couldn't be more grateful to see if my Clippers can get a championship ring. I'm surrounded by so many Lakers fans every day, and to rub this in their faces would pretty much solidify 2020 as a "Twilight Zone" episode.

And to answer your question, I'd have no problem playing basketball in front of no crowd. I played at the University of Tampa for four years. I'm a bubble veteran at this point. I say that with love. I love UT, but let's be honest: How many games have any of ya'll come out to watch?

You don't really stick to a script on stage, preferring to take comedic detours and keeping a lot of spontaneity in your set. What makes you choose your direction each night, or each moment? How does the audience affect what you choose to do?        

Yeah, I actually write a ton of material obsessively—to the point where my manager literally calls me "Idea Guy". But it's importantl to me that things feel as organic as possible. So I just try to be prepared with plenty to talk about, and I just trust my gut on which things to bring up and share with the crowd as I get a better read of their temperament. I want to feel connected with the people I perform for. I talk to you, not at you. Because at the core of things I just want us to feel like friends, and I want to share with you some things that brought a laugh to me in hopes that they'll do the same for you.

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