by KATIE GILE
Tucked away in a Beach Boulevard plaza just west of St. John’s Bluff stands the brand-new Comedy Club of Jacksonville. Outside, the club is understated, its moniker subtly announcing its presence to passersby. Once inside, classic rock floods from a room out of sight into the crimson, black and slate lobby. As Comedy Club hosts and hostesses escort guests to their tables, they’re transported into a nightlife scene.
With a floor plan to rival a hotel ballroom and accommodations for over 250 guests, the brand-new Comedy Club is ready to provide a great night in comfort and class. The club is stocked with a full kitchen and bar, with a focus on “real food,” says club owner, Steve Smith.
In addition to its streamlined aesthetic and cozy offerings, this venue stands apart from others with the requirement of mostly-clean material from its comics. “A lot of clubs just don’t care as long as it brings people in,” Smith says. “We want people to come in and laugh without the embarrassment.”
Smith said the comic rating system at his Comedy Club of Jacksonville allows for the kind of place to take a date or even in-laws without worrying about outrageously blue humor. The comics taking the stage for the 8 pm Friday and Saturday night shows must have material no coarser than what Smith calls a “Soft-R,” which means adult humor with no hard-core vulgarity or content. “The comedians we book are professional and polished. The first priority is great entertainers,” Smith says.
As the time wound closer to the night’s first show, the dining room filled and guests buzzed back and forth between tables, shaking hands and embracing old friends. Others settled in, ready to order a drink from the club’s smiling servers, who kept tabs on the nearly 90 tables with tablets.
The show, which benefited the Fraternal Order of Policemen, featured host Gary “That Guy” Anderson, Donnell “DW” Widemond, Jeremy Campbell, with featured comic Danny Johnson and the night’s headliner, Caroline Rhea. Anderson, Widemond and Campbell took the stage for short durations, tickling the crowd’s various funny-bones and bringing the energy to a near hum.
As Johnson riffed on everything from favorite foods to the Wii Fit, the crowd grew more raucous. At the end of Johnson’s act, Anderson welcomed Caroline Rhea to the stage to a deafening crowd response.
The vivacious Rhea, well known as Aunt Hilda on “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch,” and as a stand-up comedian for 24 years, bounded onto the stage. Bubbling with energy and self-deprecating humor, Rhea charmed the audience into hysterical laughter, offering her take on relationships, her daughter Ava, Florida weather and more.
After the first show, Rhea sat down to talk with us about her career and the business of standing-up. “I’ve been wanting to do this since I was nine years old,” she said. “This and being an actress was what I’ve always wanted to do. And then I became a mother, so that was much more interesting. I’ve been really lucky, and I’ve done all the things I’ve set out to do. Now I’m doing it for fun, and I bring my daughter with me.”
Rhea said putting together the necessary clean show for Smith’s stage didn’t worry her. In fact, Rhea said Smith’s comic rating standards are liberal by comparison to a college show she performed in her twenties. “A woman came up to me before the show and said, ‘Please don’t say any swear words. Please don’t say anything about relationships. Please don’t say anything about either of your parents. Don’t say anything about sex in any way,’” Rhea said. “And I’m like ‘OK, then I’m going to be doing a lot of mime and maybe charades. And a few animal sounds.’”
Feature-comic Danny Johnson, who’s polished his act in every venue from comedy clubs to churches throughout most of the Southeast, agreed that Smith’s ratings weren’t a challenge for him. “I work clean. I enjoy the challenge of being clean,” Johnson said. “I respect all comedians, and I respect what they do. But blue humor just isn’t my thing.”
Regardless of the venue or the specific rules therein, both comedians agreed that the show is about the people there to see it, if nothing else. “It’s just about connecting with people in different places,” Rhea said. “[New crowds] scared me a bit at the beginning, but I like the fact that we all have something in common. I think, for human beings, laughing together is a healthy end-product.”
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