A look back at 12 of the biggest stars to play the club since it opened in 1988
McCurdy’s 30-Year Anniversary Week with Dale Jones: June 21-24; $18-$21; McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre, 1923 Ringling Blvd., Sarasota; 941-925-3869; mccurdyscomedy.com
Before some of the world’s biggest comics played sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden and other 20,000-capacity venues, they performed at a Sarasota club that seats a few hundred.
McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre celebrates 30 years next week with “Last Comic Standing” semifinalist Dale Jones, including an invitation-only anniversary show June 20. Other comedians who have played the venue over the years include Chris Rock, Amy Schumer and Louis C.K.
After running a comedy club in his native Chattanooga, Tennessee, and mulling a move to Los Angeles, owner and comic Les McCurdy and his wife Pam decided to open McCurdy’s in 1988 in Sarasota as a banquet room inside a Holiday Inn.
McCurdy’s remained there for 10 years before moving to a Clark Road lounge, then a former movie theater on the North Trail, along with attempts at second locations in Venice and on Stickney Point Road. In 2014, McCurdy’s settled in its current spot on downtown Sarasota’s Ringling Boulevard.
To commemorate 30 years, the Herald-Tribune talked to Les about some of the biggest comedians who have played his venue.
Les said the first celebrity to play McCurdy’s was Jeff Foxworthy at the start of the ’90s, not long before Foxworthy released the hit album “You Might Be a Redneck If … ,” and he initially wasn’t sure if a celebrity act would work in Sarasota. But the show turned out great, Les said, and Foxworthy would visit the club a couple more times before he got too big to play there.
Larry the Cable Guy
In the ’90s, Dan Whitney was a comic who would play the character Larry the Cable Guy on the Tampa Bay radio program “The Ron and Ron Show,” where the act quickly became popular. Les suggested Whitney do a stand-up set as Larry the Cable Guy while he was playing McCurdy’s, and as Whitney told the Herald-Tribune in 2013, “from that day on, I’ve never looked back and it’s paid huge dividends.”
McCurdy’s would get customer requests for far-too-famous acts like Robin Williams and Billy Crystal in the ’90s, but also “Peanut,” which Les later learned was the puppet of comedy ventriloquist Jeff Dunham. He would go on to perform at McCurdy’s several times, including the year before first headlining Amalie Arena, as thanks to the Sarasota club that had supported him.
Les said his most memorable McCurdy’s moment was booking Tommy Chong, as he grew up in the ’70s adoring Cheech and Chong, and the comic would return to McCurdy’s several times after his first visit in the mid-’90s. Les wasn’t alone in his adoration — fans would walk up to Chong and offer him joints, and one person even presented him with a briefcase full of marijuana.
When Rock made his sole McCurdy’s appearance in 1996, it was after his time as a “Saturday Night Live” cast member but before the release of his HBO special “Bring the Pain” that would launch his second career as a stand-up superstar. Les said Rock “was a pleasure, easy, a fantastic show,” but remarkably quiet offstage in contrast to his onstage persona.
White first performed at McCurdy’s around 2003, when he was still on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour with Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy and Bill Engvall. Yet even after Blue Collar ended and White became a big draw in his own right, Les said the comic has returned to McCurdy’s to play unannounced warm-up shows before recent headlining dates at Van Wezel.
The future actress and host of “Archer,” “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and “The Talk” is also a comic who first played McCurdy’s in 2003, when she was then starring on “Friends.” Tyler returned to Sarasota in 2017 as a Sarasota Film Festival celebrity guest, holding the world premiere for her directorial debut “Axis” across the street from McCurdy’s at Regal Hollywood.
The legendary comedian who’s been around since the ’50s played a show at Van Wezel, where he regularly performed, then went to watch his comic friend Elayne Boosler at McCurdy’s. Then in 2005, he decided to play the club himself and Les said the then-73-year-old performed an incredible set — “he was poignant, he was edgy, he was topical.”
When C.K. played McCurdy’s in 2007, he wasn’t yet the star who could sell out Madison Square Garden prior to his sexual misconduct scandal, but he’d already released his HBO series “Lucky Louie” and debut special “Shameless.” He came to the Sarasota venue as part of a comedy club tour prior to taping his special “Chewed Up,” which would help make him a stand-up superstar.
When Les got offered the chance in 2008 to book Morgan, then starring on “30 Rock” in a role that would earn him an Emmy nomination, he couldn’t believe the comic wasn’t playing somewhere larger. He later learned perhaps why, as Morgan performed what Les said was an outrageously filthy set and one of the worst shows the club ever had.
Before Schumer starred in films and sold out Madison Square Garden, she was a “Last Comic Standing” finalist touring the comedy club circuit including McCurdy’s, with Les encouraging her to improvise and incorporate her offstage personality. She later told the Herald-Tribune she has “so much love for Les and the whole fam at McCurdy’s. Thanks for believing in me before anybody.”
By the time O’Donnell played McCurdy’s in 2014, she was already an Emmy-winning comedian, actress and host of “The View,” “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” and the Tony Awards. She had to cancel her initial dates due to an abscessed tooth, but made them up, and enjoyed the Sarasota area enough that she briefly owned a Casey Key home.