Orlando comedy boom: An interview with Tom Feeney
Orlando’s local standup comedy scene is booming right now. Local comics have honed their skills at open mic nights at places like Austin’s Coffee, the Other Bar and Drunken Monkey and are now doing well-worth-your-time showcases at places like Spacebar, Bull and Bush and Will’s Pub. Orlando Weekly has had a bit of a blind spot when it comes to our local comedians, but we’re going to try to correct that, starting with a series of interviews with the folks that brave rejection and humiliation to make us laugh week after week. Our first interview is with Tom Feeney, who hosts Spacebar’s weekly Wednesday night comedy show and the Quarterly, a showcase at Will’s Pub that generally happens every three months.
Orlando Weekly: So how long have you been doing comedy?
Tom Feeney: It’s been about 2 years and 2 or 4 months. It was two years in January, so whatever that math is.
OW: When was the first time that you decided that you were going to get up on stage and tell jokes?
TF: I always grew up on The Office and It’s Always Sunny and funny shows, and then one summer when I was 18, I just started getting into standup. Usually people get in way earlier if they’re comics, but I found it when I was 18 and I just started watching Louis [C.K.] and Zach Galifianakis and a few of those other specials. And then Kyle Kinane. When I found him later, that was like … I still have his album framed on my wall. And then I just Googled “open mics” because I had listened to podcasts and they said, “Oh, do an open mic.” Comics would talk about it. I found Austin’s Coffee, so I just went there. It’s like a Sunday night open mic they have. I went there the first time and just watched. I remember I saw Nick Pupo and Matt Gersting. I remember I thought Nick was really funny. Matt Gersting had this joke about looking like Billy Corgan that I thought was great. But yeah, I was like, “Oh, some of these guys are definitely really good,” but some of the other guys I was like, “I bet I could be as funny as that.”
OW: So you didn’t perform that first time you went to the open mic?
TF: No, I know I went once and signed up, or wanted to sign up, but backed out. And then another time I signed up and tried to back out. … I tried to say, “Hey, I gotta go to school in the morning. I got an early class.” It was, like, an 11:00 class. I was just nervous as shit and didn’t want to do it. But then Big Tim Murphy was like, “No, I’ll get you up, man.” And I was like, “No, I should just probably go.” And he was like, “Nah, brother.” And so he got me up there and he warned the audience, “This is his first time doing standup. Be real nice to him.” I remember I got a few laughs, but I think it was more sympathy laughs. I remember at one point I was forgetting a line and I apologized to the crowd, “I’m sorry. I forgot.” And somebody went, “Oh, no, that’s okay.” [laughs] Great person, whoever that was.
OW: What do you think was the change, then? Was it just practicing and trial and error?
TF: It’s more of finding how you are funny. Like a certain rhythm you have that you hit. I mean, I still miss it nights now. I’m still not a great comic or anything. But there are times now on stage where I’m thinking, “This is exactly how it should be.” It doesn’t even matter if the next joke is a little weak, because I’m still in that tone, in that groove. I’m making it better than what it is. Once you start to be able to perform a joke better than what it is, that’s when you start feeling more comfortable, more confident. And comfortability and confidence goes a long ways.
OW: So the network of comedians around here, is that a big draw for you to keep on doing comedy? You guys seem pretty tight-knit.
TF: Every kind of scene, no matter where it is, from a smaller scene to New York, they each have their different … not even a “clique” really, but like, “Oh, that guy does this for the same reasons with the same, integrity, I guess, that I do.” And you respect that and you build friendships, so … It is fairly tight-knit in sections, I guess. And they overlap. It’s not like we treat anybody that we don’t really agree with … Like, I have people where I don’t really like their comedy, but I’m friends with them, you know? But guys like Nick and Luchun and guys like that, those are the ones that push me because I watch them and … It’s a little competitive, but a friendly and a beneficial competition. We just kind of push each other. There’ll be a month where I’m doing better on stage than Nick is, and then it’ll flip-flop and it’s like “Shit, well I gotta get back up there,” and so it’s kind of a little like a tug of war or whatever.
OW: How is it backstage? Do you guys critique each other’s jokes, or is it mostly supportive?
TF: The other night at Bull and Bush, Nick got off stage and went “Hm. You made some interesting choices.” You can tell when someone really is trying at a joke and really believes in it, and you’re not gonna shit on that because it’s like, “Okay, I know that you’re good. If you trust in this idea, then I know there’s something there. I can’t see it yet.” So it’s not outright shitting on it, it’s more “What are you doing with that?” or “You’re being too hostile here.” Or “You’re not being hostile enough.” But it’s mostly making fun of each other. That’s mostly what it is. For non-comedy-related things.
OW: What are your favorite topics for jokes?
TF: Every joke that I write is a story that I’ve had in my life. It can be a story that spans a week or three minutes.
OW: So like that story about your neighbor who smoked crack on your porch?
TF: Yeah, he came up once and then left, but then the second time he came, that was what the whole bit is based on, just that three minute interaction.
OW: And were you thinking at the time that this was going to make a good joke?
TF: Half of me was like, “Fuck, I need to get away from this person. How do I get away from him?” And then the other part of me hit record on my iPhone so I didn’t miss anything that he said. There’s definitely a part of you that goes “Ding!” when you encounter it. “That’s something. Something could happen.”
OW: What’s your favorite part of doing comedy?
TF: I can’t say exactly why. I just remember when I first started doing it, how cool I thought it was and how awesome I thought it would be if all of my friends were the funniest people. And to be seen that way is great, but … Basically, standup is the only thing I’ve ever been willing to work hard at. It’s the only thing I’ve tried to work at. That’s it.
OW: And what’s the worst thing about being an Orlando comedian?
TF: The worst thing about being an Orlando comic is definitely just being outside of Stardust as the show’s going on and somebody walks by and goes “Heh. They’re doing comedy in there.” A few people, they haven’t seen it at – not even its best, just when it’s good. Like if you walk into Bull and Bush or one of the other good shows, you might walk away saying “I didn’t like that,” but at least you’d also have to go, “A lot of people seemed to like that, so I can’t really shit on it.” Now if you walk into Stardust and the comics are onstage going “This fuckin’ sucks” and the audience is going “Yeah, this does fucking suck” and everyone’s like “Shit, why are we here,” then of course you’re gonna be like “Oh, comedy.” And I bet that most of the people that say that haven’t even been to a standup show, they’ve just seen Seinfeld and they just go like, “Oh, is he gonna talk about crackers? Tell me another joke about crackers.”
OW: Are you comfortable talking about this comedy festival that you’ve been planning? Where are you with that?
TF: Yeah, it’s in the early planning stages right now. I think it’s gonna happen, regardless. The only question is who’s willing to be a sponsor of the event and who will headline the event. … It’s called the Orlando Independent Comedy Festival. We’re aiming for the end of September.
OW: Most people that are into comedy know that it’s New York or L.A. as far as places to get known. How do you see the Orlando comedy scene, burgeoning as it is, feeding into that? Do you think it’ll be kind of a feeder system where people that get known here go off to those places?
TF: It’ll be more of that. Just because you can’t get the same opportunities and you can’t see the same – you can’t pop into a place and see John Mulaney working on jokes. I don’t think it’ll ever be a New York or L.A., but what it could be is a Chicago. There’s a few guys, Pete Holmes, Kyle Kinane, Kumail Nanjiani, T.J. Miller – a few of those guys all started around the same time in Chicago and they kind of started at this time in Chicago when no one was really coming to see standup. And by the time they left, they had built a solid scene. That’s kind of how it feels here. A year ago, I could not have done the Will’s Pub show here because I wouldn’t have had enough guys who were good enough to do it. But in that year, they’ve gotten much better. So now it’s worth $5 or $6 to see these 5 guys doing their best stuff. The way it’s going, I think it could be, “Oh, Orlando in that period pumped out a few really good comics.” Maybe nobody that ever reaches the Louis C.K. range, but maybe like a lot of guys that have Comedy Central specials or are – in the comedy world – are big or well-known, but not to the general public or whatever. And as standup overall just keeps growing throughout the U.S., that could change things.
OW: Or maybe, particularly with this festival idea, at least making Orlando a place that touring comics want to hit?
TF: Yeah, nobody really knows. People are just like, “Florida? It’s fuckin’ weird down there.” And there are parts where, yeah, it’s fuckin’ weird. But Orlando seems to have a burgeoning arts scene going on. So if we can just get that known, that at least Orlando is good, that’d be great.
Here’s a short clip of Tom Feeney’s material. Catch him at Spacebar every Wednesday night and at various showcases and open mics around town.