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Comics collective aims to create stand-up scene in Tampa

By Paul Guzzo
Published: May 28, 2015 Updated: May 28, 2015 at 04:58 PM
Joe Riga compares the comics' group to hip-hop group The Wu-Tang Clan. . Photo provided by Cigar City Comedy.

They sell out shows, open for touring comedians, appear on MTV and rated a mention on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”

But working together, they hope to achieve something even greater — by creating a local comedy scene.

That philosophy will be on display when the collective appears today through Sunday at St. Petersburg’s Coconuts Comedy Club, 5501 Gulf Blvd. Tickets are at cigarcitycomedy.com. Each show begins at 9:30 p.m. and will include at least five comics.

That means five times the laughs, they say.

To carry the math further, if each member lures his or her personal fan base, that’s 13 times the audience.

“When we formed three years ago I think the local comedy scene was fragmented,” said Cigar City comedy member Law Smith, 30, who has been performing nine years. “We want independent comedy shows to be part of the weekend culture. The best way to do that is by working together.”

Indeed, they show solidarity in building their audience. But not so much when it comes to describing their cooperative.

Smith compares Cigar City Comedy to the fictional super hero force the X-Men.

“Everyone has their own careers,” he said. “Then we join up for real cool stuff.”

Member Joe Riga prefers comparisons to hip-hop group The Wu-Tang Clan.

Considered one of the greatest rap collectives of all time, founding members of Wu-Tang already had success as solo acts before joining to become something even greater.

“X-Men is a real nerdy way of putting it,” said Riga, 33, with a dry laugh. “We’re cool and don’t wear tights.”

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Rounding out Cigar City Comedy are members David Weingarten, Michael Murillo, Chris Matson, JB Ball, John Murray, John Jacobs, Krishna Reddy, Matt Fernandez, Mona Chiarizio, Pedro Lima and Ragel Thys.

All but Jacobs lives in the Tampa Bay area. He recently moved to Los Angeles.

For a collection of stand-up comedians, they take their work seriously.

There used to be as many as 30 members, said Riga, a three-year veteran of stand-up, but 17 were dropped for failing to live up to their end of the bargain.

“The big reason we formed this group was because we are friends and always hanging out anyway,” said Riga. “But we have certain obligations to perform, too, and if you don’t, then you’re out.”

At least once a month, members must perform at a comedy show and add a new blog, podcast or video sketch to the Cigar City Comedy website. They must constantly promote one other.

If one member is producing a show for charity, the rest are expected to perform, too, if they can.

“Sitting home to watch television rather than coming to the charity show doesn’t cut it,” Riga said.

So far, Riga said, they have produced 15 charity shows.

What’s more, they must demonstrate that they’re always improving their acts.

“We need to put on the best show we can,” Riga said. “If you haven’t updated your material in a while or are using stuff that bombs, that hurts all of us. No one will come back to a show if they don’t laugh.”

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Their efforts seem to be working, Riga said. Since Cigar City Comedy was founded three years ago, he has seen crowds at their shows double in size.

Each year, for instance, they have staged a show on the roof of the Visconti at International Drive, a South Tampa apartment building. At the first ones, a few dozen people attended. At the most recent one, May 7, more than 150 people turned out.

The cooperative approach has worked before, said David Weingarten, a member of the group and a stand-up for four years.

Weingarten pointed as an example to All Things Comedy, a national group that includes famed comics Harland Williams and Bill Burr.

Cigar City Comedy hasn’t reached those ranks yet, but its members are moving up, Weingarten said.

“We have some real budding superstars.”

Former member John Jacobs moved out west after his sense of humor landed him on two MTV reality shows — “Are You The One” and “The Challenge,” one of the network’s most popular.

Member JB Ball won the fourth annual Florida’s Funniest Comedian competition at the West Palm Beach Improv in 2014.

Then there is Matt Fernandez, who Weingarten calls a “twitter guru” and was recently named one of the 14 funniest comedians you should be following on twitter by funnyordie.com, the Emmy-winning comedy video website founded by actor and comedian Will Ferrell.

Fernandez’ tweet about former NFL star Michael Strahan, saying his teeth “are having a middle school dance, where the boys stand on one side of the room and girls stand on the other,” was featured on the late-night show “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” in its popular Mean Tweets segment.

“When one of us gets recognized we are happy for them but it also drives the rest of us,” said Smith. “Competition is good. It forces us to work harder at what we do. The worst thing a comedian can do is become content.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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