TAMPA — If you work in the world of entertainment, and you figure a gig on one of those popular but temporary reality TV shows might give your career a leg up, John Jacobs is here to tell you you’re right.
Up to a point.
For two years, Jacobs, a stand-up comedian, enjoyed MTV celebrity status from roles on “Are You The One?” and “The Challenge.”
From 2014-15, he headlined a national tour of colleges, performing for sold-out crowds of young people who clamored to see “MTV star John Jacobs.”
But now, a year removed from his last appearance on MTV, the University of Tampa graduate says his career has taken a step back. The touring has ended. Fewer people seem to recognize him with each passing day.
He’s now working his way back up through open mic nights in Ybor City.
“The TV power ran out,” said Jacobs. “I still have people approach me from time to time and say things like, ‘Hey, weren’t you on something at some point?’ ‘Yeah,’ I’ll tell them, ‘I was on a thing.’ ”
Don’t feel sorry for Jacobs, though. He doesn’t.
For starters, at just 26 and eight years into his career, he has a résumé many young comedians would covet. He has opened for stars such as Pablo Francisco, Margaret Cho and Chris Kattan.
“I have no worries,” he said. “I realize if I want to make something of myself I need to do it myself. That’s what I’m doing now.”
Recently, he launched two weekly open mic nights in Ybor City that are restricted to comedians with experience. One is held Mondays at 9 p.m. at the James Joyce Irish Pub, the other is Wednesdays at 6 p.m. at Liquid Tampa.
His goal is to establish an event seven nights a week, each at a different venue, and to host them all. The schedule will be at JohnJacobsComedy.com.
“John Jacobs has done a great job in helping build the comedy scene in Tampa,” said Joe Riga, who with Jacobs is a member of Cigar City Comedy, a collective of local stand-ups who promote one another’s careers and events. “The fact that we’re adding two new weekly shows is evidence that the city loves comedy.”
❖ ❖ ❖
The crowds have been receptive to Jacobs’ open mics. During the first one, March 7 at James Joyce pub, the two-hour show was stretched an extra 30 minutes when the audience of nearly 75 shouted for more. That’s a good start, Jacobs said — six dozen people telling their friends how funny each comedian was. And that will build a following for the events.
“Right now really feels like a similar condition to the first time I was picked up by MTV,” Jacobs said. “I’m a bit down from where I once was. But that’s comedy. You’re up one day and down the next.”
Jacobs graduated from the University of Tampa in 2012 and immersed himself full time into his stand-up career. Just a week after receiving his diploma, he was booked at a club in Naples for his first headlining gig. No one showed up.
But believing in his talent, the club asked him to headline another show three months later. Again, no one showed up.
“That was fun,” Jacobs said.
Still, he landed bookings as the opening act for established stars. But he wanted to be a headliner.
“I felt like I had the ability but I couldn’t draw. I needed to build myself.”
That opportunity came through MTV.
The network created a new series called “Are You The One?” in which 10 men and 10 women live together in a house with the goal of figuring out which one MTV had deemed to be their perfect match before production started.
“I received a call from a casting director asking if I was interested in being in the first season. They were trying to fill roles and needed a funny guy and I thought, ‘Hell yeah, I can be funny.’”
Jacobs had good reason to consider this a big break, said Paul Hillier, an associate professor at the University of Tampa who teaches about the history of reality television.
Some people flare out when a series is over, Hillier said, but some launch to stardom.
Take NeNe Leakes, he said, a struggling actress before she was cast on Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” who has parlayed the role into a busy career that includes a mix of reality and scripted television including “Glee” and “Dancing with the Stars.”
Then there is Elisabeth Hasselbeck, who went from “Survivor” to host “The View.”
“There are lots of examples,” Hillier said. “The right reality show can provide lots of exposure, especially the serialized ones that allow the characters to develop week after week.”
There is so much promise in the genre, Hillier said, The New York Reality TV School was opened to teach aspiring stars how to act over-the-top while remaining themselves.
❖ ❖ ❖
With his experience as a comedian, Jacobs didn’t need training to stand out on, “Are You The One?”
His cutting jokes left the rest of the cast laughing or angry.
Among 20 housemates during the season he appeared on the show, he was featured most.
The cast succeeded in finding their perfect matches and split a $1 million dollar prize.
When the series ended, Jacobs began his tour of colleges and, coupled with stand-up shows he booked, spent more time on the road than not — a young comic’s dream, he said.
People recognized him in public. He was signing autographs.
“Everything was working out as planned. And then it was not.”
MTV soon called upon him again, this time to take part in the 26th season of “The Challenge,” where it casts its most popular reality stars in a series of athletic and cerebral competitions. Losers are eliminated and the ultimate victor takes home a six-figure prize.
But the competition was so intense, he had a hard time displaying his humor. Not argumentative by nature, he was rarely featured on the episodes.
“I was nice to everyone and they didn’t want to show people being friends. They wanted to show people fighting.”
When his season was over, his rise in the stand-up industry stalled.
He’s not sure why but doesn’t claim to care.
“I have no regrets. Comedy is about life experiences and I think I got a lot the past few years.”
That includes a six-month stint in Los Angeles. He went there hoping to capitalize on his reality show fame and found some success, including a performance at the Hollywood Improv on a night when former Beatle Paul McCartney was in the audience.
But for the most part, he struggled to find steady stage time so he returned to Tampa in October.
“I think I genuinely like pain,” he said with a laugh. “It’s so painful every night to try to wrangle people into a bar to see you perform. I sometimes think, ‘I was on MTV a year ago’ with lots of people watching me.’ But, hey, I’m only 26 and that was one cycle of my life. I’ll get to where I want to be.”