Pete O’Neil likes to think big. The Managing Director of the Sebastian Comedy Society and the brand new Ft. Lauderdale Comedy Club has every intention to bring the Ft. Lauderdale Comedy Retreat to the next level. He wants the annual event to become the Sundance of the comedy world, where the next big comics of tomorrow, migrate south to participate in networking events, seminars, showcases, and the ever-popular fishing tournament. Rooftop recently chatted with Pete about the Florida comedy scene, what separates the Ft. Lauderdale Comedy Retreat from other big comedy events, and why Shanghai needs a new comedy venue.
Rooftop Comedy: What new events and programs can people expect at this year’s Comic Retreat?
Pete O’Neil: We’re doing the first two showcases, the first two nights at our new home, the Ft. Lauderdale Comedy Club, but the third night, we’re doing it at the War Memorial, which is a big auditorium down here. It’s a landmark. For comedy, it’s gonna seat 2,100. Jose Sarduy is gonna be our comic who’s going to be performing at that showcase—the headliner. Then we’ll take the best from the showcase shows the days prior and put them in as part of the show. So you may have a new young comic, who’s just started out, then comes down, does a showcase at our show, and then on that Wednesday, he’ll be performing in front of 2,100 people, which is a pretty big room.
Of course, the fishing tournament is always a big thing every year, because we’re in Florida and there’s boats. We call it a fishing tournament, but it’s just a bunch of wild guys out on the boat and the locals are invited to go be part of it. This year, we’ll make a rule up that you’re not allowed to go cheat and buy frozen fish like last year. This year, you cannot come on board with a frozen fish and win the tournament. The other thing—bowling is real fun, as strange as that sounds. A lot of the comics love to bowl, everybody local likes to bowl. That’s an event that locally, everybody really likes. It gives locals a chance to hang out with up and coming comics and spend some time with them.
RT: With the new club opening up, what kind of comedy is Ft. Lauderdale looking for?
PO: I think it’s different genres. When we do a 6:30 early bird show, those are seniors, so they’re looking for a clean show with clean humor. The good thing is 20 years ago when I started out helping promote clubs, if you told a comic, “No F-word or dirty language”, they’d be insulted. Nowadays, I notice most young comics are cool with that because they understand and they have two different sets. What I think is important about Comic Retreat is that we make it part of the community and now we’re in an even bigger market, Ft. Lauderdale, which likes to party. What we think is great about Comic Retreat is it’s really a celebration of the art form of stand-up comedy. We didn’t want to build another festival, because there’s so many festivals, and a lot of the time they’re just—no disrespect to festivals—but young comics show up and perform for free. We don’t do that. Any show that the comic performs at, they get a piece of the door, and the other thing is we think it’s important that the comics, no matter where they are in their career, that they can take a couple days off every year and they can take stock of their career: where they’re going, maybe they need a booking agent. This year, we have Joel Pace from Heffron Comedy, who’s going to be giving a seminar about how you get signed with a major agency. We’re not there yet. We’re probably two or three years off from where we want to be, but we want to be what Sundance Film Festival is for emerging filmmakers, we want to become that platform for emerging comics—where they can come together once a year, they can party, they can have a good time, do workshops, do showcases, fish, and sit by the pool. We’re kind of excited now, because Ft. Lauderdale has totally embraced it. We think this is somewhat like their Sundance Film Festival every year.
RT: What do you think the breakdown this year will be in terms of new comics and more seasoned comics?
PO: It’s 50 percent of comics who’ve been doing it less than three to five years. Then we do get some old road dogs that show up and they have fun. It’s funny—there’s a percentage of comics that hate each other and don’t want to hang out, but for the ones that like to commune, it’s a good opportunity. I’d say 50-60 percent are young comics that are new and have picked it as a career. The other thing that we found last year, is kids who’ve graduated with degrees and they can’t get jobs. You have kids graduating with an engineering degree or a doctorate and they can’t get a job, but they can become great stand-up comics. They have a knack for it, but then they need to look at the business aspect of it. We’re seeing a whole new school of comics, who I won’t say are more sophisticated, but they come into a different opportunity, where they actually can’t get jobs. I think they come in with a really sophisticated view of performing. So we’re about two years off from where I want to be with this event. Every event takes a few years to improve. Moving to Ft. Lauderdale, we’ve been getting a lot of support from Nicki Grossman, who’s the head of the Greater Ft. Lauderdale tourist board. They have a lot of events to choose from, but we were one of the few events they went out and recruited down. We’re having all the workshops at the B Ocean, which is gorgeous. It’s right on the beach—every room has a view of the ocean. A number of our comics come from the northeast, so the good thing is that in January, you don’t have to convince somebody in Detroit or Boston to get out of the cold for a few days. It’s just a celebration of the art of comedy and we’re trying to build it to become kind of like the Sundance Film Festival, but for emerging comics. We encourage people, if people have an idea for an event or a workshop we can add, we consider ourselves an open platform. So if somebody comes to us and says, “Hey, I’d love to put on a workshop”, we’re totally open to that. We truly just want to make it a meeting place for everybody.
RT: How did the Sebastian Comedy Society, the group that produces the Comic Retreat, come together?
PO: My partner and I worked for 12 years up in New York City and we had, of all things, a pet grooming business. I had a stroke a couple years ago, so I moved down to Florida. So when I was in Indian River, I was like, “I’ll get back into promoting comedy clubs”, because I’ve done it, off and on, for that past 22-plus years. And when I was up in Indian River, at a place called Sebastian, we started Sebastian Comedy Society—sort of like “The Little Ladies Bird Watching Society”. I tell people, just like you have a good mechanic, or a doctor, or a pharmacist, in every community, you need to have a good comedy club. That’s sort of how Sebastian Comedy Society started up. In the past couple of years I’ve migrated back to comedy, just because it’s always something that makes people feel good. What we’re looking to do next year, if my investors back me, we want to put a Comedy Zone over in Shanghai, China next year. That’s next year. This year, I think it’s important that we build Comic Retreat. The biggest move is that we put it in a bigger market. This is a cheaper market for people to get to. It’s sort of a party town. It fits nicely into our future plans.
Click here for more info on registering for the Ft. Lauderdale Comedy Retreat (deadline Dec 20th).
Posted: November 22nd, 2011 under Interview.