WINTER HAVEN — No matter how rough the economy gets, no matter how unhappy people are about the slumping housing market or the high unemployment rate, there’s one thing everybody continuously needs, says David Smith.
“Everybody needs to laugh,” he said. “It’s an old cliche that laughter is the best medicine, but that’s true.”
Laughter can even improve someone’s health, he added.
“Winter Haven Hospital would get some of the doctors and nurses together and go in to see patients and do skits and funny things, because that would help people,” Smith said. “That will cheer you up and make you feel better, so why not laugh every chance you get?”
Smith has some experience in this field. He’s a member of Comedy Buffet, an improvisational group that tours Polk County, seeking laughter wherever they go. And in a tough economy, it can be — as Winter Haven Hospital found out — very good medicine, he said.
“I think people are actually looking for something to ease their minds, so to speak,” he said.
Comedy Buffet was formed back in 1998, and has experienced a revolving door of different performers ever since. As Smith noted, there are currently half a dozen regular performers, and it’s made up of folks who have day jobs, but love to perform improvisation comedy in their spare time.
“Right now, there are six people and this is basically a hobby,” he said.
Improvisational comedy, he said, is characterized not by a script that the performers memorize, but quite the opposite — they get on stage and simply create something funny from whatever situation starts the routine. Sketches are drawn from audience suggestions and made up on the spot.
“It’s about quick thinking,” he said. “You have to be quick on your feet.”
Although all of the shows are improvised, Smith said the members of Comedy Buffet do meet on a regular basis and practice together.
They get together every Monday evening at the Winter Haven Nautical Club “just for practice,” he said. “We still have to practice, even though it’s all made up. Teamwork is a big part of it. We need to understand how the other performers think.”
The recession hasn’t spared Comedy Buffet from some tough times as well. Three years ago, they had to move out of their longtime theater in downtown Winter Haven where they staged regular performances, and they no longer have a home base to perform at.
“We’ve been gone from there for three years,” Smith said. “The owner was renovating it, and when he did that, he said it would be out of our reach” in terms of the new rent.
“We didn’t have a lease with him, and he had been giving us a very decent rent,” Smith said. “But he said ‘When I renovate it, you’re not going to be able to afford it,’ and he was right.”
Comedy Buffet went in search of a new home, but couldn’t find anything else that was affordable — until they discovered a building owned by the city of Winter Haven. But even that turned out to be another piece of bad luck, since it eventually got demolished.
“We finally found a place the city owned, but before we could open up there, the city said, ‘We’re going to have to tear this building down,’ ” Smith recalled. “They told us, ‘Eventually we’re going to do something with this building, but that’s way in the future.’ ”
Instead, they’ve become a traveling comedy troop, booking themselves into clubs and coffee houses around the county, including the Nautical Club, where they perform on Fridays at 8 p.m.
On Saturday, July 16, they’re heading to the Black & Brew Coffee House & Bistro in Lakeland.
“We do shows everywhere, although we’re based in Winter Haven,” Smith said.
Angela Fessia has been performing with Comedy Buffet since 2004. She never gets tired of doing it.
“It’s the only place I know where I can actually get away with playing on stage at my age and not loook like I need strait jacket,” she said. “I love the entertainment, I love the energy that goes into. Doing improv helps keep you on your toes. It does help to keep my mind about me. I’m enjoying myself.”
Fessia said she misses not having the permanent theater to perform out of in Winter Haven, even though the troop does continue to get bookings for shows.
“It’s not as steady as I would like, but it’s relatively steady,” she said. “This nomadic lifestyle is not something I’m used to. It was a second home, and you always felt wonderful on stage. I really liked that environment. Now I feel sometimes like it’s a little intrusive, like, ‘Ok, we’re coming into your home. ‘ ”
Smith said there’s another good reason to get out and enjoy their show.
“We’re affordable,” he said. “We’re only $5. That’s another thing. A lot of people go to a bar to drown their sorrows, and that costs a lot more than $5.”
Smith said the troop has gotten some good, loud laughs out of their audiences at recent shows — and some solid laughs out of one another, too.
“It’s the performers, also,” he said. “We make ourselves laugh. That’s why we do it. We do it for the laughter.”
In addition to tomorrow night’s show, Comedy Buffet will be performing on Friday, Aug. 12 at 8 p.m. at the Nautical Club, 695 Avenue K S.W. The doors will open at 7:30 for seating.
The Black & Brew is at 205 E. Main St. in downtown Lakeland. Food and specialty coffee drinks will be available for purchase before and during this performance, which starts at 8 p.m. Advance reservations for this show can be made by visiting the Black & Brew website at www.blackandbrew.com and clicking on “Entertainment and Special Events.” Any remaining seats get sold on a first come, first serve basis at the door. To learn more, call Black and Brew at 863-682-1210.
As Smith noted, their comedy is G-rated and the performances are suitable for the entire family.
To learn more about Comedy Buffet, call 863-299-5698, visit the website at http://www.comedy-buffet.com/, or email ComedyBuffet@yahoo.com. They also have a Facebook page.
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