Female Comedians Battle Hecklers and Machismo to Conquer Miami's Standup Scene

It's Friday night in downtown Miami, and a dozen people chat and glance over menus inside a dark Peruvian restaurant while a pair of bartenders stand idly behind a long, mostly empty bar. Then Dom Gelin hops onto a small stage near the back of the room. The short 25-year-old...
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It's Friday night in downtown Miami, and a dozen people chat and glance over menus inside a dark Peruvian restaurant while a pair of bartenders stand idly behind a long, mostly empty bar. Then Dom Gelin hops onto a small stage near the back of the room. The short 25-year-old in a blazer and jeans clutches the mike, stares out at the diners, and launches right into a joke about ovulation.

"It's that time when my brain still knows I'm gay but my ovaries no longer give a damn," she explains, to mild chuckles and a few mystified stares. "I just went to see my mechanic, and he reeked of motor oil and sweat and too much aftershave, and all I could think was, Dammit, Javier, why do you smell so delicious right now?"

Five minutes and a few laughs later, a flashing light signals Gelin's time is up. A redheaded woman in a '50s-style dress and sneakers approaches the mike. Emily Winter, a recent New York transplant hosting tonight's show, yells at the disinterested diners: "How many of you knew there was a comedy show tonight?"

Not a single hand rises. "People in Miami are just more lively," she jokes. "Nobody wants to sit and listen to comedy when they're on flakka, you know? Here, people are living life."

Most of Miami's comedy venues are holes in the wall with misogynistic hecklers and rowdy drunks.

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The disinterested crowd may be typical of Miami's often-sleepy comedy scene, but in another way, tonight's show is all too rare: Gelin and Winter are among the five women in an all-female lineup. In South Florida's machismo-soaked comedy scene, it's an occurrence that's finally becoming more regular. In recent months, more than a dozen female comedians have been rising in stature across Miami-Dade County, winning local competitions and moving into higher-profile slots.

"It used to be really hard to find female comics, maybe one a night, maybe two," says Quills Rodriguez, a poet, comedian, and owner of Kendall's Artistic Vibes. "Lately, I see four or five, even six female comedians in a night. The talent is magnificent."

That doesn't mean it's easy for Miami's up-and-coming female standups. Comedy remains the Achilles heel of one of the nation's nightlife capitals, where club owners know dollars come from EDM and bottle service, not a cerebral art form. Most of Miami's comedy venues are holes in the wall where comics like Gelin fight misogynistic hecklers and rowdy drunks — all for gigs that rarely pay and require late nights and hours of preparation and driving.

"There just aren't many real standup fans in Miami," says Lisa Corrao, a well-known comic who travels between New York and South Florida. "Audiences here like to go out and have fun, but a high-energy kind of fun. It's hard to get their attention."

Yet Winter, Gelin, and their crew all live for comedy. They need it. Night after night, they trudge through the standup trenches, traveling to the farthest reaches of the county for a five-minute slot to work through a new joke, perfect an old one, or seek a laugh.

"Don't be scared by a women-only show," Winter tells the crowd in the Peruvian restaurant. "We do comedy the same way guys do comedy: Setup, punch line, and then wait for the lit candle to be thrown at our heads."

Her mouth was dry and her hands shook. Onstage at Elwoods, a British-style pub in downtown Miami, Dom Gelin stared out at about 20 people. She took a deep breath and clutched the mike. For five blurry minutes, she rambled onstage, buzzing through material from birth control to race, eliciting chuckles, a few laughs, and plenty of painful moments of silence.

"It wasn't the night's best performance," she admits of her debut this past January, "but not a total bomb."

Despite the utter discomfort, though, there was only one thought running through Gelin's mind as she stepped off the stage: getting up and doing it again as soon as possible. Finally, she had found a place to wrestle with the absurdities of life as a black, gay, politically active woman in South Florida on her own terms. Like many comedians, Gelin is whip-smart and ambitious, but has abandoned better-paying careers, a normal social life, and decent hours, all to sweat and struggle for a few laughs.

"I'm one of the newer kids on the block, but I've been having a lot of fun," she says. "Other comedians help me massage my jokes, and everyone has been really supportive."

Gelin was born at South Miami Hospital. At just 10 years old, as her parents were divorcing, her father committed suicide. So Gelin grew up with her mother Magalie, a first-generation Haitian immigrant who had come to the United States in 1983 to study geology. Though Gelin's native language was English, Magalie made sure her daughter spoke French, studied Kreyol, and learned manners "the Haitian way."

When she was a kid, she and her mom would have lunch at a Thai restaurant every Saturday. After a few visits, the waiters noticed Gelin ordered the same dish, so they always asked her if she'd "take the usual."

"At 10 years old, she found one thing she liked, and she was going to have it every time," Magalie says, "until one day she said, 'I'm done with this; we don't need to go to this restaurant anymore.' That's how she is — full blast, full passion, 100 miles an hour. She's really good at it until she decides that she's done."

Magalie, who works as a geologist, loves to laugh, and soon Friday nights became mother-daughter comedy-TV marathons. "Dominique was always joking as a kid," says her cousin Alain Pierre-Louis, who lived with Gelin as a child. "She had to have been the number one viewer of Comedy Central in South Florida."

But comedy was never part of Gelin's plans. After graduating from Ferguson Senior High, a West Kendall magnet school, Gelin moved to Orlando to study sociology at the University of Central Florida. Her first career blossomed after a classmate invited her to a political meetup. It was the fall of 2008, and Barack Obama's presidential campaign was in full swing on campus. Gelin soon began volunteering. Within months, she was the leader of UCF Knights for Obama. "It was fantastically intense," she says.

Her passion for politics snowballed. She became a field organizer for Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek, and by her senior year, she was president of the statewide Florida College Democrats. After graduating in 2012, she moved to Tallahassee to work for Democratic Rep. Karen Castor Dentel.

She was drawn to advocacy around LGBT issues. It wasn't uncommon for straight staffers to work on LGBT rights issues, but the fight began to feel oddly personal for Gelin. Then came a crush on a woman she worked with, and Gelin's realization: She was gay. "I called my mom and told her I was gay, and she was like, 'Do you really think nobody already knew that?'?" she laughs. "It was uneventful."

Even as her political career boomed and her sexual identity crystallized, Gelin felt burned out. When Dentel lost her seat last November, Gelin decided to take a break.

She moved back to Miami and, between applying for jobs, began jotting down memories and observations from her chaotic years in college and politics. She wrote about being the only black person at a wedding in Jacksonville and the bizarre characters she met while canvassing, like the guy who hunted squirrels in his backyard. "Sometimes none of it made sense," she says of her developing comedy routines. "But sometimes I felt like it would work."

Then, this January, she hosted a friend from out of town. Gelin mentioned she'd been writing a lot, and her friend suggested she share her work onstage."It was the push I needed," Gelin says.

At first, Gelin went out alone, signing up for open mikes. But slowly, she began to see familiar faces and grew more comfortable in the scene, even linking up with fellow Kendall comic Paul Julmeus to carpool to shows. Gelin's comedy drifted toward taboo themes like homophobia, political apathy, and racism. In a place like Washington, D.C., political shtick is a dime a dozen. But in South Florida, few comedians take it on.

A male comic approached and said, "I'm not going to sexually harass you. Yet."

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"I talk about racism and gay rights and whatever else, but the packaging is my own," she says. "I still see it as political, but at the same time, I get to do it in a way that's not prewritten. I don't have to be on message, ever."

Gelin was no stranger to putdowns thanks to her political career, but she was shocked at the open sexism she found in comedy rooms. One time at Taurus, a bar in Coconut Grove, she wore a tight-fitting T-shirt, and a man approached her after her set to say, "I'm sure you know this, but you've got great tits." Another night, a male comic said, "I'm not going to sexually harass you. Yet."

"And he thought it was hilarious," she says. "I knew he was kidding, but I still couldn't wrap my head around how he thought that was funny at all."

Gelin learned to hit back at male comics obsessed with jokes about breasts, vaginas, and sex, as well as drunk hecklers. After a guy in the front row wouldn't stop harassing her at a recent show, the normally well-mannered Gelin snapped, "Go cry on your dick somewhere else," as the crowd roared.

The comment surprised even her. "On what planet would I ever think of saying, 'Go cry on your dick'?" she laughs. "There's a high to [comedy]. Once I realized I could do it, it's like having a drunk alter ego."

As her comedy schedule grew from random open mikes to seven nights a week onstage, Gelin had to confront a simple fact: She still had to make a living. Other comics in town work at everything from bartending to coaching high-school track and field. Gelin soon found a part-time job at a martial arts store near Florida International University.

"We're doing our thing, writing jokes, and seeing where it goes," Julmeus says. "It's not glamorous at all, having drunk people yell at you to get off the stage, feeling like you just wasted a whole night trying to work on a joke to see if it's funny. But we do that day in and day out."

That's not the only sacrifice comics like Gelin make by committing full-time to their passion. By March, Gelin also had to admit to her mother what was becoming increasingly clear: Comedy wasn't just a side hustle. Magalie didn't beat around the bush. She didn't like Gelin being out so late at bars, she said, and thought she needed a more serious way to make money.

"I thought she would resume politics, but then I see her buying books about the subject and saying, 'I want to do this tonight, tomorrow.' Pretty soon it became an everyday thing," Magalie says. "And she's not even getting paid."

But Gelin is hooked, and her profile is rising. In June, she won a Laugh Attack competition, beating three other comics (all men). And she made it into the final 12 at the Ultimate Miami 2015, a giant talent show that crowns Miami's best in food, mixology, and entertainment.

"I love it, and I don't see myself stopping," Gelin says. "I feel like I finally found a way to express myself that feels good."

Emily Winter's lips move as she silently rehearses her lines in the back of the room. She's up next, and tonight — instead of her usual standup routine — she's using her stage time to practice a character she wrote as part of a script called Marching Band. The character, Allison, is a 17-year-old sousaphone player with a lisp who's raising money for the Norris Township High School Marching Band's trip to nationals in Indiana. Winter wears a long, thick brown wig over her red hair, plus glasses and a cardigan.

When it's time to take the stage, it's Allison who marches to the mike. She brushes stray wig hairs from her eyes.

"I have a lot of hair," she says in an exaggerated Midwestern accent. "My mom says she doesn't know where all my hair comes from because she doesn't have a lot and my dad is bald... so it must come from his back." The crowd explodes.

If Gelin is the local who turned to comedy as a new career pursuit, Winter is the ambitious, well-connected, and hilarious outsider who's come in to shake up the scene — and maybe to change Miami's male-dominated comedy culture altogether. Her move to town for a comedy-writing job at Fusion comes as a wave of young, eager comedians like her itch for more places to perform.

Miami may not have the comedy reputation of Chicago or New York, but standups have been drawn to South Florida since the '50s, when Miami Beach was a showbiz mecca and joke-tellers like Shecky Greene performed in seedy strip joints along Collins Avenue. With the television boom in the 1960s, programs like The Dick Clark Show and The Ed Sullivan Show often filmed at the Miami Beach Municipal Auditorium (now the Fillmore). In 1964, Jackie Gleason took his nationally televised show to South Beach. In the '80s, standup rooms became de facto across Miami as the form boomed across the country.

But that rich history hasn't translated to opportunities today for Miami's most talented comics. Two years before Winter's move, Coconut Grove's long-standing Miami Improv shut down. Since then, "small rooms are keeping the scene going," says Rene Harte, the Miami Improv's co-owner, who has been running comedy clubs for 30 years. "And the scene has a ton of talent — always has."

Though there are rooms across the city to do standup nearly every night, most aren't intended to host comedy, and none pays comedians. They often offer tough crowds focused on watching sports, smoking hookahs, or listening to jazz.

The result has been big names fleeing for better opportunities. Nationally known talents such as Todd Barry, Mike Lawrence, and Al Jackson all got their start in Miami. Forrest Shaw, a Miami native who started Elwoods' comedy nights, moved to L.A. and opened for Conan last year.

Winter is the rare talent who moved in the opposite direction, from New York to Miami.

A Chicago native, Winter made Catholic school bearable by being silly and joking with her friends, in a cheesy, "Chandler from Friends kind of way." At the University of Wisconsin, she wrote a humor column for the school's Daily Cardinal, mostly about "getting drunk and hooking up and whatever else I did." After a year, people began to recognize her on the street and send her emails about the column. "That was the first time I was like, Oh, I'm funny, this is fun, I love attention," she says.

In 2007 at the age of 22, she moved to New York to work as an intern on The Colbert Report. One day at work, Daria creator Glenn Eichler recommended she try standup to sharpen her chops. It stuck with her, but she wasn't ready to do it full-time just yet.

A turning point came a few years later, though, when she was assaulted. Haunted by the incident, she sank into depression. So she decided to take a standup class, where she wrote a joke making light of the crime. She didn't end up using that dark routine onstage, but the simple act of writing it made her feel better.

"It was how I learned about boundaries as a comedian," she says. "Comics are so desensitized, so you can say really messed-up shit to each other, but I realized I couldn't say it to a crowd. But at least it's what got me over the edge."

At 27, she began performing standup in earnest, immersing herself in New York City's saturated scene. After her day job at a study guide company, she would grab food and head to the city, bouncing from comedy show to comedy show all night. She also ran her own monthly show in Brooklyn called BackFat Variety, consistently drawing huge crowds. She and her cohosts, humor writer Janet Manley and musician John Payne, also tried experiments such as the video "Dudes on OkCupid" — setting to music the dumb things guys write in their dating profiles — which has gotten almost 60,000 views on YouTube.

"When you say something and it hits because you thought you were the only person in the world to feel that way, it's this feeling that I'm not alone," Winter says.

"It's a city of dancing and house music. And comedy is the opposite of that."

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In April, after years of making the rounds on the New York City standup circuit, she landed a dream job: writing jokes for TV, on Fusion's The Alicia Menendez Show. As she prepared to leave Brooklyn for Miami, friends put her in touch with Kat Toledo, a member of the famed Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, who was making the rounds in Miami after returning to tend to family obligations.

The pair soon catalyzed a movement, but Winter wasn't prepared for the big difference in Miami's scene. On her first standup night in town, Winter went to Taurus assuming she'd go up on the open mike later in the show. But when she arrived, the organizer, Freddy Stebbins, put her on the main bill. Why? Because he hadn't booked any women.

"There are so many women in comedy in New York that I feel like I rarely found myself sitting in a roomful of men," she says.

She was also confused by how late the show began. In New York, comedy rooms get going right after work, but in Miami, not until 9 or 10 p.m. That night at Taurus was her first introduction to "Miami time" and to the myriad other challenges of doing standup in South Florida.

"Everything in this city seems to be the antithesis of comedy," she says. "It's a city of dancing and house music. And comedy is the opposite of that; [it's] 'Let's sit down and think about how the world works.'?"

There are plenty of other quirks to Miami standup, like having to perform in mixed arts shows after serious acts. One night, Winter was set to go on after popular local poet/musician Narciso Hilario Montas, known for his lengthy poems that often leave listeners misty-eyed. As she walked on, the silence in the room was palpable. Winter turned to the audience and said, "That was about anal sex, right?"

Gelin, who was in the audience, cracked up. But nobody else laughed. "OK, I got it — don't make fun of the poets. Sorry," Winter said, stumbling. "That was just so beautiful... How am I gonna tell jokes now?"

But Winter knows that being good at comedy depends upon how often she's willing to go on, no matter what. So she takes whatever she can get in South Florida.

"The biggest struggle I've had moving to Miami is the comedy scene," she says. "But also there's some really great comedians here. I just wish there were rooms that appreciated that."

On a rainy Tuesday night, Winter and Gelin sit across from each other at a wide wooden table at Elwoods as they pass notes back and forth on a coaster. Gelin eats bread pudding, while Winter sips Bud Light and nibbles on a marijuana cookie out of a baggie. Though they're chatting energetically, the women intermittently burst out laughing — proof they are indeed listening closely to the other comics onstage.

The show, one of Miami's more popular, well-run rooms, is a window into the subculture of self-deprecating, sharp-witted comedy fanatics who play to small but enthusiastic crowds. Miami may not provide payouts and huge audiences, but comics stay busy — especially Winter, Gelin, and their friends.

There's Elise Valderrama, a Miami native who recently returned from New York, also for a job at Fusion. Natalie Prager-Newman, a lawyer from Orlando, started in comedy in Miami in January. As they all connected with Toledo and Gelin, the women formed an unofficial crew, coordinating their nights out. When Winter arrived in April, she fit right in.

"Sometimes when I'm about to be introduced, the comedian will say, 'The next performer is a girl.' Why does that matter?"

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"It can be a real sausage fest around here," Valderrama says. "So when I met Emily, I grabbed onto her and I was like, 'Funny woman, you must come with me.'?"

Manny Garavito, a local comic who runs the website, remembers the night in April when he first ran into the crew at his room at Mr. Moe's sports bar in Coconut Grove.

"It was a Monday night, and they all showed up at once and were doing great," Garavito says. "Their material was all unique, and I was like, 'Whoa, who are these ladies?'?"

As a group, they've bonded to battle the challenges they've all found on the scene: hecklers, disinterested crowds, and misogynistic comics.

Valderrama, who often talks about being single in her set, is constantly approached by men. And Toledo says male comics often point out when a lot of women are in the lineup a particular night.

"Sometimes when I'm about to be introduced on a show, the comedian will say, 'The next performer is a girl,'?" Toledo says. "And I'm like, why does that matter? Plus, can't they see I'm a girl?"

They also grumble about the lack of rooms. Friday nights, for instance, there's not a single decent place to do comedy in Miami. Mondays are also slow. "In New York, everyone knows when all the mikes are — it's well documented," Valderrama says. "But here, it's not. It's all word of mouth."

It's not a new set of problems, longtime comedy vets say — and it's a big reason talent has fled Florida so often.

"There'll be a core group of really talented comedians, then a bomb goes off and everyone disperses and moves to New York and L.A., and then there's a lull," says Jessica Gross, who runs a comedy room at Wynwood Brewing Company. "It's refreshing and nice that this time, it came back together as this wonderful scene of women."

Little by little, local entrepreneurs are trying to build a scene for them. For years, poet and comedian Quills Rodriguez would watch talented comedians and artists like Lisa Corrao leave Miami. And each departure would pain her.

So five years ago, Rodriguez launched Artistic Vibes, an arts venue in southeast Kendall, with local actor, singer, and stage manager Vanessa Thompson. The space sits on a sparse industrial block among businesses such as a flooring store, a lawn mower shop, and a car care center.

To get people through the door, Rodriguez and Thompson have tried schemes ranging from free drinks to raffles to letting customers go crazy and decorate the walls. They host contests and battles — events that set them apart and grab attention.

"I wouldn't be here if it didn't have somewhere to go," Rodriguez says. "I can taste it. I can feel it. It's right around the corner... Miami is capable of being a big place for comedians to come and have a good time."

Comedians such as Manny Garavito and Julie Baez run a number of rooms around town and are trying to make comedy a viable nightlife option. Baez hosts a Facebook group for South Florida's women comics.

"Miami has a strong identity," Garavito says. "There's a new generation coming. Look at Wynwood, even Hialeah... Nightlife is very big in Miami, but the new generation that is coming likes arts of all sorts. Standup will be right there because it's such a great art form."

The last Wednesday of every month, at Jessica Gross' Wynwood Brewing Company comedy room, it's already there. The room is packed, and the craft brews flow. The show is tight and well organized.

"I know bigger cities had it happen sooner, but Miami is always 20 years behind," Gross says. "It's gonna happen."

After work on a recent Friday afternoon, Dom Gelin wears an oversize T-shirt and shorts as she stands in her living room atop a wide wooden crate that her mom uses to practice flamenco dancing. Gelin holds a small blue flashlight, to mimic a microphone, and stares at the wall. She begins practicing her jokes.

Today she's working through some new ideas she hopes to make into a full minute or two of comedy about libertarians. "I think the thing that upsets me was the first time I met a libertarian, I was at UCF, and UCF is a public institution, right?"

She has cycled through every place there is to do comedy in Miami, from a hair salon to a jazz lounge.

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Her delivery is calm and natural, as if she were having a slightly angry conversation with a friend. "And so I feel like, 'You can't be here. Give me back my Bright Futures Scholarship money, get off my public campus, and take a hovercraft to get back to the planet you came from because I don't want you using the public roads and shitting on whatever we have here.'?"

Then she shrugs and laughs. The joke is over. "Ugh, libertarians," she says, smiling, knowing the joke needs work. "I'm gonna get this right, and it's gonna be good. I just have to massage it."

Nine months after ditching politics for comedy, Gelin is far from making a living from her passion. She's still working part-time, living with her mom, and working nonstop to polish material. But she's hopeful, and like all the women on the scene, she believes something special may be brewing in Miami.

Here in the living room, in the cozy duplex she shares with her mom, Gelin works to get comfortable with the seedlings of ideas that she turns into jokes that she transforms into five minutes — and later, she hopes, ten minutes — of standup. She practices how to stand and pace the stage and to use tags, or punch lines after punch lines. Holding the flashlight, she gets comfortable with how to use a mike during a show.

"Every once in a while during a show, my mouth will touch the mike," she says. "And I'm like, this is so gross. Get it together, Dom."

After she gets the libertarian bit down, the next step is to write out a "Lubertarian" Party platform. It will be more focused on public service, she says. "Comprehensive access to sex ed and making sure nobody goes dry. That will be the 2016 premier party."

Her comedy is so "her," says her cousin Alain. "You can watch her set, and when she gets onstage and offstage, you can't tell the difference," he says. "The same Dom you see onstage is the same we see at family gatherings."

Since her debut seven months ago, she has cycled through every place there is to do comedy in Miami, from a hair salon to a jazz lounge. She has excelled and bombed, gotten laughs and heckles, and had too many late nights. And she's mapping out where to go next. Now she wants to headline and work up to a 15- or 20-minute set. Though she knows it's a tough road ahead, she wants to do comedy full-time.

"I mean, maybe I do this for six years like I did politics for six years, and then I discover I love basket weaving," she says. "But if there's a way I can do it forever, that would be great."

"For each person who succeeds, how many don't make it? There's no guarantee you'll be on HBO."

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Her mom is still having a hard time swallowing that possibility. "You cannot predict a crowd or how your joke is going to be understood," Magalie says. "People smoke and drink and get rowdy. What if you offend someone who's a bit more aggressive?"

Plus, she worries her daughter won't be able to make a living. "I want to help her out, but I won't be here forever," she says. "For each person who succeeds, how many don't make it? It's like any entertainment career. There's no guarantee you'll be on HBO."

Gelin's cohorts on the comedy scene are also charging forward. Garavito is working to bring in even more big-name comics to headline local shows. And according to the Improv's Rene Harte, a new improv theater is coming to Miami. She and her partner are settling on a location.

Emily Winter and Natalie Prager-Newman, meanwhile, now host a monthly comedy/variety room in South Beach at Bay Club Lounge, next door to Lucali, called "Does This Joke Make Me Look Fat?"

The show's first night, July 28, drew a packed house. Toledo, who performed a "weird, avant-garde performance piece" as part of the lineup, says the audience was "attentive and quiet."

In June, Gelin and Toledo also started their own room at a hookah bar in Kendall. Their first night, nobody but comics showed up. It was 90 degrees inside, and the owner didn't understand the concept of comedy, interrupting every performer who took the stage. After the show, he pulled Gelin aside and told her not to make jokes related to religion. But Gelin laughed it off and said the dynamic would improve every week. It did improve, until the manager nixed the show in July. She and Toledo are eager to launch another Monday-night room somewhere else in town.

Yet Gelin is already feeling the age-old tension of comedy in Miami. Though she'd like to invest in the local scene, she's open about planning a possible move to L.A. (because New York is way too cold). It would be the farthest she's ever been from her mom, but she thinks it's the only way she'll grow into herself as a comedian. She's been looking for jobs and putting out feelers for places to stay.

"I know it's quick, and people will say I should keep working on stuff here," she says. "But I don't know. I'm just not going to be a martyr for the Miami comedy scene."

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