Hot Hot Comedy
Nice Guy Ninja
Always the consummate room host, Kermit Gonzalez goes to any length to make people feel welcome: “Are you comfortable? You’re not? What’s going on? You don’t like this? I can leave if that would help; I’ll leave just for you. I’m just done. All right.”
It’s a much-overused phrase: the eyes are the windows to the soul. But it applies here — so it needs to be said — because there is no possible way to hang around Orlando comic and room host Kermit Gonzalez without falling deep into his eyes. I’ve asked around to make sure I’m not the only one feeling this way. I’m not.
The eyes are kind. The eyes are knowing. And even if Kermit blows you off when you note it, the eyes are paying attention.
It’s a good thing he’s so observant because reading a masked crowd is no small feat. Gone are the days when you could easily tell how your audience was responding. It’s true for the comic and it’s true for the host: the energy in the room plays a huge role in the success
of the night. You’ve got to have a handle on how your crowd is vibing. And that’s where the eyes come in again:
“It’s either they sit there with this ‘nope,’ with the mask on just staring at you, or you can see them kind of like moving or laughing. and now you’re like ‘thank God.’ I think it was weird at first but now I focus more on people’s eyes,” Kermit explains.
An accurate read matters a whole heck of a lot to Kermit, who would do almost anything as a host to ensure that the vibe is right.
We met up on Plant Street in historic Winter Garden, outside Axum Cafe. This is comfortable stomping grounds for Kermit. He’s the owner and head instructor of the family business, Winter Garden Karate, a short walk from where we’re sitting (martial arts feature in some of his sketches). He’s well-liked, which is obvious when people who don’t realize this is an interview stop to bro down. And when they do realize what’s going on, they immediately gush with nice things to say. The same is true of the comics in this tight-knit Central Florida community: they love them some Kermit.
I first took an interest in diagramming and documenting the origins and unfolding of the Orlando comedy scene a few years ago when I started going to
open mic night The Other Bar on Monday evenings.
It was electric and intimate, and it felt like comics were trying out new stuff on each other. It was mostly comics in the audience.
Kermit was hosting, and very hands-on about managing the environment. Before and after the show, he’d be all over the place, checking on this thing and making sure of that. Probably not much different than his activities at the karate studio.
Even as a total outsider, it was clear to me that we were all in Kermit’s house. When I share my thoughts, he responds with, “I don’t know if I’m at the level of like being, like, that guy, or like, an authority,” and quickly names other comics I need to talk to.”
But at the ripe young age of 38, he’s the papa comedian or at least one of them. You can tell by the way he affectionately hazes newcomers breaking into the comedy fold.
“If I’m not making fun of you, I don’t like you. If I’m making fun of you, I like you. You’re part of the group. That’s just how comedy is. It’s like gang initiation. We just beat you up verbally. Basically, we make fun of you and see if you can hang with it. If you don’t hang with it, you hate it and you leave and we don’t mess with you anymore. If you can dish it back then we just keep going.”
Sounds paternal, right?
“But really, I’m into helping comedians and getting people shows and putting their names out there. I’m not trying to sound like an old grandpa comedian, but I know it’s coming.”
Like a wise old man, Kermit is opinionated and assertive without being overbearing. I asked him, in his view, how much of comedy is about playing with and bending the truth?
Without skipping a beat, he responds, “80% is true. 20% lies. Whenever anyone says anything on stage, either they went through it or it happened to someone next to them … and then a comic will bring it up to a level of craziness.”
Then he dials it back down again. “I’m a nobody to be staring at and listening to.”
Unassuming. Humble. The sign of a true boss.
The Other Bar had to shut down open mic night when the pandemic hit, but now you can find Kermit hosting Monday nights at Harry Buffalo on Church Street, starting at 9 p.m. And you’ll get lots more Kermit as I pull from these 92 pages of transcript from our interview. Stay tuned for a full-length feature on Orlando’s comedy scene.