Interesting Character- Mike Gardner
Author: Michael Paskevich | Photographer: Krisztian Lonyai
“What is it about you people being on vacation that makes you lose all your damn sense?”
By day he’s Michael Gardner, affable front office director of an oceanfront resort, whose duties include keeping staff engaged and constantly dealing with the mercurial whims, wishes and complaints of vacationing guests. On select evenings, however, he transforms into “Mike Black,” aspiring stand-up comic, working the stage at the Hilton Head Comedy Club and mining laughs by making fun of the same guests he’s been placating all day.
“What is it about you people being on vacation that makes you lose all your damn sense?” he asks audiences, pointing out the essential absurdity of piloting a bicycle when the heat/humidity index lingers in triple digits. Or how about the, ah, testicular fortitude of men who surrender their wallets, and dignity, to spouses who control every transaction and chatter in the background when the hapless guy is forced to phone the front desk to seek a room upgrade? “And all you men really want to do is just sit around and watch ESPN or hang around the pool wearing shades and looking at women you have no shot at.”
He doesn’t tell crowds where he works—the Omni Resort at Palmetto Dunes (formerly Hilton Oceanfront Resort) since 2002—and was admittedly “skeptical about doing stuff on just hotels because I didn’t know how people would take it.” But co-workers kept badgering him to try out his behind-the-desk banter in public, so Gardner cautiously jumped onstage in late 2010 in front of a crowd packed with well-wishers.
“I was scared out of my mind,” he said, “but once I got that first laugh it was all over.
I was suddenly in my element telling stories and embellishing them, and because it was hilarious to [friends and co-workers], it gave me the confidence to start dealing with everyone.” And it’s been working as Gardner continues to broaden his approach beyond the hospitality industry to reality-based observations about relationships, overseas travel and insulated life on Hilton Head. “I love performing because it makes me think of so many different things, and I don’t want people to hear the same things over and over,” he said.
Gardner records and posts almost every unpaid guest set online (MikeBlackComedy.weebly.com) and is so averse to rough language that, in conversation, he actually spells out common swear words rather than say them aloud. “I have some language in my act, but I grew up in the church and I don’t want to say anything that would make my family cringe,” he said.
He grew up in rough-edged Gary, Indiana, as “the middle child of five so of course I was always starving for attention and trying to get it any way possible.” He fell in love with the story-based comedy of Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence and Richard Pryor and was a “class clown” through high school before settling down as an earnest business major at Tuskegee University. Summer gigs on a Lake Michigan party boat and as a night auditor at a hotel in Alabama convinced him to switch his career path to hospitality.
“Being a night auditor helped prepare me for management, because you don’t want to ever call you general manager for little things,” he said. “Basically the request is, ‘if it ain’t burning down, don’t call me.’ You need to develop a certain personality to deal with the weight of having a whole property on your back.”
At age 36, Gardner is a seasoned hotel director with 17 years’ experience who oversees the Omni’s front desk, concierge, phone operators, bellmen, valets and security personnel—up to 60 employees during peak season. “That’s a big chunk, and the biggest stress is juggling all those balls and keeping not only the guests happy, but the people above and below you happy.” That doesn’t always come easy in an era of increasingly savvy travelers seeking perks and maximum mileage from their discretionary dollars.
“You have to find a way to retain and maintain customers. Today, when somebody calls, you have to find a way to get them in the hotel, because there are a lot of choices out there,” Gardner said. Keeping them happy requires finesse, maybe some compromise and a convincing performance, not unlike standing on a stage where likeability is a key to success. “There’s something new every day, and without this job I wouldn’t be getting all this material,” he said, stressing that difficult customers can make it hard to be funny after a 13-hour shift.
Yet he usually overcomes a desire to hide away in silence and heads for the comedy club where he becomes Mike Black, a moniker he laughingly adopted after a charity golf organizer, unaware of his last name, simply posted “Black, Mike” on his assigned golf cart. Onstage he’s self-deprecatory about his stature (he’s several inches shy of six feet), a DUI last year and his uncertain status as a single male who could be ready to settle down some day. “I’m a bit of a skeptic, but I would never run from [a relationship] if it presents itself,” he said. “But right now, the biggest thing for me is developing my comedy and working here in the hotel.”
Touring comics have readily given Gardner advice and encouragement after watching his improving stage work in front of receptive and mostly easygoing crowds of locals and tourists. “I’ve been getting some great response, and a lot of the comics say I’ve got to get out there on the road and get beyond my comfort zone here—go out, get booed and face rejection,” Gardner said. He also realizes he’s got a pretty good thing going.
Comedian / Hotel Director
“I’m a huge fan of Hilton Head, and we all joke about how it’s like some sort of vortex or black hole,” he said with an easy laugh. “Whenever someone says they’re leaving, we start taking bets about when they’re coming back.” So this is where Gardner intends to stay, for now, honing his stage skills and maintaining a career that never leaves him short of new material.