What do you do when the recession leaves you unemployed for nearly three years? Take the life stories you’ve recorded and make them work for you.
That’s what Jose Chavez has been doing the past year and a half. After he lost his job as a purchasing assistant at a health center, Jose knew he wasn’t going back to the world of crunching numbers. It was time to put everything he knew—his rocky upbringing in Pacoima, the high school days as a bloated teenager, an agonizing stint as a security officer— into six minute stand-up comedy bits. “I was painfully bullied as a kid, so I had to learn how to laugh at myself,” says Jose. “That’s why I got into writing; I wrote everything down and even created a comic strip version of myself as a miserable security guard. Stand up is just another way to test my storytelling ability.”
His first test didn’t go so well. Jose had a good crowd show up to his first gig at the Spotlight Comedy Club in Studio City; so good, in fact, that the night’s organizer gave him a few extra minutes on stage. Jose went through his prepared five minutes of comedy and got some laughs, but then he just froze. He attempted to salvage the remaining time by starting a Q&A session, but the grave digging had already begun.
“I don’t want to be that Mexican comedian. I want to be a comedian who happens to be Mexican.”
Despite bumps in the road, Jose knew he found his niche. On stage, he was far away from the introverted teenager who only expressed himself on paper, the one who was “more a part of the set than a character in other people’s lives.”
Not that the socially quiet character is now a distant memory. Jose’s signature clothing item, the newsboy cap he wears low and close to his eyes, suggests more of a timid personality than a natural performer. But with stand-up comedy, Jose, the real Jose, is center stage.
These days his stage is Flapper’s Comedy Club in Burbank, but this weekend you can catch him at a special show at the House of Brews in San Fernando. Jose organized the HOB Comedy Night to bring out quality comedians like Laurie Kilmartin (writer for “Conan”) for a free night of laughs.
So what can be expected from Jose this Saturday? His brand of comedy is strongly connected to his everyday life, yet he’s hesitant to rely on race or culture for material. ”I used to have a problem with comedians holding on to race as a crutch but, at the same time, I dealt with racism growing up and I deal with it now,” says Jose. “You can’t dismiss it because it’s a part of who you are and you use it because it’s still a part of your life. As long as it’s not the only part of your story.” Instead of framing his work after George Lopez or Carlos Mencia, he’d rather align himself with comedians like Chilean-American Pablo Francisco or the late Columbian-American Greg Giraldo. ”I don’t want to be that Mexican comedian. I want to be a comedian who happens to be Mexican,” he says.
So, he works on trimming the fat from his stories and keeps only the core of each anecdote. He spends time practicing his delivery and moving on swiftly after a punchline, something he greatly admires in his favorite comedian, the late Mitch Hedberg. He constantly hones his craft because he wants to see all the way through. Unlike anything he’s done in the past, stand-up comedy forces Jose to live outside of himself.
“I couldn’t do a lot of things before doing comedy, but there are no boundaries anymore,” says Jose. “I couldn’t even swear in front of my mom and now I can.”