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The open mic at Doc Holliday's Saloon, where I eventually make my "debut," sprang up this past year. Hosted by local standup comedian (and, by day, Home Depot carpet guy) Marty Carrion, it's become one of the more popular "rooms."
On a recent night, Helen Pachynski, a retired financial adviser and former society matron who lives in Santa Rosa, takes the stage at Doc Holliday's. A pixyish woman with an Audrey Hepburn haircut, Pachynski is all style and grace, even while making jokes about vibrators and sex with the gardener. Her routine revolves around re-entering the dating scene after the death of her husband three years ago. Best joke? "At my age, men are like parking spaces. The good ones are all taken and the rest are handicapped."
Onstage, Pachynski's a firecracker, and she absolutely kills. She's got the audience eating out of her hand. I'll soon take this same stage, and I know I can learn something from her.
"I'm the Betty White of Sonoma County," Pachynski tells me with a laugh. "I'm always the oldest at any venue. I'm 67 years old, and I make no bones about it."
Pachynski's got a pro attitude, and she assures me that comedy is possible for almost everyone—with preparation. She's been at this comedy thing for two years, since debuting at the Guayakí Mate Bar. Now she performs in front of hundreds of people at a time, everywhere from San Francisco's Purple Onion to the Moose Lodge ("A lot of bluehairs there," she says).
"Most comedy is based on personal experience," she advises. "It's just relating these little ordinary things. They become funny in the way that you present them or talk about them." The most important thing is to prepare and practice ahead of time, she adds.
"It gives you confidence, and you know you have another line to back you up," says Pachynski. This is essential, because inevitably, as I'm soon to learn from first-hand experience, aspiring comics will end up at one time or another with a stone-faced audience that doesn't laugh at a punch line. And what are you going to do then? Cry?
After her first night at Guayakí, Pachynski kept returning to perform and perfect her material. It was there that she met Juan Carlos, another up-and-coming comedian. Juan Carlos is one-third of the crew behind Monkey Fight Productions, which hosts regular comedy showcase nights at the Sweet River Grill and Bar (where deadpan comedy master Mitch Hedberg once performed in the '90s), Christy's on the Square and Gaia's Garden.
With jokes that often revolve around being a chronically single Latino man and a Mexican immigrant who's been in the country illegally since he was nine and can't seem to catch a citizenship break from the U.S. government, Juan Carlos turns tragedy into comedy. "I come from a really poor family, so around the household we didn't have Disneyland or Great America; we didn't have the dream to go to those places, so we kept entertaining each other, doing jokes and stuff," he says.
The 33-year-old Santa Rosa resident says that when he first started doing comedy four years ago, he had to travel as far as Dublin for comedy open mics. "Now these people are really spoiled," he says. "When I first started, I traveled three hours to this tiny Chinese restaurant where they had an open mic and there were three people there. I went up for a minute and a half, and for the first minute, the host talked over my set!"
But the invitations started coming in, from places like the Punchline and the Purple Onion in San Francisco, and soon, Juan Carlos was asked to perform at Mark Pitta and Friends, a weekly showcase at 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. Pitta is renowned for giving new comics a chance, and even more so, for attracting spontaneous appearances by famous friends like Dana Carvey and Robin Williams.