Stand-Up Comedy: Want to Try It?
My First Comedy Profile Pic-1989
Why Did I Ever Start Doing Comedy?
Hello. My name is David Ortega. Actually my name is Dave Juan Carlos Taco Tortilla Enchilada Tostada Tostito Frito Bandito Dorito Garcia Manuel Noriega Speedy Gonzales Ortega. I'm not 100% Mexican. I'm half Italian and half Mexican. I'm a little confused. I'm the only person who tried to make a low rider out of a Ferrari.
I open up nearly every routine with that introduction. They say that the fear of public speaking exceeds the fear of death. Jerry Seinfeld said, "This means that the person giving the eulogy at the funeral would rather be in the casket."
Many people are quick witted with an excellent sense of humor. BUT they are scared to death of being in front of a mic. I was one of them. In my early days of my routine, I would get so nervous that I could not eat all day until my very last night time performance was over. No breakfast. No lunch. No supper. Too many butterflies in my stomach.
So why did I ever start? As a kid I remember trying to cheer up anyone in grade school who was down. On the playground I would seek out the person who seemed to need a lift and tell them a good joke. I had a nice collection of joke and riddle books. Mom thought I should check out other educational types of books from the library instead.
I used to imitate my teachers including the principal. Well maybe it was more mockery. Our principal used to belt out, "Are you talking in my corridors?!?!?! Cha-cha BOOM!!!" I could match the tone of her voice to the point where other students would instantly shut up and straighten out when I would imitate her in the hallways. Our 6th grade teacher used to have a cough that I would imitate. Anything for a laugh.
My maternal grandmother (Grandma Loffredo) was quite a character. She was Italian and full of snappy put-downs and funny insults. She had a Joan Rivers or Don Rickles delivery style. My uncle said she was quite the actress. She could be laughing at the beginning of a sentence and crying at the end. There was the time she bragged about how she is always such a clean person, gets rid of dirt and has good hygiene. When she bathes she told us she uses 3 different wash rags: One for her face, one for her arms and one for her "nature." My brother told her she didn't need 3 rags. She replied, "Wella sure you do. You tella me you gonna washa you private and thenna washa your face?!? I should say NOT!"
I would imitate both my Italian grandmother and Mexican grandmother. My father's mother, Mary, had a deep Hispanic accent. One day there was a prediction for severe storms in Iowa. She told us, "Tonight I heard we're going to have one of those, what do they call that, a TORPEDO?!" I laughed and thought, well tornado, torpedo, in either case grandma better hide in the basement.
I was funny telling these stories and jokes with friends and relatives as my audience, but was I ready for a real live audience with complete strangers? I was nervously excited to give it a try.
Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God. -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
So What's With the Sax?
As a part of doing comedy on stage, I thought I would somehow incorporate my tenor sax to showcase another talent. I play the Muppet Show Theme Song as I walk onto stage. I do a fairly good imitation of Kermit the Frog and use a puppet of him to introduce me. In the 1990s when Bill Clinton was president, I used the sax in to imitate him. You see he played the sax too. And there always seemed to be a scandal that most comedians could use as fodder. When he was running for office, not only were there sex scandals he had to answer for, there was evidence that he was a marijuana smoker. He denied it saying that he didn't inhale. So to make light of that, I would place the sax in my mouth and pretend to play it. No notes would come out. Then after a moment or two of silence I would ask the audience if they heard anything. They would reply no. I said in my best southern drawl Clinton accent, "Although I put it in my mouth, I did NOT inhale!"
I also used the sax for my Pee Wee Herman imitation. I would play the song, "Tequila" taken from the bar scene in the movie, "Pee Wee's Big Adventure." The scene involved Pee Wee dancing on the tables and "break dancing" by shattering glass. The song was a way I could get audience participation because they all knew when to shout, "TEQUILA!"
My routine included a "secret word" that I would pull out of my sax case. In my best Pee Wee voice, I told them whenever they hear the secret word to scream real loud. Sometimes the secret word involved something in the news headlines or a body part. I gave the audience opportunities to respond throughout the rest of the routine.
My First Stage Appearances
Material Needs to be Fresh (and Clean)
By now there are probably a number of you wondering if I have any fresh material. Afterall, the characters I imitate are now faded memories. And you are right. In order to stay fresh, read the headlines and stay topical. Jimmy Fallon knows how to do this. His opening monologue is full of news headlines as his topics. He does an excellent imitation of Donald Trump. He also pokes fun at famous actors and actresses while keeping it to a "PG" rating. There is no need to be vulgar. One of my favorite Christian comedians is Tim Hawkins.
I imitate a good number of cartoons. Scooby Doo and Shaggy are some that can remain timeless. Otherwise I rely on my life experiences and observational humor. Making fun of human behaviors, especially your own, can bring some laughter into the scene. I am able to draw from my unique cultural background. I have told my audience that being part Mexican, at Thanksgiving we have a turkey stuffed with refried beans.
My wife and I have 8 children. Yes 8 children! Yes we know what causes them. No we are not Mormon. Yes we are Catholic. Yes we actually do watch TV....sometimes. Once when I was at work in a large office building downtown, a co-worker looked out the window and said, "Oh look! Isn't that cute? A daycare!" I looked out the window and said, "No. That's my wife and kids coming for a visit." You might be from a large Catholic family if....you pull up in front of a Catholic church with your 15 passenger van and a group of nuns get on thinking it is the Bingo shuttle.
My First Audiences
My first public appearance was at the University of Iowa during parent weekend. I imitated sorority girls and plenty of my professors. It was a hit! I told audiences how I was a part of the Greek system. I rushed at "Tappa Mega Kegga." Then I partied with "I Phelta Thigh." Do you know how the Tri-Delts answer their phone? "Hello, Delta Delta Delta, Can I help ya help ya help ya?" I entertained at other smaller venues across campus until I left two years later.
When I returned to my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, there were a growing number of comedy clubs hosting open mic nights and bringing in nationally touring comedians. The most well known was the Spaghetti Works. I developed my routine at several open mic nights. I entered various comedy challenges. One was held at a club called Josiah's at the local Howard Johnson Hotel. I won $350 and other prizes. Then there was the Funniest Man in Iowa Contest where I was a finalist. The winner and I would later go on to compete at Penguin's Comedy Club in Cedar Rapids. I won the competition.
My greatest claim to fame was when I won the Jay Leno Comedy Challenge held at Merle Hay Mall in Des Moines. It was one of several locations throughout the country looking to send the next up and coming comedian to the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I competed against about 15 other amateur comedians. I won a $500 first prize and my tape was sent to the NBC studios for further consideration. I made the top twenty finalists. But I didn't quite make it to Hollywood. However my career was accelerated by the local newspaper coverage.
Local Paper: Des Moines Register
Peak of My Career
The coverage in the local paper included my winning the Jay Leno Comedy Challenge as well as when Jerry Seinfeld toured Des Moines. It boosted my local exposure. The Des Moines Register did a spread entitled, "Jerry's Kids" (above). They featured local comedians who looked like the cast from the TV show "Seinfeld." We resembled Elaine, Kramer, George and Newman. They thought I looked like Jerry. A few of my friends thought I delivered my routine similar to Seinfeld as well. One of my favorite books was, "Seinlanguage."
I never did have an agent. I kept my day job which included working as a lab tech for the sewage treatment plant, another source of humor. Our motto was, "It may be cr@p to you but it is my bread and butter!"
I found paid opportunities on the side including serving as Master of Ceremonies and Feature Act at the local comedy clubs. At the time, MC's typically earned about $50-$100 per show while Feature Acts realized $300-$500 per show or more for a 30 minute routine. Headliners usually perform 45 minutes or more and earn at least $1000 per show. This varies from club to club.
Additionally, corporate parties would hire me, especially for Christmas celebrations. Most of them expect at least a 30 minute routine and will pay at the Feature Act rate.
I traveled to cities within reach of Des Moines, including Omaha and the Twin Cities. In Des Moines, I opened up for Drew Carey at the Funnybone. It was during the time before he started hosting, "Whose Line is it Anyway?" The show was well done. He now of course hosts the TV game show, "The Price is Right."
In Omaha, I was part of a Cox Cable Comedy Hour. I also opened up for Jeff Dunham in Peony Park. It was early in his career. He didn't have Walter or Peanut as part of his act. He had the Jalapeno Pepper on a Stick and a couple other characters.
I traveled as far away as the Funnybone in the Dallas-Fort Worth area but I never hit the coasts, an area where you could easily make a living because of the sheer number of opportunities.
What Am I Doing Today?
Most of my time is spent with my family. Finding time to write new material and landing performance opportunities is challenging. In the past few years, I have done a few church and private venues. Most recently, I MC'd a show for amateurs at the Hotel Renovo in Urbandale. I was paid $100 and given a free stay at the hotel.
Much of what I write today comes out of the mouths of babes. Our children have some humorous comments. For example, I was changing my shirt in the presence of our son Isaac (almost 7) when he remarked, "Dad! Your belly!" Me: I know. I need to lose more weight. Isaac: Don't you go to the tread mill? Me: Almost every day. Isaac: I'd go faster.
The joy of the Lord is your strength.
Some Take Aways
So do you want to try it? I would say there are two types of comedians-those who can write and those who can perform. It takes talent and courage to be able to do both. Keep in mind that during my early days I was so scared I could not eat on the day of the performance until it was over. Sometimes it was a full 24 hours between my meals. I was able to work my way up to having breakfast and then lunch. To this day I still have trouble relaxing and being able to enjoy a meal within an hour before a performance. I discovered that comedic icon Johnny Carson got nervous every night before he went on stage for The Tonight Show, but he used his nervous energy to keep him on his toes (bereavedandblessed.com).
- Don't let anxiety stop you.
- Try your material out on friends and family.
- Find other local amateurs to bond with and develop material.
- A good quality 5 minute routine is better than 15 minutes of BS.
- Follow the pattern of setup, punch. Set your joke up and give the punchline.
- If you are given an allotted time, stick with it. Avoid fishing for laughs and milking the audience.
- Try to make a good first impression. You need to convince your audience within the first 15 seconds of taking the stage. Give them a laugh right away.
- No need to be vulgar. Keep your routine rated G. You will have a wider audience.
- About every moderately-sized city has an open mic venue. Find one and give it a try!