News Column

Local comedians carve own path to fame with Valley-wide circuit

May 17, 2013


May 17--So, this comedian walks into a bar and says, "Hey, I heard you guys host a comedy night here. I was wondering if I could try out my act."

The bartender says, "Who's asking?"

The comedian replies, "The best comedian you've never heard of."

The bartender says, "Didn't you perform last week?"

There is an ebb and flow to entertainment trends in every community. In the Rio Grande Valley, comedy is hot one decade and not the next. Five years ago, there were about half a dozen local comics and no clubs were hosting their shows.

Mario "Superstar" Salazar and Raymond Orta changed the scene by pushing their way into bars, clubs and theaters like Cine El Rey in McAllen, Paradise Roadhouse in Weslaco and Night Shift Sports Bar in Harlingen.

"We worked so hard, all the comics, and we've grown in size -- I think we now have 15 comedians," Orta said.

Big names in comedy like George Lopez, Happy and Gabriel Iglesias have crossed the marquees of McAllen Convention Center, State Farm Arena and Pharr Events Center -- and this week Whoopi Goldberg was slated to perform.

"Whoopi Goldberg was supposed to come down ... (but) some scheduling conflicts happened with her management and she had to pull out of the show," Orta said.

The event was going to be canceled, but Orta, who was supposed to open the show, said he could do it; he could fill those seats -- all 3,500 of them.

Now the Valleyite is taking on the big task of packing the place and having his show "Laugh Loud: Extreme Comedy Show" filmed for an upcoming DVD.

He has planned to have dancers, an orchestra, bit players for certain jokes, an opening band and other local comedians perform for his show.

"I want it to be like a circus," he said. "... It's going to be fun."

Out-of-town comedians have been coming to do the Valley club circuit for a few years, which has been great for them.

"The Valley has become the best paying little run for comedians in the nation," Orta said. "Other comedians are making $125 to maybe $200 to headline a show, but in the Valley, you're making $300 to $350 to headline. And you're getting that (per) night."

There are questions as to the sustainability of comedy in the Valley, though. Business was slow at first, then picked up, and according to one owner of Paradise Roadhouse, Phillip Gomez, it has started to wane.

"I think it's all right, (we) have people coming in who are touring from all over, but now (we're) getting the same guys, so (we) need to change up a little bit," Gomez, 59, said.

Gomez said he would prefer to stick to feature shows, like last month's Dustin Diamond gig at the Weslaco bar which brought in hundreds of customers.

"That was very good because we had that on a Sunday ... and it was hyped up, and that was good," he said.

The comedians are optimistic, though. More clubs and other cities are starting to climb on board.

"Now we're doing shows in Rio Grande City and we're partnering with Corpus (Christi), so we're going to get to bring bigger big-name acts for weekly shows," Salazar said.





GO SEE THIS GUY IF YOU LIKE ... impressions, sound effects, Rodney Dangerfield

It was at 8 years old that Raymond Orta first fell in love with performing. He honed his comedic craft and started getting paid for his act at 15 years old.

"I've been doing it 19 years," he said.

A lot has changed in the past five years for the 28-year-old La Joya native -- he got engaged, he'll be a new father soon and he said he's no longer seen as just a "Valley comic."

"I'm like, the happiest person," he said. "Everything's just lining up and the big opportunities have just been coming in.

"I'm being considered to host the Tejano Music Awards this year and ... I got a chance to headline some comedy clubs here in Texas, and usually those opportunities weren't coming to me because, like, I was just known as the Valley comic, but now it's just being known as a really strong comedian."

Stand-up isn't the end goal for Orta, he has loftier dreams of having his own sitcom or late-night show.

In the meantime, he wants to start up a program to showcase local talent.

"By the end of this year, I'll have my own TV show here in the Valley," he said. "... I'm hoping to branch it out and get it syndicated in all of the southwest."

Whatever it is Orta does, he knows it will have something to do with comedy -- his calling.

"I know I'm doing my life's purpose," he said. "Just making people laugh."



GO SEE THIS GUY IF YOU LIKE ... storytelling, Sam Kinison

McAllen, 33

As far as the Valley comedy scene goes, Mario "Superstar" Salazar is practically considered a pro. He and Orta have been performing around the Valley for years, and Salazar was one of the reasons the scene began to grow.

"I act as booker and recruiter for other comics," the 33-year-old said.

He said he worked tirelessly to increase the amount of comedy shows in the Valley, which was a bit tough when he was out of commission, but the scene seemed to survive.

Salazar recently was released from a court-ordered rehab after he violated his probation. It's been four months since he got out and he's still playing it straight.

"I was supposed to do six months, but I got asked to do a comedy show for the staff and the fellow residents, and the facility director got so upset that I was making fun of the guards and stuff, that he went and told my judge that I wasn't ready to come out, so I got a four-month extension added to my sentence."

The time away gave Salazar a wealth of new material, though, and the courage to talk about a subject he shied away from: his addictions.

"I talk smack about that place, but it really saved my life. I lost like, 80 pounds, I got clean and I value my freedom a lot more," Salazar said.

The comedian who began his career in comedy while he served his country as a Marine continues to take his act on the road and on stage.

"It's very therapeutic, being on stage," he said. "When I'm down, being on stage just makes me so happy. And it has helped me deal with a bunch of stuff I've gone through."



GO SEE THIS GUY IF YOU LIKE ... one-liners, storytelling, David Cross, Andy Kaufman

A newcomer to the local comedy scene, Rey Lopez said he was always the funny one of his friends, but he didn't consider a career as a comic as a viable option right away.

"My brother is a musician, and he used to play sometimes at Cine El Rey. He gave me some tickets (to a comedy show) and I went to check it out," the 22-year-old said.

He saw the show, hung out with the comedians and then joined the after party with the comics back at the hotel.

"They challenged me like a month later to go get up on stage, so I just wrote out five minutes (of material) and I was really scared, (but) I went up and I did it," he said.

After that one bit, Lopez was hooked, and he joined the rotating cast of comedians in the Valley. He often serves as host of Wednesday night comedy shows at Cine El Rey.

The English major continues to attend school at South Texas College, but he takes his job as a comic seriously, too, and did his research about the job.

"I really began to study," he said. "I read books, watched documentaries, and (realized) this is something ... I could do. And now it's the most comfortable thing I've ever done in my life."



GO SEE THIS GIRL IF YOU LIKE ... storytelling, Louis C.K., Lisa Landry

At a low point in Sonia Trevino's life, she found a way to climb back up -- through comedy.

"You need to hit rock bottom to want to come right back up. My ex had left, and when you're feeling really horrible, you want to do anything to make yourself feel better," the Harlingen resident said. "Comedy has always done that for me and I had been writing stuff for years with friends."

The 32-year-old works as a customer service representative at a call center by day, and hits the stage to make people laugh at night, a hobby she started about three years ago.

"I'm a single mom, so I'm constantly making fun of the trials and tribulations that is single 'momdom.' It's hilarious," Trevino said. "I mean, it's hard, but you got to laugh at it because if you don't, you'll lose your mind."

Touring is something she'd love to do, and she's hoping to create a reputation for herself as a powerhouse on stage, she said.

"I just really want to be respected as a woman who is not just funny for a woman, but funny for a person," she said.

Trevino connected with comedy and feels it's a great purpose in her life.

"I'm meant to do this, and I love making people laugh," she said. "I grew up watching people who made me laugh and made me feel great. You can have a horrible day, but there's some awesomeness about laughing."



GO SEE THIS GUY IF YOU LIKE ... impressions, current events, Robin Williams, Pablo Francisco

McAllen, 33

On-air disc jockey

For five years, Mark "Mayhem" Olabarrieta worked as a probation officer. About six months after the McAllen High School graduate transferred back down to Hidalgo County from San Antonio, he was asked to participate in a talent show.

Olabarrieta had never performed stand-up comedy before, but he was willing once he found out the winning purse.

"As soon they told me there was a $200 first place prize, I was like, 'Really? OK, sign me up!'" the 33-year-old said.

That was three years ago, and after winning the talent show, Olabarrieta chucked his career in criminal justice for that of comedy and now he's an on-air disc jockey for KVLY 107.9 FM.

"I started off in a place that doesn't even exist anymore," he said. "A good friend of mine, Andy Hernandez, used to run Miyabi, a Japanese restaurant in Rio Grande City, and that's where I started doing comedy in front of about 10 people."

Olabarrieta was asked to perform at Orta's show tonight, but he said he had to decline because he'll be out of town. He is scheduled to host when Sinbad comes to perform Saturday, June 22, at the Pharr Events Center.

"There's nothing easy about doing comedy," he said. "... I've always believed that laughter is the bridge between heaven and earth, man. If I can make (someone) laugh, you know, they might have been having a worse day than me. If I can make those five people laugh, that's where I see it taking me, to a level where the world needs to be and that's problem-free."

He's looking into film, television and more to showcase his comedy. His next goal, he said, is national television.

"I won't stop until I get my TV spot -- let's put it like that," he said.



GO SEE THIS GIRL IF YOU LIKE ... storytelling, singing, impressions, Amy Schumer, Chelsea Handler

Comedy came easy for Rocio "Roxy" Pena, who started doing impressions in middle school.

"They're like all female singers, and the Aflac duck," she said, laughing. "Just kidding."

Pena said she's always been a wordsmith -- from her early writings in diaries to poetry -- and she saw a common element in all of her work: comedy.

"I'd go back and reread my journal entries, and they were just hilarious, like, not only the stuff that was happening to me, but the way I was wording it," she said.

The 28-year-old Harlingen resident said her family and friends urged her to try stand-up, but she wasn't convinced to try until recently.

"If I could quit my day job and just do this for a living, that would be awesome," she said.

Her comedy style employs her impressions, singing voice and sometimes her dancing skills. She said she'd love to focus on writing, though.

"Ultimately, of course, do stand-up and act and if I were to have the opportunity to write for a show, that would be amazing."



GO SEE THIS GUY IF YOU LIKE ... storytelling, roasting, Bill Hicks, Don Rickles

Michael Paul Garcia has a team of comedians to thank for getting him into the business of laughter. Fellow local funnyman Mark Mayhem pushed Garcia to take the stage, and Mario Salazar helped groom his act.

"I tried and was hooked," Garcia said. "It's a great feeling making a person laugh."

Often his act involves teasing his friends and co-comedians, or making fun of himself.

"If I'm bombing, I'll start to hand jive on stage in the hopes everyone will join in," he joked.

For two years, the McAllen resident has been doing stand-up, and he's also writing for Men's Rio Magazine.

Right now, Garcia seems happy to simply get out Friday nights to perform at local venues, but he said he'd love a chance to perform around the world.



GO SEE THIS GUY IF YOU LIKE ... one-liners, improv, Mitch Hedberg, Maria Bamford

Twenty-year-old Marc Pena seems a bit uncomfortable when he takes the stage. In fact, he doesn't seem to really ever get comfortable up there, but that's where he feels he belongs.

"If other people weren't going to tell other people what's up with airline food, and Mormons, no one else would," he said. "I felt like it was more of an obligation that I be in comedy."

The Edinburg comedian draws from those feelings of discomfort and unease to build his act, which focuses on self-deprecating humor.

"(Self-deprecating humor?) Whatever that means," Pena said. "I didn't go to college. Cut me some slack -- I work at Pizza Hut. And it's not even a very good Pizza Hut, too."

He's hoping his comedy will take him out of the Valley, he said.

"I plan on moving up north," he said. "All the way to San Antonio. I think that's every comic's dream in the Valley to make it up there."

All jokes aside, though, comedy is something that Pena said is a part of him and he loves it.

"I do love comedy," he said. "I've been doing all sorts of comedy since I was a kid -- from talent shows to improv shows and now stand-up comedy to little sketches and movies. I'm not aiming for something in particular. If I could make enough money doing comedy just to live in a hut, I would be the happiest person in the world because I'm making money off of comedy, and not Pizza Hut."


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