Getting paid to be funny is great work if you can get it. And comedian Patti Vasquez knows she's fortunate to be busy.
"I'm in Iowa next week and then South Carolina after that," Vasquez said recently. "I mean, it took us two weeks just to coordinate this lunch. How nuts is that?!"
Vasquez grew up on the Northwest Side, the working-class daughter of an Irish dad and Mexican mother (Vasquez is the surname of her mom, Dora). She says she has been "obsessed" with stand-up comedy since her teen years.
"I'd always been addicted to comics," she said. "If you got in my car in high school, I didn't have music, I'd have George Carlin playing."
Vasquez, with her husband and their two children, calls Jefferson Park home when she's not performing across the country.
For a peek at Vasquez's style of comedy, visit her website, pattivasquez.com. Here's an edited version of our conversation.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a comic?
A: I loved stand-up comedy, but it never occurred to me that I could do that for a living until I saw Margaret Cho on VH1. I'd never seen anybody who was like me: Her mom had a heavy accent and disdain for what her daughter did, and I thought, "That's my mom!" Then I started writing down things in journals. I went to my first open mic … I packed the room with friends and I did OK.
But a friend of mine had gotten killed in a bar fight right after my open mic night, and that really shook me up. I remember being at the funeral and thinking, "We don't know what's going to happen, so why not do what I want to do?" And I dropped out of graduate school within four months. I was getting my Ph.D. in history at Northwestern. I had a full ride and everything. But I didn't fit in there.
Q: Why didn't you fit in?
A: U. of I. (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) was a great equalizer when I went there for undergrad. People came from every background. But at Northwestern, in this program, there wasn't as much diversity. I had no peers. I didn't know how to talk to these people.
Q: How did your parents, Dora and Larry, meet?
A: My dad grew up in Lincoln Park. He was second-generation Irish, one of eight kids. He was a cabdriver for 50 years. My mom is from Mexico, and she came to the U.S. to learn English. She got in my dad's cab the first day she came here, and they went out for drinks. They started dating and they got married a year later.
Q: Did you ever feel pressure to move to Los Angeles?
A: My husband (Steve Jones) and I got married in 2000, and we were planning to move to LA in January of 2001. We had an apartment picked out, I had a manager, and we were going to move. Then my dad got diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2000. He smoked nonfiltered Camels for 56 years. He died seven months after he was diagnosed, in June 2001. When you lose somebody, it's weird, because I could still smell his cigarettes sometimes around the house. … And one night I had this dream that I sat on the front porch with my dad, and he said, "Stop worrying about me, kid, I'm OK. It's all right up here. Babe Ruth is up here too." And I said, "Really? Have you met him?" And he goes, "Nah, I don't want to bother the guy." And that's so my dad. Would I have been a star if I'd moved? There are no guarantees, and I got that seven months with my dad, and you can't buy that. I needed to be here.
Q: What did you want to be when you were 13?
A: A fighter pilot. I loved the movie "Top Gun." But I also wanted to be a marine biologist because I wanted to save the environment.
Q: Who are your role models?
A: I go in and out of loving Joan Rivers. I'm not crazy about mean comedy, but she's carved that out. That's who she is, and we all know that's who she is. I love Lewis Black. So genuinely nice. Remembers people's names. Will return a phone call. I was doing a show in Louisville, Ky., and when I was done with the show, they said, "Someone is here to see you." Lewis had done a show at another place down the street, and he came back to see my set. That was incredible.
Q: What's the best advice you've ever gotten?
A: Larry Miller, he's a character actor, said, "Don't take anybody else's advice." He also told me, "There's room for everybody. Don't let anybody tell you that you can't do this."
Q: How old are your sons?
A: Griffin is 9 and Declan is 7. Declan has special needs. He has hypoplasia of the corpus callosum. He is missing fibers in the frontal lobe of his brain. They detected an irregular heartbeat in the second trimester, but otherwise everything seemed normal. I went into labor with Declan on Labor Day in 2005 — I drove myself to the hospital actually. We were very excited. Then it all came crashing down. They held him up, and he looked different. Something was wrong. He was purple and not breathing. His brain responses weren't good. He couldn't breathe on his own. I didn't know what was going on, but I'd seen so many episodes of "ER," I thought, "Well, this happens!"
I didn't find out until he was 3 that the doctors thought he wasn't going to make it. After the first few weeks, they said, "He's never going to walk. He's not going to talk." And I was like, "I can't do this. No!" I couldn't move, I couldn't talk. I couldn't do anything. But I was under contract to do (the demo for) a Showtime special called "The Latin Divas of Comedy," so I had to fly to Albuquerque (N.M.) two days after we brought Declan home, and I remember thinking, "If this plane crashes, that would be all right. Somebody else has to do this."
Q: Do you have a mantra that keeps you going?
A: Your choices are give up or step up, so you've got to step up. You also have to decide what you're going to focus on. Declan wasn't making milestones like rolling over or lifting his head, and I thought, "I can't hate this." So I decided I was going to love all the things that he could do, like laugh and look me in the eyes. Then when he would do new things, I would love those.
Q: You were part of the new show that aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network called "My Life is a Joke." Where do things stand with that series?
A: They haven't put it in the schedule yet. We filmed enough for two or three episodes, so we are waiting to hear.
Q: What are you writing now?
A: I'm pitching a show about my family. My mom lives with me, my husband is unemployed, I have a son with special needs. It's called "Patti Happens." There has to be room for something on television that is somewhere between "Girls" and "Sex in the City." I get a lot of criticism for smiling so much onstage. People will say, "Why aren't you angry? A lot of crappy stuff has happened to you." You know what, this smile protects you from my rage, my gag reflex, my terror. This smile is my filter.
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