Making It Work as a San Antonio Comedian

click to enlarge Larry Garza - Jaime Monzon
Jaime Monzon
Larry Garza
I am often asked what it’s like being a comedian in San Antonio. I tend to say it’s similar to having a pimple on your ass — no one notices until it gets really big or when it takes a picture with someone famous.

San Antonio has a thriving comedy scene that not many people know about. And some of us local comedians are even trying to get noticed without moving to LA — or Austin.

I’ve been in the scene for almost 17 years, doing everything from sketch comedy and films with Comedia A Go-Go to stand-up all over the country, although mostly in Texas. What I do seems simple enough to explain, but not to the Bud Light-drinking, Cowboys jersey-wearing population of our fair city.

“Tío, sketch comedy is like SNL,” I find myself explaining. “No, Tío, I don’t know George Lopez. Yes, I know Cleto.”

I have performed comedy in front of hundreds of people at the Aztec Theatre one day and to a baker’s dozen in a Mexican restaurant the next. That is the scope of our city’s stand-up scene.

Unfortunately, our scene has an interesting reputation — and it’s not the best. From comedian Chris Cubas’ 2013 Austin Chronicle interview, where he described San Antonio as “the worst fucking town” for comedy, to more recently, when comedian Ron Funches took out his frustration over a performance here with a series of tweets ending with, “Suck my dick, San Antonio.”

Say-Town’s finest will quickly clap back on a tweet or comment on an article defending the 210 like it’s the Battle of the Alamo again. Yet they won’t always come out and support the very thing they’re defending: San Antonio comedy.

Most S.A. comics will travel around Texas to do shows, especially Austin. Not just because of the distance, but because of the attendance and potential for industry people to notice you. I used to be nervous performing in a politically correct city like that.

Turns out, Austin’s PC stereotype isn’t true. Just like other cities in the country, audiences there will laugh if a joke is funny, even though, yes, there are douchebag hecklers there, just as there are here and in every city in every state.

But I’d like to point out a few key things that show why Austin is different from San Antonio. First, there’s usually a good amount of people out on a weeknight. Second, there are usually no “names” on the bill, and the comedians performing are from all across the country. Occasionally comedians like Ron White or the Sklar Brothers will randomly show up to perform.
Why don’t shows like that happen in San Antonio? Is it our city? Is it the comedians? Is it the crowd? Is it the venue? Could it possibly be all of the above?

It all depends on the type of show you go to. There are the shows in the comedy club format, with a local host, a feature (middle) act and a headlining comedian. Then there are showcase shows featuring five to seven vetted lesser-known local and traveling comedians. Finally, there are open mics, where anyone, from a working comedian to someone off the Greyhound, can sign up and perform.

Similar to most working-class cities, going out on a weeknight is a rarity reserved for a special occasion — like a Spurs game or cheating on your spouse. So, when a bar or restaurant decides to hold a comedy open mic on one of their off-nights, expect to see fewer than 10 people in attendance, half of whom have no clue a comedy show is even going on.

Performing in that kind of environment is like trying to explain climate change to a kindergarten class after recess.

In order to stand out, some comedians stick to the lowest common denominator — dick jokes, race baiting and shock humor. Unfortunately, when that’s what an audience member sees, it may be their first and last time at a comedy show. It also becomes what they think stand-up is in our city.

After an influential local musician checked out an open mic night, she asked on social media, “Why are San Antonio comedy shows just two hours of rape jokes?”

I can imagine her disappointment when she thought those kinds of comics were representing our city. But it was an open mic. If I were to judge our music scene solely based on open mics, I might ask, “Why do San Antonio musicians do nothing but Sublime covers?”

I’d be wrong, but no one would blame me for assuming that’s the norm.
I’ve been lucky enough to perform all over the country. I’ve performed with people like Paul Rodriguez, Anjelah Johnson and Brian Posehn. One of my proudest achievements was selling out multiple shows headlining Austin’s Velveeta Room. It wasn’t just random people either — some were actually there to see me. Later that year, I finally headlined the club where I started, the Rivercenter Comedy Club.

Sadly, the Rivercenter shows weren’t sold out.

Friends have asked how I feel about the closing of the Rivercenter Comedy Club. I’m torn because it holds a special place in my heart. As the home of Showtime’s Latino Laugh Festival in the ’90s, Rivercenter was the beacon for any Latino comic in the country. As a teenage fan of everything from Cheech and Chong to Mr. Show, I’d take the bus and wait under the club’s neon “Ha! Lapeño Café” sign to meet my favorite comedians as they left. I hoped to one day be an audience member at the packed Saturday Midnight Madness show. The show was free, the crowd was hot, and the comedians were great.

In the early 2000s, not only was I able to attend, I was invited to perform. It was an honor and the first step toward a career I’m proud of. Unfortunately, like many good things in San Antonio, Midnight Madness went away. It was a victim of a toxic combination of arrogance and apathy — from all parties involved.

I will miss the club, but I won’t miss downtown parking, the dickish tourist crowds that gave our city a bad name or having to bark at people to come to a Saturday afternoon open mic in the mall.

I’ll miss the staff and the memories of what our scene once was, but I look forward to what it’s now becoming.

Because San Antonio deserves better, I refuse to give up. We are more than Mexican restaurant shows, Sharpie-eyebrow jokes and shitty open-mics.

You can’t choose your parents, and you can’t choose where you’re from, so I choose to be a proud San Antonio comedian. Put down the domestic beer, guys, shut up during shows and laugh with us.

Then you can say you knew us before we moved to Austin.

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