Thirty-year-old Mike Vinn has only ever wanted to do two things with his life: Serve in the military and be a stand-up comic. The Chicago native first moved to San Diego in 1998, when he was stationed at Camp Pendleton. Four years later, he left the Marine Corps and, after appearing at several open mic nights, got a gig at the La Jolla Comedy Store.
A decade later, Vinn finds himself an in-demand comic booking gigs as far afield as New York and Connecticut. He still hosts the Comedy Store’s open mic night every other Monday and also warms up the crowd for visiting comedians. But as the gigs roll in, Vinn’s made stand-up comedy his full-time job and wants to one day open his own comedy club and also write for TV and movies.
His jokes still bomb sometimes, he admits, but he also sometimes finds himself walking on air after “crushing it,” something he said literally makes his body feel lighter.
We sat down with Vinn in the all-black interior of the La Jolla Comedy Store as workmen delivered beer and a cleaner swept up after the previous night’s festivities. We talked about comedy’s limits (there are none), brutal amateurs who think they’re funny (his open mic night regularly attracts a couple) and got a dose of his not-always-politically-correct humor.
Do you have a pre-performance superstition or routine?
I like to go outside, smoke a cigarette and stand by the window so I can look inside and see when the red light comes on to call the next comic.
Like a moment of calm?
Yeah, get away from all the riff-raff, the friends. Mellow out. Try and think what I feel like saying.
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You haven’t figured out at that point what you’re going to say?
Depends on the crowd. If the crowd likes more happy, friendly type jokes, then I’ll do more happy, friendly material.
How do you know what the crowd wants?
I just watch and listen to the other comics, see what’s going on, see what they’re laughing at. Then, when I get on stage, I’ve figured out the first thing I want to say and take it from there.
That’s the defining moment, when I’m up there. That’s when I’m going to start pushing them in different directions and seeing which direction they’re more easily going to go in.
Are there any areas that are off limits though? Anything you simply won’t joke about?
If I find humor in it, I’m going to talk about it.
I used to get yelled at when I was little because I’d just joke about everything. But that’s part of life. If you can take some bad situation and pull light out of it and spin it to where it’s funny, all of a sudden that situation isn’t as bad.
Do you ever find yourself making funny remarks at inappropriate times?
All the time. All the time.
When I was in the Marine Corps, I used to get in trouble a lot for running my mouth and they’d make me dig holes and all that other stuff.
Other times, like Christmas with my family, the filter will just shut off and I’ll just blurt something out and everybody will be like “What the? Why would you say something like that?” Well, I just say “I’m sorry, I thought it was funny, it just kinda came out.”
Have you ever made a joke in your act that somebody took offense to and confronted you with afterwards?
Yeah, I have this bit. I found out you can buy a castle in France for $250,000.
So I talk about how people in La Jolla like to brag about everything they own. Well, they couldn’t do that if I had my own castle in France. Some guy in La Jolla could be bragging about buying his new beach house and I’d be like “I got my own castle!”
Well, one time, after the show, this woman came up to me afterwards and said she was born and raised in La Jolla and that people aren’t really like that. She took a lot of offense to me making fun of snobby people.
I noticed there’s a sign by the door that says “No heckling.” Still, do you ever get hecklers?
Ever heard someone make a funny heckle?
Yeah. The other night I was hosting the open mic and this guy went up and was talking about his mom having a bunch of abortions.
When I got on stage I called over to the guy and said “How many abortions did your mom have?” and this lady in the audience shouts out “Not enough.” It just fit, this old lady shouting. So I gave her a high-five and moved on to the next comic.
You have a drinks minimum here, right? (The Comedy Store has a minimum two-drinks-per-person policy.) I imagine that helps to loosen people up at first, but what about later on when people start getting belligerent?
You can see the crowd change?
Oh yeah. Usually, the cleaner comics go up early. Then we start progressively getting a bit dirtier throughout the night. We’re trying to match the talent with the mood of the people.
How do you feel inside when one of your jokes just bombs?
Horrible. Just horrible.
But that’s when you learn the most, which is weird. But it’s the worst feeling ever. You question everything, regardless of how many times you’ve killed it.
It’s like your dog died.
What about when people are just in tears, cracking up at your jokes, how does that feel?
Oh that’s the greatest feeling in the world! I’m on cloud nine!
For the rest of the night, nothing can go wrong, nothing at all. It’s the highest I’ve ever felt. When that first joke hits and then that next joke hits and you keep going and going and going.
There’s been times when I’ve had to tell the audience “All right, calm down, I’ve got to finish this,” because you only have a certain amount of time. And when they just keep laughing and applauding, then when you say “Alright, that’s my time,” and they just roar, they go into a roar, that is the greatest feeling ever.
Your body is actually lighter, you’re just kinda floating around the room.
When you’re hosting the open mic, is there anyone who performs here who believes they’re really funny but simply is not?
Yeah. There’s two of them right now. I’m not going to give any names, but this one guy’s been doing open mic for about 10 years and he gets off stage and he’s like “I just killed it, I just crushed it out there.”
I’m like, “No. No you didn’t.”
So he’ll say, “But did you hear them applaud? “
And I’m like, “You told them to give it up for the waitress! That’s not a joke, that’s a response to a question.”
It must be brutal.
It is. Some open-mic’ers are really brutal to watch.
Do you think there’s a funny gene?
Maybe we’re just missing a chromosome or something.