Patti Vasquez brings representation onstage and behind the mic

Patti Vasquez

Patti Vasquez is a renaissance woman: She’s the host of “The Patti Vasquez Show” on Chicago’s WGN Radio, a stand-up comedian, and the founder of With Kind Words, a consulting company for health care providers.

Patti brings her passion and love for people into her comedy, her radio show on WGN, and her writing. I first met Patti as a guest on her show, talking about Cinema Femme. Speaking with Patti, I was blown away by her story and hope you are too. Listen to The Patti Vasquez Show weeknights on WGN starting at 11 PM CST. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

GROWING UP

REBECCA MARTIN: I’m guessing some of your comedy came from your childhood experiences? Did you have any siblings?

VASQUEZ: I only have half-siblings. My parents both married before they met each other; they were married at the age of seventeen actually to other people. They were both married very young, both got married because they had to, that kind of situation. My dad got his girlfriend pregnant, my mom got pregnant on her first date with a guy.

MARTIN: That’s a tough break. But there you are.

VASQUEZ: I know. The universe made those two families happen to make my family happen. But yes, my comedy is based off of the randomness, it really is. So my dad was a cab driver for fifty years, and this was in the seventies, and my mom was coming here for one year from Mexico and could not speak English. Her plan was to come to America to get a better job for her kids because she was divorced, which you couldn’t do in Mexico as a woman. And my dad picked her up from the airport.

MARTIN: Oh my goodness, are you serious?

VASQUEZ: I’m very serious. When I tell that story when people don’t believe me, I tell them I couldn’t have made that story up—I’m not that good of a writer.

MARTIN: That’s so sweet.

VASQUEZ: I love their story.

ROAD TO COMEDY

MARTIN: Usually when I speak with women in film, there is something that sparks in them when they are younger to get them into their career. How does one get into comedy? I’m just curious. There doesn’t seem to be a direct path. 

VASQUEZ: I know; that’s a great question. I went to Lane Tech [High School in Chicago], I was in the theater club, and I was also a softball player. I could never audition for the leads because it always conflicted with sports. But I would do makeup, I learned how to do costuming and all that stuff. I liked to be behind the scenes. I took classes when I could at the Organic Theater when I was a kid; I would take two buses and a train. …

If you got in my car in high school, you would hear Carlin or Pryor, Ellen DeGeneres or Rosanne—that is just what I was drawn to. So I used to watch marathons. I always watched Johnny Carson when I was little. I saw signs for open mics when I was at U of I, but it never occurred to me. So one day I was sitting down and watching this show called “VH1 Stand Up,” it was a marathon, and Margaret Cho was one of the stand-up comedians. I hadn’t seen her before.

MARTIN: She’s fantastic.

VASQUEZ: And here she was. She was a daughter of an immigrant, she was doing her mom’s accent, she was talking about her weight in a way that was accessible. She was talking about the ignorant things people say. Everything that was me. I had never seen me behind a microphone.

Margaret Cho was one of the stand-up comedians. … And here she was. She was a daughter of an immigrant, she was doing her mom’s accent, she was talking about her weight in a way that was accessible. She was talking about the ignorant things people say. Everything that was me. I had never seen me behind a microphone.

MARTIN: I love that.

VASQUEZ: I’d never seen that. It was the minute I decided that was it. And I couldn’t not do it; I was consumed with it.

MARTIN: I like what you were saying about Margaret Cho and representation because I think that’s so important. What was it like in the beginning for you? Was there a lack of diversity and women in comedy?

VASQUEZ: So I chose Vasquez. Vasquez is my mom’s name, and I liked the way it sounded, Patti Vasquez, it’s kind of south Irish Mexican. So it baked in there that this might be part of it, and also because there weren’t any women in comedy in Chicago that were Latina.

So I was a novelty as a woman, as a young woman, as a Latina, I didn’t have the material, but I was fearless when it came to standing onstage. When it wasn’t going well, I could keep going. I had a lot of bad habits: I talked too fast. If it wasn’t going well, I’d get tawdry or naughty and throw in an f-bomb. But in a way that was still accessible. That is what helped me to keep going.

Having a Latin surname didn’t hurt me until the 2000s as much. My manager asked me to change my name because they could not get me in clubs across the country.

It wasn’t until a little bit later that being a woman worked against me. And being Latina. There would be people that would ask me to change my name. Especially when immigration became a big issue under Bush. Having a Latin surname didn’t hurt me until the 2000s as much. My manager asked me to change my name because they could not get me in clubs across the country.

MARTIN: That’s not right.

VASQUEZ: And there were places that would say, “You need to send me a tape.” A lot of comics get referrals, even to get a featured spot, you know, word of mouth, like, “Patti is great,” or “Mike’s a great feature act.” And I would always ask when they ask for a video tape, “Do you ask all the comics that are referred to you for a video tape?” And they were often honest and say, “Women don’t really do well in this room.” And I would tell them, “You know what, it’s cheaper for me to stay home and I’ll get a week anyway.” You know what I mean? But there were places that would take me based on referrals by word of mouth, and those were the ones I’d work for for years.

CRAFTING THE JOKE

VASQUEZ: I always try to find the absurdity in human behavior, so I talk about things people say to me. Whether it’s [about me being] Irish and Mexican [and people saying] “How did that happen?” The way they say it makes it sound like a factory accident, like that sounds like an impossibility. I highlight things that seem simple to one person, and how it lands.

I always try to find the absurdity in human behavior, so I talk about things people say to me. Whether it’s [about me being] Irish and Mexican [and people saying] “How did that happen?” The way they say it makes it sound like a factory accident, like that sounds like an impossibility. I highlight things that seem simple to one person, and how it lands.

So I’ve had the opportunity because of stand-up comedy to also talk about being a mother of a child with special needs. And people will say things like “I’m just asking,” but the problem is a hundred people, you know, you’re “just asking” and that’s fine, but I just have to find my pace of absorbing how people stare at Declan and say things like, “Does he talk? He should really be talking by now. He should be evaluated.” And I’m like, “I guess he’s been wandering around the past few years and he has had nothing to say.” And it always takes you out of your moment. So I find ways when I talk about how I react to the small injustices, social injustices. So when somebody says, “Does he talk?” I say, “Just because you can talk, doesn’t mean you should.”

“THE PATTI VASQUEZ SHOW”

MARTIN: When did you start doing radio?

VASQUEZ: When I first became a comic, friends of mine started to bring me on late-night comedy shows with other hosts throughout the years. And then when you travel, you have to promote your shows on the radio. It’s funny, somebody just rescheduled last week because they thought it was AM and not PM. They said, “That’s too late for me.” And I thought about all the years I spent on the road, going to bed at 1 or 2 in the morning, and getting up at 6 AM to do radio. And I never once told a host that you’re on too early. That’s the gig.

I was a guest for a long time on radio shows all over the country. And in 2001, Steve Cochran messaged me. They asked me if I wanted to be a guest on Milt Rosenberg. Milt Rosenberg was in the same time slot I have now. He was doing a show on comedy and what’s funny and all that stuff. And then I started to be a regular guest on “The Steve Cochran Show.”

Cochran lost his job in 2010, and two years later, I wrote an essay that caught the attention of the programming director. He said, “It seems like you have an interesting take on things,” so he asked me if I wanted to audition. So in 2012 and 2013, they gave me a shot at the Sunday shows, and every Sunday for a few months they finally gave it to me. In 2013, they let me audition for the five nights a week for the slot I have now, at the 11 PM. And I got that slot.

I could finally get off the road; I’d been on the road for such a long time. When [guests] come to a show [“The Patti Vasquez Show”], they come to a comedy show. They’re often surprised that I’m funny. There’s no way to do stand-up comedy for three hours. I mean, Jack Benny did radio, but he still did it in character. For me, it’s a platform for everything.

I could finally get off the road; I’d been on the road for such a long time. When [guests] come to a show [“The Patti Vasquez Show”], they come to a comedy show. They’re often surprised that I’m funny. There’s no way to do stand-up comedy for three hours. I mean, Jack Benny did radio, but he still did it in character. For me, it’s a platform for everything.

CHANGE?

MARTIN: With women in comedy, do you see a change?

VASQUEZ: Yes. When I started—and I should go through my notebooks—I wanted to be political. Being somebody in my early twenties, it was very hard to sound like an authority on a lot of anything. I also wasn’t that skilled in crafting those jokes. … [But] I became stronger at doing autobiographical. What I learned and what I will stand behind is, women standing on stages, just being there is political. Just standing there, saying the things about being a woman.

Women standing on stages, just being there is political.

We get these bookers and they say, “You’re not going to be talking about your weight or using tampons.” And do you know how many comedy clubs I had to stand in back of and listen to dick jokes? The very fact of our existence is political because taking command of a room, standing onstage alone, puts you in a position of authority. And how you handle that is also political.

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