Tonight, Mark Serritella is on edge. Instead of his typical hosting duties at Lestat's West, this evening he'll be using the venue to tape a 30-minute set for an agent, hoping to get booked as a headliner on the university circuit.
"I don't usually get like this," he confesses. "But every once in a while...."
Ironically, Serritella's demeanor belies little of his anxiety; it's hard to say a man's anxious when he's constantly in motion. In addition to hosting Mark Serritella's Comedy Night every Tuesday, he books all the talent, including the local musicians who play for the first 30 minutes. He also does two shows a week at The Comedy Palace (where he also bartends), works as a waiter at Petco Park and teaches first grade. How does he do it?
"It's a lot of caffeine," he quips, no doubt partially in earnest. "I've always been like this, actually. In high school, I worked full-time on top of school, and I played football." He gives credit to his father for his strong work ethic. "My dad is a butcher-he works 65 hours a week."
If Serritella's star is on the rise, credit not only his drive, but also his passion for the business. At 8 years old, he saw Saturday Night Live for the first time, and he knew he would someday perform comedy. The impulse drove him to enroll in an acting class during his final semester of college. His funny sketches went over big with his peers, and that was all the convincing he needed. In August of 1998, only a few months after graduating from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Serritella moved to San Diego and began writing, determined to do fresh material every time he set foot on stage.
Six months later, he performed his very first set. "It was a nerve-wracking experience," he reflects. "I didn't sleep the night before, because it was a goal of mine for as long as I could remember.
"I decided when I started doing stand-up that I was going to do this until I was dead," he explains, stating it like it's some sort of binding resolution. "Overnight success apparently takes seven years. This is my seventh year. But I'm fully prepared to do this for another 30."
Serritella's dedication is paying off. He's in the middle of a national college tour with Dat Phan, recently auditioned for the upcoming season of Last Comic Standing and will be appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2007. Plus, he'll record his fourth and fifth CDs (a compilation of his best material, tentatively titled 7 Years) this year.
And he's using his connections and experience to make the comedy night at Lestat's one of the coffeehouse's most popular events. Lou Brazier, who manages Lestat's and books the majority of the acts featured at Lestat's West, says the audience for the comedy night has doubled during the past 18 months since Serritella began hosting the show. "Mark brings major players down," he said. "Dat Phan's been up there twice, and we'll get festival winners."
About the show, Serritella says, "There honestly isn't any show like it in town, plus it's free. If it wasn't a Tuesday we could easily charge $25 a ticket."
The show is about to begin, so I take a seat off to the side, near the front. I grab a moment to scan the youngish crowd, literally sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in the compact room, faces lit from beneath by the warm glow of tea lights set within stained-glass jars. The size of the venue and the candlelight create a sense of intimacy, as though we're about to have a conversation. A conversation about politics, breasts and, oh yes, elementary school.
"The great thing is if you ever get mad at the kids, you can just step on their fingers." We give up some laughter; he presses on with the joke. "And the best part is they don't even know you did it! They're 5 years old." He stands before us, unblinking, face unmoved, dropping it on us like it's a dare. We laugh and groan simultaneously, partly from shock. And after a joke about seeing a grill in the middle of the highway, he concludes, "I'm sorry, but Mexicans and carne asada go together like retards and fish sticks." We erupt like coiled springs sprung as one, then more groans float above the laughter in a belated attack of conscience. "It's true. It's true." Another masterful deadpan, another punch line dropped like an explosive.
"I'll talk about pretty much anything that comes across my plate," claims the comic. I ask him if he's ever afraid of being taken for a horrible human being. He admits that it's a risk you take. "If I don't, then I'll lose a really great joke. I feel like the best things are those things that people wouldn't normally say."
In fact, it's in the pocket between the public's perception of what he should be-as an elementary-school teacher-and the ruthlessness of his comedy where he does his best work. "I bring up the teaching because you have more credit if you come off as educated," he says, noting that he needs this credibility to be able to transition into his political material. A history major who says he's always been interested in politics, Serritella has a lot to say about the Iraq War and the Bush Administration.
Most of his material is observational in nature, with Serritella posing as the bewildered outsider trying to make sense of the absurdity, reminiscent of an edgier, more political Seinfeld. But when it comes to talking about the children he teaches, the frustration that percolates beneath his humor really comes out, and he admits that he uses the contrast between his sarcastic observations and his day job. "Yes, [the audience] doesn't expect it. It's my favorite part of the show."
Tonight, Serritella's on point, sticking every punch line. Whatever nervousness he may have had when the evening started has found its outlet, electrifying the performer. "You definitely want your heart racing before you go up," he told me earlier. "Otherwise you come off as boring."
Mark Serritella hosts Comedy Night every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. at Lestat's, 3343 Adams Ave. You can also catch him Thursday and Friday nights at The Comedy Palace, 8878 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. At 8 p.m. Thurday, June 8, Serritella will be headlining a free show at the Comedy Store, 916 Pearl St. in La Jolla. 858-454-9176. Visit www.myspace.com/markserritella.