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Truth rules in Ogata’s stand-up

Valencia comic Paul Ogata has paid his dues while finding a successful stand-up career

Posted: March 22, 2009 1:51 a.m.
Updated: March 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Paul Ogata, of Valencia, performs on stage in a publicity still provided to The Signal. Ogata was named the funniest Asian-American comedian in 2004 and in 2007 won the prestigious San Francisco International Comedy Competition.

 

Chosen "most humorous" in his high school yearbook, Paul Ogata has certainly lived up to the prophecy. The Valencia comedian won the prestigious San Francisco International Comedy Competition in 2007 and has been featured on television's "Late Late Show," as well as regular stints on Comedy Central.

"I probably would have been better off to be voted ‘most likely to become a software engineer,'" Ogata said.
To think he almost became a different kind of artist.

"The first thing I wanted to be was a magician, but that fell by the wayside. I got tired of lying to people. Comedy is about truth," Ogata said.

Mixing material that ranges from his Japanese-American upbringing to his marital foibles, Ogata, who dubbed himself "The Mental Oriental," plays clubs, campuses, and corporate gigs all over the world, with appearances in Hong Kong and Singapore scheduled for May.

"It's sort of surreal, like an out-of-body experience when I perform," Ogata said. "I'm not sure if it's just an Asian issue, but my family wasn't real big on expressing their feelings. Not too many people get to express what's really on their mind, they shut it all in. Stand-up is a way for me to open the bottle and let out my inner genie."

Hawaiian Punch
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Ogata was the typical class clown, often disrupting class with his antics. He also played basketball with the Blue Bombers, a Honolulu City Parks & Recreation division championship team, before his height became a disadvantage (he currently stands 5 feet 4 inches tall). While everyone else continued growing, Ogata stayed indoors and listened to comedy albums - George Carlin and Robin Williams were among his favorites.

Ogata got his official start in stand-up after college classmates at the University of Hawaii saw a poster for a comedy competition and encouraged him to try out. Improvising as he does to this day, Ogata tied for third place.

The owner of a local comedy club, serving as a judge, caught Ogata's act and encouraged him to perform on his stage. Ogata, who had brought along a friend and his girlfriend at the time, didn't fare as well in his sophomore effort.

"I bombed. It was brutal. No one said anything on the way home," he recalled. "I didn't do stand-up for a year after that."
He did stay on at the club, working as a parking lot attendant and watching other comics as he quietly honed his craft. After a year or so, when a customer told Ogata he was too smart to work there and the constant pressure from friends to try again became too much, he got back onstage.

The laughs came this time, though Ogata acknowledges it was a slow start.

"Every comic's progress is different, but it took me a really long time to get good. It takes at least a couple of years to figure out who you are and what you want to say. It's an ongoing process," Ogata said.

Ogata started getting booked for more and more gigs, including an appearance for the Hawaiian governor and senator, where he was made an honorary senator. A slightly more sinister booking came in for the head of the local crime underworld - Ogata was told it was a family event.

"There was a mysterious white van across the street, so I think the FBI has a dossier on me. I didn't know it was a ‘family' event. Thank goodness I did well," Ogata said.

While working the Hawaii club circuit, Ogata had a chance encounter with his idol, Robin Williams, who stayed after the show and spent an hour counseling the young comic about the business.

"He was really cool and down-to-earth," Ogata said.

Ogata met wife, Kris, a construction company project manager in Hawaii. Together, they rescued a dog, Coffee Bean, from a local humane society and left for the mainland. The couple settled in the Santa Clarita Valley in 2007, and added another dog, Nala, to their family.

"I like Santa Clarita. It's so diverse. There's tall white people and short white people, young white people and old white people. It's a real melting pot," Ogata said with a smile. "Actually, it's great. A lot of comics live out here."

The funniest Asian-American
A coast-to-coast search across America for the funniest Asian-American comedian called the "TakeOut Comedy Competition" was a natural call for Ogata to answer in 2004. His stream of consciousness humor, centered on tales from his repressive upbringing, brought the house down and with it, the title.

"It's about the things that bind us. For example, people think that Asian food is weird. We do, too, but it's all we have," Ogata said.
Not content with the "Funniest Asian American" title, Ogata went after the big prize - The 32nd annual San Francisco International Comedy Competition. In October 2007, Ogata won the prestigious event and became part of the exclusive club that includes comedy greats such as Dana Carvey ("Saturday Night Live"), Sinbad, Dane Cook ("My Best Friend's Girl" and "Good Luck Chuck"), Carlos Alazraqui ("Reno 911!") and Jake Johannson.

Television appearances soon followed. In 2008, Ogata was featured on Comedy Central's "Live At Gotham," the syndicated "Comics Unleashed with Byron Allen," and shows on TBS, NBC and PBS. Club bookings became more frequent and Ogata started hitting the road. The frequent flyer and road miles don't bother him, though there is a downside to the job.

"I'm pretty much a loner, so I'm good with traveling by myself, but sometimes it's truly tiring and hard to be away from the ones you love."

But there are perks, too, such as the week-long Caribbean cruise gig and flying back to Hawaii for frequent club dates, often accompanied by Kris. After a recent performance in Honolulu, Ogata's dad appeared backstage. Behind him was Ogata's mother.

Mr. Ogata stared at his son before being nudged by his wife.

"I'm proud of you," Mr. Ogata said.

Another nudge.

"Uh, I love you, too," Mr. Ogata concluded.

It was a significant moment for Ogata, who had never heard those words before. "My dad's old-school Japanese, so I know it was hard for him to say. It was touching, in a weird way."

The next stage
In his spare time, Ogata lends laughter to nonprofit organizations and their clients. He's performed to raise money for mental health and addiction services in San Diego, as well as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The latter reminds Ogata of how fortunate he is.

"People think it's scary to get up on stage for laughs, but it's nothing compared to these kids who, at 7 or 8, are looking at the harshness of life with a smile on their face. They're doing chemo with a positive outlook, they're the ones who are really brave," he said.

Professionally, Ogata has landed voiceover roles in upcoming independent features and is looking forward to more television appearances. While most comics view sitcom as the holy grail of a comedy career, for Ogata, it would just be a means to an end.

"Some comedians land a TV show and they never perform live again. It's sad. For me, getting a show would be a way I could do more stand-up. It's all about the art of stand-up," he said.

Ogata's process starts with an idea, jotting it down to expand on it later. He writes a little every day; ideas become jokes, jokes become his act. His initial audience is Kris.

"She knows. It's like, ‘Are you trying material out on me?' I try to tone it down at home," he said.

Lately, Ogata is focused on politics. He voted for fellow Hawaiian Barack Obama, but has a non-partisan approach to comedy.

"I call out what's going on and begin tearing down whoever's involved, Republican or Democrat," he said. "You can't just stand up there and preach, though. It has to be backed up in a funny way," he said.

Improvisation is still a large part of Ogata's arsenal, whether he's playing in Beverly Hills or Boise.

"There's a real joy to creating things on the spot. The audience senses it and really gets into it. It's like a rock concert. There's just something about the art that is meant to be enjoyed up close and in your face," Ogata said.

For more information on Paul Ogata's future shows or to become his friend on Facebook, visit www.paulogata.com.

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