"Hey, are you Russell Peters?"
The Indian-American comic downing the latest in a long series of double vodka 7-Ups grins at the questioner, Last Comic Standing veteran Tammy Pescatelli. “I’ve heard he’s really good, and I want to meet him.”
Mark Saldana laughingly demurs, ribbing Pescatelli for her intentional gaffe. “That’s all I’m getting up here,” he mock-fumes. “No. 1: ‘Hey, are you Russell Peters?’ No. 2: ‘Hey, are you Artie Lange?’”
Based out of a one-bedroom apartment near Anthem, the 29-year-old Saldana has been compared to the international comedy star since the dawn of his career. Long enough that he’s always got a comeback at the ready. So long that the comments left on his YouTube videos (“he’s okay ... but after watchin russell peters you just cant compare the two.”; “not bad but.. Russell Peters > Him”; “Dis doode is seriously not lovable; unlike russell peters. Plus, he seemed pessimistic unlike russell who’s more of a pure hilarity”) don’t faze him.
As for Artie Lange, other than the uncanny vocal boom and history of marked debauchery (“The Drinking Man’s Comic,” heralds his MySpace page), they’re pretty dissimilar. For one, Saldana’s social and cultural observations are more enthusiastic and adaptable to different audiences. Lange has never appeared at Montreal’s annual Just For Laughs festival, otherwise known as the biggest, most prestigious comedy hoopla in the Western Hemisphere. As of this week, Saldana has. Somehow, the defiantly lackadaisical performer, who counts SiTV’s Latino Laff Festival and Oxygen’s Girls Behaving Badly as his biggest credits, finds himself engaged in informal, late-night schmoozing at the low-lit Hyatt Regency hotel bar. It’s in this festival nexus that a sprawling crowd of managers, agents, publicists, network execs and A-list comedians create a well-lubricated din that echoes well beyond last call. Some might say Saldana hasn’t earned the right to maneuver these social waters, made treacherous with drunken chest-puffing, subtle one-upmanship and shifting alliances; in other ways, the lone comic bears upon his heavily perspiring shoulders the weight of thousands of comedic hopefuls taking the long way around.
“So what shows are you on?” Pescatelli inquires.
“I did the two Asian Invasion shows on Friday and a Best of the Fest.” The latter took place three days ago.
“So ... why are you still here?”
It’s a fair question. Saldana pauses, sips his vodka. He’s still here because he’s got nothing else going on at the moment. Because he wanted to stick around to catch some of the other shows: the New Faces, the Masters, Laugh-rodisiacs, Britcom, Bubbling with Laughter, the Green Room, Late Night Down Under, the Alternative Comedy Show or whatever else might strike his fancy. Because he’s closing in on nearly a decade of setups and spotlights, and now that he’s gotten here, he deserves to have some fun. He’s still here because he wants to be, and Mark Saldana has a history of doing exactly what he wants.
The Buffalo native visited stand-up-centric newsgroups and websites before ever stepping onto an open-mic stage, making friends with and gleaning advice from established comics. One Wednesday in November 1998, he finally bit the bullet at Buffalo’s Comedy Trap (since closed). “I went up and did about 30 seconds, and it was just awful, terrible,” he recalls in his raspy bark. “But at the time I was like, ‘I’m a genius; how come I don’t have an HBO special already?’ I did a joke I still use today. It’s about Whoopi Goldberg: ‘The only movie I ever liked her in is the one where she lets down her hair; she played the title role ... Predator.’”
A Comedy Central disciple, he bypassed such traditional icons as Cosby and Carlin in favor of Dave Attell, Jon Stewart, Jim Gaffigan, Dana Gould, Nick Swardson, Janeane Garofalo and any number of current Opie and Anthony favorites whose looser, more conversational styles pulled him out of his “plastic” delivery style. “I used to be the guy who just does the jokes and sounds really fake: ‘So! I was doing this the other day ...’”
Buffalo hosted three comedy clubs at the time, and Saldana made the rounds at each, hitting the local one-nighters and Rochester open-mics along the way. Before he hit the road circuit, he even opened for Buffalo’s own Scintas, joking, “We used to pray together.”
Then came the event that shaped him as a comic like no other. He’s not ashamed to say it: “9/11 was great for me! Thank God for 9/11! I got literally 10 minutes out of security stuff.” In addition to providing material, the aftermath taught him to read—and respond to—crowds who couldn’t see past his appearance. Yet having “essentially grown up a white kid,” Saldana knows next to nothing about Indian culture ... a lack of knowledge he’d happily use to his advantage. He’s got an idea for a Travel Channel show in which he journeys cluelessly across India. There’s the reality contest called One-Night Stands Across America. Or he could play “Kumar’s niece” in Harold and Kumar 3: Straight to Video. Really, anything you wanna offer him, he’ll take.
“I do Indian jokes, but I enjoy doing other material,” he muses. “If they didn’t separate all these comics into these sort of stereotypes, I probably wouldn’t have gotten booked at Montreal. If you want to cast me as the bad guy in 24, go right ahead. Because being cast as Indian is better than not being cast. But once you can get in the door, you’re there and can change people’s perception of you. I just need to get in the door so I can take a sharp left and do my own stuff.”
“I’m feeling nervous,” Saldana conceded three days before boarding a Quebec-bound Air Canada flight. He sat in a booth at PT’s Gold off Sunset, illegally smoking, ashing into a shot glass and absentmindedly flicking his talking “Git-R-Done!” lighter, an ironic souvenir he acquired during his most recent road gig. “That’s two opposite ends of the world, to be playing the Harrisburg Comedy Zone and then the next weekend going to the biggest comedy festival in the world. I’ve been trying to get into this festival for the last eight years. Honestly, I’m going to be shitting my pants on Thursday.”
It’s now Friday, he managed to arrive yesterday without soiling his trousers, and in a half-hour he’ll host two sold-out Asian Invasion shows at the 1,000-capacity Spectrum Theatre. Saldana paces the venue’s back parking lot in the late-afternoon drizzle, chain-smoking his way through a chorus of “Git-R-Dones” and muttering his prospective set list under his breath. “Hey man, you sober?” asks approaching headliner Jo Koy. “’Cause you weren’t last night! Not only were you drunk, you were looking for another bar!”
Saldana grins sheepishly. He went a bit wild his first night in town—accosting Zach Galifianakis and Dave Attell in the elevator and later drunk-dialing Attell’s hotel room around 4:30 a.m. to harangue the former Insomniac star about meeting Saldana’s older brother, Eric, the next day.
Not only are Saldana’s imminent performances under intense personal and industry scrutiny, but Eric, his mother, Anne, aunt Sherry and friend Paul also arrived today to offer support.
“Three or four years ago, my brother told me he was appearing in Vegas for the first time,” recalls Eric, a marketing manager for Blue Cross. “He was appearing at Jackie Gaughan’s Plaza Hotel ... He was slated to go on about 3:30 or 4 o’clock. I should have sensed that was trouble because the audience was pretty much entirely comprised of elderly people that shuffled in off the casino floor. They’d had their fill of craps and slots and all that and they were just looking for a little light midafternoon entertainment before heading to the buffet. They come in expecting to see a nice, decent Shelley Berman- or Mort Sahl-type humor. My brother gets up there and starts talking about drinking and his ass and how he can’t f--k a girl. That was not really what they were looking for, so they registered their opinion by getting up and shuffling out of the showroom. Within 10 minutes he cleared three-quarters of the room.”
Robert Saldanha (Mark dropped the “h” so the professional spelling would look cleaner), who suffered a fatal heart attack four years ago, saw Mark live just once, back when he was starting out. Anne, meanwhile, has yet to see her son perform. Nevertheless, Mark insists she urges him to consider “more intelligent” material.
“She hates it,” he suggests of his career choice. “She’s a doctor. She doesn’t care until I’m making millions of dollars.”
The entourage gathered a half-hour earlier in the Hyatt lobby for pictures, kisses and last-minute congratulations. “Break a leg, sweetie,” said Aunt Sherry. “We’re very proud of you, honey,” said Mom. “I like to pile as much pressure on myself as possible,” Mark says now as he paces. “And this is breaking one of my three rules: Never do comedy outside. Never open for a rock band. Never do comedy while it’s still daylight. It’s also Friday the 13th ... this is freaking me out.”
A perky show-runner emerges from the hallway. “Mark, we’re starting the show in five minutes.” He tosses his cigarette butt, exhales sharply and marches into the grimy darkness.
It’s muggy even inside the packed former movie theater, noticeably moistening the multiple levels of seats and towering red Just For Laughs banners. Strobes and a deafening preshow DJ build tense anticipation. Then the lights go down and an announcer welcomes to the stage Mark “Sal-dan-a.”
But neither butterflies, mispronunciations or atmosphere dampen Saldana’s stage presence.
“Montreal, how you guys doing tonight? Feeling good? Well, welcome all you Asians, coming here to see great Asian comedy ... and all you white people who couldn’t get tickets to the Nasty Show, welcome!”
Repping Buffalo in a black “(716)” tee, gray pants, yellow cancer bracelet and Monster Energy wristband, he grasps the microphone firmly in both hands, tilting the stand slightly forward. He commands attention, and his Artie Lange tones boom.
“I’m actually Indian, but not a real Indian. I was born in Buffalo, New York; don’t have a lot in common with people in India. Like, I’m chubby. I went to India on vacation once. I was at the beach, took off my shirt, and all these kids came running up to me, like, ‘Are you from the future?’”
Saldana pours sweat, mopping his brow with his Monster wristband as he sandwiches bits between introductions of Jeffrey Yu, KT Tatara, Jazz Mann and Koy.
“I lived at home until I was 27, ’cause I’m a winner. My mom, she’s Indian, and she’s a doctor, obviously. She would always yell at me what a loser I am, like, [horrendous Indian accent] ‘I can’t believe you’re 27 and you’re living at home! When I was 16 I was already in medical school in India! What does that tell you?’ I dunno, India has shitty health care?”
The laughs are big throughout, but not huge. It is, after all, only 7 p.m. Never do comedy while it’s still daylight.
Afterward, Saldana emerges from the Spectrum’s front doors to a line wrapped around the block, awaiting the second show. His family engulfs him. “Mark, you were so wonderful,” Anne says, beaming and blinking back tears. She quickly adds praise for the other comics on the bill as she proudly surveys the gathering crowd.
It’s a touching display, yet it lasts only moments. Mark has another show for which he must prepare, and Sherry and Anne have an early flight in the morning. All hug, then part ways.
It’s too bad the fam isn’t around for the second show. He kills. Sure, the crowd is drunker (and it’s finally a suitable hour for comedy), but it’s more an issue of dissipated nerves and tighter sets.
“I’m as Muslim as a lap dance; I’m not a f--king terrorist! But still if I’m on a plane, and I get up to use the bathroom, people start calling their loved ones ...
“This is a party town. I’m celebrating the culture. Last night I got super-drunk, which is awesome. Except your last call here is 3 in the morning; that’s not late enough for me. I need to go all night. And I’ll drink anywhere. I was in this town, and the only bar that stayed open late was the gay bar. I didn’t care; I went there with a buddy. We’re drinking. Nobody said anything to me, which is fine. And then last call was 4 a.m. I ordered a big double vodka 7-Up and a couple guys came up and hit on me. That’s when I realized that at a gay bar, I’m the f--king ugly chick!
“I can’t get the ladies. I think it’s ’cause I’m a little chubby now, you know? I was in bed with a girl like three months ago, and she wanted to come on my tits!”
In particular, Saldana’s responses to Mann’s Bollywood-star visage (“He’s like a thinner, better-looking version of me!”) and Tatara’s laments that he gets mistaken for a girl (“I am totally getting that chick’s number after the show”) showcase his talent for reacting, as opposed to simply reciting. The wide grin throughout belies something he’d never come right out and say: It’s perhaps the greatest performance of his career.
“Did you guys have a good time tonight?” he demands at the Invasion’s conclusion. A roar of approval rocks the Spectrum. As host, Saldana deserves a large measure of credit for the show’s success. Like his talking lighter encouraged, he thoroughly Got-R-Done.
Saldana left Buffalo for Los Angeles in 2002, prepared to rise through the top clubs, score top-notch representation and weigh sitcom offers poolside, vodka at the ready. Not surprisingly, the plan fizzled.
“I would go to the Improv just to get drunk,” he recalls. “That didn’t work out pretty quickly. I would embarrass myself. I went up to Nick Swardson from Grandma’s Boy, like, ‘Dude, I love you, man! I’m such a big fan!’ Just drunk, completely massaging his anus verbally. He’s like, ‘Oh, that’s great! What do you do?’ ‘I’m a comic.’ He gave me this look like, ‘Oh, okay, weirdo.’”
He did land a manager whose clientele included Patton Oswalt and Sarah Silverman. Said manager also booked Jimmy Kimmel Live; he soon promised Saldana an appearance on the late-night chat program, the comedian says. That is, before he stopped returning Saldana’s calls. “He said, ‘Yeah, go ahead, call everyone you know.’ I said, ‘Write it down on a piece of paper.’ He wrote it down, signed it, handed it to me ... and I have not yet been on Jimmy Kimmel.”
Then there was 2004’s potential sitcom deal. Having completed a spec script with a buddy, Saldana took the project to a management firm, which promptly set up an Improv showcase. The performance went well, but once offstage, Saldana was informed that he’d told too many jokes. “The agent told me, ‘You were too funny. You don’t need to be funny, just tell the story of your show.’ I was arguing with her at the table. ‘What? Are you crazy? I’m too funny?’”
Stupefied, Saldana proclaimed himself finished with LA. He relocated to Vegas, mostly for the proximity, the 24-hour alcohol flow and the comparatively muted ambitions. “In LA, you go to a bar, you meet some guy, like, ‘Oh, I’m an actor-director-producer-poet; here’s my screenplay and a painting I did.’”
When he’s not hopping cross-country from gig to gig (he’s got three weekends lined up through September), he’ll hit the odd local open mic, just to keep the rust off. The Henderson resident also performs twice a year at both the Tropicana and the Riviera.
“He’s respected by all the local comics because he doesn’t act like he’s a better talent than anyone else (although he is),” says Vegas stand-up Brandon Muller. “Mark is the rare working comic who’s been around long enough to be jaded, and yet is not an asshole. He’s the comic’s comic offstage: a normal, cool guy to hang out with who makes you laugh without trying too hard. For the amateur comics, it’s like having a beer with your professor and not thinking anything of it.
“On stage he’s hilarious, of course, but he’s no Russell Peters ...”
Saldana nearly got his big break last summer upon reaching the finals of Last Comic Standing. However, the producers eventually cut him from the 50 finalists via phone call, then removed him completely from the aired footage, so he instead counts among his career highlights that he was nearly sued by NBC. In a fit of pique, he offered up his finalists’-only official red envelope on eBay. Threatening phone calls and cease-and-desist letters arrived in response, along with legalese saying he could not legally profit from selling the memorabilia. “So I switched the auction to half of it benefiting the Southern Poverty Law Center and the other half benefiting Southern AIDS, so if they wanted to take it down now, they were child-hating racists,” Saldana laughs. The item fetched a few hundred bucks ... courtesy of onetime Vegas resident Doug Stanhope. (Says Stanhope, “I was drunk and had money to blow. I’m sure it’s in one of these boxes of shit that I don’t know why I keep.”)
At the time, Saldana’s “manager” sent out a press release concerning the eBay auction. And by “manager,” he means “himself.” After his previous managerial misadventures, Saldana purchased a cell with an LA number, coaxed a friend into leaving an official-sounding outgoing message and created a web page that in part disguises a PO box as a management company’s suite number. The contact info is even listed in Just For Laughs’ 2007 artist directory. And if anyone wonders why his manager—whose impassioned, persistent e-mails got Saldana booked on the Asian Invasion shows in the first place—isn’t around for the biggest week of his client’s life? “I thought about that,” promptly answers the Stephen Glass of comedy. “He’s going to have a last-minute family emergency.”
The way he sees it, managers are pretty useless. Particularly those living in LA. “They’re law school dropouts who want to be part of Hollywood, but they’re not creative. They’re like, ‘How can we part of this scene? Oh yeah, let’s wedge ourselves between creative people and the people who get stuff done.’ I do the same thing a manager does with an e-mail address and a fake website.”
Not that Saldana’s really expecting that much to come out of his festival appearances. Maybe a meeting or an MTV audition, or perhaps a booking on Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham are the only wish-list items his low expectations and ambivalent nature can muster.
Yet his unmitigated honesty about who he is and where he wants to go are refreshing, especially in an industry built on shtick and misdirection, both onstage and off. The connections he’s made (and created) speak to his resourcefulness and daring. Even as he’s fed up with the system, he’s banking on it to take him where he wants to go.
“I’d love to be a writer, but that entails way too much work,” says the man whose Indiancomic.com boasts “upcoming” tour dates from last year and a bio hyping “this fall’s” Kimmel appearance. “I think acting would be the greatest job ever. You just show up somewhere and say some lines and get paid. You don’t have to make anybody laugh like you do live. I do like stand-up; I’d just like to do bigger venues.
Larry the Cable Guy makes so much money, but he works so much. If I was in his position, I’d work maybe 20 dates a year. But I would just like to advance further in Hollywood. How many years can you play the Comedy Zone in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania? I would like to get a real manager, too. One who actually does exist. But I think I’m doing way too well with this fake one right now.”
Early Saturday evening, Paul chats amiably in French with the Haitian cab driver motoring him, Mark and Eric to a fancy steakhouse whose name arguably translates as “The Horse’s Ass.” Amongst the flurry of exaggerated vowels, Paul informs the driver the group is in town for the festival and that Mark is one of the performers. The driver blinks into his rearview mirror. “Ah yes!” he exclaims. “Asian Invasion! You were good!” A few hours later, fortified by beef, potatoes and wine, Saldana hoofs it down the rain-slicked sidewalk to catch Galifianakis at Cabaret Juste Pour Rire. “I liked your show!” a slender blonde gushes as she passes. At 4 a.m. in a diner, precisely when he’s drunkenly slouched face-first in a bowl of poutine (fries, cheese curds, brown gravy), a 17-year-old girl approaches with a familiar, “Mark!”
The two have never met; she just remembers his name from last night’s performance.
Like Eric and Paul, he’s scheduled to leave Sunday afternoon. But then the Montreal Gazette mentions Saldana in a favorable Asian Invasion review. And two of his bits make the paper’s running online feature entitled “The Jokes that Slayed Us.” Right there alongside boldface names like Attell, Galifianakis, Jimmy Carr, Louis CK and Robert Kelly are Saldana’s “There are no good roles for Indians in Hollywood, unless you’re shooting at Jack Bauer or looking for White Castle,” and “In Alabama and India there are similar symbols for married women. In India a red dot on the forehead means you’re married. In Alabama it’s a black eye.” He decides he wants to stay a while longer, see what might happen.
Sunday night, he’s invited to perform at the Comedyworks’ “Best of the Fest” warm-ups: short sets by a slew of Festival comics shipped 10 minutes in a van to a miniscule attic that seats 100 at most. Conditions aside, the invitation is a real vote of Festival confidence and an all-around honor.
In the same black GI Joe tee Saldana got drunk in last night, he closes the show. Unfortunately, after 11 others perform, the crowd is nearly crawling the brick walls.
“What is up, Montreal? Are you guys having fun?” A smattering of half-hearted “Whoo!s.” “Sugar Sammy and Jo Koy and Greg Fitzsimmons?” he asks, referencing some of the evening’s big names. “And now you’ve got me. Sucks to be you, folks. So I’m East Indian like Sugar Sammy, except he’s a much-thinner, better-looking version of me.” Nada. “I don’t like being Indian, like, I flew here, right, from Las Vegas, and the airport is so high-security ’cause of what happened in England. Which sucks if you look like me after not shaving for a week.” Crickets. “Fantastic. Do I look like a terrorist to you guys?” His stance—microphone in right hand, outstretched left arm resting atop the mic stand—indicates he’s still in control, but it’s obvious his laid-back delivery isn’t conducive to high-energy finales. “I’m as Muslim as a f--king Hooters, come on!” He wins them back with his “In the States, everybody has that one day where they celebrate who they are and get really super drunk. We don’t have that. Irish people have St. Patrick’s Day. Mexicans have Cinco de Mayo. American Indians have Mondays ...,” but his seven minutes can’t conclude quick enough. At the back of the room, Monster wristband drenched, he gulps two small bottles of water in rapid succession. “Man!” he exclaims. “How bad did that suck?”
He’s still riding high, though, and Saldana decides to extend his stay through Wednesday. He doesn’t score any more shows, but just as the work tapers off, the real fun begins. Saldana hits it off with the Nasty Show’s Robert Kelly; the two share a few meals and rounds of poker. He ventures into an alleyway after-party populated with French comics, nearly coming to blows with one near dawn. He witnesses David Cross performing improv for an audience of four in the Hyatt bar at 5:30 a.m. He runs into the Kimmel-big-talking ex-manager, who sucks up to him profusely and introduces Saldana to his fellow big-talking cohorts. He extends his stay again, this time until Monday. He meets members of sketch group Kids in the Hall and downs shots with Scott Thompson. He tapes a 30-second spot for The Tonight Show. He chats up respected producer Howard Dover at the MySpace-sponsored “’80s at Midnight” mixer. He shares a shuttle to the annual Artists vs. Industry hockey game with Harland Williams. He meets Billy Connolly at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s closing-night party and conveys his admiration for Timeline. Three nights expand to 11, and by the time Saldana returns to Vegas, he’s accumulated a raging hangover, enough Hyatt Gold Passport points for a four-night suite in Cancun and a whole new perspective.
“All I’ve been doing since I came back from Montreal is writing and figuring out what I want to do,” he reports a few days later. “I’m excited.”
There was the Saldana of Before: “When I pitch something, I also factor in my laziness. I need a one-night show, where I don’t have to write anything, I only have to show up and host and it’s all improv.”
Now there’s the Saldana of After: “I was just kind of blown away and inspired by seeing all these brilliant comics, and it makes me angry at myself for being lazy, just kind of going through the motions and being complacent with my hour of material that does well at clubs. I can continually get work, but to get to the next level you have to separate yourself, talk about yourself and just write more and write better.”
As he preps to pitch a show to G4 and Spike TV (a Mystery Science Theater 3000/Cheap Seats rip-off featuring the “plot” portions of porn flicks), to perform on Comics Unleashed with Byron Allen this fall and to showcase for Comedy Central in the coming months, he’s feeling optimistic about what he calls the best week of his comedy career so far. His mom’s so proud of him, she even gave him a three-day respite from nagging: “Now it’s back to the normal business of being an Indian mom—‘You’ve got to work out more and quit smoking, watch your cholesterol level and your finances.’”
But most telling of all is Saldana’s transforming of his lofty words into real action. Tonight, for example, his comedic buddies are gathering Downtown. The vodka will flow, and he loves the area. It’s the perfect opportunity to relate his Montreal adventures, to bask in their admiration. But as the hour grows late, a text message arrives. Mark Saldana, the Drinking Man’s Comic, will not be joining the party. He’s staying home to write. There’s work to be done.
Julie Seabaugh is a Weekly staff writer.