By Greg Hardesty
Did you hear the one about the drunk in the jail cell?
Dennis Vargas hasn’t written this joke yet, but he has the perfect chops to do so.
He’s a full-time jailer for the Garden Grove Police Department by day and a stand-up comedian by night, most recently performing at the Improv in Ontario.
While throwing perps in the slammer and tossing out arresting one-liners may not seem like a natural combo, for Vargas, 40, the duel pursuits are a perfect fit.
“If you have a high-stress job, you need an outlet,” says Vargas, who since 2003 has managed the Garden Grove City Jail, located inside GGPD headquarters on Acacia Parkway.
“I deal with people at their worst and have been called every name in the book; I just have to let it go,” Vargas says. “And that’s where the comedy comes in. It’s kind of like therapy. You go on the stage, and you kind of tend to forget what happened that day.
“It’s a lot cheaper than going to a therapist.”
Although you would think working inside a jail would provide fodder for comedy bits, Vargas says he mostly keeps both worlds separate — and that jail material, in his experience, hasn’t gone over too well.
Vargas, who has been doing stand-up comedy for nearly eight years, once performed a bit about finding an iPhone stuffed inside the nether regions of an arrestee — the punch line is too lurid to print here — that got a tame response.
Rather, the amiable and energetic Vargas tends to spin stories about growing up in a Mexican neighborhood in La Puente (last year he and a buddy staged a comedy show called “Cholo Fest”) and from his dating life (Vargas has never married).
At a June 14 show at the Ontario Improv, Vargas performed for about seven minutes. Many of the jokes were about him saying sarcastic, inappropriate pick-up lines to women.
He asked the guys in the audience if they’ve ever heard this question from their girlfriends:
Babe, when was the first time you realized you were, like, in love with me?
“You guys ever get that question?” Vargas asked the men in the audience.
His answer to his girlfriend:
I’ll let you know when I get to that point.
Technically, Vargas is an employee of The GEO Group Inc., which contracts with agencies like the GGPD to run jails. Vargas works with GGPD Jail administrator Ken Chism in overseeing nine detention officers at the jail, which has three cells and room for 17 arrestees who are housed there temporarily.
Vargas has been a GEO employee for 18 years, a job that followed his stint working security at the Puente Hills and West Covina malls. Prior to coming to the GGPD, Vargas worked at the Alhambra PD Jail for four years.
Comedy always has been one of Vargas’ favorite outlets. For years, he and his pals used to be regulars at the famous comedy club The Ice House in Pasadena.
“I used to see people on stage and think, ‘That looks like fun,’” Vargas says.
One time, Vargas saw a guy from his high school performing (Jeff Garcia, now a comedian who headlines shows) and thought he should give stand-up a try.
Vargas told his girlfriend at the time, “Hey, find me an open mic (show).”
Always a gifted writer, Vargas wrote down five minutes of material and headed to the Mayan Bay, a Monrovia haunt that stages a weekly show, The Joke Gym, for aspiring comics to work out their material.
“The first time I went,” Vargas recalls, “I was too afraid to go up on stage.”
He returned the following week, consumed some liquid courage in the form of Bud Light, and rattled off five minutes of jokes he had memorized.
“I did great,” Vargas says. “People were surprised it was my first time.”
Vargas says he got great response the first six months then bombed at some shows.
“But by that time,” he says, “I was hooked.”
Bombing at some shows helped Vargas create more effective material.
About eight months into his moonlighting career as a stand-up comic, Vargas got the attention of former “Saturday Night Live” star Garrett Morris when Vargas performed at an open mic show at Morris’ comedy club in downtown L.A. (it since has closed).
“He told me I was funny,” Vargas says.
Vargas returned to host open-mic shows, met a lot of comics and networked.
Last year was the first time Vargas went on the road and got paid to do shows, performing at venues from San Francisco to San Diego and nearly everywhere in between.
Typically, he performs on weekends.
“Everyone is so supportive around here,” Vargas says of his GGPD colleagues and his budding career as a comic.
Vargas has performed locally at the Brea Improv and regularly performs at the Starting Gate in Los Alamitos on Tuesday nights, when the restaurant and bar transforms into a comedy club.
Vargas’ favorite all-time comedian is George Carlin.
“He’s so honest,” Vargas says.
As for more contemporary comics, Vargas likes Louis C.K. and Anthony Jeselnik.
“Somebody once told me that comedy is the only art form that requires an immediate reaction,” Vargas says. “As a stand-up comedian, you have to constantly be hitting — if not, you lose the audience.”
His advice on writing good jokes is to glean material from something that has happened to you or is relatable.
A joke that always is a hit at Vargas’ shows is a jab at his hometown of La Puente — a frequent target of his jokes.
“My neighborhood was so ghetto that when the carnival came to town in the local park,” Vargas says, “instead of a tea cup ride they used shot glasses.”
Don’t forget to tip your wait staff, folks.
Steven Georges contributed to this story. For more on law enforcement issues, practices and personalities, go to www.behindthebadgeoc.com .
Categories: Garden Grove