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Kid walks into a bar, right? It's an open mike at a dive in the Mission, or maybe it's a bar in SOMA or a pub in Palo Alto, but anyway it's always the same -- clinking glasses, clacking billiard balls, a guy at the microphone with last week's Viagra bit. A workout room, in other words, a place to fine-tune a dick joke. The kid goes up, slouching, ears like a pair of open car doors, a clammy, constipated look on his face. "I came from Russia when I was 5 years old," he says, "and it's hard to remember what Russia was like, especially when you're just a little ..." -- and here he holds his left hand about waist high, as if to measure out the height of a child -- "... drunk." The set continues in this vein, gloomy stuff about growing up fat, fatherless, and Russian, and he's getting a few thin laughs early on, and he's feeling OK, and then, somewhere around the cock-ring joke, the crowd goes cold. The kid nose-dives. Glasses clink. Crickets chirp. Two blondes up front start to heckle. He looks at his watch. What do I got here -- a minute?He savages his own material. That sucked, he says. Painful,he says. Then he tucks the microphone into the stand, steps off the stage and out of the bar, slouching, and drags himself home in a beat-up Civic with a window that won't shut. And you know what the funny part is?
The next night, he goes out and does it again.
Vladimir Khlynin walks into the Beale Street Bar & Grill one Thursday in February. "Vladimir Khlyninininin ... Khlyninininin ... Khlynininininin ... Khlynininin ... Khlyninininininin," goes a guy named Bob, cranking the name like a stubborn engine. Bob is the host of this very informal open mike. "Khlynin-khlynin-khlynin-khlyn-khlyn-khlyn. Khlynin." Khlynin moves past the stage to the tables near the bar. "Vladimir Khlynin, ladies and gentlemen," Bob says to the five or so ladies and the six or so gentlemen in the room, everyone either a comic or a friend of a comic, it seems. "That's something about Vladimir we can actually say: 'Vladimir Khlynin, from the Last Comic Standing show.'"
Khlynin (rhymes with "linen") is a doughy, adenoidal guy with a broad face and a caterpillarlike monobrow, 20 years old as of mid-March. He looks much younger than that, though, and in fact he's still doing a credible bit about getting his first driver's license. The introduction here seems to embarrass him a little, and he smiles faintly as he climbs onto a stool. "Congratulations to you, Vladimir," Bob goes on. "He can't talk about it -- NBC contractual agreement -- but he went to New York, which is awesome." Khlynin has heard a lot of this in the past few days. After all, it's not often a San Francisco open-miker with a shit job at Safeway gets to leave these bush leagues, even temporarily, for a brick backdrop in a New York cellar.
A week earlier, Khlynin competed in the semifinals of the talent-search portion of the NBC reality show Last Comic Standing 2, which optimistically bills itself as "The Search for the Funniest Person in America." (In January, Khlynin was one of only three comics to emerge from the regional tryouts in San Francisco, an impressive feat for someone just a few months into his comedy career. "To have that kind of confidence and material at this stage is pretty amazing," one of the talent scouts told a Chronicle reporter afterward. "It's exciting to discover someone like that.") He didn't advance, but the trip was still fruitful: He wangled three minutes of stage time at the famed Comedy Cellar, and his Last Comic Standingset, at a packed Hudson Theater, drew the kind of snowballing laughter every comic covets. He has a minidisc recording of the act, and after one of his jokes, he says with pride, "You can hear people clapping."
Not so at the Beale Street Bar & Grill, where at this moment Khlynin is trying out a new joke. "A couple days ago ... I tried to get some shitty head shots from Kinko's," he says, reaching what has to be a milestone in any young comic's career -- a Kinko's head-shot joke. "And that's a hard place to get anything done, you know what I mean? I think the staff is waytoo busy." A beat. "Printing out-of-order signs." That gets a few tepid laughs. "All right," Khlynin apologizes. There's a trace of a Russian accent in his voice. "That's new. Shit."
The set unravels from there -- "I'm bombing," he announces, followed a few jokes later by, "I give up" -- which is what will happen with a small crowd of fellow comics who know just about every pause in his act (and who, in general, seem to laugh hardest not at the joke itself, but at the throwaway line shooting down the joke). Afterward, though, he isn't troubled. "That was fun," he says, surprisingly sanguine for someone so determined to ride five minutes of funny to a better life.
Khlynin lives with his mother and four siblings in a Western Addition apartment at the dead end of Buchanan Street. He shares a room with his 21-year-old brother, Dmitryi, who works at a video-game store in Hayward. Half the room is covered in garish video-game posters -- Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, and the like. The other half is bare. "This half is mine," he says one recent Wednesday, gesturing to the blank walls. It's late afternoon, but the apartment is dark and dreary, except for the flickering of Dmitryi's video game. Khlynin reaches into a drawer and fishes out a stack of minidiscs; he records nearly every set on disc, then dissects it back home. If it's a good one, he'll listen to it again and again, as many as 20 times in all. "You've got to record every set," he says. "Here's the terrible thing if you don't record your set -- you might have said something brilliant, and you'll forget it. Or you'll leave a word out the next time, and the joke's gone."
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