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Khlynin was born in Moscow, but remembers little of his time in Russia. His father, also Vladimir, was a lawyer, his mother, Olga Kvitko, a schoolteacher. They divorced in 1985, and four years later -- as the Soviet Union eased restrictions on emigration -- Kvitko and her sons joined the tens of thousands of Soviet Jews fleeing to America. Today, Khlynin has only occasional contact with his father, who lives in British Columbia, goes by a new name, and suggests Khlynin call himself "Angel Blazer" onstage. Kvitko's favorite joke of her son's is the one in which he talks about killing his father during a rare visit. "His father came to visit, and he made a joke out of it," Kvitko recalls. "'I would kill him, but I can't. I have to take him sightseeing.' That's the idea, and I loved it. It's so unusual -- he has so much anger inside of him, but he makes fun of it."
After leaving the Soviet Union, the family moved to the Bay Area, and it wasn't long before the boys were watching Star Trekand pro wrestling. Khlynin was a cheeky kid, a smartass in school, and a petty shoplifter. Once, he recalls, his mother found out he'd pinched a pair of sunglasses; she whipped him with a jump-rope all the way to the police station. "The teachers called me when he was in the seventh grade," says Kvitko, who now works in the city's Department of Human Services. "They said he's disruptive, a clown, and all the kids concentrate on him instead of [the teachers]. That's where it started. He wants to be a clown, he told me. I said, 'That's fine.'"
Life turned serious for Khlynin about three years ago, when, sluggish and unable to walk even a few blocks without cramping, he was diagnosed with lupus, an immune-system disorder in which the body attacks its own cells and tissues, affecting the skin, joints, blood, and kidneys. No cure has been found. "It's pretty serious shit," says Khlynin, whose treatment includes steroids and anti-malarial drugs for his complexion. "I went to the doctor, and they said if I had waited two or three more weeks I would've been in a coma." Over the next few months, he lay in bed and cried a lot. "I don't think I would've killed myself," he says, "but I felt like ... I didn't care if I lived." He pauses, then archly changes the subject. "On the other hand, I love going to In-N-Out."
Kvitko suggests her son's illness led him to comedy. "That's why he wants to look at life and laugh about it," she says. "If you get serious about it, it makes your life completely miserable. Comedy makes him forget about it."
Khlynin disputes that (his reason for taking up comedy: "I don't feel like I can do anything else"), but there's little doubt that his illness has contributed to his generally bleak outlook on things. He's often tired and moody, which he attributes to his lupus medications. "It sucks," he says one evening as his car totters down the highway to Palo Alto, where the Rose & Crown is hosting an open mike. "Sometimes I don't even think of it, then I think, 'Fuck, how can I be living with this shit all my life?'" He's tried to write a lupus joke; it's the kind of thing a comic might riff off of for whole sets. "Angry stuff, swear-word punch lines," Khlynin says. "It just doesn't work. It's too close to me. Not close like, 'Oh, I'm gonna cry when I say it.' I can't make it funny yet."
Every Wednesday, Cobb's Comedy Club offers what it makes a point of calling an "All-Pro Comedy Showcase," noting that an "All-Pro Comedy Showcase," which features 15 Bay Area comics, is not to be confused with a mere open mike. And every Wednesday afternoon, at precisely 3 p.m., Bay Area comics looking for a slot in that night's "All-Pro Comedy Showcase" pick up their phones, punch in the number for Cobb's, and try to divine by the sound of the ring whether or not they'll get through. "I was like, 'Shit, I should call them,'" Khlynin tells another comic Wednesday evening. By the time he found the number, he says, it was 3:03.
"Yeah," the other guy commiserates. "3:01is too late. It's gotta be 3 o'clock exactly."
The two of them are sitting in a booth at the Mission's Uptown Bar, Khlynin's consolation that night. All around them, on the stools and couches in the bar's narrow front room, 20 or so comics prepare 20 or so sets that the Uptown's chatting patrons will promptly ignore. Shortly after 8 p.m., the open mike's host arrives with a sign-up sheet, and everyone springs up and swarms him at the back of the room. Khlynin gets the third spot, behind a loopy guy who recounts a recent dream and promises to one day "make that funny" and a lesbian who opens her first-ever open-mike set with a joke about labia.
It's a long way from here to the "All-Pro Comedy Showcase" at Cobb's, and it's an indication of how far the S.F. comedy scene has fallen that there's really nothing in between. Neil Leiberman, a longtime comedy coach in San Francisco, puts a different spin on that. "This is the best training city for comedy in the world," he says, which is a little like Des Moines bragging about its Triple-A baseball team. "There are so many opportunities, so many venues. You can do an open mike every night of the week if you want." You can, but what that often means is trying to get 15 open-mikers at Brain Wash to laugh at the same jokes you told them the night before at Sea Biscuit. (And let's be clear: A San Francisco open mike isn't exactly a meeting of the Algonquin Round Table. There's one guy who tweaks the lyrics of Cole Porter songs to comment on current events. There's another who actually says, "Get it?" after a joke; for a finale he pulls a rubber chicken from his pants and a rubber turkey from his shirt, and squirts himself in the face with water from the turkey's beak.)