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By Rachel Swan
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Into this world slouched a pissed-off Russian kid with a bad day job. Khlynin was turned on to comedy last year by a co-worker at Safeway named Jason Downs, who moonlights as a comic, and he soon signed up for a couple of classes at the San Francisco Comedy College. Founded in 1999, the college advertises itself as a place for "amazing people from all walks of life to reach their comedic potential and enhance their interpersonal relationships"; anyone, it insists, can be funny. In a beginner's class -- $250 for five weeks of group workshops -- a student learns about "the Joke Diagram, association lists, organic development, characters and POVs"; more important, the college sponsors a number of showcases for its graduates, often in what comics would call an "A" room.
Nine months later Khlynin was dropping his City College architecture class and getting publicity head shots printed at Kinko's. He was traveling a lot, driving 50 miles for a quick set in front of a roomful of empty chairs, then seeing his time shaved by a minute or two. "But I don't care," he says. "It's cool, as long as I'm up there onstage." He was bombing, too -- going up second-to-last at the Rose & Crown, for instance, and struggling so mightily that a blonde in the front tried to help with his punch lines. But that's one thing about going out five nights a week: You can always look forward to your tomorrows.
His mother, meanwhile, can only sigh. "I don't know what to say," Kvitko says. "You need to have some kind of skill in your life, and just doing [comedy] is not enough to pay your rent and buy food. ... He wants to be serious about it, make a living. I don't know if he can. He thinks he can go to New York, become a professional. I don't really believe it."
That Wednesday, at the Uptown Bar, Khlynin is introduced as "sort of like a star at this point -- sort of, somewhat." His set starts off OK, but he seems to lose the crowd early on when he makes a bad gay-marriage joke, a big mistake for someone following a lesbian comic: "For the guys, I think their only problem is they don't know where to put the ring -- on their finger or on their cock." Now the talking at the bar gets louder. He tries the Kinko's joke again. "It seems like the employees are always just way too busy, you know?" He pauses. "Printing out-of-order signs," and with that there's a crash at the pool table, the ker-thwack of a good break -- an open-mike rimshot. He moves on to his Safeway material. "I work at Safeway," he says, "which sucks fat balls." For some reason, that line usually gets a good laugh. Tonight, clinking glasses. A few more so-so jokes, then Khlynin closes with a sigh and a glance at his watch. "Four minutes and 40 seconds," he says. He gestures to someone in the audience. "What's up, man? How ya doing? We'll talk later -- during someone else's set."
Later that night, as he's dragging his Civic to the Punch Line, Khlynin offers a postmortem. "If we would've had some better comics come up front, people would've been listening more," he says. "They were all lost anyway, probably halfway drunk." At the Punch Line, he's waved through the door, and when the opening act suggests everyone raise his glass to comedy, everyone does, and everyone drinks, while Khlynin applauds from the back of the room.
Cobb's Comedy Club in North Beach is a big, clean room with a bar on one end, a bright, cartoony backdrop on the other, and a lot of tourists nursing their two-drink minimums in between. When the club moved into this building last year, several comics, Khlynin included, helped set up the new room. And so on a Wednesday evening several months later, Khlynin is sitting at a table he may very well have assembled, flipping through a stack of notecards -- his jokes and old set lists, some of them annotated and scrawled with reminders not to cuss or touch the microphone stand. It's a big night for him. That afternoon, he managed to get through to Cobb's and secure a spot in its "All-Pro Comedy Showcase," probably his best gig since he returned from New York. A few hours later, the moment he slouched through the club's doors, co-owner Tom Sawyer asked if wanted to host tonight, a paying job. "Sure," Khlynin said. Sawyer asked if he wanted to host Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, too. "Sure," Khlynin said. (Later, Sawyer says he wanted to give Khlynin a shot. "I'm basing it on the kid's chutzpah," he says.)
Thumbing through the cards at the table, Khlynin drops the slacker-insouciance shtick and admits to being excited. "It's a big surprise," he says. Now he needs material -- five to seven minutes of material. He explains that a host, facing a crowd of skeptical people still settling into their seats, "just basically bites the bullet," and that "it's not really about getting laughs." "You're the sacrificial lamb," Sawyer says. As the front section of the club starts to fill up, Khlynin pulls a blank card and scratches out a tentative list: "Piss," "From Russia," "Russian mom," "Louis Armstrong," "Bike."