For Paul Varghese, It's as Much About What Comes Out of a Joke as What Goes In

In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Stanton Stephens. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here .

Two nights after Jerry Seinfeld, the biggest stand-up comic in the world, came to Dallas, Paul Varghese, the biggest stand-up comic in Dallas, comes to Vickery Park, a bar on Henderson Avenue. Varghese hasn't been perched on his stool more than a minute, hasn't even sipped his Maker's, before it comes flying out:

He saw Seinfeld on Saturday night. Seinfeld, Varghese says, was perfect.

And he's right.

Like everything else, stand-up comedy is defined, for the moment anyway, by its lack of filter: Here the jokes come, bursting with over-sharing and shock value, both in content and diction. But that's not what makes the great ones great, Varghese says. That comes from fresh set-ups and punchlines, crafted almost scientifically and raked clean of excess.

That's certainly what makes Seinfeld great -- and Burr, and Cosby, and C.K., and all the comics he's seen in Dallas in recent months. They're symphony conductors, finding and delivering only the notes your ears need. Whether their music considers the origins of the Pop-Tart, a trip to the dentist or the fine art of jerking off is secondary.

Varghese's own music lies somewhere in between. A Garland native and UNT alum, he started grabbing Dallas' open mics after he graduated. In one bit, he's approached by a black man on a plane. He suspects the guy is trying to intimidate him. "I'm a brown man on a plane. This is where I intimidate," Varghese riffs.

Little laugh.

"The sky is my hood."

Bigger laugh.

"You don't know if I'm listening to Matchbox 20 or instructions."

Biggest laugh. Breath. Reset.

He's obsessive about the details and the rhythm of a joke, and it's served him and his friends well. They've spent years gathering in restaurants and bars around Dallas, he says, helping each other excise punchlines from vaguely funny concepts, and then working them out on stages around Dallas. Some of those friends have fled for writing and acting jobs on the coasts, but Varghese, 36, insists he's committed to making his career on stage, and doing it from Dallas.

He already is, actually: He's had a Comedy Central special, tours colleges and clubs and festivals around the country, and last year opened for Dave Chapelle during his impromptu swing through Texas. Next month, Varghese will release a new CD. It's called Paul and Oates and was designed to look like a record you stole from your parents' dusty collection. If it's like the rest of his catalog, it will be air-tight, a blow-up pool stuffed in a change purse, the laughs climbing over each other as they grow.

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