Sitting in his highchair at the dinner table, tyke José “Joser” Maestas would bang on his tray table to get his family’s attention.
Once they turned to see what all the clatter was about, he would start doing stand-up, even though he was sitting down.
“He would be moving and making faces and sounds, and he would find a way to communicate with us,” said his older sister, Julia Maestas. “And then the act just developed from there. He was always making us laugh, doing shows, making up his own board games, inventing imaginary characters that he had conversations and fights with.”
Joser Maestas, a 29-year-old native of Las Vegas, N.M., has been working as a stand-up comedian for years, parlaying his gift for mimicry and impersonations into a lively stage act in which he pokes raucous, yet respectful fun at the mores and cultures of Northern New Mexico and its denizens.
Whether it’s a riff on the comic complexities of Spanglish, his efforts to cross the border for a little night of fun or his difficulty dealing with his dad – who always wants to write jokes for him – Maestas exudes a confident ease while giving off the impression that he’s a human marionette who somehow managed to escape the strings of his puppeteer.
Maestas, who has been living in Los Angeles for a year, brought his act home with a performance at 7 p.m. Nov. 24 at Pam’s Event Center at The Palms Ballroom in Las Vegas.
Speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where he also works as a personal trainer, he said his early comic inspirations were from Saturday Night Live – Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler and Dana Carvey. He also has a historical grasp of the comedy of Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and even Jerry Lewis. (Some of Maestas’ onstage physicality is reminiscent of early Lewis.)
“I would memorize movements, voices, characters and put on little shows for my family and friends,” Maestas said of his childhood and teen years. “I think I would leave them confused with why I was doing all these different voices. My parents thought I was schizophrenic.”
His first real stand-up gig was at the Travelers’ Cafe on the plaza in Las Vegas. That set went well, as did another one at New Mexico Highlands University, which involved prize money. Maestas studied theater and Chicano studies at both Highlands and the University of New Mexico, which came in handy when developing his comedy act.
Depending on where he is playing, he adjusts his act to reflect the cultural traditions of Hispanics in that region, be it Southern California or Northern New Mexico. Either way, Maestas’ bit about being stopped by an ambitious Border Patrol officer– one sporting a heavy Southern accent that would be at home in an episode of The Andy Griffith Show – is likely to resonate.
Still, he said, differences emerge. “Back home, I can use a lot of the lingo, use a lot of very local references.” But in Los Angeles, Maestas said, “They don’t know what New Mexico represents, so there is a lot about myself that I am unable to use here or that I have not yet found a way to use.”
His act is not about jokes. “I tend to tell stories rather than tell one-liners,” Maestas said. “Stories about myself, my family, people I met, characters in my life.
“I find the truth to be funny. I appreciate when comedians tell an audience who they are and where they came from. Most of my favorites turn their family members into characters. These characters serve as more than a mimicry of a funny face or voice. The way you perceive people ... says more about you than the person you’re imitating. Anyone can deliver a funny joke. Storytelling is a different experience.”
He can remember the shows that did not go well.
During one appearance, amid a motorcycle rally at the gazebo on the Las Vegas plaza, a band following Maestas in the event lineup decided to conduct a sound check while he was still performing. He also was competing with the roar of the motorcycles circling the Plaza, allowing members of the audience to hear either the setup line or the punch line – but never both.
“People were looking at me like, ‘That seems to be funny, but I couldn’t tell you why,’ “ Maestas said.
The best part of doing what he does, he said, is “when you get that laugh, plain and simple. When a joke works and you get this ruckus, this roar from the crowd, it makes you feel like a little kid, it makes you feel warm, sort of like when I was sitting in front of the fireplace watching Saturday Night Live years ago.”
The worst thing, of course, is just the opposite: “You give full effort, 100 percent, completely invested in it, and it doesn’t work.”
His goal is to land a gig on Saturday Night Live.
“Coming out here to Los Angeles makes me realize how difficult that is and how skilled those performers are,” Maestas said. “But if I put in some work and do the right things, it’s not that far away.”
Contact Robert Nott at (505) 986-3021 or firstname.lastname@example.org. This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.