Nery Saenz remembers September 17, 2003, well. That was the date he performed standup comedy for the first time, at an open-mic competition at the Miami Improv. He did five minutes of material, opening with a joke about his longtime girlfriend leaving him because she decided she was a lesbian.
"I talked about how it was hard getting over the relationship because we both had a lot in common: We both liked to travel, we both liked sports, and we both liked pussy. That was my first joke ever onstage."
Not the most sophisticated bon mot, but not bad either, and it received howls of laughter from the 80-some coworkers Saenz had invited to clog the club. Then age 22, Saenz killed his very first show. Afterward, he felt like he was about to hyperventilate, curled up in a fetal position backstage, and made a frantic call to his pastor.
Nery Saenz, 8 and 10:15 p.m. Saturday, August 25; Miami Science Museum Theater, 3280 S. Miami Ave. $10; 305-562-6025; havenotscomedy.com.
"I've found why God has put me on this Earth," he told the padre. "I remember clearly thinking that. I was in the process of going to school to become a teacher, and once I got offstage, I'm like, 'I don't think I'm going back to school.'"
Saenz will be 31 years old in September, and after almost nine years in the business, he's accrued some enviable accolades. He won a comedy contest to become the official comedian of the Miami Dolphins in 2010, and in 2011, New Times honored him as the Best Comedian of the Year. Lisa Lampanelli and Bill Bellamy have praised his work, and this Saturday, Saenz will achieve a rite of passage: the recording of his first live standup CD.
"I'm excited. I don't know how it feels to get on Comedy Central Presents, but this, to me, is the equivalent," he says. "I'm beyond stoked, and I don't even use the word stoked. That's how stoked I am."
The taping will cover two shows — at 8 and 10:15 p.m. — at an unlikely venue that is quickly becoming Miami's hottest ticket for underground, affordable comedy — the 200-seat black-box theater inside the Miami Science Museum. The show will be produced by fellow comedians Dominic Perenzin and Jay Mays, whose Have-Nots production company has hosted appearances of local and touring comedians, including Erik Myers, Nikki Glaser, Al Jackson, and Dave Williamson.
"Our goal is to put the spotlight on South Florida for standup comedy," Perenzin says. "Usually, when people think about great comedy, they think New York and L.A. We're just as talented down here, but not that many people know about it. We're bringing up-and-comers... It's like the person who saw Pearl Jam when they first played at a local club. Ten years later, you can say, 'I saw them there, and I saw them when they were raw.'"
The Have-Nots have hosted shows at the Miami Improv, Area Stage, and Just the Funny, but Perenzin says his favorite space is the Miami Science Museum — family-friendly education hub by day, laugh factory by night.
"I love it. As a kid, I went to the museum on field trips," says comedian Daniel Reskin, who runs the monthly Casa de Ha-ha showcase at Sweat Records and who has performed at the museum. "The very stage I'm performing on was where I used to watch science demonstrations, where they'd take a rose and put it in liquid nitrogen and smash it."
Incidentally, Casa de Ha-ha will celebrate its fourth anniversary next month of bringing alternative comedy to Little Haiti with a party that will include a free open bar and live music. The event will fall on September 11 — "the funniest day of the year," Reskin says.
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Saenz's style hasn't changed much since that first bit about his lesbian girlfriend. From the beginning, his life has been his material; many of his current jokes revolve around his wife (he married his girlfriend of five years in 2011) and his 9-month-old daughter. He has a hilarious, nostalgic bit about school supplies — about the purchasing of a superfluous compass and protractor every year — and a riff about Trapper Keepers that any Gen-Xer will appreciate.
As a performer, Saenz is a bit like Stanley Kubrick, a tyrannical film director who demanded infinite takes because the previous ones were never good enough. "I don't have very many videos up on my website; I do one video a year, because I'm never happy with them," he says. "The moment I post a video, I'll be happy for two to four weeks, and then I'll start looking at the video and hating it. Because after I put the video up, I'm still doing the same joke, but I'm retouching it. I'm adding something."
Part of the reason Saenz has become so successful is this very sense of perfectionism. He has never settled for the easy punch line, the hacky quip. Saenz is Hispanic — the fourth child in a Nicaraguan-American family — and overweight, two comic stereotypes he rarely, if ever, plays upon, and that has helped elevate his mass appeal.
"If you've seen me, you gather that I'm Hispanic. I don't have to force-feed it to you," he says. "A comic once told me, very early on in my career, 'Never be a fat comic. Be a comedian that happens to be fat.' A fat comic doing fat jokes is like a seven-footer in the NBA dunking. As cool as it might look, it's not impressive. What's more impressive is being that seven-footer who could step outside of the three-point line and start draining threes all day long. That's going to throw people off."