SANTA ANA — When the stand-up comedy team of O'Brien and Valdez steps on stage, the lights go out and the pair does a routine, complete with sound effects and impressions, about a passel of old Western movie stars who banter as they sit around the campfire.
"It's theater of the mind," says Alex Valdez, who performs with Jim O'Brien. For Valdez, who has been blind since childhood, the routine is more than an exercise in imagination. It's also a way, he says, to bring the audience a few steps into his world.
O'Brien and Valdez will perform with the comedy theater trio Chicano Secret Service tonight in UC Irvine's Crystal Cove Auditorium. The event is a fund-raiser for the nonpartisan group Voting Inspires Participation, which works to increase Latino voter registration in Orange County.
Valdez grew up in Santa Ana, where he still lives. He lost his sight at age 7 and found that joking was a way to cope. "I found a long time ago I could use humor to ease people's discomfort over my disability," Valdez says.
He studied music in college, but a friend talked him into trying his hand at comedy. "He asked me, 'How many blind musicians are there?' " said Valdez, who recalls being able to list quite a few. "He had a point there."
"Then he said, 'Now tell me how many blind stand-up comedians there are,' and I realized he had an even better point," he said. "I realized I was an average musician, and I wasn't going to sell out the Forum anytime soon."
Valdez worked up five minutes of material, and tested it at an open-mike night at the now-defunct Comedy Store in Westwood in June of 1977.
"I was terrified, just scared to death, and walked off to a standing ovation," Valdez said. "The next Monday, I went back and bombed."
Nevertheless, he was hooked. He began working the clubs and eventually landed at the Laff Stop in Newport Beach as emcee. That's where, in 1980, he first caught the act of Jim O'Brien, who was working with another partner at the time. (Valdez doubts he would get much pleasure out of the Laff Stop now that it's primarily a topless dance joint: "I can go in there and say, 'Nice sound system.' ")
Valdez said he was "very impressed" with O'Brien, and in 1984 they began working as partners. Their material ranges from fairly straight stand-up to sketch comedy to musical bits (a song called "White Trash," with Valdez on guitar and O'Brien on harmonica).
"We are not the standard straight man/joke man comedy team," Valdez said.
Some material addresses his blindness and the reactions it elicits in people he meets. He and O'Brien also like to play off their respective ethnic backgrounds: Valdez the Latino from Santa Ana, and O'Brien the Irish-American from Chicago.
There's a bit about getting their families together for "corned beef and cabbage tacos," and a takeoff "with a Hispanic flavor" on the old Abbott and Costello "Who's on First?" routine.
"We do a little bit of everything," Valdez said. "When we come off stage, we like to feel like we've entertained the audience and given them something to think about."
"Una Noche de Comedia," starring O'Brien and Valdez and Chicano Secret Service, will take place tonight at 7:45, after a reception at 6:45 p.m. $20. (714) 772-4552.