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COMEDY

O'Brien and Valdez: From Breaking Ground to Breaking Up

January 20, 1994|GLENN DOGGRELL | Glenn Doggrell writes about comedy for The Times Orange County Edition.

Jim O'Brien is a gregarious and brash Irish Catholic raised in Chicago. Alex Valdez is a blind, sharp-dressing Latino who grew up in Santa Ana, where he still lives.

Together, despite growing up miles and worlds apart, the comedy team of O'Brien and Valdez probably does more to break down stereotypes than any stand-up act working today. So it comes as distressing news, just a week before the duo performs at Centerfield in Huntington Beach, that the team is going to break up.

"Come August of 1994, we'll be taking a hiatus," Valdez said Tuesday night. "It's time to explore other avenues in our careers. It's also time to get off the road. I'm gonna be 40 this year, and I don't want to be out on the road in small condos and hotel rooms any more."

The good news is, the split could be rescinded.

"It was a friendly breakup," explained Valdez, who wants to keep a hand in stand-up, expand into giving motivational seminars and look into a possible TV role. "We looked at the pros and cons, and we both agreed it was time. That's not to say we'll never perform again. But we know we need to take a hiatus."

Valdez said the seed was planted three years ago when he bucked the boozy trappings of life on the road and sobered up.

"I'm no longer the wild party animal I was. Do you know what I used to do? I'd get drunk and look for someone who would let me drive their car. And there were a few people who did."

For O'Brien, the hiatus will mean looking at possible voice-over work with his impressions and sound effects as well as continuing some stand-up, Valdez said, adding that his partner will also try TV and commercial areas.

But until the break, the veteran performers will continue their tandem effort to break down stereotypes and push for the disabled.

The pair reject, however, any label of being crusaders. They just want the world to wake up. They find it stunning that the disabled are still looked at and treated differently.

"Even in the '90s, people are afraid to take chances with the disabled . . . unless they're sitting behind a piano, where they can't hurt themselves," Valdez, who has been blind since age 7, once lamented to The Times after a show.

"We just want to be funny with a unique hook," O'Brien added.

And though some people might feel awkward laughing at a blind person, Valdez addresses that concern from the stage.

"People ask me why I don't wear sunglasses or shades," he typically tells the crowd. "I tell them I've never seen a deaf person wearing earmuffs."

With that situation defused, the pair's funny, musical and intelligent routine continually pokes fun at Valdez's blindness and Latino origins as well as O'Brien's less-than-opulent roots, including a rousing "White Trash Blues," featuring Valdez on guitar and his partner on harmonica. O'Brien, however, insists the song is not about his family, but the families he grew up with.

Part of O'Brien's job is to make sure Valdez doesn't fall off the stage. Most of Valdez's job is to make sure O'Brien doesn't take over the stage.

After nearly 10 years together, they both do their jobs well. They perform Tuesday at 8 p.m.

*

If you missed one of the top comics working the stand-up circuit when he played Irvine in November, Dennis Wolfberg brings his bug-eyed humor back to the Irvine Improv tonight through Sunday.

The veteran funnyman, who stretches and accents key words as if someone's performing the Heimlich maneuver on him, just keeps rolling along as his fame grows, sort of.

"People recognize me on the street now," he said before the November shows. "Not all of them know my name, though. Some come up and say, 'Aren't you the guy with the eyes?' . . . Like some comedians have O-C-U-L-A-R voids."

But that slight annoyance aside, Wolfberg has it pretty good. He has regularly been selling out clubs and has signed a deal with Castle Rock Entertainment to do a sitcom for the Fox Network. And if he does any more late nights with Arsenio Hall, the show could be renamed "Arsenio and Dennis."

The former teacher mines his humor from personal experiences, leaving the observational and topic areas to others.

"I'm an old-fashioned storyteller; it's personalized comedy. It behooves my audience for my life to be interesting."

Elsewhere, John Bowman is headlining at the Brea Improv through Sunday, while Roger Rittenhouse is the closer at Standing Room Only in Fullerton through Sunday.

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