For comedian Victor Varnado, it all started in the name of education.
"I had this English teacher who'd say, 'I will give you an A if you stop interrupting class with jokes in class and do it onstage.' That was the first time I ever tried standup -- in front of my class," he says by phone from his home, in New York City.
But comedy came from someplace a little grimmer. Varnado, a black albino born in Alabama, has long been accustomed to not quite fitting in. And though his parents worked overtime to support him, Varnado needed a way to combat the teasing comments and staring eyes. Luckily, his classmates just weren't that creative.
"The only thing kids would say was 'albino.' I was something new, so they didn't even know how to tease me," he said. "That was part of the reason I've worked so hard at being as good as I can at everything. I did all I could to insulate myself."
After college, as a computer programmer in Minneapolis, his comedy days seemingly behind him, Varnado nonetheless hit a crossroads: keep his stable, well-paying job or dive headfirst into the uncertain world of the entertainment industry. With a close friend already en route to New York City, Varnado jumped ship and started over.
Though his looks separated Varnado from the huddled masses of unknown comedians, what opened doors was his versatility. Varnado landed gigs acting (in the Schwarzenegger flick End of Days and Eddie Murphy's Adventures of Pluto Nash), writing, directing and producing his own short comedy videos. Still, standup is his bread and butter. Just don't expect any black-albino cheap shots.
"Of course I do jokes about being who I am, but I'd never rely on that for all my jokes. I mean, [otherwise] it's like if you were a 300-pound comedian, but you never mentioned it," he says. "[W]hen other comics make fun of themselves, like 'Look at me, I'm a big fat slob,' I would never do that. I just make fun of how people perceive or stereotype albinism."
And he does it with a bite. One signature joke goes: "You guys are probably saying, ‘Victor, you're a black albino. How come you don't eat babies?' No, I don't eat babies -- that's a myth and a stereotype. And I only have red eyes when I'm feeding."
When he's not feeding, Varnado stays busy. Really busy. He's currently developing a film with comic-book legend Stan Lee, writing and directing a new comedy video game, and penning a film script. Still, in his mind, he hasn't quite made it.
"I do have this goal I'm working towards. Here it is: Anytime I have a good idea, I want someone else to pay for it and I want to hire my friends. Yup, that's the goal. And I'm halfway there."
Underground Comedy Night with Victor Varnado, Gab Bonesso and John McIntire 8 p.m. Wed., March 19. Pittsburgh Improv, 166 E. Bridge St., The Waterfront, West Homestead. $10. 412-462-5233 or www.improv2.com