One of the winners of StandUp NBC’s 16th annual competition, the network’s nationwide search for the next big thing in stand-up comedy, literally almost walked away from his fateful shot at a life-changing victory. Thank God his friend offered to buy him In-and-Out.
Los Angeles native Rene Vaca had just wrapped up a set at his local comedy club last year when, on his way out, he noticed a line forming outside the venue. “I just had a great set so I’m walking out so cocky, right? And I’m just like looking at this line of comedians, like, ‘Look at these guys trying to get in. I just killed it in there!’ I didn’t know what they were in line for.” He spots a friend who explains to him that it’s the “NBC line,” and that everyone there was lining up overnight for StandUp’s open call in LA.
Then, Vaca wishes his friend luck and leaves. No way was he waiting overnight in line for this.
But Vaca’s friend J.R. Cruz intervened. “[J.R.] was just like, ‘Hell yeah man, you gotta do it!’ And I was like, ‘I’ve only been doing this for three years (at the time), I’m not ready now. They’re looking for something totally different than me.’ And he was like, ‘No man, what the hell are you talking about, you’re exactly what they’re looking for bro! Look bro, we’ll stay in my car and I’ll buy you In-and-Out.’ And I was like, ‘A double double animal style, fries?’ And so I went… for the burger and the fries.”
StandUp NBC, formerly known as Standup for Diversity, was looking for people like Vaca. The annual competition is focused on discovering aspiring talent from all backgrounds whose presence and comedy help create a more representative industry. StandUp has helped launch the careers of comedians W. Kamau Bell, Michelle Buteau, Dulcé Sloan, and Hasan Minhaj, who have gone on to become household names and are holding space in a crowded, homogenous entertainment industry.
Winning the 16th annual competition, alongside his co-winner Franqi French, was the farthest thing from Vaca’s mind, even as he was making his way through the process. “When I made it past the first round I was like, ‘Oh my God…’ Me and my friend J.R., we both made it past the first round. And it was so cool. It’s such a great feeling.” Moving through the second round was exciting and a total shock. “And then the semifinals, and then the finals… I’m like, ‘Holy… this is working here!’”
Despite his ambitions, Vaca had never seen himself in this victorious light before. “When I went to the finals it was just a whole different perspective of me: as far as the comedy world, as far as the respect that I was getting, the love — whether it’s fake or real — that I was getting. And even the hate I was getting, it was all great!”
Vaca had known early on in his life that he wanted to go into comedy, something he credits to the trailblazing work of George Lopez. “As a kid, everyone would always tell me that I looked like George Lopez. A lot of people would find that as a diss growing up where I grew up, but for me it was a compliment. But they were saying that because I was brown and I kinda had a big head…” he explains. Raised in the heavily Latino northern reaches of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, Vaca, now 24 years old, grew up with a large extended Mexican-American family — four brothers, aunts that he considered siblings, half-sisters in Arkansas. His comedic conviction and knack for making people laugh were clear to not only him but also his family members, who have since become integral to his act and identity as a comedian.
He inevitably felt an affinity with Lopez on a creative level. “For me, when I started watching George Lopez, it was like, ‘Oh my god, look at this guy, he’s so funny!’ And he was really in detail with the Latino household. There are no jokes that I say about a Latino household that I can say without sounding like George Lopez.”
But Vaca’s precocious drive to pursue comedy was sidetracked by what he describes as a difficult, dysfunctional upbringing. He talks quite openly about family members who worked as drug dealers — his grandparents, his father — his father’s incarceration, and cites his own misbehavior and troublemaking in school.
It wasn’t until college, where Vaca got into public speaking, that he was able to stumble upon the path that he had lost. Speaking in front of people was a natural gift of his and something that he always loved to do. “It was kind of like that thought I had as a kid came back to me at 18-and-a-half years old, and I was like, ‘You know what? You’ve been wasting your whole life. At that moment, when you were watching a George Lopez special, you knew that’s what you wanted to be. But, it’s okay, you’re starting later now.’ That was a click in my life.” He told himself that for the rest of his life, he would commit to realizing his dreams of becoming a comedian/actor. “It was such a great feeling that I was walking around everywhere like a confident kid, ‘I know what I want to be for the rest of my life. Do you?!’” he says, slipping into a parody of a self-assured optimist.
Making this decision, he had the full support of his family — for the first week. “They were like, ‘Rene, we’ve been telling you to do that all your life!’ But they didn’t think that it was going to come with dropping out of college.”
The second oldest of his brothers, Vaca was the first in his family to graduate high school and go straight to a four-year university (though he does second-guess himself here: “I hope none of my family members are reading this thinking, ‘What the hell? That was me!’”), attending the University of California, Merced before dropping out to fully dedicate himself to his chosen craft. “When my family found out that I dropped out, it was the worst news ever. They just were so disappointed. I felt like I lost my family, in a way. I couldn’t go home, I was intentionally going out with friends, hanging out, because I couldn’t stand the idea of facing my family as a dropout.”
While the blowback from his family was difficult, he felt that this was the only way forward; he had no interest in a Plan B. He moved out of his home, away from family, in order to create space for himself to have confidence in his decision and dedicate all of his time and energy to his goals.
Four years later, all has been forgiven. “[My family] looked at me bad for a little bit, but now that I won StandUp NBC, they’re all coming back: ‘Oh my God, Rene, you’re the best! We always told you!’ Like, shut up, no you didn’t! I had to LEAVE the house to get this.”
So what does his family think about his acts, which typically include material at their expense? “When I talked about my family on stage for the first time it was funny… and then I kept talking and then it got deeper, right? And they were like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, why would you say that?’” Vaca shares that he grew up in a household where everyone has a great sense of humor, making fun of one another, roasting each other at home, a tradition that makes him feel comfortable with bringing this well-honed practice to the stage. “I have a bit where I’m making fun of my brother, and my mom’s like, ‘You can’t be making fun of your brother on stage, because you know he’s sensitive.’ And I’m like, ‘Mom, it’s the truth, and I’m getting a lot of likes right now, so until Instagram reports it, I can’t take it out.’” He laughs. “They always try to tell me something, but they know they can’t.”
Vaca explains that this obstinate impulse is just part of his relationship with his family, something that helps to frame his unpopular decision to drop out of college. “I was the first in my family to rebel out of the house like that. I was the first one to be like, ‘You know what, I don’t need my mom. My dad’s in jail, I don’t care, I’ll do this myself.’ Obviously I needed my mom and I love her and she’s the best mom EVER. But I knew that the path that our family was going on as a whole needed to change.” He feels that his hard work has paid off thus far, and that he has even inspired his younger brothers to expand their expectations for themselves: “There’s not just one route out of the hood.”
We talk about the way that family, parents looking out for your wellbeing especially, can get in the way of what you really want to make of yourself. Just 24 years old, he speaks with the perspective of someone with much more experience, of someone whose experiences have long validated their choices rather than someone who is just starting out. This, perhaps, is simply another reflection of his precocious nature. “A lot of people do things out of fear of the parents, and that’s so wrong! Because your parents don’t know what you want. They might know you, but they don’t know what you want.” He explains that his mom had wanted him to become a landscaper for the city because of his citizenship status. “She was like, “Rene, you can have an advantage over everybody in the neighborhood because you’re going to have papers, and they don’t!’ And I was like, ‘What the hell? That’s your plan for me? It’s kind of a good plan, but no that’s not going to work for me!’” He adds, “Basically every Latino family, their dream is for their kid to get a job for the city or the government. ‘That’s my son!’”
Now that he’s one of the winners of StandUp NBC, he’s more sure of his ability to shape his own destiny and is working harder than ever. The win completely expanded his vision for his career. “When I dropped out of college, I told myself, if I don’t do anything within five years, I’m going to go back to the regular life. What I mean by regular life is, like, go back to college, get a job, and do all that stuff. When it happened in four years, I was like, ‘Oh, we’re a year ahead of the plan.’ This just gave me more motivation. NBC’s changed my life.”
As a winner of the competition, he now has access to the education, the support system, and the connections he needs to break into the stand-up and film & television industries. “I was like, ‘What? Are you serious? I have a manager? I have two managers!?’ And they’re both amazing, they’re authentic and they’re great.” Knowing what we do about Vaca’s draw to the stage as a performer, it also should go without saying that he has enjoyed being the center of attention. “The general meeting itself was insane, walking in and everyone was telling me how great I was… I love that!”
For Vaca, the most life-changing aspect of winning the competition has been his introduction to acting; he credits his acting teacher Ivana Chubbuck with this massive shift in his life. “The acting classes, when I took those, they just gave me this new inspiration for a new craft,” he says. “I just fell in love with acting, the same way I fell in love with stand-up.” Acting was something that he had always wanted to pursue alongside stand-up, but had been nervous to get into.
The nerves, he explains, are from how excited he is to have the opportunity to become a trailblazer, like George Lopez before him, like Jim Carrey or Adam Sandler. “I have this opportunity to be one of them. And if that doesn’t excite you, then you’re in the wrong business.” Through acting, he hopes to push the bounds of his own creativity (“I get bored of myself! I’ve told myself, ‘Rene, how many times are you going to go on stage and share your opinion?’”) and also work collaboratively with other comedians and writers in the industry; stand-up, in contrast, is such a solitary pursuit. As both a trained actor and stand-up comedian, he expects to have all the tools in his arsenal that he’ll ever need to entertain his audiences.
As for now, while much of the world is on hold until the pandemic ends, Vaca has capitalized on the opportunity to hone his crafts and continue working toward his full potential, and he thinks we should all be doing the same if we’re able. For him personally, that means being more creative and productive than ever, uploading various comedy sketches and short films to his Instagram account to keep busy. “That’s how I’m using this time, just writing and writing and writing, whether it’s content or whether it’s a show, whether it’s a movie idea, or whether it’s an essay, or just writing… and writing and writing! And then creating Instagram shows with my friends, but even that’s been hard because of social distancing. But, you know, we still find ways to create content… like starting [Where You From?].”
Where You From? is Vaca’s latest project, a podcast he started recently alongside his pal J.R. Cruz, which premiered its intro episode last week. The two friends have great chemistry on and off the mic, so expect lots of laughs as they reminisce over their ridiculous past and present experiences. In other words, as Vaca explains in the intro episode, “We’re just gonna be f*^king around.” The show will host guests from diverse backgrounds (calling in remotely) who’ll be chiming in about their own experiences about where they’re from.
There’s nothing like performing in front of a live audience, though. “Honestly, I had a lot of things that I was looking forward to, and then they got cancelled,” he shared. Vaca had been slated to headline the 18th annual StandUp NBC’s semifinalists showcases alongside cowinner Franqi French, something he was psyched to do, but this year’s competition has been postponed until early next year, giving aspiring comedians more time to sharpen their skills before the auditions resume.
In the meantime, Vaca’s pandemic Plan B looks a lot like the Plan A he drafted for himself four years ago: Fully commit to your craft, no matter what. “Right now with this whole quarantine stuff, I’m really just locking myself in the house. You have to use this time to be the person you’ve always wanted to be. When the excuse was ‘I don’t have time to do that,’ there’s no excuse now.”