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Patti Vasquez transforms life’s tragedies into laughing matters

Patti Vasquez has new show OWN starring her three other female comics from Chicago. Photographed Tuesday February 5 2013.

Patti Vasquez has a new show on OWN starring her and three other female comics from Chicago. Photographed on Tuesday, February 5, 2013. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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When: 6-9 p.m. Tuesday and Feb. 26

Where: Eckhart Park, 1330 W. Chicago

Tickets: $55, space limited (must be 18 or older)

Info: (773) 895-8978;

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Updated: March 20, 2013 6:06AM

Her beat-up day was Wednesday. That’s when bullies at Patti Vasquez’s elementary school in Norwood Park chose to whale on this girl who always seemed overly eager to please and whose mixed ethnicity — Irish and Hispanic — pegged her as somehow different.

Joking and laughing her way out of tight spots usually proved ineffective, so she began faking illness at home in order to escape pummeling. More detrimentally, her innate sweetness gave way to outright aggression.

Decades later, emotions from those rockier years linger — if typically well below the surface.

“I think comics feel life very intensely,” the still-eager-to-please Vasquez said during a sit-down in Bucktown, a short drive from the two-flat she shares with her husband Steve Jones, two young sons and mother Dora in Jefferson Park. “That’s why we have the rage and the anger.”

As a professional jester of 13 years, Vasquez has learned to channel that rage and anger (and sadness and uncertainty and an appreciation for absurdity) into bits for her act. Over the course of an increasingly successful comedy career, which has included one-woman theater shows and benefitted lately from a pilot about female comics on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network called “My Life is a Joke,” painful instances have peppered her performances.

The more she has turned her life’s lemons into spiked lemonade, observers say, the better she has become.

Transforming tragedy into comedy, however, hasn’t always been easy.

After her father died in 2001, Vasquez says it took at least six months to work his passing into her set.

Making light of darkness after her son, Declan, was born took longer. Now 7, Declan is missing a small portion of his brain. As a result, he cannot speak and has a variety of other difficulties. Vasquez waited two years to discuss his situation onstage. Doing so helps her cope.

Even so, she has written, “I have moments every week that make me want to go screaming in to the night. I don’t.”

Instead, she quips about verbally slapping a moronic teenager who callously mocked an odd sound Declan made at a museum. Or the man in church who told her, “You outta get a leash for that kid.” She suggested the man get a muzzle.

“You evolve when you find your voice,” says friend and sometime comedy co-star Steve Cochran, a radio host on WIND-AM (560). “I think she’s funnier than she’s ever been, and a good part of that is just talking about her experiences.”

Her ability to be both funny and genuine prompted internationally known comedian Lewis Black to encourage her early on.

“She was starting to create a world she could talk about,” he says. “And she’s got a point of view.”

So far, though, the proverbial big break has been elusive. A series on OWN could change that, of course — if “My Life” progresses beyond the pilot stage.

If not, Vasquez has other options.

Since connecting with her L.A.-based business partner Kevin Cleary in 2010, she has begun operating more behind the scenes as a writer and producer. During one of their meetings with Robert Downey Jr.’s production company, Iron Man himself dropped by to shoot the breeze.

Pitching Vasquez as on-camera talent, Cleary says, is trickier.

“She can swing from laugh-out-loud funny to breaking your heart,” Cleary says. “And in [L.A.], they really do like to keep people in a box.”

But she hasn’t endured the slog nearly long enough to give up, Vasquez said. And she’s too passionate about comedy to hold grudges against younger peers whose careers have boomed. Occasionally, though, frustration creeps in.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I get that moment of, ‘Uh, why not me?’ ”

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