Comedian Don Barnhart is a guy who used to sneak into comedy clubs while his high school peers were busy partying. When Jay Leno advised him to go on the road, Don quit his job the following week and did just that. With such a passion and work ethic, not to mention an arsenal of topical material and extensive experience performing shows around the world, it’s little wonder that Don Barnhart is the winner of Sideshow Network’s “Perform for 5 Spot” invite. Don’s winning submission seems effortless in its comedy and delivery, but this ease is actually the result of “comedy receptors” hard at work. Of course, it helps that he’s also just plain funny. Read on for more about Don and his creative process as a comedian.
TH: What’s your favorite go-to ice-breaker joke?
Don: I usually like to open a show with something topical or a ‘common denominator’ joke. Something to bring the crowd together. If it’s a college or somewhere that is location specific like Afghanistan, you don’t need to do that as much as the crowd is already of a similar mind set. However, playing Vegas or a cruise ship brings groups of people together that might have nothing in common so it’s important to relate to everyone as fast as possible so you can get into the bulk of your material.
Don’s winning submission
TH: Which comedians make you laugh hardest? And, assuming it’s a different answer, which comedians have influenced you most?
Don: I try to watch every comic and comedy show out there to see what works and to see what other people think is funny. I love Jon Stewart. Every night he’s hitting it out of the park taking the hypocrisy of what’s happening in our political environment and calling the idiots on their BS. Guys like Rick Overton inspire me. He’s a comedic genius they way he takes material, delivers it verbally and then does these amazing physical act outs and then when you think the joke is done, he starts digging and digging and just when you think there is nothing left, he finds something even more hysterical.
Starting off, I listened to Carlin, Pryor, and Lenny Bruce. I grew up in LA so while other kids had fake ids to go clubbing, I used mine to sneak into the comedy clubs 2 or 3 times week. It was there I got to see stand ups before they became stars. Guys like Seinfeld, Dennis Miller and Jim Carrey were still club comics and it blew my mind you could make a living by making people laugh.
TH: What drew you to comedy?
Don: I’ve always loved comedy and had every comedy recording I could get my hands on from Mort Sahl to Cheech and Chong. I had just graduated high school and was pretty unfocused. I didn’t think my surfing career was gonna go anywhere so I went to join the air force. They were closed. Not the military, just the recruiter’s office. Having a rather bad ‘glaucoma’ problem at the time, I didn’t realize it was a holiday weekend.
As I skateboarded home, I saw a sign. Literally. I saw a help wanted sign at a comedy club down in Hermosa Beach where I lived. I had always loved comedy so I went in and got the doorman job one day a week. I would come in on my off nights to help out and did everything I could. I would bus tables, clean the bathrooms, anything to keep me there so I could listen to what the pros were doing. One day the host called in sick and nobody else was there so they gave me the chance to host the show. From there I would get onstage wherever I could until the club finally made me the house emcee. I was there every night working on my act and one night I got to sit down with Jay Leno who said, “If you wanna be great, you’ve got to go on the road.” I quit my job the next week and have never looked back.
[cquote] Pain plus time equals funny. You just may have to wait a long time for the humor truck to get back to your neighborhood.[/cquote]
TH: What’s the most challenging thing about being a stand-up comedian, and what’s the most enjoyable?
Don: One of the most challenging aspects about being a comedian is what to do in between jobs. It’s called show business and so few comics understand the business side of comedy. You send out your promo and wait. It’s easy for you to start second guessing yourself and get down while you wait for your next job so it’s important to stay positive, work on your act, work on yourself and diversify.
Over the years I’ve learned that you can only call or email a booker so much without becoming a pest so you need to work on something else. I try to use that time to work on my act and promo using social media to help promote. After that, I started to work on sitcom ideas, films and books. I believe that way if you do get your shot, you’ve got something ready to go. You can’t wait for someone to come up with your sitcom or movie; you have to make it happen. The absolute worst part of the road is sleeping in crappy condos and being away from your friends and family.
On the other hand, the greatest part of being a stand up is making people laugh so hard they have tears coming out of their eyes. Often times we forget that comedy serves a purpose and laughter really does heal. It’s one of nature’s ways for the body to release the stress and anxiety of life’s pressures. That’s why the popularity of comedy goes in cycles. After every economic downturn, recession and war, the interest in humor surges. From the black and white comedy films after the depression to the numerous comedy shows on cable today, comedy is part of our social fabric.
Don’s comedy club demo
TH: Walk us through the writing process for your performance material. How does it begin, how do you edit/modify it, and when do you know the material is complete?
Don: As a comedian, I believe you have your ‘comedy receptors’ open at all times. My material comes from my life, both past and present. Each joke is varied and different. Sometimes I’m inspired by something I read or see so I’ll write it down and other times I sit down and review my life’s experiences. I’ll take a concept like my mom or sisters and start mining it, writing down everything I can remember then I start brain storming, looking for associations and parallel thoughts and ideas. From there I’ll go back and see what, if anything is funny in there. I’ll do that several times a week with different topics and then I’ll go back and start it all over again. It’s a technique I learned in Second City and it applies to stand up and sitcom writing as well.
I’m not sure if a joke is ever complete although it may work every night. I’ve worked on jokes that by themselves didn’t work but I knew were funny and all of a sudden during a show the connection will come and I’ll find a place for that particular joke or premise and it might be a year or two later.
The only way to know if your joke or premise works is to take it onstage. It’s kinda like sex. You can read about it, you can study it but until you give it a shot, you won’t know if you’re any good at it. And, if people applaud afterwards you know you done a good job and should probably shut your curtains…
TH: Where do you get your creative inspiration(s) from?
Don: I find that the more personal I get, the more I connect with the audience and the more that happens, the more people come back to see me again and again. They start telling their friends to come in and word of mouth is the best advertisement. I try and show the audience the world through my eyes. Everyday things in my life and what I’m going through inspire me.
[lquote]Stop trying to be the star, and learn your craft.[/lquote]
TH: Define what “funny” means to you. What makes a funny joke or a funny comedian?
Don: Comedy or what is funny is like art. There are so many styles and aspects and each style isn’t for everybody. I love it all and will watch every style as I’m a fan of the art form and can appreciate the funny. There are some comedy purists out there that bag on musical acts or prop acts but I feel that if you’re making people laugh, you’re doing your job. Funny is funny.
Pain plus time equals funny. You just may have to wait a long time for the humor truck to get back to your neighborhood. Comics that get personal and open up their wounds are the funniest to me. Pryor and Schimmel are great examples but there is room for everybody at the comedy round table.
TH: What advice would you give to the aspiring comedian?
Don: For anyone wanting to go into comedy I would suggest watching and learning from the greats. Comedy has become a booming industry and there is a gold rush mentality going on. People are quitting their day jobs and moving to LA and NY to become a star. Stop trying to be the star, and learn your craft. Read every book you can on comedy writing, structure and technique then get on stage as much as you can. A boxer is constantly training and sparring. Stand up is the same way. You’ve got to get out there and do it and I don’t mean at a coffee house in front of other comics.
You’ve got to test your material in front of a paying audience and you’ve got to learn to play every type of crowd. Most important, be ready to pay your dues! It may take 20 years to become an overnight sensation and it may never happen at all but you can make a great living making people laugh and doing what you love. And you really have to love it. If you’re doing it just for the money, there are much better ways to make a living.
The best advice I ever got was you’re not a headliner until the club or venue calls you to headline. Winning the contest is a great validation that I’ve been doing the right thing, working on my craft and getting noticed by the people that can make a difference in advancing my career.
To learn more about Don and his work, check out his website here.
Congratulations, Don, and good luck on your upcoming Middle East tour for the troops!