Comedian Don Barnhart could have easily ended up in the military, “peeling potatoes and cleaning latrines rather than telling jokes.” As fate would have it, he literally skateboarded into another line of work at The Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif.
Growing up on the set of Mork and Mindy, where his father directed comedic greats like Robin Williams, Barnhart reflected, “It was crazy. I saw the best of the best before I knew I wanted to do stand-up.” After realizing he had a future at the mic, he traveled to Las Vegas so often for gigs that Barnhart and his wife decided to relocate here about four years ago. With Las Vegas as his base of operations, Barnhart also spends a good portion of his time entertaining crowds on cruise ships and still finds time for USO tours and exploring other creative outlets like filmmaking. Catch his act this weekend at Bonkerz Comedy Club at Palace Station.
After growing up with your father in the entertainment business, how did you decide on comedy as a career?
I went to join the military when I was 18 and they were closed – something about a holiday. That night, I was skateboarding home and I saw a help wanted sign, and they said they needed a doorman and could I start that night. The next thing I know, at age 20 I was managing the Comedy and Magic Club in Hermosa Beach. I became the emcee and the talent coordinator. It changed my life, and I always said I would give something back, so I think supporting the troops is my community service.
What was that transition like from doorman to becoming a well-known comedian?
As a doorman I was 160 pounds, skinny – Jeff Spicoli really from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The owner wasn’t really sure about me, but I would go in and volunteer to clean the bathroom. I offered to bus tables. I was making salsa with the cooks in the back, and I really ingratiated myself so much with the club. The emcee got sick one night and they gave me a shot. The first night I went on it was Dana Carvey and Dennis Miller back before they were household names. The next thing I knew, I was doing stand-up full time.
Can you tell me some more about the “Freedom of Speech Show” and its connection to your overseas shows for the military?
It’s ironic that we’re overseas and we’re told we can’t talk about certain things when we’re performing for the men and women who are dying for freedom. Sometimes when people think “Freedom of Speech,” they think it’s going to be dirty. I think “Freedom of Speech” means you can talk about anything; it’s just got to be funny. What I try to do with the show is include jugglers, mimes, improv performers and comics so we have a little bit of everything.
What is it like doing comedy on a cruise ship and do you feel it restricts your subject matter at all?
I do about 20 weeks on cruise ships a year. Mostly, I do Royal Caribbean. They’re really trying to make it the Vegas of the seas. A couple of years ago they started bringing out the best club comics. I always tell people that I’m clean enough to get rebooked. I don’t mind dirty jokes if it’s funny or you use it as an exclamation point, but you don’t have to use the F-word all the time. I’m three credits shy of an English major and I try to use words to create a picture and let the audience take it wherever they want to take it.
Have you ever gotten up on stage and had your mind go blank?
Once. It was the first time I had to showcase at The Improv down in Los Angeles. George Wallace goes on and does 30 minutes with a standing ovation and brings down the house before me. I went up there and in two minutes I was done. I was supposed to do 12 minutes, but I ran out of material after two. I could hear one laugh in the back of the room and that was my dad. Later on, he said, “If I could have tackled you and pulled you off the stage, I would have.” Afterwards, Wallace said, “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to you, because you’re either going to get so good you’ll never have this experience again or you’re going to get out of the business now and save yourself a lifetime of heartache.”
What is your next film project?
I’ve written a script called Freeloader. It’s about a returning veteran who ends up becoming homeless, living on the streets of Las Vegas. He uses comedy to kind of find his way back to reality. I live in Vegas and they always say to write what you know. We have a real homeless problem here in Las Vegas. You can’t force things down people’s throats but if you give them a solution as well, it helps bring light to the subject with some humor.