After 20 years in the business, Vicki Barbolak was an over-night sensation. She made it to the final 10 on this most recent season of America’s Got Talent, and won an audience favorite poll.
With newfound name recognition, the California native has been afforded the chance to headline club dates across the country, including a night at the Houston Improv – a place she’s quite the fan of, despite never setting a foot inside. “I’ve been a long time fan of the Houston Outlaw Comics, [like] Carl LaBove, Sam Kinison and your guy Bill Hicks!” she coos. “I’ve never been to Houston other than to transfer trains. But so many have people have reached out to me from Houston and Dallas, they saw me on the show, so I’m excited! Anybody in Texas, I’m sure I’m gonna love!”
Though she has some serious experience under her belt now, Barbolak started comedy later than most: she was almost 40 when she first went on stage. “I went to one comedy show once in my life [before performing], but as a little kid I used to watch comics on TV. I listened to George Carlin and Monty Python and things like that – Bob Newhart too. Never thought there was a career out there… until I became a stand-up!”
She continues: “Just for fun I took a class – literally, I was in the bathroom when I saw a little ad sticking out of the trashcan and I pulled it out of the trash can. It said Pauley Shore’s sister Sandy Shore teaches a class on stand-up comedy at The Comedy Store. I walked into the class with three big books so people would think I was smart [instead of] an IDIOT! And I walked in and there were these amazing five guys who are still my friends today, two of them we’ve lost, but I walked in and I just sort of fell in love with it right away. You just bumble around for a few years, but about seven years after I started, I stopped and told my parents to sell our carpet store and keep the money. I bought a trailer and there it is!”
Not only does she credit the Sandy Shore class for getting her on-stage, she credits Shore matriarch Mitzi with bringing her to the big time. Unfortunately, she hardly knew it when she got there. “Literally, I was one of the worst comics ever when I started — very few people have sucked more than me. I would always go to the Comedy Store in La Jolla on Sunday nights, and I’d never go on, but I always brought baked good for the staff! It didn’t help at all, but I really liked eatin’ ‘em on the way! So one night Mitzi comes in, but I didn’t even know who she was! I’d been working really hard outside the comedy clubs for a few years, I’d walk into bars with a microphone and a PA with my friends, working very hard in horrible places. But I gotten together a really good set, and I’d gotten really funny. She saw me at the bar, among other local acts, and there were no other girls there. She said to put me on, and people were like: ‘Really? Her?’ But Mitzi wanted to see me, and I went on stage and had a great set. Then they we like, ‘Mitzi wants to see you!’
“Mitzi was this little tiny person in a big booth. She crooked her finger and said: ‘Come here… You’re very funny, and I’m gonna make you a regular.’ I was like, OK! And she went: ‘Go away.’ And I’m like, what’s a regular? I didn’t even know! It wasn’t until Bobby Lee, who started in San Diego a few years before me, and he explained, a Regular means you get to go to Hollywood! And the first time I went to Hollywood as a regular, I saw Bobby again and I was like: ‘I paid for parking because I’m celebrating!’ — usually you had to park a few miles away because parking was so expensive. And he goes: ‘We have our own parking lots for the regulars.’ I was like: welcome to the biggest bumpkin in comedy!”
Mitzi Shore, who passed away in April of this year, was a mention to a generation of national figures in the comedy world – and Barbolak felt honored to be among the company. “I feel like the last few years I was cognoscente that I was at her feet a lot. It was really really great. What she did back then, I guess what she did always was, she’s give you really horrible spots following Chris Rock or anybody who only did crowd work. Horrible spots, really late at night. But then every two months, three months, she’d give you a really sweet spot – third spot up in the main room. And she’d go, ‘I just really wanted you to know where you really are!’” Always it seems, there were lessons in Shore’s madness.
After the profile raise of a national spotlight on AGT, Barbolak found herself looking inward to decide what her next steps may be. For her, it boiled down to the basics. “It’s like being a brick layer. You lay bricks long enough, you can lay the bricks pretty well. You can do FANCY brick working, things you couldn’t do when you started. So I feel like my work is really the same, but amplified. My character is still me, but I think my me just got BIGGER. Like when I walked into that comedy class with those books, it’s because I didn’t know anything about who I was. I didn’t know me and I didn’t want to know who I was. I didn’t want to know what I believed in or cared about or what mattered to me. I was a mom, I was happy about that but everything was like: OOPS. I didn’t get a good life but that’s OK, it’ll be fine. Doing stand-up, I think you accidentally get to know what you are, what your core is. I’m just myself. You have to know what you value or otherwise, you’re gonna be hallow. It’ll be fake. You can’t be just like: ‘I think this sounds funny! This would be funny to people! They might like this!’ But because you just THINK they would like it, instead of doing what you like. You have to know that to be a real comic.”
By that logic, the final question is oblivious. What does Vicki Barbolak value at this point in her career, in her life? “What do I think is important? What do I like? I like believing in things working out. I like believing in the underdog way of living. I like silly things. I like things that don’t make sense. I like irony. I like things that are on the edge of being OK. I like the dangerous side. I like living with a little bit of danger but not too much because I’m a chicken, but I like being in a slightly dangerous place. I like it onstage when I’m bravest, that’s what I love. To me, that’s the ultimate goal.”
Vicki Barbolak's performance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, December 18 at Houston Improv, 7620 Katy Freeway. For information, call 713-333-8800 or visit improvhouston.com. $20-30.