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INTERVIEW: Vicki Barbolak

Vicki Barbolak
Courtesy Photo

Vicky Barbolak has been a staple in the San Diego comedy scene for over thirteen years. She began performing at The La Jolla Comedy Store back in 1997. After honing her chops over the course of ten years Barbolak went on to win Nick at Nite’s search for the “Funniest Mom In America” in 2007, solidifying her status as San Diego’s premiere female comic. Currently preparing for her performances this weekend, SanDiego.com had a chance to catch up with this local talent to discuss her early years in show business and how The Comedy Store has transformed her from a working mom to a nationally touring comedian.

When did you start doing stand-up?

Vicki Barbolak: I took Sandi Shore’s class at The La Jolla Comedy Store, and I think that was 1997. I brought three large books with me, three really big books and I wore fake glasses so everyone would think I was smart. It totally worked! How pathetic. But the first time I did stand-up; my friend Chucky had a show called, “The Chucky Show” at The Jolly Roger in Oceanside. He was a Vegas performer and he would use like penis toys, and dickhead caps and stuff; he was like a prop comic and really, really funny. I know that’s weird to say but he was funny. I would go to his show and sit there, and then finally I got enough nerve to go up, and then I stood up there and just stared at the audience, and they were so nice. I just couldn’t speak, I couldn’t speak at all and then I would have to sit down. Then I went again and I actually got like a sentence out, it was just terrifying. So I came from this terrified place, I don’t even know why in the world that I tried to do it. I have no idea. I just think that idea that people will always tell you, ‘You’re funny, you gotta do it!’ then I did it and it was horrible. I hated it and couldn’t believe how much I didn’t like it. I can’t believe I stayed with it since I didn’t like it so much.

Were you already taking Sandi's workshop when you did that first set at The Jolly Roger?

I think I was taking the workshop when I went to The Jolly Roger. And then at the end of the workshop she had a show, and everybody did their sets and it was fun. Then right after that I think I started going to, like, so many open mics all over the place. There were so many open mics back in that time in San Diego, you know like it sometimes comes and goes here now. Everybody had a microphone and a box.

What was your process from taking Sandi’s class to becoming passed up at The Comedy Store in Hollywood?

I was rarely allowed on the open mic at The La Jolla Comedy Store, because Fred Burns, the manager that I worshipped, he really thought I was pretty much hopeless. He thought I was as bad as any comic that you and I make fun of now, and he was pretty right. I would just bring baked goods on Sunday night and just hand out baked goods, and I was completely used to never getting on and if I did get on it was at two in the morning. What happened was I got on the Jenny Jones Show, which was really ridiculous. They picked me out of 600 comics because I had a really pretty purple dress on that glittered, and the guy that was picking the comics was gay. So I think he just liked my dress, because I had no act, I had been doing stand-up six months. So that’s how Fred the manager noticed me, after I got on the Jenny Jones Show, then the next week he put me on at two o’clock in the morning. So I was hanging out at The Comedy Store but was never getting spots, and I was going to open mics three to five nights a week. Then after about three years of really working a lot, Mitzi Shore came in one night to showcase comics and I wasn’t on the list, but I was sitting there at the bar, like usual, and she said, ‘Put her up.’ And they put me on, and she really liked me and said, ‘You’re a regular in Hollywood.’ And that was fantastic. The she goes, ‘Come to L.A.’ and then the next time I went to L.A. she goes, ‘You’re not really ready to be here. Go back and work some more.’ So I didn’t understand that I was supposed to call in. I thought somebody would call me and tell me I was allowed to call in. Then eventually I started going up to L.A. and it was fun.

What year did you win Nick at Nite’s Funniest Mom In America?

2007. Yeah I never could get on that show because it was pretty guarded with Laugh Factory comics, they wouldn’t let me audition. Then I did a show with Pauly Shore and one of the producers from that show had seen me and he called me to audition for Funniest Mom In America. Literally none of us Comedy Store girls -- which there weren’t many of -- we couldn’t get to audition for that show.

Did winning that show open a lot of doors for you?

It didn’t change my work in L.A., nobody in L.A. was impressed. What it did do, it got me the ability to stay in comedy in the sense that I do a lot of fundraisers. Literally like P.T.A., Women’s Club’s; that pays money and because I won that show, it's gotten me that work. In Kansas they get all excited about that, although they don’t like me in Kansas. The F.B.I. talked to me after my show there. Originally they were impressed and thought it was going to be a nice clean show.

What happened?

When I was in Kansas, we did a regular show at The Improv and then two fundraisers for human trafficking, which I didn’t know human trafficking was whoring around. I thought human trafficking was when you pay people to work in a sweatshop and make then sew. But the new human trafficking is about being trafficked and forced into the sex trade. Well I didn’t understand that concept, so I talk about whores a lot in my act, and then after the show this F.B.I agent comes up to me and says, ‘Well I hope you’re proud of yourself. The woman that you called out as a whore is a former whore and she’s been in treatment!’ It wasn’t clear until the very next day on what I did wrong. Then I felt horrible. I was at a Cracker Barrel when it was explained to me.

How often do you find yourself traveling to do road gigs?

About one weekend a month, and that’s good because my little Lily went to college.

Would you describe yourself as having empty nest syndrome?

Before I always had to be careful about when the kids were going to come home. I thought I would be really sad, but it’s really quite fun. I really like it. I’ve never lived with my current husband Lou alone either, because we’ve always had kids with us. So we really are liking it. It’s fun.

You’ve been at The La Jolla Comedy Store for fourteen years, what can you say about the club as it's changed over the years?

The thing that I’ve noticed is there comes waves of comic talent. There’ll be a bunch of funny people and then nothing. It’s like the TV show Dallas or Saturday Night Live. It’s weird. It’ll be really good and then bad, and then good, and I love watching the new waves of talent coming in. For me it’s always felt like a place where I completely feel at home. I feel completely home there. I can’t believe there’s a place like that in my life where I just feel so comfortable. The management now is the best that it’s been since Fred Burns was there, and that was an epic, because he was there for a long time. Now it’s great, the shows run smooth, everything is pro and people are taking care of stuff. The shows are selling out there all the time, plus there’s an amazing crop of talent there right now.

When would you say you found your voice as a comedian?

It probably took about four or five years for me to really get a clear idea of where I was going, and then honestly it took me all of ten years to get consistent. Right now and I knock on wood when I say this, I feel like I’m pretty much consistent and I can count on success most every time. And my comedy is more truthful now, it’s like even though I’m kind of a character; either my personality has turned into my comedy character, or my comedy character has turned more into me. At some point it all merged together onstage to be more real. It’s real now, so I don’t have to try. I just am who I naturally am on stage. But that probably took all of ten years to get a feeling of, ‘I’m not going to have a problem because I know what I’m doing.’ It’s like laying bricks. If you want to be a master bricklayer you’ve got to do a lot of work to be a master. I was like a journeyman for a long time. You have to do the work. The one thing about comedy or singing is all you need is a microphone and a voice and you could fake anybody out for a minute. But the bottom line is, if you’re really good you have to get there by doing a lot of hard work.

What would you describe as your worst gig ever?

Outside Universal Studios, performing on a box. Universal Studios hired some Comedy Store comics to stand on these wooden boxes, and that was a problem because they couldn’t find a box that would hold me. So we had to stand there and people would walk by and we’d just yell a joke at them, all day long for three Saturdays. The Comedy Store also had me do a funeral, and that story is actually in a book called, I Killed. It was a best-selling book by road comics. That really wasn’t a bad job; it ended up being a really fun job. Then one time I had to ruin a Rabbi’s 40th wedding anniversary. I was with Mike Sisco and we had to pretend that we were a fighting couple, and that was really hard to do.

Do you have any new projects coming up?

I’m working on a couple of fun projects with my manager right now. The one I can talk about is like a trailer make-over show, where I go around with a team and un-trash trailers.

Does Vicki Barbolak have a message for the children?

You might as well just eat what you want.

Vicki Barbolak performs at The La Jolla Comedy Store March 17 - 19.