Friday, July 22, 2005 | 8:26 a.m.
The apple didn't fall too far from the tree in the Barnhart family, though it did roll a bit when it hit the ground.
It was natural for Don Barnhart Jr. to follow in the footsteps of his father, Hollywood director/producer Don Barnhart, who helmed such sitcoms as "Mork & Mindy," "Benson" and "Saved By The Bell," among others.
Junior took a slightly longer route in discovering his career path: Prior to founding his own production company five years ago, the younger Barnhart -- who performs through Sunday at The Improv at Harrah's -- stumbled into stand-up comedy.
"I have to go back to my dad -- it's his fault," Barnhart joked during a recent call from Vancouver, British Columbia, where he was performing aboard a cruise ship.
Having grown up on the "Mork & Mindy" set, watching the show's stars Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters make sitcom magic under his dad's direction, Barnhart says he intended to become a "theatrical actor."
As a teen, "I got to watch Robin at his best and insanest, along with Jonathan Winters and my father," he explains. "Having a director that I would always bring my little scenes to, that he would help me out with" proved handy.
"A lot of parents say, 'You're gonna be a doctor and you're gonna go to school and you're gonna shut up.' And then you're 30 years old and you're a doctor paying off your hundred-thousand dollar (student) debt. My father said, 'What do you wanna do? Find it in your heart and just do it well.' "
In 1982, then-18-year-old Barnhart took a job as a doorman at the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, Calif., where such luminaries as Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld and Dennis Miller often graced the stage.
"I just made myself so ingrained in the club," going so far as to bus tables and videotape the comics' performances, Barnhart recalls. Two years later, sans any solid stand-up chops, he filled in for the club's ailing emcee. "They went, 'Well, you've got some acting experience. You're on.'
"I had no act whatsoever," he recalls. "So I went on and I introduced Dana Carvey as my first act, and I never looked back." Within a few years, Barnhart became the club's regular emcee and was booking all of its performers.
By '87, "The bug got me and I went, 'I don't wanna just be an emcee; I wanna get out there and do this,' and I quit ... one of the best jobs in L.A." to become a road comic. "I would go anywhere. If they had a stage, I was going on."
It didn't take Barnhart long to develop his own stand-up style.
"I had watched so many comics, and the biggest problem is you don't wanna be anybody else; you wanna be original," he says.
"At first, I was so Robin Williams-influenced. I was all over the place. To this day, I think I'm more of a controlled chaos than anything else," he concedes, describing his material as "intellectual, along the lines of Dennis Miller in that you actually have to think ... but I'm also very physical and facial and improvisational."
No wonder, since Barnhart spent several years studying improv at the Los Angeles branch of the famed Second City Training Center. He's also an actor whose resume boasts appearances in the films "Apollo 13," "In the Army Now" and "Species II," as well as television's "Star Search," "Unsolved Mysteries," and MTV's "Half Hour Comedy Hour."
"Probably from watching Robin for so many years, I can't stand still onstage," he says. "That's one thing that I have a problem with as an actor is that they give you a script, you walk in and stand on the mark, say these lines that really aren't funny -- it's too controlled."
With stand-up, though, "I can go into a character if I need to, flop on the floor, or if I need to act like I'm 600 pounds or 90 pounds I can go into that character, which is so freeing."
Barnhart, 42, also enjoys calling the shots on projects backed by his production company, Chucklehut Entertainment.
"As a director, I can control the other people" involved with a project, "and as a producer I can get inspired by stuff that I couldn't even conceive of, so I'm helping my friends build projects," he explains. "It's such a blessing to be able to stay creative all day long."
He's in the final stages of editing "China Dolls," an "action-adventure-comedy" film he's producing, in which he also stars. Barnhart is also working on "The Freedom of Speech Comedy Show," featuring his stand-up comedian pals "caught in their natural environment," which he intends to turn into a television series.
The concept for "Freedom of Speech" was born, Barnhart explains, after he and several fellow comics had their stand-up material censored while entertaining U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia.
"We were asked not to make fun of the president, obviously, because he's the commander in chief," he recalls. " 'Don't talk about sex, don't talk about religion, don't talk about politics, don't talk about drugs.' As we called it, 'Oh, we're doing the "Fuzzy Bunny" show.' "
Of the "Freedom of Speech" format, he explains, if comics "wanna work the crowd, if they wanna get dirty, if they wanna get political, we're not telling them what to do whatsoever."
Though Barnhart claims cable network Spike TV has expressed interest in airing the program, he concedes, "We may end up going straight to DVD because, obviously, we'll have to bleep out" any questionable content so it's suitable for television. In that case, "We may just call it 'Banned From the Networks: The Show You Can't See on American Television.' "
Barnhart is also gearing up to work for the first time on a project with his father, who moved from California to Las Vegas more than a decade ago.
Production is slated to begin next year on "Vegas Wedding Blues," a comedy set in Las Vegas. It is being produced by MaxxaM Entertainment, a company belonging to Barnhart Sr., who will direct the film. In it, the younger Barnhart says he'll play a jewelry store manager.
"I had to audition, too, of all things," he says, joking, "You know, you'd think nepotism would get you somewhere in this business."
Out for laughs
Jay Leno settles into the Mirage's Danny Gans Theatre for a pair of shows at 9 p.m. tonight and 10:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $85.
You've read about them previously in Laugh Lines, now see them in the flesh: Mitch Fatel, profiled in this column in 2004, headlines The Comedy Stop at The Trop Monday through July 31 -- the same week that Monty Hoffman, also featured in this space last year, plays Riviera Comedy Club. Meanwhile Jeff Capri, who was a column subject in 2003, is on The Improv at Harrah's bill Tuesday through July 31.
An account has been set up to collect contributions for the family of 35-year-old comedian Freddy Soto, a previous Riviera Comedy Club performer, who died on July 10 in Los Angeles. Funeral services were held this week in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. Soto, who had a role in the recent film "Spanglish," headlined the "Hollywood Comedy Tour" in March at The Palms. Log on to www.freddysoto.com for information about the account; the proceeds will benefit the comic's wife and daughter.