Las Vegas Sun

November 23, 2017

Currently: 73° — Complete forecast

Q+A: Don Barnhart Jr.

Who: Don Barnhart Jr. (above) and Heath Hyche

When: 8:30 and 10:30 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday

Where: Harrah's The Improv

Tickets: $29.05; 369-5223

Some are born into success ; others must earn it.

Las Vegas comedian Don Barnhart Jr. falls into both categories.

He's the son of the director of episodes of such TV sitcoms such as "Mork & Mindy" and "Saved by the Bell." But his dad didn't give him any breaks into the business.

When he was 18, Barnhart Jr. struck out on his own to carve a career in the world of comedy.

He says comedian Louis Anderson , who performs at the Excalibur , gave him some advice several years ago that he has never forgotten.

"He told me, 'Cut open your soul and let it out,' " he says.

Barnhart, 44, will be releasing his soul Tuesday through Sunday at Harrah's The Improv.

Barnhart and his wife, Linda Vu, moved to Las Vegas two years ago. When he's not working locally, he performs in comedy clubs across the country and spends about 20 weeks a year working on cruise ships. He also performs for the USO and Comics on Duty, entertaining U.S. troops.

He recently released his DVD, "The Click Click Club."

Barnhart talked to the Sun.

Q: Did your father help you get started in show business?

No, and really, in retrospect, it was the best thing. My father made me earn everything. He always told me when I was a kid , "I'm never going to put you on a TV show that you're not ready for. You have to earn it." He didn't want me to become Pauly Shore. He wanted to make sure that at the end of the day I can look myself in the mirror and say I earned where I'm at. I deserve to be here. I'm not Paris Hilton.

It's really sad that you see people up there who have all these opportunities but they're just blowing it. At the end of the day I'm a stable, normal guy. I have a wife. We're in love. We have a home. I'm not sticking stuff up my nose.

How did you get your start?

My father used to direct "Mork & Mindy" and I would hang out on the set and watch Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters and I thought these guys were brilliant, awesome. I thought I wanted to be an actor. In high school I did a little commercial stuff but I thought that I would go to college. But I couldn't afford college and decided to join the Air Force.

I was 18 when I went to enlist and the recruiting office was closed because of a holiday. I saw this sign on a comedy club - it needed a doorman because somebody didn't show up. I got a job that night, at the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach. I was doorman and on off nights I would bus tables, scrub the floors, clean the bathrooms, do whatever I could. Then one night the emcee got sick , and they knew I'd kind of done some acting so I got to go on and filled in for him.

What did you do as house emcee?

I'd warm up the crowd. A minute of "Good evening. How is everybody? Anyone here for the first time ? Where are you from? Any birthdays? There are the exits." I was a flight attendant. But then I started writing jokes , and that's how I worked out my material. Then I was doing 20 minutes and the house emcee sort of became the opening act. It really let me work my material.

Had you ever done stand-up comedy before then?

Never. I had taken acting classes and I had watched every comic who performed there.

I would go in every night on off nights and watch them. Dana Carvey and Dennis Miller were the first guys up (the night Barnhart debuted as substitute emcee). They were just regular club comics ; this was before (they were on) "Saturday Night Live." I thought, "Oh my God , I don't know what to do." Dana goes, "Go up there, introduce yourself, tell them a joke, warm the crowd up, talk to them - 'Any birthdays?' Anything."

How long did you work there?

I became the talent coordinator and then I managed the club when I was 20. In two years I went from doorman to manager and the house emcee. The regular emcee left to do stand-up full time, and they gave the job to me. That was in the day when Jay Leno was still a club comic. So were Seinfeld and Harry Anderson and Gary Shandling. They all came out and were regular headline comics before they all became superstars. That was the best training ground. It set the watermarks super, super high. I left there in '87 to do stand-up full time.

Was it a tough decision?

It was either go into management and run the club all the way or follow my dream, which was stand-up.

I started out as a featured act already because I had enough material and I knew how to work the crowd and I was relatively clean by working with the Seinfelds and the Lenos. When I went out on the road I was already in the advanced class, so to speak. In that first year I did 222 days on the road.

Weren't the clubs beginning to die out about that time?

I talked to a lot of comedians about that. It thinned out a lot of the hacks, is what it did. The professionals stayed in the business. Comedy hit that boom and they were booking anybody.

It became the disco of the '90s. They got rid of the mirrored balls and put a comedy club up , and anybody with 10 minutes of material could get booked. I got lucky. I learned to write early on and was coached by guys like George Wallace, who said "Do your thing," and Louie Anderson, who said "Be original. Find your pain. Nobody knows what you've been through." They really helped me unfold as a comic.

What prompted you move to Vegas?

The cost of living and quality of life. Another reason is that I was working here so much at The Improv. They were booking me all the time. At one point I was working seven weeks a year here.

Was it a good move?

I love it here. We've had so much extra time that I wrote, directed and produced a film - an action/adventure called "China Dolls." We shot it here. It was my first film. I'm in it. My wife's in it. Everybody I know is in it. We sent it to the Sundance Film Festival , and we're waiting to hear back on that. Hopefully it will get a theatrical release. We're selling it on the Internet right now (chinadollsmovie.com).

Are you going to be making more films?

Absolutely. It was the greatest experience. We're setting up to do another film next year, a screwball comedy this time that I wrote, sort of a "Wedding Crashers" and "Dumb & Dumber."

Did your father work with you on the film?

I did hire him for the movie. He plays an extra. I wrote him in, but in the end I had to cut it.

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