He may have only five solid years of pro stand-up experience behind him, but Ty Barnett — season four’s Last Comic Standing runner-up — has already made many lasting impressions.
By Jessica Agi
Although he’s been a full-time comic for just five years, Chicago-native Ty Barnett has plenty of bragging rights. Since winning first runner-up in the fourth season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing, his career has skyrocketed. Barnett’s appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and starred in his own Comedy Central Presents.
At 18, Barnett joined the Army and was relocated to Seattle as a pharmacy tech in the base hospital. Five years later, he was out of the Army. He made the rainy city his new home and took his longtime interest in telling jokes to the stage. “I had always toyed with the idea of comedy,” he says.
“I remember going up [at the Comedy Underground in Seattle]. I had never been that nervous. It was a really small crowd, but I still got laughs. It was cool enough to where I said, “OK,” and went back the next night. But I had gotten cocky that I had got a few laughs. The next night was nothing, I mean, like crickets. It felt like it was a one-time thing, so I didn’t pursue it as much for a few months.”
Then after a close friend’s untimely death, Barnett says things were really put into perspective for him. He figured: “You’ve got to try, and really put effort into it. It’s not an overnight thing.”
Barnett spent his first five years in the comedy circuit while working full time at a hospital and raising his two daughters, now 13 and 9.
“I’ve paid a lot of dues and logged a lot of miles,” he says. “At the time, there were only two comedy clubs in Seattle — Giggles and the Underground. You really had to fight for stage time. I volunteered to host and just kept going; I hit some shitty bars. I’m being nice when saying they were shitty. Imagine a strip club on a Sunday morning – probably the most disgusting thing you’ll ever see in your life. And the strippers aren’t good strippers; they’re like C-list strippers, with bullet wounds or they’re pregnant. That’s what these clubs were like.”
But Barnett stayed focused
“Once you figure out, ‘OK, I can make people laugh,’ you have to ask yourself: ‘What am I getting out of this? What do I want to talk about?’ You never really know your voice until years into doing stand-up.”
Nearly a decade after his start, Barnett anchors his live shows with socially relevant material — relationships, his daughters and the world-at-large are big targets for him.
“I don’t want to be the preacher comic, but I do have issues about society,” he explains.
Onstage, Barnett is calm and cool and often laughs at the sheer absurdity of some of the things he says. He doesn’t put anyone down or touch on major tragedies in his act. Instead, he puts a unique, often goofy, spin on classic topics. Though he claims race, religion and politics are three of the more difficult things to joke about and get consistent laughs, he never backs away from the challenge.
“Saying, ‘If you don’t like somebody because of the color of their skin, you’re a fucking idiot’ is probably not going to make the crowd sit down and watch the show. So I say, “If you’re going to hate someone, why would you pick what they look like? Pick a reason that makes sense, like what sign they are. I know people from a lot of different cultures, but that are the same sign, who are a pain in the ass.'”
He admits that finding the balance between what he finds funny and what will make a crowd laugh isn’t easy. He walks me through a joke he’s working on, the premise of which is based on seeing an albino dwarf for the first time and not knowing how to react. “Do I make a wish?” he asks. He dives deeper, testing the waters, wondering whether to call him a “midget,” “dwarf” or “little person. “At least midget sounds magical,” he says.
“I try jokes out on a minimum of five different audiences before I even think to keep going with it.”
Between Barnett’s unique perspective and sharp wit onstage and his sensibility and dedication offstage, it’s no wonder why he was so successful on last year’s s Last Comic Standing.
Though he ultimately finished second to Josh Blue, Barnett loved the experience, which gave him great exposure and left him with some new friends, namely fellow LA resident Chris Porter.
“When we first met, I didn’t know if we were gonna connect. Chris is more like a rock star, country dude, and I’m not. I’m more jazzy and kind of laid-back. But now, people put together tours and put us on the road together. They’re trying to mesh the two different demographics, and when people see us perform, they say we make a great team.”
Barnett tours coast to coast, and he recently wrapped up a stint at this year’s Just For
Laughs comedy festival in Montreal (the same fest that had already named him Outstanding Performer). He’s already passed his original goal “to make a good living telling jokes,”
and he doesn’t plan to slow down.
“Now I want to act, I want to write,” he says. “But the base of everything I do still comes to stand-up. I’m developing a reality show. I’ve got to keep it moving, trying to be an entrepreneur. It’s 2007; you have to do it. America’s attention span is pretty short, so you have to make sure people will remember you.”
For more information, check out www.tybarnett.com.