Willie Barcena: A balancing act of comedy

By | April 15, 2009 at 11:17 am | One comment | Features

Comedian Willie Barcena

Comedian Willie Barcena has seen his star rise and then fall many times. But with the premiere of his hour-long Comedy Central special May 2, this veteran comic’s career trajectory is very clearly screaming upwards.

Willie Barcena has had a varied professional career. He’s worked as a plumber, security guard, and a limo driver before settling full-time on stand-up comedy. Barcena is now a 20-year comedy veteran who headlines the finer venues across the country. A former morning radio show host and regular guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno (in 2000, Leno’s production company actually began developing a sitcom around Barcena’s act), his one-hour Comedy Central special Deal With It! premieres May 2 and is out on DVD on Cinco de Mayo.

Punchline Magazine recently sat down with the LA-based comic and chatted about everything from the problem with bad sitcom writers, the joy of performing in front of 20 people and much more.

You wrote and performed a one-man show, Cry Like A Man. How did that come about?
I went to a couple one-man shows in L.A. and I really enjoyed the way the comics were operating it, like a mini-play. I had a lot of fun with that. You can take the audience on a roller-coaster; one minute have them laughing then the other minute, making them cry. When you’re doing comedy, you obviously don’t want to make the audience sad.

But in the one-man show, you can do it. Because nobody’s drinking, they’re there to see a play. You have a greater license to bring your audience up-and-down. I enjoyed it, but my real love is stand-up. It’s my passion, it’s what rushes through my veins.

Are their certain venues in LA you like to play?
My favorite places are the places that nobody goes to. The rooms with 20 people, where some guy rented a room for the night. My favorite room is this place; a comic rented a loft out in L.A. and he couldn’t pay the rent. So he came up with an idea to every Saturday have comedians in his loft. That’s my favorite. There’s no bullshit, no manager with restrictions. It’s just comedy.

Which gigs stand out as some of the worst you’ve had?
The worst gigs are when you get an audience that’s ignorant. And it has nothing to do with economics. Rich or poor. With close-minded audiences, it just spreads. It doesn’t matter if they’re Black, White, or Brown. Or even what State we’re in. It’s just the vibe you get.

How did stand-up first become a part of your life?
At first I was going to be a cop— LAPD. That’s 20 years ago. Then I got a DUI when I was celebrating my acceptance to the Police Academy. I was told I could try again in five years. And at the time, I had gone to one or two open mics; then I thought, ‘I guess comedy it is.’ I was about 23 when I started.

What comics did you admire growing up?
Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor, Richard Pryor. He was the best.

How would you describe the evolution of your stage show?
I started real corny at first. I just did the typical one-liner jokes, and that’s changed. I guess it’s a constant change for me because whatever joke I did 20 years ago, it’s now five minutes. So that chunk that I have now really comes from that seed that was planted 20 years ago. It’s evolved from one line about why I think everybody’s full of crap to five pages about it.

Has the national stand-up scene changed – in your eyes – since you started?
There was a lot of hustle then. You go alone, wait forever to do three minutes at an open mic and then leave. And now when I go to the clubs, it feels like high school. It seems very cliquish now. There are the Black comics and the Latin comics; it’s become very cliquish. And the guy who’s getting on TV all the time— he’s sorta like the guy who ran the yearbook.

Are there contemporary comics you really admire?
Well, bro, the guy I was fortunate enough to be a good acquaintance of – I wouldn’t say he was a buddy – but whenever we’d run into each other, we’d shoot the shit for a while, was Mitch Hedberg. It’s a while back, but Denis Leary’s first special and Chris Rock’s first special were also great.

A small percentage of working comics get to perform for our troops overseas. They usually report it’s one of the greatest parts of their career. You played in Afghanistan a few years ago.
Yeah, anytime you can perform for the troops; that’s the best audience. I mean, talk about a blue-collar audience. You don’t get any more blue-collar than performing for U.S. troops. I was never in the military, but I have the utmost respect for them, especially in a time of war. It’s a surreal thing. You’re performing for these people who are risking their lives. It was all positive, but a very surreal experience. That was my favorite audience. It was the first time as a comic I felt like I was doing something important. The whole experience kicked ass. You’re looking at these youngsters who are 17, 18. Some of them look like they’re 12.

What advice would you give to some of the younger comics who might be reading this?
It’s not worth compromising who you are just for a few dollars. I know that there are a lot of compromises you have to make for success, but just try to minimize it as much as you can. Just keep your feet on the ground, keep writing and writing. Comedy’s great. But I also have a wife and kids. You have to keep a balance.

What’s going on with you after the special and DVD come out?
What I’m hoping is that some producer will be at home watching and say, ‘Fuck, who is this guy?’ And another writer at home watching says the same thing. And we make my show, and I make a lot of money and get more successful.

You had a top-rated show in Sacramento for a few years. Are you interested in returning to radio at some point?
I did the radio show to do something different. I had been on the road for a while, and when they offered me the show, I decided to try it. And anytime you do that, it’s exciting. And then the novelty wore off. But I really enjoyed it, got really good ratings [ed note The Willie Barcena Morning Show was #1 in its timeslot during its two-year run]. But the problem is you couldn’t let loose. I’m not a clean comic and I’ve never wanted to gear what I do to fit somebody else’s personality. It’s frustrating to have to compromise your own integrity to keep working. But the real me is in a nightclub speaking my mind and making people laugh, and at times offending people. But fuck it, that’s the great part of stand-up. I wouldn’t do radio again. It would have to be the perfect setting, like XM Radio or one of the alternative stations. It couldn’t be something like, ‘Don’t say that, because Pepsi will get mad at you.’

That’s something I’ve heard a lot, that even more frustrating than the language and cursing restrictions on T.V. is the stuff you can’t talk about because it might upset a sponsor. Have you had a lot of problems with that?
When I was on the radio, I couldn’t talk about McDonald’s because they were a sponsor. And there’s some funny shit about McDonald’s. There’s stuff like that all the time. The times when I’m really at an emotional high is when I’m on a stage and the club manager is a free soul. It rarely happens, but when it does, bro— I’ve never done heroin, but I’m sure that’s as close as it gets.

But you’re interested in television?
I’ve had deals for a sitcom. But every guy that writes a project of mine turns me into a fucking Chico or the dumb Mexican guy. And it’s frustrating, because the reason I got the development deals in the first place is because I am who I am. And then you put me with these writers, and they say, ‘So you’re stabbing somebody here,’ or ‘You’re in a gang.’ I want to slap these fuckers. It’s easy to write like that. Just stereotypes. There’s no passion, no heart. If you do something with no passion or no heart and there’s no love in what you do, fucking die. You know what I mean? Why even live?

For more info, check out williebarcena.com.

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Daniel Perlman

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