Comedian Barnes plays off audience

By John Benson

A resident of Milwaukee, comedian Chris Barnes said there are a few reasons why his special brand of comedy works in the Youngstown area.

“We’re both blue-collar towns with a lot of factory workers, and there’s a love of beer,” said Barnes, calling from his Wisconsin home. “We have the same mentality.”

Barnes said he first decided comedy was his future when, as a 6-year-old, he was fascinated watching the likes of Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby and Carol Burnett.

“I used to do impressions in talent shows and things of that nature,” Barnes said. “I first went on stage in 1980, and it worked out really good. It’s a lot harder now because you have smaller audiences.”

By the mid-’80s, Barnes was busy on the national comedy- club circuit. Eventually, he worked his way up to a national headliner. Over the decades, he shared the stage with John Mendoza, Jimmy Walker, Andrew Dice Clay, Sinbad and even his aforementioned hero, Cosby.

As far as Barnes’ comedic style, he said the first name that comes to mind is Don Rickles, which is unexpected considering the legend is known for his decidedly non-PC material that, well, in theory wouldn’t suit an African-American comedian. However, Barnes quickly quantifies the comparison being less about the types of jokes and more about the style.

“I do a lot of improv, so I’m almost like a Don Rickles,” Barnes said. “Just a black version of Rickles. I’m not as filthy or as harsh, but I go into the audience and play off the audience a lot. So my comedy changes each show because I never know what’s going to happen.”

Barnes said he does have a baseline of material that involves him discussing everything from his family to his divorce and relationship kind of stuff. He stressed he’s not a political comic or a Chris Rock type.

“I’m just a fun guy on stage, and the audience can kind of relate to everything I hit on,” Barnes said. “I’m also interacting with the audience and playing off the audience. I feed off the audience by asking them questions, and then I bring it all into my show.”

When it comes to crowd work, comedians all know there’s the danger of hecklers attempting to take over the show. That said, loudmouth audience members who often forget why exactly the audience is attending the show should know what they’re getting themselves into by interrupting Barnes’ set.

“I invite hecklers in, but it doesn’t get out of hand,” Barnes said. “If they’re coming to the Funny Farm, they have to know they won’t get the best of me. They won’t take over the show.”

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