by Ryan Meehan
Revered by audiences and fellow comics alike, Greer Barnes is a regularly featured performer at the Comedy Cellar, in the heart of New York City’s Greenwich Village, a club that over the last 15 years, Greer has made his home. Touring wherever comedy takes him, Greer has headlined venues across the country, from Zanie’s in Chicago to The Comedy Store in Los Angeles as well as venues around England, Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and South Africa. Greer has been featured on CBS’ ‘Late Show with David Letterman’, FOX’s ‘In Living Color’ and Comedy Central’s ‘Chappelle’s Show’, had a supporting role alongside Kevin Costner in the 1999 film ‘For the Love of the Game’ and most recently appearing on Season 8 of NBC’s ‘Last Comic Standing’. Dave Attell and Louis CK also subtly mentioned Greer Barnes on FX’s ‘Louie’, as an act neither comedian would want to follow, a joking nod at Greer’s prowess as a performer. ‘See What I’m Saying’ is Greer’s first comedy album, recorded live at the legendary Comedy Cellar in New York City. The title, inspired by Greer’s love of listening to Richard Pryor’s albums growing up, is a reference to being able to picture a comedian physically acting out a joke just by listening. He hopes you can see what he’s saying too, and he’s our guest today in 7 questions.
RM: You have a very unique story about how you enlisted in the army, and your friends rushed to the airport to stop you because they thought you were too funny to go into that line of work…How did that series of events transpire; and was there any one thing in particular that was said which really flipped the switch for you and convinced you to change your mind?
GB: When I first started comedy, I had just graduated from high school. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. I had being doing standup for about 2 years (around 1982). I had graduated high school and was doing open mics, mainly the Eagle Tavern and Pats in Chelsea. Basically, I was painfully unemployed. My mom was giving me a hard time about not having a job and finally gave me an ultimatum: “Get a job or get my ass in the army.” I went into a recruiter and took an aptitude test and was told Nuclear Medicine was for me. Right there, I knew something was off. Nuclear Medicine? Really. Even when he said it, it sounded like he was full of shit, and put no effort into hiding it whatsoever. “According to this test, you’re ehhhhh inclined for Nuclear Medicine!” Nuclear Medicine isn’t even a thing. I knew that back then…
I was at the recruiter at 4pm and by 6pm I was on a bus to JFK , filled with 22 year olds. We don’t go to the main gate; we take the back roads to this back room filled with 150-200 people, packed from wall to wall. Every so often, 20 by 20 at a time we’re lead into a smaller room to be sworn in and put into a transport, the destination: Paris Island. I start talking to one of the other guys. I don’t remember much of what I said to him, or much of what he said to me, but whatever I said had this guy bent over in laugh. I’m killing this guy. Eventually he asks me what I do for a living, I tell him I’m a comedian, his face falls, he looks mad at me, he points at my face, then points at the door, “Hey man, pick yourself up and get the hell of here. You funny man! You don’t belong in here!” So I walk out into JFK proper and find a pay phone. I beep my buddy D-Black. A few minutes later D-Black calls me back. I’m on the phone in the middle of JFK, so there is all this airport noise in the background, he’s with all my other boys, so between the airport noise on my end and all my boys yelling in the background on his end, it was hard to hear what either of us were saying.
“Yo – who this?”
“Yo D! It’s Greer”
“Yo man, where you at? What’s all that noise in the background”
“I’m at JFK.” “You’re at JFK?!? What you doin’ at JFK?”
“I’m joining the army.”
“What?!? Yo, shut up, Yo SHUT UP I’m talkin to G! What you say!”
“I’m at JFK, I talked to a recruiter and I’m joining the marines”
“Yo stop playing, motherfucker says he’s joining the Marines…”
“No D, I’m serious, I’m about to get sworn in.”
“WHAT! Naw! Naw! Yo Hold Up! G about to join the Marines! Naw, I know! Yo G! Stay RIGHT THERE! Understand! Stay Right There! We Coming.
Two cars with all my boys blew out of the upper west and sped all the way to JFK. Twenty minutes later, my entire crew is running through JFK frantically looking for me. They spot me, grabbed me, and ran me out of the Airport, the way secret service grabs a president and pushes him into a car in the movies. Except we were on the other side of JFK. The entire way to the car, my boy D-Black keeps saying,
“Naw G – you too funny for the Army”
I have never got home from JFK faster and never will for as long as I live; we laughed hysterically the entire way home, and have not heard the end of it till this day. I’m very grateful for having the friends that I do.
RM: What was it like first starting out in comedy? How did you get into The Cellar; and what is so special about the atmosphere of that club which allows you to feel so comfortable on stage?
GB: The first time I ever got a paid spot was at the old “Catch a Rising Star”. Louis Faranda was running it at the time and was the first person to ever see something in me as a comic. So for around 8 years, “Catch a Rising Star” and “Caroline’s on Broadway” was my bread and butter.
Around 1991, I was invited to do a general talent industry night for ABC at the Comedy Cellar. Nothing ever came of it, but it was the first time I ever preformed at The Cellar. I hadn’t even heard of The Cellar. I only had 7 minutes of material.
After Estee came up to me, she told me how funny I was and asked me if I was from NY and why she’s never heard of me before! I laughed, and she immediately started giving me spots, just listing off times and days. I was overwhelmed. Back then, The Cellar was doing 20 minute spots, it’s not like today where each comic is doing 8 minutes or so a night. Estee mentioned that everybody did 20 minutes, but I only had 7 minutes, and I told her that. See looked at me, kind of narrowed her eyes and “You’ll handle it….” I’ll never forget that. With the stage time she gave me I literally forged my act there. I am the comic I am today because of The Cellar.
RM: Who would you say has been the biggest influence on you as a comedian over the course of your career?
GB: Richard Pryor, obviously, was a huge influence on me. I say obviously, because I don’t think there is a comedian out there, white, black, Hispanic, male, female, alien or otherwise that isn’t influence by him. Richard Pryor took the inroads of Lenny Bruce and brought the art of standup into the modern age. Every comic has that story of sneaking downstairs to listen to some great comic’s album without their parents finding out, and for me, that comic was Richard Pryor. If he had an opinion or point of view he wanted to get that across, he did it in a funny way that hit you in your heart, that by-passed prediduce of your mind. You know, there is being funny for funny’s sake that’s one thing, but then there are things that upset me about society and insteading of being venomous, instead of being mad or yelling, maybe there is a way I can combat these ideas and reach people through humor and in that way, you’ll see my point of view. Life is too short and full of misery to be hung up on the things that divide us. That’s what I took away from Richard Pryor’s craft.
RM: You got to open up for Louis CK at Madison Square Garden back on January 24th and 27th…What was that whole experience like for you – getting to open for him twice; and do you prepare for a show like that any differently than you would for a club gig?
GB: I met Louie back when I first started standup, doing spots and Caroline’s and the Boston Comedy club 20 years ago, when we all were first starting. Even back then, Louie was awesome. I’ve always been a fan of his and always had a tremendous amount of respect for him and his style. When Louie was on stage, he was doing him, whether it got a laugh or it didn’t, he was always doing what he thought was funny in his own voice and from his heart. That’s the most you can do as a standup. It wasn’t a surprise to me when Louie blew up.
Louie asked me to open for him when he was at The Garden. That was a surprise. It was out of the blue. I said of course. Like I said, I’ve always had a tremendous respect for Louie and his craft and I always love working with him. When we were back stage, Louie asked me to do my Obama Underwater joke. I was completely flattered. The show went really well and Louie brought the house down.
So two weeks later, I was at the Cellar. Right as I go on, Louie comes in and is standing in the hallway, and I did my Ping-Pong joke. As I’m doing it, I can see Louie laughing and clapping and when I get off, he grabs me and asks if I can open for him again the next day, but only if I do the Ping Pong joke. That show, the second night I opened for Louie was probably the greatest show I ever did, and I can’t thank Louie enough for giving me the opportunity to play The Garden.
RM: Comedy is a tough business…If there was one thing that you could change about the current state of the industry, what would it be and why?
GB: The one thing that I hate about comedy today is what open mics have become. I’m a huge fan of comedy, and I love meeting new comics. Comedy is such a strange art form, there is no school, no training, you just get up there and figure it out as you go along for yourself and the only “school” is the one you create for yourself by listening to what the masters before you have said and done. When I was coming up, I wished I had someone to point me in the right direction, to instruct me, but that’s not the way comedy is, unfortunately. It’s a very fend-for-yourself art form. The only “dojo” of sorts is the open mic scene. When I was coming up, open mics were very different, they were free, performers were picked from a lottery, there were real audience members in the audience, all the performers came out and hung out, and there was this real feeling of comradely and workshop. It was an amateur show and these were the places that you came to to see performers before they made it big, like that time old saying “I saw him when he was first starting out at such-and-such…” Open mics now, the comics have to pay $5 and buy drinks to preform, most of the comics don’t stick around for the show, it’s do your set, pay your $5 and bounce, on to the next spot. That’s detrimental to the game. You don’t learn anything from a show like that. If you don’t learn, you can’t grow, if you can’t grow, you can’t find your voice unique. I don’t know, it’s something that I’ve very angry about and more angry because I’m powerless to change things.
RM: How would you best define what comedy is in your own words?
GB: Stage Presence, Voice, Acting, Mindful, Funny. Those are the five elements of comedy, master those in that order and remember that in the end, you have to be funny and that is the hardest element to master, which is impossible without the other four.
RM: What’s up next for you in the remainder of 2015 and beyond? Anything big in the works that we should know about?
GB: A special. I don’t know where, I don’t know when, but sometime soon I’ll have something fun. Also the road. I’ve been all over the world doing standup and haven’t been out outside of New York in a very long time, so I’m really looking forward to getting back on the road. I actually hate flying and I’d really like to drive cross-country to start off. But yeah, next special and go on the road, that’s what’s up in the immediate future.
Official Profile at Comedy Central: www.cc.com/comedians/greer-barnes
Greer on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Greer-Barnes/194373652769
Greer on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/greerbarnes1
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