For most of us, after school meant coming home to do chores and homework. For Don Barnhart, it was running to the studio to watch his father, Don Barnhart Sr., direct Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters in the TV show “Mork & Mindy.”
“Every Friday, from 6 in the evening until usually 1 in the morning, they [the cast] would get fired up and just go all night. It was during the time when, uh, you know, cocaine wasn’t considered addicting. But watching them was amazing and it just rocked my world.”
One day, Winters grabbed Barnhart Jr. during a break in taping and asked him what he wanted to do with himself. “I told him that I wanted to do what you do, Jonathan, I want to be a comic and an actor.” Barnhart said that, “Jonathan sat me down and for 20 minutes basically told me his version of the secret of success. I was so happy that I ran over to my dad and enthusiastically told him of my encounter. My dad simply replied, ‘Turn around,’ and there was Winters, talking to an empty table.”
Barnhart always has been a man of passion. When he was 18, he rode his bike on Memorial Day to the recruiting office to enlist. Luckily, it was closed for the holiday. Shortly after that, he skateboarded past the world-famous Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach, where he saw a ‘help wanted’ sign for a doorman. He got the job and from there went on to wash dishes, cook, scrub bathrooms and do odd jobs. He quickly rose to manager, talent coordinator and then, one fateful night, house MC.
“One night the MC got sick and they knew I had a little acting experience so they asked me if I wanted to MC. I quickly replied ‘Yeah, of course!’ and the first person I opened for was Dana Carvey. The second was Dennis Miller. That was just before they got on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ During those times, comics were very supportive of each other. Carvey took me aside and told me to relax and explained how he wanted to be brought up on stage.”
Over the next few years, Barnhart perfected his act and opened for comedy legends such as Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow, Drew Carey, Louie Anderson and Tim Allen.
Asked about the state of comedy today, Barnhart talked about how comedy rooms have proliferated and the plethora of comics that he calls the “same acts, different face.”
“They are talking about the same things everyone else is talking about. It’s just not personal and in-depth. One of the biggest compliments that I get are from people who ask, ‘Did you spy on us?’ because the people relate to what I am saying. My act is so personal that people identify with it. Crowds feel like they know me when they watch my show.”
Five years ago, Barnhart and his wife left Southern California for Las Vegas. There is plenty of work and it was removed from the negativity of the entertainment industry, he said. “We were able to channel more of our money into producing our own projects. One of them is a syndicated television show, ‘The Freedom of Speech Comedy Show.’ We keep it switched up; we have a clean comic, a black comic, a Hispanic comic, a dirty comic, a juggler and an improv audience participation performer. I am just a fan of the art.”
Barnhart also is a certified hypnotist, an interest that dates back to when he was 18. The comic said hypnotism helped overcome some of the negative thinking he grew up with. One of the things Barnhart said he enjoys is to incorporate hypnosis into the act on the last night of his run. “I don’t make people do crazy, embarrassing things,” he said. “I help them unlock some of their potential and reduce their fear and engage them in some improvisation games.”
Barnhart has performed a one-man show called “The De-Evolution of Man” and has shot “The Click Click Club,” a DVD that talks about how men have lost their spine and don’t know who they are. “We used to be construction workers and laborers and used to be strong and manly, and now we have become house husbands stooped over our desks doing Facebook de-evolving until it makes us hunch over and drag our knuckles as we walk,” he said.
Barnhart also has wrote, co-starred and directed the full-length motion picture “China Dolls.” Co-starring his wife, Linda Vu, it is a fictional account of human trafficking that Barnhart witnessed when he did shows overseas. “It’s an action thriller,” said Barnhart. “It is like the ‘Lethal Weapon’ of human trafficking.”
With one other film in preproduction, 10 weeks a year or so performing on cruise ships, and more than 20 weeks at clubs, colleges and corporate events, Barnhart said he is living his dream. We wonder, is he following the advice of Jonathan Winters?
Barnhart is spending one of those weeks with Sacramento when he appears March 17 – 21 at Laughs Unlimited, 1207 Front Street, Old Sacramento, CA 95814. Contact Laughs Unlimited for your tickets.