June! Exodus! When Tim Barnes came to Chicago from Los Angeles, he had a few thousand dollars, Del Close’s Truth in Comedy, big dreams and the question of whether he would be successful. Four years later, he is leaving us. It’s that season in Chicago when many of comedy’s best and brightest pack up their talent, their experience and their memories and move on to points east and west.
So what about that question - was he successful? I’ll put it like this: in four short years, Tim has become a popular and sought-after headliner in clubs and showcases. He also created the podcast interview show, It’s All True, which was snapped up by WBEZ and then by TouchVision TV.
As the host of It’s All True, Tim has a gentle, funny approach and a bullseye knack for knowing which questions inspire the most fascinating insights. Just this past year, Chicago magazine said It’s All True is one of seven podcasts everyone should be listening to. With the podcast, Tim created an atmosphere where top talent like Eddie Izzard, Wyatt Cenac, Greg Proops, Dwayne Kennedy, Hari Kondabolu, Issa Rae, Azhar Usman, Maz Jobrani and many more felt comfortable sharing their most hilarious and moving personal stories.
As a comedian, Tim has a similar approach. He’s relaxed and warm, but also fearless about confronting the hard issues. In an interview last October, he told me, “I’m subversive and conversational.” He’s got the range that comes with the cerebral superpower of piercing insight. He can talk about racism and people’s assumptions, the damage caused on the receiving end, then slide seamlessly into bungled pick-up lines – where he’s got another original take and which is super-refreshing for us fellow awkwards in the audience.
(Tim says he’s awkward, but I dunno. He’s got a gift for being sharp and on point with uncomfortable issues all the while drawing people in with his warmth. If that’s awkward, perhaps awkward is awesome.)
Additional acclaim comes from the Chicago Tribune which called Tim “a smooth wordsmith who is sharp, polished and confident…” Chicago magazine also named Tim one of “sixteen Chicago comedians to check out.” Tim was one of twenty creative leaders presenting at “20x2 Chicago,” a spin-off of SXSW and has written for WBEZ’s Wait … Wait Don’t Tell Me!, The A.V. Club and Men’s Health. He has been featured on WGN, Vocalo.com and on other top comedy podcasts, including Doug Loves Movies and Put Your Hands Together.
I was fortunate to attend Tim’s talk with the legendary Raymond Lambert, founder of the All Jokes Aside comedy club, who paused the interview to remark on how much he enjoys Tim’s uncommon insight.
There are still opportunities to see Tim before he leaves. You can attend the last Chicago taping of It’s All True on June 23 at @North Bar and find the complete list of his remaining Chicago appearances here.
Tim kindly spoke with me by phone about the benefits of being a Chicago comedian, his career so far and the transition to the New York comedy scene.
Q: So you grew up in L.A. Why L.A. to Chicago?
A: L.A. to Chicago is a good question. A friend I went to high school with, Ian Abramson, and I started doing stand-up separately when we got out of high school. We hatched a plan to move to Chicago. I had read Del Close’s book about improv and it sounded really cool. So we saved up as much money as we could. I think I had a little less than $3,000. We moved to Chicago and went to Second City. I realized pretty quickly that improv wasn’t really my bag. Ian stuck with it a little longer than me, but eventually, we both hung in with stand-up.
L.A. is a difficult place to start comedy-wise. You’re competing with all the big names. You’re competing with people who have agents and managers. I’m not ready to deal with all that stuff.
Q: I’m always interested in how comedians make the decision of New York or L.A.
A: It’s also about friction. That’s what I love about Chicago, too. You’ll bump into people and things happen. All the media and comedy jobs I’ve gotten in Chicago have been because I’ve bumped into someone at the right moment. That’s not something that would happen to me in L.A. because I’m kind of a homebody …
Q: Oh yeah, me, too!
A: So that, plus the fact that there are more comedy related jobs in New York. I’m essentially trying to say it’s a leap of faith. I’m gambling, but I feel like the odds are on my side if I’m in New York instead of L.A.
Q: When and how did you know you wanted to do comedy?
A: I wanted to be a filmmaker for the first chunk of my life. At first, I wanted to be a big blockbuster type of guy, the Star Wars, the Lord of the Rings kind of movie.
Then I went to the New York Film Academy in L.A. one summer in high school and that’s when I started to get into movies that weren’t big budget. I got into the early Scorsese movies like Mean Streets and then I really got into the Woody Allen movies.
I used to be impressed by that shot in The Matrix where the camera is going around Neo in slow motion. Then all of a sudden I was impressed by a wide shot of people talking in the kitchen. That was so cool to me. I identified with those sorts of films.
I identified with Annie Hall a lot, with the racial anxiety that the Woody Allen character, Alvy Singer, feels.
I identified with Alvy Singer as the paranoid guy who is dealing with being an outsider but also being invited in. Being an outsider because he’s Jewish and from an immigrant family. His family is so different from these WASPy families that he aspires to be a part of in a certain way.
That movie was the first time that I could see myself and the first time I wanted to be a comedian because of the way Alvy Singer as a comedian is presented.
Q: It’s interesting you mention that. Like that movie, I was thinking how your comedy is very multi-dimensional. You observe what’s on the surface, but you also describe really well what’s below the surface.
A: All my jokes are based on either something personal or something I really care about. I’m always trying to bury that because I’m not a very emotive person. Comedy is my favorite language for expressing emotions because with a good joke you expect emotion, but then you go above it with the punch line, if that makes any sense. The punch line is like you’re allowing yourself to get over that emotion.
It’s like a good blues song. Every good blues song usually ends with some sort of punch line. You’re talking about all these problems and there’s a continual guitar riff, but finally at the end there’s the punch line and there’s that final guitar riff where you know the song is over. That’s how I feel about comedy.
There’s this blues song called Red House Over Yonder. Jimi Hendrix has a version of it where the whole time he’s talking about being locked out of his house because his girlfriend left him and he’s wailing all about it and then at the end he goes, “if my baby don’t love me, I know her sister will.”
Q: Ha! Another thing I love is how you talk about difficult situations or poor assumptions that people make, but you draw in the audience and the audience feels together in it with you.
A: My goal is to invite people into my world and then to make fun of it, especially when it comes to the racial things. I think I have a very palatable face for a lot of different kinds of people and I like to define my race or my perspective from joke to joke. What I try to balance is not necessarily projecting my opinion on issues, but inviting people to the way I have to see these issues and then leave it open for you.
My comedy is an open discussion in a lot of ways. I’m not trying to persuade people. I’m inviting people into a situation in which they can make a decision. I don’t even want to hear your decision. I’m just putting you in a situation in which these things are brewing.
Q: I think one of the great things about comedy is when it connects people and your approach really does that.
A: Thank you. That’s what I try to do.
Q: How has being in Chicago influenced you personally or influenced your comedy?
A: Chicago has forced me to be my own person. I had to move away from my family to really discover myself. Chicago helped me with that. Chicago helped me realize what it means to be a black person more so than in California where things are sprawled out and you can define yourself depending on what part of town you’re walking through. Things are kind of in flux in California whereas Chicago is a city of neighborhoods and everyone is politically minded.
There are so many protests and real discussions happening here. There are shows that are all about things happening in the city. Chicago has politicized me in a positive way. Because of Chicago I feel more is at stake in the political realm, whereas in California somehow things aren’t felt in a real way. So that’s really what I’ve gotten from it. Chicago has politicized my comedy and made me feel more comfortable talking about racial issues and honing in on what I want to do with my comedy.
Q: Where do you want to go with your comedy once you’re in New York?
A: Hopefully, I can get to a point where I can open up about personal things. I don’t have many jokes about relationships or my family. It will take some self-exploration. I feel like I have to actually process a lot of things in my life so I can joke about it. It’s definitely a more in-depth endeavor to go personal with your comedy.
Q: I hear what you’re saying because I like to write about other people’s stories, but I have a hard time writing about myself.
A: Yeah, the podcast is all about trying to get funny, true stories from people which I love to hear and I love to explore, but when it comes to me I could never tell. My life isn’t interesting enough. I love these bizarre, funny stories that other people have. Sometimes I can tell that people have never told those stories before. I just love hearing those.
Q: If you could go back to when you first started, what advice would you give yourself?
A: The advice would be not to care so much about so much. When you’re starting off at open mics you’re always so nervous about the people in the room. You want to impress everybody, but you learn pretty quickly that people don’t remember. People at the open mics are thinking about their own sets. If you start off and you’re not great, no one is going to remember that.
You stand out only once you are really funny, so everything you do starting off as a comic doesn’t matter. You can do anything. You can get rid of all your flaws without any worries. Just start. Starting is the most important thing. Then just keep doing stuff. I think there were points where I got a little existential about everything, but really, keeping productive is the most important thing.
Q: What do you mean, existential?
A: Like, what’s the point of doing all this stuff? Even with the podcast. The history of the podcast is crazy because it started off as something I did just for the sake of doing it. Then I ended up interviewing for a podcast internship at WBEZ and mentioned to them that I have a podcast.
Because of that conversation and the fact that I had this body of work - which I didn’t know why I was doing, but I just kept doing it, my podcast became a WBEZ podcast for a while. At WBEZ it kept gaining in popularity and people really seemed to like it. I then moved it to TouchVision TV before TouchVision TV stopped existing and I was paid good money to interview people for this podcast I had started two years earlier for nothing.
I feel that’s a testament to just keep doing the work and eventually, if it is good, people will take notice and then something will happen because of that. You never know what things will spring from your productivity.
Q: Who was the first person you interviewed?
A: Technically, the first person I interviewed was my friend Ian Abramson. The first episode I ever released was with Shannon Cason who’s a Moth GrandSlam winner. He has a podcast called Homemade Stories that’s really popular. But the first person I interviewed when I brought it to WBEZ was Hari Kondabolu.
Q: Oh, yeah. I love him.
A: He’s so great. I think his story is still the most memorable to me because it just has all these fine points in it. It’s probably the funniest story that has ever been told on the show.
That conversation made me more comfortable with the kind of material that I do, confidently talking about race and comfortable being a comedian doing that because there is a hesitation. It’s always edgy for a white comedian to talk about race, but you get this feeling when you’re a person of color talking about race that you’re all of a sudden “that guy,” you know?
Q: What do you mean, which guy?
A: You’re the black comedian talking about being black. But talking to Hari about his comedy made me feel confident and think about why is it that the jokes I have about race are the ones that people laugh the hardest, identify with the hardest and that people tell me are so great?
So I made the decision to double down on that because that is the comedy that I care about and my life is filtered through that and all of my anxieties are filtered through these odd racial things. All my favorite jokes I write are fueled by my anxieties, so that’s my comedy is the conclusion I came to.
Q: What about comedy makes it a good vehicle for communicating about race and racism?
A: It’s that same thing I said, it’s just my favorite way of communication. Comedy requires a kind of hindsight on a situation. Comedy is a way for you to take control of an issue. It’s a way for you to put two things that shouldn’t go together, together just through a string of words. It’s also weird that a combination of words have the ability to make people emit a sound.
Q: Oh yeah, I never thought about it like that.
A: Yeah, there’s some sort of strange power to that. I think that’s what comedians are addicted to and that’s what drives what I do. With the power to put the string of words together with the right rhythm and the right inflection you can bring some sort of joy to people.
Q: That’s a huge thing. Not a lot of professions can say that.
A: And you don’t even need an instrument.
Q: Right, right! It’s an extraordinary thing to stand on stage by yourself, communicate things that maybe aren’t easy to communicate but comedians make them sound easy to communicate and then, yeah, right, get this response and also connect people.
A: Yeah. And we’re making this sound super special, but sometimes it’s just a fart joke.
Q: Yeah! Those are good, too! So what are you doing to prepare for the move?
A: I visited New York last year and I did a couple of shows then. In terms of Chicago, I feel like I’ve achieved a lot of the things I wanted to achieve. I’ve done work in clubs and I’ve headlined shows and in a certain way, I’m just getting a little bored and a lot of the excitement I had when I first moved to Chicago has gone away. The things that I want to achieve now I cannot do in Chicago.
I know I warned against trying to impress people, but that pressure of trying to impress your peers is a driving force and it’s something I feel will help me in New York. I’m trying to do stuff in television and to write for shows and all that is in New York and I feel that it’s attainable in New York, so I’m trying to prepare myself for that. New York has the right combination to make my anxiety productive again.
Q: How do the New York and Chicago scenes compare? Here people seem genuinely concerned for each other and supportive of each other. I don’t know if it’s the same in New York or not?
A: I don’t know too much about New York. I was only there for a couple of days. The Chicago comedy scene is very supportive and I think that’s because a lot of the people who do comedy in Chicago started in Chicago. There isn’t the pressure you have in L.A. or in New York. The people in the Chicago comedy scene created that scene.
Every couple of years, people move to New York or L.A., so there’s a constant re-creation of the comedy scene in Chicago from the ground up and there’s a natural hierarchy that emerges. There’s no audition process for a lot of the independent shows. People recognize funny. There’s an organic-ness to it.
Q: What is the funniest thing that’s happened to you as a Chicago comedian?
A: The funniest thing is probably my job history. My first job was at the California Pizza Kitchen in downtown Chicago and the job after that was Dunkin’ Donuts and then the job after that was WGN Radio. Actually, it was Einstein Bagels and then WGN Radio doing video production. Then I was a paid intern at WBEZ and after that was TouchVision. So that’s probably the funniest story and the greatest example of the many things you can somehow accomplish in the great city of Chicago.
Q: What thought would you like to leave your Chicago fans with?
A: My final thought to Chicago fans is that it has been good knowing you.
Learn more about Tim at https://timbarnescomedy.com/
Here’s where you can see Tim before he leaves Chicago: https://timbarnescomedy.com/about-2/shows/
Follow Tim on twitter at @TimBarnes451.
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