Comedienne Vicki Barbolak — who appeared in the thirteenth season of America’s Got Talent and made it to the top 10 performers — is in Texas for the next 3 days, visiting Houston, Addison, and San Antonio with her Trailer Nasty comedy routine.
“America’s Got Talent could really change my life. This could take me from a trailer park in Oceanside to … a trailer park in Malibu.”
These were some of the first words America heard from stand-up comic Vicki Barbolak just before she took to the America’s Got Talent stage in season thirteen, and they were likely some of the truest to Barbolak’s “Trailer Nasty” persona. After making it all the way to the finale episode of AGT (the show where she also met friend of About Magazine and Houston’s very own Christina Wells), Barbolak finished in the top ten, but unfortunately did not make it to the finale show. That small fact, however, has done nothing to deter her from a successful career in the short months since her appearance on the TV show. The trailer park queen is currently booked solid at comedy clubs and theaters across the nation from now until the end of May 2019 with few pauses in between shows. Tonight, at 7:30 PM at the Improv Houston, Barbolak will be hosting the first of her three Texas shows, followed by gigs in Addison outside Dallas (Wednesday, 19 December) and San Antonio (Thursday, 20 December). And just hours ahead of her show, About Magazine got the chance to talk to Vicki about her successes, her long road to get to them, and her thoughts on comedy and what the world needs now.
Barbolak on the phone is just as funny as she is on the stage; and just like with that of her stage persona, her jokes are as effortless as her next breath to follow. As we talked about our families — myself the eldest of ten children, she a mother of two daughters and herself the daughter of a former Pittsburgh Steelers player, Pete Barbolak — she remarked that children should, “[…] come out as medical students. Or like … plastic surgeons!” But the woman from the Oceanside trailer park wasn’t always out on the comedy stage cracking jokes. In fact, Barbolak’s career didn’t begin until later in life, after having married more than once and raising two daughters. She notes that it all came about when she found a flyer for stand-up classes at age 38 and decided to take a chance — albeit one that many would have dismissed as a pipe dream. However, for Barbolak, this wasn’t just a pipe dream; and she invested everything she had into making a career for herself and her family out of comedy. She said, “You know, I did move into a trailer about five years after I started doing stand-up. And just because of that — my character is just who I am. My real life sort of turned into that character. […] My character on stage is really close to my real life, and [vice versa].” Now she’s been doing it for roughly twenty years, stating to me on the phone, “I literally started in the gay bars in San Diego — that was my first paid job at Flicks […] and then Mitsy [the owner] saw me from the Comedy Store […] but I was almost 40 when I started; meaning the industry in LA would have nothing to do with me. So the show [AGT] brought America and the industry to me and now my life is like I always dreamed it would be, in a way.”
But that life hasn’t always been a dream for Vicki. While America’s Got Talent showed off her story as an overnight success, Barbolak agrees that the process by which any artist becomes a sensation is anything but — especially for women past a certain age in LA. “Even now, with getting a little bit of notoriety, I was booking a gig in Las Vegas and mentioned that I wanted a woman to feature with me. And the guy goes — in a text! — ‘I don’t book two women in the same show’. And I just thought, Really, dude? You’re gonna put that in writing?!” This standard isn’t uncommon in show business, and certainly not in comedy where the appeal of women is diminished due to the lack of glitz and glamor that often accompany movie and pop stars. “But I think that these are better times [for women],” she shared. “We still have [chuckles] so, so far to go, though.” But the ever-present ageism and misogyny of Hollywood didn’t stop Barbolak. She was bound and determined. She had moved into a trailer park in California with her two daughters and was taking gigs wherever she could to make a livable wage for her family. Barbolak even became an ordained minister and began taking what would soon become her Trailer Nasty version of Vicki to perform wedding ceremonies. Whether jokingly or not, the comedienne added a bed to the back of a van she’d bought for her newfound business venture and offered couples a short, honeymoon quickie in the back for an additional $30. Regardless of whether she was performing at the altar, at a bar, or on stage, Barbolak says, “I got here through twenty years of never giving up and just loving what I do.”
In a certain bit of irony, Barbolak takes her comedy quite seriously. As we talked about her new material vs. her short sets on AGT, Vicki cited the late comic Bill Hicks — who began his career working at Houston’s former Comedy Workshop — as saying, “[…] material is what you fall back on when you have nothing else to say.” Now that Barbolak is back to performing longer sets than her TV stints, she added, “So, after twenty years, I’ve gotten to this point where I can just riff. But to pull back from that and to write-write-write […] it was a big shift. But I think it was really good for me.” And this funny woman is no stranger to learning to do something new or to approach comedy differently. When asked who some of her inspirations were, Barbolak stated, “Sam Kinison. […] For me, he’s my favorite and the most close to my heart. And when I was really little, I used to watch Totie Fields — but I didn’t remember that until I grew up. I went to the Museum of Television and saw her, I thought, Oh. When I was a tiny little girl, I used to look up to that fat, ugly thing that everyone loved. I remember sitting on the floor when I was five-years-old […] watching her. […] And, of course, Joan Rivers.” Barbolak also went on to tell me about her admiration for other comedians she’s had the opportunity to work with, including a personal favorite of mine, Kathleen Madigan. While talking about Madigan, Barbolak recounted a conference of women comedians she attended where Madigan was asked to perform a set. She stated how much she regrets the event to this day, because when Madigan took the stage to perform her set, not a single woman in the audience laughed at her jokes. She shared how this moment made her all the more supportive of women comics and how she wishes she could change what happened in that room now, even apologize for it.
“When you’re onstage, you have to be kind of … all you. And I don’t want to be that off stage. I want to be a part of everybody else.”
Rivers, Kinison, Fields, and Madigan are all are very in-line with Barbolak’s comedy; and their inspiration can be found by the careful, comedically-trained ear in her sets. Kinison, a former Pentecostal preacher gone rogue, used to mimic the shouts and screams of evangelical pastors in his comedy routines, often about religion and politics, can be heard in Barbolak’s voice as she rails off idiosyncrasies in her act. The late Rivers’ shock humor can be heard largely at play (on AGT the comic lamented about how she’d driven all the way to a men’s prison for a conjugal visit while in LA, only to learn that for a conjugal visit at this specific prison, “[…] you have to know somebody. Can you believe that?”). And even the slight, observational humor of Madigan, whom Barbolak told me she adores, as well as the former’s near-perfect comedic timing and delivery, is similar to that of Vicki on the stage. But nevertheless and no matter how much of her inspirations you can see within her own act, what makes Barbolak successful is her uniqueness. It’s not the uniqueness of being “trailer nasty” — although that does really add a great deal to it. The uniqueness Barbolak has is that of something she asked me about comic-to-comic:
“As a comic, do you think — because I’ve become convinced of this — that empathy might be one of the most important traits to being a comedian?”
This quote spiraled us into a much deeper discussion about the state of the nation, the vast separation of the right from the left, and the subjectiveness of comedy. After sharing a story about my first stand-up performance and listening to a story of hers about a fan encounter she’d had a while back, what we seemed to land on was why audiences connect so with comedians in ways they may not with actors or musicians: comedians get up on stage and tell you everything about themselves without metaphor and often without playing a different role. They become your new best friends. “They think it’s just you and that one person,” she added, “They don’t understand.” It seemed, as we discussed it, as though people need that more now. We referred back to a quote from our mutual hero, Joan Rivers, that goes, “Comedy is about making people laugh at everything [in order] to deal with things.” And that’s what Barbolak said she’s here to do. As we went on, she said that a large part of what she loved about AGT was its 50/50 demographic to both the red and blue parts of America, and how it had brought both peoples to her audience. But Barbolak’s appeal is just that — nonspecific. Maybe it’s because she reminds everyone of someone, or maybe it’s because she’s just that fucking funny. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s both of those things, but also because she cares about bringing people together. Again on the topic of women (and now the LGBTQ+ community), she had this to say:
“Let’s face it, the gay community has always been way more supportive when it comes to women. In the same way that we got to go to the prom because we had gay friends to take us, a lot of us [comediennes] make it because we have gay friends that get people to come watch us [and] because there are gay rooms willing to have us.” The LGBTQ+ could arguably be one of Barbolak’s largest demographics. As mentioned earlier, it was in gay bars that Vicki got her start, and she hasn’t forsaken us on her road to success. She even notes that she had a homecoming following AGT with the LGBTQ+ community in San Diego that was attended by many, including “people who had been with me all twenty years just hoping that something good would happen. The gay community has been pro-women forever.”
As for what’s to come for Vicki, it seems as though she has no plans of slowing down now. If America’s Got Talent was the big, show-stopping, act one finale of the show that is her life, act two, in which she hits the road with her personal brand of funny, is sure to leave fans on their feet applauding. Vicki is one of the performers on America’s Got Talent: The Champions, which will premiere on January 7th on NBC. The Champions features the most memorable acts and extraordinary performers from previous seasons returning to the stage to compete in hopes of taking home the first-ever winter title of AGT Champion. When asked what was to come, Vicki shared that she wants to stay in the TV realm, that she’s been working on sets for late night shows, and that eventually she’d like to be a part of a sitcom — whether that be someone else’s or her very own. And by the looks of things, Trailer Nasty Vicki Barbolak has a lot of character to share on the screen.