With her dark curls, leopard-print dress and bejeweled denim jacket, comedian Vicki Barbolak made a big impression as soon as she stepped on the “America’s Got Talent” stage earlier this year.
Her spunk was immediately apparent, too.
After judge Mel B asked about her talent, the curvy Barbolak quipped “I’m a ballerina.”
Once clarifying that she was a comedian, Barbolak launched into a set during which she shared her struggles of finding a bra that didn’t feel like “recycled shrapnel,” her experience with therapy and how she would wait for her children to get home from school before she started drinking because “only alcoholics drink alone.”
As soon as she finished her set, the entire audience was on its feet. Barbolak, clearly overwhelmed, began to tear up and called it the nicest thing that ever happened to her.
All four judges wanted to see more from Barbolak, with judge Howie Mandel praising her performance and saying Barbolak filled the void Joan Rivers left behind, and judge Simon Cowell calling Barbolak the funniest person they’d had on the show and “an absolute little star.”
Looking back, Barbolak can remember that moment clear as day because of how much it meant to her.
“I wanted that recognition so much that I didn’t even know I wanted it but when it came, it blew me away,” she said.
Barbolak had been working hard for that level of recognition for 22 years.
Growing up, Barbolak wanted nothing more than to make her uncles, “Midwestern guys,” laugh, feeling elation whenever she did.
But a career in comedy was never on her mind, though her cousin Dan always insisted she could make it in stand up.
Instead, she worked at her parents’ carpet store for 20 years, content with the fact that her kids and brother were happy, before seeing in the trash a flyer for comedy classes taught by Sandy Shore (daughter of Mitzi, sister of Pauly).
As Barbolak recalls, she walked into the class carrying three large books so people would think she was smart.
“That’s where I was back then,” she said. “I had no sense of self.”
But Shore took a liking to Barbolak right away.
“She said I was special, and I had a talent,” Barbolak said. “Nobody ever said that to me about anything.”
Barbolak began performing at open mics around Southern California and continued for several years until a couple of things happened that brought Barbolak’s career to a new level.
The first was that Mitzi Shore, co-founder and owner of the famed Comedy Store, saw Barbolak at a bar while waiting for a showcase of male comics.
Shore liked Barbolak’s look and had the manager give her a set. Shore liked what she heard and made Barbolak a regular performer on the spot.
Still new to the comedy scene, another comic had to explain to Barbolak what being a regular performer meant and tell her about the free parking lot comedians could use (“I used to walk a mile when I’d go there every night,” Barbolak said).
The second thing was Barbolak’s parents decided to sell their carpet store and retire. Barbolak could either buy the store or use some of the money from the sale to pursue comedy full time.
She chose the latter option and hasn’t looked back since.
In 2007, Nick at Nite viewers named Barbolak the funniest mom in America, a title that came with a $50,000 prize.
That money kept Barbolak and her family secure for another few years, but she still wasn’t getting a lot of attention from industry folks in L.A.
Which is where “America’s Got Talent” came in.
Barbolak auditioned after an insistent friend told her the producers would like her. Once on the show, Barbolak was initially not a fan of the idea of writing two-minute segments, instead wanting to be freer and thinking back to comedian Bill Hicks’ idea that material is what you fall back on when you run out of things to say.
But she eventually found the opportunity to be an exercise in paying more attention to detail in her sets.
After several weeks of giving each set everything she had, Barbolak made it to the finals, placing in the top 10.
Since the show ended in September, Barbolak has been on the road non stop, sharing her “Trailer Nasty” comedy with audiences all over the country.
“I feel like I give everybody a big hug and I think people need a real hug right now…” she said. “My struggles in my life has been that girl who walked into the comedy class with three books so people would think I was smart. That’s who I was before I started stand up. Learning stand up made me know myself and I was the last person I ever wanted to get to know so I think that is my core message is no matter what we are, who we are, if we open up to each other, lay it down who we are, we’re all equal. We’re all deserving of love and able to give love.”
Barbolak performed with her fellow “America’s Got Talent” finalists in Las Vegas earlier this month and has performances around the country booked through May.
She’d like to eventually make her way to Canada, England and Australia, and there are quite a few television development deals on the table.
“Those are the things: television, doing stand up, always keeping a little time for my family because they’re the most important thing,” she said in regards to her future plans. “I was sexty last year and I was sad that I wasn’t sexty anymore but this year I’m so happy because now I’m sexty-one. Even better! So it’s going to be a great year.”