Tim Barnes Finds His Voice
A small afro appears above the overcrowded line inside the South Loop Cuban sandwich shop Cafecito, bobbing through the café like a tumbleweed in the desert. Comedian Tim Barnes waits anxiously for the line to shorten, but it’s not budging. He grows tired, walks out the door and darts over to the nearby Dairy Queen.
“My girlfriend’s a vegan. I’ve been dying for a burger anyway,” He jokes with the cashier like they’re catching up at a high school reunion. It is this type of casual small talk that makes Barnes so good at what he does as host of his comedy-based podcast It’s All True, produced at WBEZ Chicago. Interviewing comedians ranging from local open mic comics to nationally renowned comedians like Wyatt Cenac, Barnes makes small talk seem like a second language. Although he can be deadpan and aloof during his standup, he’s made a much friendlier name for himself in the podcasting world.
As the popularity of comedy podcasts continues to grow, thanks to shows like Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist and WTF with Marc Maron, it’s an obvious choice for Barnes to follow fellow comedians and start his own show. But, according to Barnes, it was just something he fell into, like how he fell into doing comedy.
“I moved [from California to Chicago in 2012] with no real focus, nothing in particular, not even really comedy. It’s hard to figure out how to transition from it being a hobby to something you do to try to make a living,” says Barnes. “The worst part of standup is admitting that you actually crave that sort of attention.” He’s modest about his rise in the Chicago comedy scene; however, he was named one of Chicago magazine’s “16 Chicago Comics You Should Check Out” in 2014.
After moving to Chicago, Barnes volunteered at WBEZ, “just so I could get a feel for the city and feel like I was doing stuff,” he says. While volunteering, Barnes ran into comedian and radio personality Brian Babylon, who took him under his wing.
Barnes hung around the same comedy clubs and spots Babylon did, and eventually Babylon asked Barnes who he was. “One day I saw him at Town Hall Pub and I was like ‘Yo man, what is your name?’ and just asked him what his deal was,” Babylon says. Barnes told Babylon he’d always wanted to work with Ira Glass and intern at This American Life, but Babylon had a different plan for the young comic. “I was like, ‘Man, get your own podcast and do your own [thing].’ So, I gave him an internship at WBEZ, and it was just like that.”
Their relationship doesn’t end outside the WBEZ studios. Babylon says he is a part of the family in a way, with Barnes’ parents often thanking him for what he has done for their son. “[Barnes’ mother] sends me all these thank you emails with the religious twists like ‘It was nothing but Jesus that brought me into Tim’s life.’ If you ask our moms they’d agree, but it was really just the right place at the right time,” says Babylon. “I know talent pretty quick, and I know when people have something and when people don’t. Tim always had it to me.”
Barnes tries not to get too star-struck when interviewing famous comedians. The way he sees it, they’re all just people sitting down for a chat — even though it may only be for publicity. “At the end of the day, the people you’re interviewing are there to promote something bigger. It’s not like [they’re] sitting down with Marc Maron to unload all of this information about [their] life.”
“I wanted it to feel very much as if we just went out to get lunch, had a conversation and then, ‘Oh yeah, did you hear this crazy thing that happened to me?’”
On his podcast and in person Barnes makes every conversation seem natural. His soft-spoken voice, infectious laugh and affection for comedy give off the feeling that he’s an old friend just telling you about his day.
When it comes to Barnes’ standup style, however, he thrives on the awkwardness. Citing comedic influences like the anxiety-riddled Woody Allen and the clever monotone one-liners of Steven Wright, Barnes tells jokes that settle in with an audience, long after the punch line is told.
“Sometimes they won’t even notice I said a joke until some laughter trickles in a few seconds later. I just love that feeling. I want to be the Steven Wright of the black club. I want them to think, ‘This guy’s crazy, but he’s still funny,’” Barnes says.
Looking forward, Barnes says that he wants to keep doing the podcast while pursuing other comedy-related opportunities. He’s considering a move to New York. “I want to see if it’s still possible to do a show when I’m not in Chicago,” Barnes says. “I just love having all these different projects centered around standup.”
Barnes, who dropped out of college to pursue a career in standup, said dropping out was the best decision he’s ever made.
“It really is like the Wild West in terms of, for the most part, I don’t have to show a degree to prove my worth,” Barnes says. “I got into standup after I quit college, and it was the best feeling in the world. You just gotta do it. You have to be very confident that it’s going to work out.”
As a guy who simply fell into the podcasting and comedy scene of Chicago, he knows what he’s talking about.
Photo by Jennifer Murphy.