America’s Got Talent: The Champions will air on January 7 and features a cavalcade of top AGT contestants from around the world.
One of those competing is America’s funniest mom, Vicki Barbolak, an earthy, trailer-loving wisecracker who is also an ordained minister. She shared with us her favorite judge, Simon Cowell, especially because of his “pillowy shoulders.” [read on!]
Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Terry Crews is set to host this special champions special. He said: “I am so proud and honored to join Simon, Mel [B], Heidi [Klum] and Howie [Mandel] in hosting the #1 alternative series on television.
“NBC’s America’s Got Talent is a show I love to watch with my family and now to actually be a part of this special edition, The Champions, is more than I could have asked or dreamed. Now America’s Got Terry Crews!”
Vicki Barbolak was an AGT 2018 finalist who coined the catch-phrase “trailer nasty,” and she is a tough competitor who we learned was given a leg up in the comedy world by the late great Mitzi Shore of Los Angeles-based Comedy Store fame on the Sunset Strip.
Not just American AGT winners and finalists are taking part in The Champions showdown — Barbolak will face some of the best of Britain too, like Susan Boyle, the Britain’s Got Talent 2009 finalist who grabbed world headlines, as well as Nessun Dorma operatic singer Paul Potts who stunned everyone in the 2007 Britain’s Got Talent are also there to compete.
There are dozens of other competitors also taking part. Most are from the U.S. and U.K., but others are from as far away as South Africa and Russia.
We spoke to Vicki about her career — and the stiff competition she’s facing in America’s Got Talent: The Champions.
Monsters and Critics: It’s a funny thing. America is so much more than the Los Angeles comedy market, and there are really great comedians. If you can get on The Bob & Tom Show as Drew Hastings did, and Latin Diva Monique Marvez…people have money in America to go see comedians. You resonate with people, I don’t know if you feel that way…
Vicki Barbolak: I absolutely do feel that way. I think my comedy style’s always been really universal. It’s super universal because it’s all about the underdogs, and just embracing life as an underdog.
Anyone who feels like that sees me, and that’s my whole truth. Even though I might be everything you shouldn’t be, I’m still super happy about it.
M&C: There’s a lot of sevens in your career milestones. You had moments in 1997, you had moments in 2007, and you had big moments in 2017…
Vicki Barbolak: Yeah, it was just one year that changed everything — before you have kids and after you have kids, it’s completely different the next year. 2007, that was the same year as [I won] the Nick at Nite “Funniest Mom” award, which was really a great thing because, mainly, I was so poor.
That was a $50,000 win. I’m afraid that meant more to me than anything — because we were just so poor. We could stretch that $50,000 into another few years of living.
It didn’t change my life in terms of the industry, though, because they’d still look at me like I’m still just a fat, old mom. It didn’t give me any breakthrough in Los Angeles whatsoever. No one would lift a finger to answer the phone after I won that. I was surprised by it, but nothing happened.
Vicki Barbolak: Yeah, it’s just a bunch of women on a mom show. They couldn’t care less.
M&C: Was it [Comedy Store owner] Mitzi Shore that changed things and opened doors for you?
Vicki Barbolak: Honestly, Mitzi is the one who made me be able to do comedy. She was the one person in Los Angeles who ever believed in me, and she mentored me like she did everyone else.
She put me through the rigours of having the terrible spots after Chris Rock. Then, every few months, she would give you a good spot and say “Oh, I just wanted you to know where you were.” She took me under her wing, but she started doing that about four years after I started stand-up.
Until she got sick, she was a huge advocate of mine. She said “I’m gonna put your name on the wall, next to Robin Williams, above the meeting room. That’s very special.” She really was a huge believer in me.
I didn’t start until I was 38 years old. Even open mics. Let me see, Mitzi found me when I was about 42. I was in the Comedy Store in La Jolla one day, and they never gave me spots there.
I’d go there every Sunday and bring baked goods, but they didn’t give me a spot until she looked at me and she said: “Put her on.”
The manager of that store didn’t know that I’d been working really hard for four years, at every bar I could find, at every open mic in San Diego. I had put together a pretty good set. Mitzi saw it and she immediately, that night, made me a regular in Hollywood.
I didn’t even know what that was. I didn’t even know what that meant. Bobby Lee was there that night, he explained it to me, how that means I go to Los Angeles. She believed in me, but there were very few men in LA, basically none, that ever would have taken me on. You know Budd [Friedman]?
Vicki Barbolak: I was working at the Pechanga Comedy Club a lot. The manager there told him that I was selling out the rooms, and I was so hilarious. He said “show me a picture of her,” and they did have a terrible picture of me, but still I’m not that pretty anyway.
But it was one of the worst pictures ever and he showed it to Budd, and Budd goes “forget it.”
I’m not saying this to be resentful or anything, but there was just no doors opening. It wasn’t until the TV series, America’s Got Talent, where they couldn’t help but open the doors because that show has such a huge reach, that America just forced Los Angeles into looking at me in a different way. That’s been the hugest thing ever.
M&C: Just circling back on tough rooms to get into, I know Mike Lacy’s Comedy and Magic Club is a hard room to get into, as well. Was he helpful at all?
Vicki Barbolak: Early on, I was more out there as a woman comic than other women were at the time, and now I’m so tame compared to the younger women coming up today.
But, I was known as kind of [having] a broad kind of humor. It is highly rumored that that club [Comedy and Magic Club] was extremely clean. Roseanne [Barr] worked out [comedy routines] there…but I don’t even want to go there if I have to be limited in what I want to do creatively.
That [the fact the club was said to be “clean”] might have been something that wasn’t necessarily true, but that’s just something I believed in my head.
So, I’ve never showcased there. I’ve never gone to that club. Although, now, I would like to. People tell me it’s really fun, and I’m going to, but I’m afraid I never reached out to them at all.
M&C: I love these later-in-life career epiphanies and success stories when people realize what they’re really meant to do and they really do it well. It’s hard for women.
Vicki Barbolak: Absolutely. Every woman in every field, the cards are not stacked in our favor, because…for all the reasons we already know. A lot of [those reasons] are just the camaraderie between males and the power that they have.
I know it’s changing…glacially… but things do change. It is changing, but still…one right now [that I am dealing with], he’s a big booker in Las Vegas who I know, [he] actually texted me that he didn’t like to put two women on the same show when I asked for a friend of mine to open for me. I’m like “Really? Do you want to put that in a text?”
“No problem, absolutely,” he put [that] in a text. That still goes on, right now.
I feel like I always knew that I was funny because audiences have told me that, comics told me that, but I just honestly never … I didn’t have the backbone in me to fight Los Angeles.
One person told me “no”, and that was enough for a year of “nos”. I just wasn’t that person. If I had been more of a fighter…like, Leslie Jones told me once when the Comedy Store got taken over by this guy that took over after Mitzi got sick, and he just pushed all the old people out. He pushed Joey Diaz, and myself.
He’s like, “No, you guys gotta make room for the new comics.” Leslie Jones goes “You oughta go up there and fight.”
I’m like, “Uh-uh.” I didn’t fight. So, for me to be back at the Comedy Store, and the new people that are there have embraced me, that meant more to me than anything.
My personality, just my whole sense of worth, I guess, was so precarious in general that I wouldn’t fight. That’s almost a detriment, but it’s just who I was. But, I did not stop working to get good.
I always had this plan that I got from Steve Martin in his books, he said to get so good [that] they can’t ignore you. That was my plan, and then I thought…maybe Steve Martin was wrong? So, I was just so grateful for what America’s Got Talent did for someone like me.
M&C: I read that you might be going around with the design team and un-trashing trailers. Is that true or false?
Vicki Barbolak: There’s a bunch of people right now, talking in Los Angeles, about different projects. I will be happy with whatever is put on the table, but I’m really excited because there’s a lot of interest in a bunch of different production companies and people on doing shows with me.
We’re just sorting through them and seeing what’s going to go to the top and what’s going to happen.
I kind of feel like, when one of them will, whichever one it is, it’s going to definitely involve trailers. Being in entertainment, because…or not, because who knows? It is just, so much, my brand. It’s who I am. I’ve been in a trailer for almost 30 years, so I know it’s me.
M&C: What’s the biggest misconception of trailers? Trailers have million-dollar views in Malibu. There’s a trailer park overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway. Killer views.
Vicki Barbolak: There are so many beautiful trailer parks. There’s still a bunch of trailer parks that are not glamorous like that [but] I find beauty in every trailer park. I love every trailer park at sunset.
I like walking around almost every trailer park and looking at the way the light hits the aluminum. I’m nuts, but I think trailer parks are super romantic.
Now they are getting really hip. Hipsters are buying trailers in all different places. It’s pretty amazing. Trailer parks are, right now…for some reason, trailers are super cool. I bought my cousin a trailer gingerbread house. It was made out of a trailer, the kit. Trailers are everywhere.
I’ve always loved them, but people look down upon them because they think “Oh if you live in a trailer park, you’re a total trash bin.” Answers depend on what kind of people you like.
I think I’d rather hang out with trailer people than people in a lot of different gated communities if you know what I mean?
M&C: I like “real” people, and I’m sure you do, too. Alright, America’s Got Talent: The Champions is coming January 7th on NBC. Tell us about that.
Vicki Barbolak: On my particular first night, I was with [Scottish singer and past champion] Susan Boyle and several other amazing people. I couldn’t speak to Susan Boyle. I kept practicing but then by the time I’d get to her, I’d spaz out and I couldn’t talk to her.
It was really fun, getting back to see the AGT people again, to see Simon [Cowell] and Howie [Mandel] and Heidi [Klum]. Was Heidi there? I forgot if Heidi was there. Yeah, I think she was. But, definitely, Simon and I’m sure [that] Howie was there. Yes, Heidi was there.
To see Howie and Simon and the judges, I felt really honored to be picked out of all the people that have been on the show, all the years, and they picked me. It was a big thrill.
M&C: Yeah. It’s interesting. Susan Boyle, she was another late-in-life amazing story. Like Paul Potts, they just open their mouths and something amazing, either funny or beautiful music, comes out. Who’s your favorite judge? Be honest.
Vicki Barbolak: Well, Simon. I’ve never said that out loud before, but I’ll tell you. There’s something about his shoulders.
M&C: Okay. Just that they’re large, or muscular?
Vicki Barbolak: They’re so beautiful. They’re like pillows of perfection.
M&C: That’s going to be in the headline of this interview. ‘Pillows of perfection.’
Vicki Barbolak: Go ahead. Why not be real?
America’s Got Talent: The Champions premieres Monday, Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. on NBC.
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