That two minutes of stand-up — a wry whirlwind that covered the evils of uncomfortable undergarments, the unreasonable rules governing conjugal visits at Donovan state prison and why you should always save your drinking for when the kids get home — earned the 60-year-old Barbolak a standing ovation from the studio audience and giddy “Yes” votes from all four celebrity judges. Even Simon Cowell, who called her, “an absolute little star.”
It also earned her safe passage to the Judge Cuts round, which she also passed with a standing ovation and a green flag to head on to the first live show, which airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on NBC. Barbolak is not too proud to say that she really, really hopes you will vote for her, even if she sort of feels like she’s won big already.
“I never saw something like this happening for me,” Barbolak said by phone during a rehearsal break last week. “The day I was waiting to see if I made the cut for the auditions, I thought they had given all the spots away. I’ve had that happen so many times. When they told me I had passed through, I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s finally happening.’ I was just so relieved.”
She learned to be funny early in life, because when you are a fat kid whose family moves around a lot, funny can be the only thing that saves you. It wasn’t until she was a single mother heading into her 40s that Barbolak thought maybe comedy could be good for something more than self-defense. But even that life-changing revelation took its sweet time in showing up.
For most of her adult life, Barbolak worked at Carpets Etc., the Oceanside carpet store her parents owned. When her folks retired in the mid-1990s, Barbolak opted not to take over the family business. So the store was sold to someone else, and Barbolak was out of a job and living in a Vista trailer park with her two daughters.
That $11,000 trailer was the family’s saving grace, because it allowed her to do what she did next. At the advanced age of 38, Barbolak went to a stand-up comedy class. This was not what you’d call a no-brainer. Unless by “no-brainer” you mean a decision that you’d have to be out of your mind to make.
In addition to being almost 40, Barbolak was shy. And mostly broke. And a single mom with no job prospects. It was not the optimal formula for success. But the class was great. The friends she made in the class were great. The first time she performed was great.
After that, it was a bit of a learning curve.
“I loved my first performance. It was so much fun to make people laugh. My next performance was horrendously bad, and I went on to bomb for three years. It snuck up on me that it could be a career.”
Barbolak and her daughters survived those early years because the trailer was paid for and trailer-space rental was cheap. They survived because they bought all of their clothes at thrift stores and Barbolak would spend her meager comedy earnings on Trader Joe’s gift certificates so there would always be food in the house.
What finally gave Barbolak an edge was the interest of Comedy Store owner Mitzi Shore. The comedy maven was at the La Jolla Comedy Store to see San Diego-born comedian Bobby Lee when she saw Barbolak hanging out at the bar. Shore liked her look and told the Powers That Be to let her go on.
She was a hit, and Shore — who passed away earlier this year — made Barbolak a paid Comedy Store regular. What followed was more than a decade of recognition that included being named the “Funniest Mom in America” by Nick at Night, joining Jay Leno’s NBC Laugh Squad and performing with the “Funniest Housewives of Orange County” comedy troupe.
It got better, but it not necessarily easier. Even as people were comparing her to giants like Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller, money was still tight. The stand-up circuit was still a grind. And Barbolak still loved it beyond a reasonable doubt.
“It was the only thing I wanted to do,” said Barbolak, who now lives in a trailer in Oceanside. “And it’s still the only thing I want to do.”
Which brings us to “America’s Got Talent” and a routine Barbolak hopes will take her to the next round. She’ll have to keep it short, but what this late-blooming comedian lacks in time she will make up for in inspiration. She’s got tons of that.
“I have been hearing from people all over the world, and so many of them are saying, ‘I’ve been feeling down, and your comedy lifts me up.’ The positivity people have expressed is so overwhelming to me. I’m just going to keep all of these notes in my heart and I’m going to make the performance about them and not about me.”