Greer Barnes has a joke about a horse—auspiciously, seeing that his last name connotes a place to keep one. Depending upon the room, or his mood, the horse can gallop down a number of paths. The animal is always carrying a cop: sometimes the two are posing for pictures, sometimes they’re attempting to thwart a bank robbery, and at other times the policeman’s order of arrest is greeted with derision. The bit is more than a joke, unfolding enough to properly be called an anecdote or a yarn. Several things are outstanding about the horse bit. There’s sound: the verisimilitudinous clip-clop of hoofs on pavement, the drilling of the bank robbers at the safe, the ladylike, kittenish voice of “Sugarcake” the horse; physical comedy: the horse lifting a leg to quiet his hoofs as they approach the bank, the cop sitting astride his “vehicle,” the robber hunched over his drill; and absurd or atavistic remarks: the horse who blames his clip-clopping on his ugly shoes, or the Django remark of a black man on the street that prompts a stinging slave voice—“Mr. Lincoln says I’s free.”
Barnes is not a political comic in the manner of Lewis Black or Dave Chappelle, though he is hardly aloof from the racial politics of the moment—or the last three hundred years, for that matter. He often starts a show talking about how uncomfortable he is following white women on the street. A voice comes out (of his mouth, though the way Barnes projects it, it’s the Jiminy Cricket of danger on his shoulder) that warns, like a seatbelt ding: “Uh-oh, a white woman.” But compared alongside the likes of Lewis Black and Dave Chappelle—the former, an avowed socialist; the latter, a social critic—Barnes’s comedy operates on a much gentler plane. He doesn’t yell on stage; his shtick is to play the part of a laissez-faire observer, someone who watches the world pass by more than accost it. He uses his precise physical movements, which in some jokes, or sketches, are nearly acrobatic, to counterbalance his guffaw and his cool and rambling posture.
Greer Barnes is to 50 what Bruce Springsteen is to 66. That is to say, he is blessed with the elixir of the fountain of youth (which, in his case, happens to be Jameson whiskey). He looks fifteen years younger than his age, and he has a stomach more reminiscent of a 20-year-old college student than a mid-career stand-up comic. In fact, Barnes almost became a professional athlete. At 19, he was invited to try out with the San Francisco Giants but failed to follow through; his mother and stepfather were going through a divorce at the time. Barnes grew up with a funny mother and sister, and his comic idols were Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, but he couldn’t see a clear path to comedy.
When I called him a few days prior to arrange the interview and suggested we meet at a place he likes to hang out—I meant a place that was not in the comedy orbit—Barnes immediately suggested The Olive Tree Café. This is hardly a place outside the comedy orbit, but perhaps it’s as far as Barnes, who has lived and breathed comedy for thirty years, will stray:The Olive Tree is the restaurant attached to The Comedy Cellar, the legendary Greenwich Village comedy club, where he likes to take a seat at the bar and face the bartenders, bar-backs, and the TV. You can tell this is Greer’s MO because, while many come up to say hello, all seem to instinctively know not to linger—it’s rare that Greer gets involved in anything resembling a chat.
I want to know how Barnes started out, so he tells me that, after his baseball career went bust, he almost joined the army. “I had no job and my mother was telling me, ‘You better get a job or join the military.’” Barnes is not a schmoozer. He’s perfectly happy to end a story on a completely illogical note. Such as now, for instance: “And my boys came and got me.” It is a job to convince him to fill in the details.
“I went down to the army recruiting office and it was same-day ship-out.” This is right before the Gulf War. “They put us on buses, like 200 at a time, and we got out to JFK. There were thousands of us in this one area. And they had us in these rooms and there was this one dude I was talking to him and I had him laughing his ass off.”
Barnes told him that what he really wanted to do wasn’t kill an enemy, but a crowd. The guy said, “Yo, man, you should get the fuck out of there. Don’t do this shit. Go through that door.” The door led to the public areas of JFK.
“They were taking us in 200 at a time—‘Group B, Group C, Group D, boom!’—and they were swearing us in.” Then, presumably, the men were shipped out to bases around the country. “I walked through that door and I was back behind something—I had to find my way back into the normal part of the airport.” This was pre-cellphones, so Barnes called his friends—they were home getting high—and told them to pick him up. 25 minutes later, as Barnes heard his name being called over the loudspeaker, the would-be Private stepped into an overpacked, pot smoke-filled car and sped off toward home on 94th and Columbus on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
That decision to pursue a career in comedy—even though Barnes didn’t know how to do it, only that he wanted to—was a momentous one. “That was probably the time when I was like, OK. Stand-up comedy is all I really had. And I saw guys doing it and doing it well.” He cut his teeth performing that summer. On one fortuitous afternoon in the months following his near-enlistment, Barnes and his friends were walking down Columbus Avenue—he thinks they may have been on acid—“and there were these two white dudes there. They were out there with a mouse amp, they had two mics, and they were doing stand-up. There were about 80 people there.” Barnes was in the crowd making people laugh, when one of the white guys pulled him up on stage.
“I killed. All I remember is that I had an impression of Eddie Murphy. And that’s all I had. I used to meet those guys out there every Friday and Saturday that summer and do standup.” When September rolled around, one of the organizers took Barnes aside and said, “You were really great. But we have an Eddie Murphy already. We could use a Greer Barnes.”
“That shattered my entire system.”
A few nights later, I meet Barnes again at The Olive Tree, where he’ll begin his night with an 8:30 p.m. set downstairs at The Cellar. When he goes on, he kills—I’ve never seen him give a bad show—but this evening he races offstage after about 8 minutes. From the walkie-talkie of one of the bouncers we hear, “Greer, they need you.” He’s due to go on any minute around the corner at The Village Underground, a room that’s owned by the same group as The Cellar. We run up MacDougal Street and turn the corner onto West 3rd. We pass a parking garage and one of the attendants shouts out a familiar greeting of “Hey, man!”
I have the feeling Barnes does a lot of this: sometimes he’ll do four, five, six shows a night, racing back and forth from comedy club to comedy club, gauging his act not only on the crowd, but the clock, too. We’ve got a few minutes once we’re inside The Underground. Comedian Lynne Koplitz is just finishing up a set—she’s killing with rape jokes. Koplitz and Greer of course know each other, and they both had the honor of being named by Louis CK recently as two of his favorite comics. Koplitz’s set has gone long, so the host rushes through what’s supposed to be a few minutes of in-between time and introduces Barnes, who is soon onstage, starting over for the second time that night.
He nearly always begins by pumping his fist half-heartedly in the air, like he’s not sure if he’s supposed to be at a Black Panther meeting, and letting out a deflated, “Yeah.” But this time is different. Though Barnes seems to be hitting all his marks, he doesn’t seem to have the audience. As far as I can tell he’s not done anything differently, yet the laughs were bigger, more in synch, just half an hour ago. Finally the audience comes around and everything seems more at ease. When we walk back to the Cellar, Greer immediately comments on the rocky start: The host hadn’t allowed for enough time between him and Koplitz. Koplitz’s jokes were still fresh in the crowd’s mind. There was no lull in the action, and, as he puts it, the host hadn’t started a new chapter. Koplitz stands at the front of the stage, shooting rapid-fire bullets. The audience needed time to adjust to Barnes’s leisurely pace and relaxed demeanor.
When we sat down for our interview, I’d asked Barnes if there was a moment when he realized how to make a joke work. We’d been talking about how young comics show their nerve on stage and I wanted to know, at what point did he get over that? Does he still get nervous? He told me, “I don’t like to do stand-up until I get up on stage.” Though it took him a while to even be able to say that.
“I’d been doing it for a lot of years, it was around my ninth or tenth year, and I was in bed. I had just come home, I’d had really good sets. I don’t know what happened but I was dozing and I just snapped up because I was like, ‘Oh my god, I get it. I found my rhythm. I found my style. I got all these jokes and I know how to do them. I know how to continuously flow.’” That’s all: no neurotic soul-searching, no all-consuming analysis, but a zen-like moment that simply came to him one night in bed.
There are comedians who rely heavily on the one-liners and unconnected riffs in an almost dizzying jab performance; Greer is more like a Mayweather, floating and feinting. That’s his style, that’s his flow. He can take a joke four or five different directions, and often does, but the segueways, when they are there, are easy. You don’t notice them. It’s not like he’s straining to make a connection between bits—and if there is none, Barnes has learned not to worry about that. When he was younger he was always trying to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B. Now, after thirty years on stage, he’s realized that sometimes the best way to segue into a new joke is to just make a clean break of it. There is nothing tying the horse bit to whatever follows it, but each piece is good enough to exist on its own, and when one is done, it’s almost as if Greer puts a little wrapper on it, ties it back up, pushes it to the side of the stage, and says, “Next.”
The third performance of the night is back at the Cellar. I stay upstairs while Barnes performs his set. I talk with Barnes’s friend Matt Lipton, himself a comic and producer (of, among other things, Greer’s 2014 album See What I’m Saying). Lipton tells me the story behind Barnes’ much-loved ping pong joke—I won’t spoil it, but in the joke, two brothers are playing ping pong on the streets of Harlem when somebody reports them for being suspicious. When Greer does this piece, he punctuates his sentences with astoundingly perfect sounds, pings and pongs, as if the Chinese national team was playing on some hidden TV. The ball goes back and forth in a decent volley until at the punchline, or really, instead of a punchline, the pings grow fainter, quicker, as if the ball has fallen off the table and is now rolling away. The joke comes together at this point in an almost surreal moment of giddy brilliance, and there’s a pause of four or five seconds before the audience realizes what has happened. This is the end of the joke, and Barnes has left you here to figure it out on your own.
But Barnes doesn’t perform the ping pong bit. In fact, he doesn’t do the joke that often, and Lipton explains why: it came out of real life. One day, as he was on his way to a show, Barnes left his apartment in Harlem and actually saw two guys playing ping pong on the street. And by the time he got to The Cellar, the joke had created itself. It’s a joke that doesn’t have the sweat of writes and rewrites behind it; it’s a perfectly formed mass that fell from the heavens like manna. Barnes does not like the taste of free food.
Nevertheless, at the final performance of the night, at the Helen Mills Theater on 26th Street, where Barnes is the closer in a standup special that bills itself as “The New York Show,” he does the ping pong joke. And it kills. Despite the uncomfortable (for Barnes) provenance of the bit, it’s just too good not to tell on this night, as he’s finishing up for the evening, with an audience that’s eating out of his hands. The crowd is with him every step of the way, after he talks about cops on horses and aliens who take away black people and Barack Obama deep-sea diving; they laugh in all the right places, he’s slaughtering them, he’s the lord of the room, and he makes a split-second decision: Let them eat manna.
Greer Barnes credits include Louis C.K.’s Horace and Pete, Top Five, For Love of the Game, Chappelle’s Show, In Living Color, Comedy Central Presents, Last Comic Standing, and Colin Quinn’s Cop Show. You can see him perform regularly at the famed Comedy Cellar in New York City’s West Village.
Ross Ufberg is a writer and translator based in New York City. He is cofounder of New Vessel Press.