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Monday, June 21, 2010

Irwin Barker, RIP

Do you believe in the subconscious? I think deep down we all do.
The funniest guy in the world named Irwin has passed away.

Irwin Barker succumbed to cancer three years after doctors gave him one year to live back in 2007. It's a sad day for comedy. Irwin was not only one of the best – if not the best – joke writers in the country, he was a class act, as well. We were spoiled in Vancouver for years when he lived here. I can't count the number of times I saw him over the years and it was always a joy – especially if I was bringing someone new to live and local comedy to the show. And as funny as he was on stage, he was as kind and polite off-stage.

He was an enigma, too. Here was a middle-aged stand-up comedian with virtually no charisma, no schtick, no energy... and he destroyed everywhere. I'm not exaggerating here. Obviously an older guy in a suit with some good jokes and a brain is going to do well on the CBC or in theatres. But I used to sit in fear at the back of Urban Well on a night the crowd was particularly drunk, young, trendy, and rambunctious, after they've spit up younger, hipper comics. I'd fear for Irwin, a gentle soul if there ever was one. And there was never a reason to. He'd get up there, hem and haw about feeling like a dad coming down to the rec room and miraculously everyone would sit up and take notice. And he'd get them. Every time.

In one ill-advised booking, the Trailer Park Boys were doing their first show in Vancouver, at the Vogue Theatre as part of the comedy festival. Organizers put them on as hosts bringing out an array of comedians of varying styles. But the people were there to see the Trailer Park Boys and had no patience for anyone else. They were the rowdiest crowd I've ever seen. The great Andy Kindler was literally booed off the stage. I sat through both shows. When it was Irwin's time, I again got that feeling in my stomach. How could he possibly tame this beast of a crowd? But he did. Out of all the ten or 15 comics on the bill (and there were some really good ones), he did by far the best, just doing his thing.

My neighbour had a coming-out-of-the-closet party. It was fun. It was just the two of us, though, which was awkward.
Once a friend's younger brother, who was a bit of a partyer and boozer, e-mailed me after he and some buddies went to Yuk Yuk's one night. This kid didn't routinely go out to live comedy, but he knew I did so made a point of writing me. He wrote, "I saw some guy named Irwin last night. Funniest guy I've ever seen in my life." It was then that I realized that the strength of Irwin's material, and his dry delivery and lack of pretense, was enough to win over any crowd, anywhere.

I got into a big argument with a friend of mine over the meaning of semantics.
Irwin was a guest on What's So Funny? twice, the first time in 2005 and the second after he had been diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma. Both chats were low-key but illuminating. He had such insight and knowledge of comedy and the process. I found it fascinating to learn how he writes. He could do seven minutes on raisins and it was killer. He said he just researched a topic – any topic – and started writing an essay. A non-funny high school-type essay. Then, when he was done, he'd go back, punch it up and edit it down. Maybe that's too labour intensive for some, but the proof is in his act. This Sunday (June 27th) on the show, we will play clips from his two appearances on the show and we'll hear some of Irwin's act, as well.
My aunt is a perfect combination of fatalist and optimist. She fell down and broke her leg, and just laid there going, "Am I ever glad that's over with."
Irwin also taught me, indirectly, that there's no such thing as a hack premise – only hack jokes or comics. He could take the hackiest premise, such as airport security or pilots or Costco, and bring a fresh and original take to them. And hilarious. That always helps.

A couple months after his diagnosis, Irwin returned to Vancouver to perform at Balthazar's. He was as bald as a cueball from chemo so needless to say his health was the proverbial elephant in the room. He diffused the tension with some barbs at his condition. "One year. That's what the doctor says. He says I have twelve months," he started as we sat there not knowing how to react. "But my lawyer thinks he can get it down to eight months." But he quickly got down to his regular act. And again, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. As things were rolling along near the end of his set, he finally feigned some bitterness over his condition: "Why couldn't this have happened to a hack? They're going to take my jokes as soon as I'm gone, I know it."
My cousin has a serious gambling problem so much so that his wife left him. He called me up and he’s trying to win her back.
They better not. I think it was because of his medical best-before date that he decided to go out swinging. He kept his job as a staff writer for the CBC (who mercifully transferred him from This Hour Has 22 Minutes, which taped in Halifax, to The Rick Mercer Report, which taped in Toronto, so he could get the treatment he needed) and continued doing standup. When he played Yuk Yuk's in 2008, as tired as he was, he made no mention of his illness. He said he didn't want to make it awkward for people who just came to the club for a laugh. I surreptitiously recorded his set on my iPod just for my own enjoyment, knowing he wouldn't be around forever. It was soon after that he recorded and released a DVD so the world now has a record of his brilliance. And no hacks can steal his words.


Anonymous said...

I remember Irwin as a 11 year old kid back in Winnipeg, going to the same church as me.

I had that same dry humor, although not quite so refined. He will be missed by all of us who knew him even a little bit.


Anonymous said...

I worked as a waiter at a Winnipeg comedy club in the early 90s before he moved to Vancouver. Irwin performed there countless times. I knew all his jokes, but they were no less funny each time he told them. Great comedian, great guy - he'll be sadly missed.

Anonymous said...

I had the pleasure of working with Irwin before he started doing comedy full-time. He was a serious statistics guy for a public opinion polling firm - we went on a trip to do some research together in Halifax and it was there that he brought me to Yuk Yuk's to get to know his other side. A brilliant mind who deconstructed humour mechanically to its basic elements - almost like a math formula - sheer genius. A modest and kind person as well - he has surely left his mark.

Anonymous said...

What sad news. What a wonderful comedian. Irwin Barker proved that smart, funny and dry can't just coexist; they can feed off each other to create something special.

I only saw him perform a couple of times, but both stand out among my most enjoyable moments taking in stand up. I'll miss Irwin Barker.

Thanks, Guy, for an excellent tribute.

Anonymous said...

The Vogue Show, I was Irwin's guest along with my aunt in the front row. The SECURITY people were freaked out.. and Irwin just wandered on stage..seemingly without a care... and completely tamed them. I think they thought he was Bubble's long lost father! :-)

Do you remember the "bear" story. He taped it for the Leno people at the Vancouver Comedy Fest.. oh how he could weave the comedy through. Take you on this comedic journey and bring you right back around before you even realized what he was doing.

He was a Master! I felt so bad at that taping. I had surprised him not knowing what was going on. I wasn't able to go to an earlier show that day. He was happy to see me with a big kiss and all but when he slipped it up.. I felt like it was my fault.

Taking on the Trailer Park Boy rowdies but an adoring woman might have made him nervous.

I am sure he is loving all this fanfare and attention.... even though he is gone. He's playing poker with his buddies I am sure.

My sincere condolences to his family, wife and friends.

Guy MacPherson said...

His bear routine is one of my all-time favourite Irwin bits. But there are so many to choose from.

Jozee said...

I'm a little late coming to this thread, but was just thinking about Irwin and stumbled on this blog. Irwin had just done a stint teaching statistics at the U of M and was fleshing out his stand-up when I met him. He became a cherished buddy. I'd accompany him to many of his out of town engagements and watch in awe as he honed his talent.
Such a funny dude; his mind was able to disconnect from a situation to see another spin on it; often so subtle, at times it went over my head for a moment. Not saying I don't always have all the chairs at the table, just that his clever wit took such a sharp detour -- and kept me chuckling. How much sweeter the world would be if most of us saw the humour in it that he did?
I've heard Bruce Clark talk about how generous Irwin was with other comics starting out at his club, offering tips to help them. I'll admit part of me also wished to be a comedian. He was generous enough to tell me I wasn't funny and save me years of failure.
On stage Irwin may have come across as a very sweet man, but I can tell you he was actually sweeter in person. Sharp and real, no pretenses, never mean;... especially if you didn't get it. Irwin was a natural teacher: always genuinely interested in helping others.  
Irwin Barker left his mark on me as I'm sure he did for many people whose path he crossed. He probably never knew the impact he had on people. Sometimes I'll hear his own style of delivery in another young comedian trying it on for size. I smile, but think, "sorry buddy; there's only one Irwin."