Lee native Kevin Bartini warms up Comedy Central's audiences
Recently, Lee native Kevin Bartini stood up in front of a roomful of strangers in New York City and started rattling off jokes, including the one about the high price of fitness.
"I'm trying to get in shape," he said. "I can't afford that. I live in the Upper West Side, and the gym in my neighborhood is $150 per month. I figured it out on a pad of paper — that comes out to $150 per visit. When you're paying those prices, you want to see results."
But it wasn't his first time. Bartini knew at the age of 6 that he wanted to be a stand-up comic.
Today, at 35, he still knows it.
Bartini is now the official warm-up comic for the new Comedy Central fake news show, "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore." As the warm-up act, he's not seen on TV, but he's the guy who gets the studio audience in a laughing mood before showtime. After years of stand-up, Bartini's landed a steady, real-deal comedy gig in a competitive business.
In 2011, he was one of the warm-up comics at "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," and he eventually ended up as the primary warm-up for the studio audiences of "The Colbert Report."
As the warm-up guy for the last three months of that show, Bartini was there when Colbert famously brought out dozens of celebrities and dignitaries who had done guest spots on his show for the final scene — a group sing-along of "We'll Meet Again."
Bartini recalled a moment just after the taping ended. He was backstage and making his way out, but he had to wait for "a succession of people to walk by me." First came Henry Kissinger, followed by Willie Nelson, then Barry Manilow, and then Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
"It was really something," he said.
After the Colbert show came to an end, Bartini said it was a sad period of a few weeks missing his friends on the Colbert crew.
But when Wilmore's show started up on Jan. 19, Bartini was on stage before the cameras came on, cracking up the audience.
Bartini grew up watching George Carlin and others on television ("the TV comics were my heroes"), and when he graduated from Lee High School and tried a couple of semesters at Berkshire Community College, he figured his path lay in a different direction.
Right around the same time, his younger brother passed away, and the shock of that experience was illuminating.
"It hit me like a cold bucket of water," Bartini recalled. "I realized how precious and short life is, and that nothing is guaranteed. I decided that I love comedy and that I was going to do it."
So he started working up an act, and getting on stage any where that would have him.
And he never gave up.
In 1999, he apprenticed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and took a class in stand-up comedy offered during the festival by veteran comic Lewis Black.
After that, he started traveling to Albany, N.Y., every weekend to appear at the closest comedy club to the Berkshires, Comedy Works.
The owner was generous to the rookie comics, giving them a few minutes on stage every weekend. That's where he really started learning his trade by watching the other comics, talking to them, figuring out how to edit himself, and how to polish his act.
During this time, comedy came to the Berkshires.
Rick Stohr, owner of RJ Stohr Diamonds and Fine Jewelry on North Street in Pittsfield and a partner in ZipStohr Comedy productions, had started a series of stand-up comedy shows at the Crowne Plaza. And Bartini was there.
"ZipStohr Comedy is in its 10th year, and a lot of it has to do with Kevin," Stohr said. "We were just thinking about it, but Kevin gave us the kickstart we needed — he was so positive about it, we hit the ground running."
Bartini was booked for the first few ZipStohr shows, Stohr said, and he did quite well.
Since then, he's played several shows in the Berkshires, including a gig at the Colonial Theatre.
Bartini's on-stage presence is commanding. He projects well, appears casual and speaks directly to the audience, as if they were sitting around together in a bar.
"My wife and I discussed it, and we decided that we don't want to have a baby until we are absolutely certain that baby is the only thing that will save our marriage," Bartini says in one of his well-known bits. "Don't get me wrong, I want to have a kid. Just not right now. I want to have a baby when I'm like 70. That way it's just a five- or 10-year commitment. I can handle that."
"You're not going to sleep through his set," Stohr said. "He comes out and shakes you — you want to get right to the edge of your seat and listen to what he wants to say."
The gigs at Comedy Works allowed Bartini to work with a number of pros, including Lisa Lampanelli ("The Queen of Mean") who played the role of mentor for Bartini, eventually leading him to start working clubs in New York City. Soon thereafter, Bartini moved to the city and started booking gigs wherever he could find them. He started with a five-minute routine and eventually developed enough "A" material to go 30 to 40 minutes.
He would also take gigs on the road in clubs around the Northeast, weekend gigs or one-nighters.
In 2011, some of the comics he got to know in the club circuit were also comedy writers for "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." And when the show needed a back-up comic for the warm-up slot, Bartini's name came up. They gave him a shot, and Stewart liked him enough to keep him in the rotation. He took the stage whenever the primary comic couldn't make it, once every two or three months.
Eventually, they started using him in the back-up slot of "The Colbert Report" as well, until one day they made him the point man for warming up Colbert's audience.
Meanwhile, Bartini spent 2012 through 2014 quietly pushing the New York city council to name a street in honor of his idol, George Carlin, the iconic, pioneering comic who passed away in 2008. After struggling to convince the city and the neighborhood, he was finally successful with the October 2014 dedication of George Carlin Way at West 121st Street in Manhattan, the block where Carlin was raised.
"[Bartini] was the guy who spearheaded that," Stohr said. "But he's so modest, he doesn't talk much about it. He really did for George Carlin and his family."
Like George Carlin and many other comics, Bartini takes making people laugh very seriously.
"He is such a hard worker," Stohr said. "He is constantly writing new material or working on his act."
Bartini has two albums out. The first, "Showing the Horses Who's Boss," came out in 2011. His second, "The Unintentionally White Album," came out just a couple of weeks ago. Next, he hopes to raise his profile to television and movies. Many expect the Bartini name to be heard more often in more places.
"Comedy is definitely a craft, an art form," Bartini said. "And like in jazz, there are an infinite number of ways you can go at it. And if you can find your voice and stay true to yourself, it can work really well."
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