Wes Barker Performs Comedy-Magic at the Grassroots Cafe
Culture / October 21, 2017
Barker discusses the advantages and pitfalls of performing comedy at universities
As a long time performer, Wes Barker knows that doing comedy at a university comes with its own set of challenges and advantages.
As part of the Kwantlen Student Association’s ongoing Comedy Lunch Hour, Barker brought his off-colour brand of comedy and magic to the Grassroots Cafe on Oct. 12. During his set, the second one he’s performed at KPU in as many years, Barker somehow ate an inflated balloon, caught a paintball in his mouth, and tricked an audience member into giving him her phone number.
With its relaxed atmosphere, the Grassroots is a seemingly perfect location for a show like this, but it does come with its own set of pitfalls for performers. The cafe is an open space, with students coming and going freely, and many of the patrons sitting at the tables didn’t necessarily come there to see a show. In the past, unlucky comedians have gotten on stage to find the audience full of people more interested in quietly studying than in laughing.
“It’s a tricky space so I was glad to have it go really well,” says Barker. “Noon shows at colleges, you can die and it wouldn’t necessarily be the material that you did. It can just be a tough room.”
Barker has performed in similar venues for long enough to know how to work with a disengaged audience. He says the key to grabbing the audience’s attention and keeping it is to keep his stories short, his jokes punchy, and to restate what’s going on throughout each trick to keep new arrivals in the loop. By utilizing these strategies at the Grassroots, Barker was performing in front of a packed room before his set had finished.
He says that knowing your audience is also particularly important when performing on a university campus. Barker explains that he can’t do the same show at a university that he would do at a comedy club, where the audience, by buying a ticket, has already agreed to hear some “blue” comedy.
“You gotta be a little bit more toned down just because, at a comedy club, it’s very understood where you’re going and what your going to see, while at colleges it’s not as understood what will be happening,” says Barker. “So it’s not that my [regular] show’s any more offensive, but I always tame it down and make sure to ask people’s age and stuff … I just don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable.”
As a venue, the Grassroots has its advantages for a performer life Barker. He says it’s a very forgiving setting, which gives him the opportunity to test new jokes and tricks in a low-stakes environment. Barker used the gig to test out a card trick he’d been working on, a trick he might one day share with a larger audience.
“It’s more like a house party and I’m just the guy standing on the table,” he says.
Barker has been performing his comedy magic for years, appearing on shows such as America’s Got Talent and Penn and Teller: Fool Us. He also occasionally performs straight standup. He says that early in his career he tried to do straight, non-comedic magic, but found that he just didn’t have the personality for a straight-faced act.
“I’m not a serious guy,” says Barker, “and me trying to pull off a beautiful levitation or a dove act—I can do it, I got the skills and I love it—but honestly at the end of the day I look like I’m just fighting against my urge to be fun.”