The electronic rhythm track slams out a stuttering rap beat straight from the ghetto, but the person onstage who’s grabbing his crotch and loudly declaiming is a skinny white guy whose soul food could be bagels and lox. Still, he’s got the strut, the gestures and the patter down cold. “I’m a stand-up comic,” he chants, “and that’s my line, and I’d like you to know my zodiac sign; I’m from New York with all the hustle and bustle, and I’ve got better rhymes than Nipsey Russell.”
With that, Barry Sobel is off on a manic luge run of parodies, premises (“The Flintstones go out of business and Tina Turner buys up all their clothing”) and weirdo impressions (Barry Manilow guesting with U2). Disdaining explanations for the befuddled unhip, Sobel, 28, has been likened by New York Times critic Stephen Holden to “a one-man pirate station subversively recycling the detritus of television and pop music as absurdist stream-of-consciousness satire.” And his racial material has won the approval of Eddie Murphy, who told Sobel, “You’re one of the only white comedians who can do a black character without making me want to punch you in the face.”
Sobel’s whirlwind energy also caught the eye of writer-director David Seltzer, who was looking for someone to coach Tom Hanks in his role as a stand-up comic in Seltzer’s film Punchline, opening this month. “I thought Barry was brilliant,” Seltzer recalls. “I thought if Tom Hanks could whip himself into that kind of momentum, we’d have a character that audiences couldn’t get enough of.” Sobel did the coaching—”Tom and Barry really became alter egos,” says Seltzer—and he even landed a small role in the movie.
A TV junkie whose favorite subjects in school “were lunch and going home,” Sobel grew up in Brooklyn, the youngest of three children whose parents own a printing shop. Moving on to San Francisco, he dropped out of college to work with the improvisational troupe Spaghetti Jam, which taught him “how to create things from nothing.” Then he began doing stand-up, landing a guest shot on Family Ties and a regular role on the Suzanne Pleshette series Bridges to Cross. But Sobel says his most demanding gig was the mammoth US Festival near San Bernardino, Calif., in 1982. “It’s tough to work a crowd of 200,000 people,” he explains. “You can’t ask, ‘So where you guys from?’ ”