At work, Matt Barbera is boring. He manages retirement funds. To fit in around the office, he talks in monotone.
But when the work day's done, Barbera's a riot. I met him years ago at a tiny North Side tavern on a diagonal street, back when he spent his nights onstage doing improv comedy.
The guy regularly rips off one-liners without notice and typically scores a giggle.
But thanks to that snoozer of a desk job, he's about the only local actor I know who regularly carries enough cash on him to buy me drinks -- Jeremy Piven included.
When Barbera, 36, tells his Chicago story over a cold one, it's clear he's found success by just making it up as he goes along.
In fact, he moved to Chicago after a long night partying with a co-worker, who happened to mention in passing that he had an extra room in his condo.
"I packed up my stuff in a garbage bag and moved in the next day to the coolest apartment ever," Barbera says. "Pool table. Dart board. Only beer in the fridge. 250-bucks-a-month."
It took him six years working in a suit to figure out he needed "something with a little soul" in his life. So after watching a gut-busting performance at Improv Olympic, he signed up for a class at Second City.
"I got cast in a play -- then zoom, it went from there," he says.
These days, he's stepped behind the stage to run The Playground, 3209 N. Halsted, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month. He's lured HBO Comedy and Montreal Sketch Fest recruiters to check out local talent, and he's even writing a screenplay.
"I've found I can make more of an impact off the stage," he says. "You realize it's the kids who will be the ones who become stars. That's exciting to me."
But like so many funny guys, Barbera is always looking for his shot at the "next big show."
"Even when I'm hanging out having a beer with a friend, I'm always working. You talk to people and it's an opportunity to come up with the next great thing," he says.
And that's how it is at home with his comedian girlfriend, Wendy Mataeo.
"We improvise all our fights. Seriously."