Comedian Todd Barry doesn’t need to yell to get his points across. His jokes serve him just fine, thank you.
By Dylan P. Gadino
Veteran stand-up comedian Todd Barry has a habit of slowly seeping into comedy fans’ subconscious. Maybe it’s his trademark voice. You know the one: that smooth, even, NPR-esque register that dares you to doze, but, thankfully, you don’t. You know better.
You know damn well you’d miss the next well-paced barrage of incredibly brilliant and wholly hilarious musings about how B.B. King’s an asshole, the optimal speed at which hand jobs should be performed or even how someone once complained to a comedy club manager “that my voice was too monotone.”
If it’s not his voice — understated, and quite honestly, a little monotone (not that that’s a bad thing) — that helps slowly burn him into the unsuspecting happy part of our brains, maybe it’s the way he sneaks into popular culture. Whether or not you know it, you’ve seen him on Sex and the City, Spin City, and yes, even Sesame Street.
The real reason Barry’s the type of comic that dedicated stand-up fans and casual comedy observers alike always come back to is that he’s simply funny. He’s a master of the economical joke, using as few words as possible to rip the greatest number of laughs from a crowd. He’s both absurd and observational, sometimes even in the same joke. Plainly put, he’s a craftsman.
If you’re still not convinced, you’ll soon have plenty of chances to grab yourself some Barry. The New York City-based comic recently recorded his third live album for Comedy Central Records, due out in January. He’ll also be popping up on the Sept. 2 season finale of HBO’s recently renewed Flight of the Conchords, the Sept. 9 premiere of Cartoon Network’s Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil and will play the title role in the Super Deluxe show Sexus, which he co-created with Erik Richter.
To top it off, Barry will be touring nationally — Punchline Magazine is sponsoring his Lakeshore Theater show — with the likes of Louis CK and Sarah Silverman and is even heading to Sweden for seven shows with one of that country’s pop stars Jens Lekman.
Punchline Magazine recently caught up with Barry to talk about his ever-evolving comedy, the state of stand-up and the joy of dealing with rude a-holes.
You’ve been playing a lot of bigger venues as of late. What kind of differences do you see between traditional comedy clubs and the larger or alternative rooms?
I’m not really big enough to fill big places. Lakeshore [Theater in Chicago] is a good size for me. There’s something sort of extra exciting about playing even bigger places, when 2,000 people or a thousand people watch you as opposed to a few hundred. The crowd’s focus is definitely on the show. It’s a different experience. It’s a little less conducive to flying off the handle or straying from the script.
You mean you flying off the handle?
Well, I don’t mean literally like going bananas. A theater show just usually ends up being a little more presentational.
When you say people are more focused, what do you mean?
Well, they’re in their chairs and they’re not being served drinks; they’re not eating food. And that’s generally a better thing.
I was at one of your shows a while back at Carolines in New York, where you got some people tossed from the place.
Yeah, they were acting like they were on a date at a restaurant, only they were at my show. It was fun. I still think about that and talk about it.
You’ve got to get some sort of satisfaction out of that.
Yeah, I do. That was fun because of the timing of the whole thing. They were actually fighting me, saying that I couldn’t get them thrown out. And then this huge guy walks over perfectly timed and throws them out.
Do you find you get a lot of clueless audience members at your shows?
It happens from time to time. I donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know that it happens to me more than other comics. I mean, those people wouldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been rude to anyone. They just didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know how to act.
Do you ever go into club show looking for that kind of crowd behavior?
I just got an e-mail from a guy that said something like I had some guy thrown out of a show recently. And he was like, “like that stuff better.” And it’s like, “That’s nice that you like it better.” But no, I’m not looking for a fight.
But you’d admit that you’re good at dealing with shitty crowds.
Yeah, I mean if I have to deal with it, I’ll deal with it. But I]m not going, “I hope some drunk couple shows up and won’t shut the fuck up while I’m on stage.”
Because I’ve seen some comics do a terrible job at handling a rude crowd.
I try to ignore it as much as possible. I try not to give them any sort of illusion that they’re helping me out. That’s sort of a common misconception people have. I’ve seen comics when someone in the crowd is on a cell phone, and they’ll say, “Give me that cell phone.” And that always bothers me because then the audience member leaves thinking, “I wasn’t rude because he got something out of it.”
Right, and that might indirectly encourage other people to act that way at some other show.
Right, so I’d rather just think that the behavior is not acceptable. I mean, if I could be funny about it, obviously I’ll talk to the crowd.
You recently recorded your third album for Comedy Central in Cambridge, Mass. Why did you choose that location?
I’ve done that room [the Comedy Studio] before, and it’s a good room. It’s small and it’s very easy to be loose, and it holds maybe a hundred people. For an album, I just want to be loose, and I also want to play a place that I could definitely fill a few times as opposed to some huge club. It’s sort of easier to riff at a place like that. I wanted to get some of that on the album, and I think I probably did succeed in that a little bit.
So that’s important to you for an album – that you get that organic feel?
Yeah, maybe if I have two brand-new hours of material, I wouldn’t, but that’s kind of the way I work, anyway. don’t want to record a show where it’s like you had to be there, but at the same time, if I get something that’s organic and still translates, that could be a good thing.
Do you typically retire the material on an album?
I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about that lately. It used to be before you had albums out and before you had specials on TV, you could just do the same act for years — not that you want to do that. You could go do a show and 90 percent of the crowd hadn’t heard any of it and they’re fine with anything you do. Then there’s 10 percent who are like, “I just drove half an hour or an hour and I’ve heard like 80 percent of this shit.” And they’re the ones that have blogs.
It’s legitimate for them to want to see something new, especially if they’ve seen you years before. It’s weird because there are some people who want to hear the old stuff and will say, “Why didn’t you do the old stuff?” And then there are people who are like, “How come you repeated jokes?” Then there are some people who can’t believe you repeat a joke ever, which is just naive.
Those are the same people that believe every time they see a comic, it’s all off the cuff.
Right. Ultimately it’s never going to be a bad thing if you write more new material. If you have new material, there’s no one who could complain that you did new material. But they can complain if you do old material.
Yeah, it’s funny. When you see a band, it’s the opposite. People don’t like hearing songs that aren’t on an album.
Yeah, people get bummed out that bands do new songs. But their old songs were new songs at some point.
Do you have a strict writing regimen?
No, not at all. The best thing about doing this album was that it got me to write. When we set the date for the recording, I was pretty sure I didn’t have enough material. And hopefully I’ll find out I did when we start editing it. I sometimes need artificial deadlines like that to force me to write. But I don’t really write in a sit-down-and-write sort of way.
How do you write then?
I think of an idea and then work it out on stage generally. I’ll occasionally sit somewhere, at a cafe, but I don’tt often write it out like a short story or something.
Your understated delivery is a big part of your act. Do you feel that’s evolved over the past decade?
Yeah, I think you get more confident. You get a little more original and you’re a little less doing an impression of a comic. You find your own voice.
Are people surprised at all that you’re pretty much the same off stage?
I don’t know. I hadn’t really thought about that. There are always people that are disappointed that you’re boring off stage.
Do you think you’re boring off stage?
No, I don’t. There are just people who are expecting the classic “Tell me a joke” type of person. And you can’t please them.
Yeah, you don’t seem like you’d be that type of person.
Most comics aren’t. There are some comics that fill that stereotype, that sort of off-stage wacky person. And I definitely joke around a lot, but I can also be very quiet.
A lot of your jokes seem to have absurd premises. Is it crucial that joke premises be believable or is it more important that they’re just funny? Your joke about seeing a guy masturbating at an ATM machine, for example, is a pretty unbelievable premise.
That one is actually true.
Yeah. I don’t think I would’ve thought of it if it hadn’t been true. I might have thought of it if I’d been writing a script or something. If the bank machine joke weren’t true, I think that it would lose something.
Do you feel the state of comedy is in a good place right now?
I think it’s good. Especially since more places like the Lakeshore are opening. There are certain things that need to change. The comedy club model is not ideal all the time. It depends on the club. There are
a lot of great clubs. The Punchline in San Fransisco is a great club.
There are a few really good ones. But a lot of clubs do things the same way. They treat every comic like they’re the same comic — dropping checks in the middle of a show and shit like that. Someone really has to stop and say,”There’s got to be a better way to present comedy.”
It’s good that there are places that people can go on stage and do comedy. And it’s good, especially when you’re starting out. For people just starting out in comedy, you shouldn’t be so selective, anyway. You should get on stage anywhere, like I did and still do to a certain extent. Any place you go on — unless it’s vicious — is probably going to help you. And there are a lot of rooms that fall outside the mainstream that are both good and bad for comedy.
You’re a musician as well, right?
Sort of. It’s sort of an insult to musicians to call me a musician. I guess I could be a bad musician. I fuck around on the drums. I’m not skilled by any stretch. I’m just better than you think I might be. But definitely not good.
Have you ever thought about incorporating music into your act?
I have thought about starting an actual band and playing rock clubs. I did this thing called Matter of Trust [a band featuring Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew and comedian friends Jon Glaser, Tom Shillue and Jon Benjamin]. And that was super fun. I feel like I know enough people in that business where we could get gigs. If I had an idea for a band, it’d be great. But you have to work with other people and that’s rough to schedule practices. That kind of shit.
What music are you listening to these days?
New Pornographers, Mates of State, the Long Blondes, Belle and Sebastian, Clash, Elvis Costello.
To you, what defines a hack comic?
A performer who just does stuff that’s tired. If you’re watching someone and you’re saying to yourself, “I seen all these premises, heard all these jokes.” Anything that’s just tired and not surprising.
Do hacks hurt stand-up comedy?
They hurt if I show up at a club and I follow them. I’ve had that a lot of times, where [the club owners] have never seen my work and that’s who you put it front of me because you have no idea what I do?
There have been comics ganging up on other comics recently — I’m not going to mention any names — and that becomes tiresome. People single out one comic and say that guy’s the problem with comedy today and it’s like, “Not really.” There are always going to be people you don’t like. Who gives a fuck?
They’re only a problem if they’re working and affecting what I do at the same show. And if a club just books them because it doesn’t know better, it gives people a bad education.
But if someone hacky goes on before you, doesn’t that make you look that much better?
I’ve done an entire week of shows where a hack has gone on before me, and he’ll do well and then I’ll go on and do well. People aren’t necessarily educated in comedy, which is fine. They just want to go out and have a good time. So they’re going there predisposed to having a good time. Not everyone knows what hack comedy is because they have jobs and kids and shit to think about besides comedy all day long.
But it is upsetting when they’re laughing at that guy and you’re sick to your stomach. And you try hard not to lose respect for the audience that’s laughing at what you do, too. But it just shows you that people who like you don’t necessarily like things that you like.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Not really. I usually just go to the bathroom like five times. I pace around and try not to talk to a whole lot of people.
Todd Barry will perform at a Punchline Magazine-sponsored show at Lakeshore Theater in Chicago on Saturday, Sept. 8. Click here to buy tickets. For more information, check out www.toddbarry.com or his official MySpace site.