For any working comedian, crafting a setlist requires hours upon hours of writing, practicing and finessing. The benefit of this is that by the time you hit the stage you have a series of strongly workshopped jokes to serve as a safety net. After all, few things are more terrifying than coming before an audience with nothing to say. As one quickly learns from his latest special, however, Todd Barry without a safety net is just as funny as Todd Barry with a comfortable bed of well-crafted jokes to fall back on.
A comedian with a penchant for dry, observational musings and deadpan delivery, Barry is great at making it all look easy. And so, he decided to make things harder. Last year, Barry launched an experimental tour built exclusively around crowd work. A popular staple of the stand-up act, crowd work—per its name—typically involves the comedian breaking from their established set and engaging with the crowd in an attempt to inject the proceedings with a bit of spontaneity. Such a technique can serve as anything from a legitimate well of comedy gold to merely an effective way of killing time between set-ups. As part of the tour, Barry also recruited notable filmmaker Lance Bangs to document his performances and edit them together for his latest special, Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour. Funded and produced by Barry’s longtime friend and colleague Louis C.K., the special offers an incredible portrait of a comedian at the height of his game. Taking stage without any written jokes or, indeed, any sort of plan, Barry nevertheless delivers a gut-busting hour of tour highlights.
Paste caught up with Barry to discuss the genesis of the tour, communicating with his fans and getting interviewed by Terry Gross for the first time.
Paste: Where did the idea of a tour consisting of nothing but crowd work come from?
Todd Barry: I’d always done a lot of crowd work in my act and was just looking for something…I felt a little stagnant and the idea popped in my head and I went with it. I did a Crowd Work Tour in January 2013 then I did this other one in September and then I was trying to figure out a way to film it. I got a call from Louis and we talked about it and he offered to do it.
Paste: How did that relationship work. Was he actively involved or just provided the funding and let you do whatever?
Barry: Blair Breard is his producer and she’s one of the producers on my thing. They kind of organized everything. I suggested a director and that worked that.
Paste: Lance Bangs obviously has a great resume. What was that working relationship like?
Barry: I had known him already. He’s kind of friend of mine. He’s a pretty laid back guy. There was no tension stress or problems.
Paste: Were there any talks or discussions about how you wanted the special to be formatted?
Barry: We just filmed all the shows and a lot of offstage stuff. There was different ways—I didn’t talk to him a whole lot about it. I just wanted it to be in order. I thought about bouncing from show to show, but it was just harder for me to imagine that, so we went this route.
Paste: You mentioned doing crowd work in your stand-up…
Barry:It would depend on the night. I’ve done 15 minutes sets of doing it. Some large chunks in headlining shows. But I’d never said, ‘this is what I’m doing’ and announced it from the beginning.
Paste: How long were those tour shows?
Barry: Some of them were really long. In Portland, I did like an hour and forty-five minutes, which is kind of a crazy long time to be on stage. The audience seemed into it, but it’s just…those transactions take longer.
Paste: With traditional sets, I know comedians not only really work on getting the jokes right but also on pacing and finding an ebb and flow to the set. When you’re doing something like this, how do you stay true to your format while, at the same time, making sure it’s not overly meandering?
Barry: Right. You just feel it out. If it’s a good conversation and questions keep popping in your head, I just do it. Usually the people who maybe didn’t want to talk to you in the first place, you talk to them and you feel reluctance or maybe their story was not compelling and then you just back out politely.
Paste: How can you tell that they don’t want to talk?
Barry: Most of them actually didn’t look like they were eager to talk. If you approach them gently, you can get some of them to talk. And then if you get enough of them to talk, you kill an hour and then you’re done.
Paste: My favorite moment of the special was the argument you got into with the Portland woman over the eggs—
Barry: I wouldn’t call it an argument…
Paste: Well, your back-and-forth with her. Were there any other incidents like that where an audience member got a little agitated by your questions?
Barry: I think she’d just had a few drinks. If you see the shots of her, she’s always smiling and she’s laughing when I give her a hard time. I didn’t really lay into her. But I think she was just kind of passionate and loose, looser than she probably would have been if she hadn’t had a few drinks. I’m guessing she had a few drinks. In Alaska there was a lot of yelling out, but not mean spirited yelling out. It was a controlled rowdiness.
Paste: Now that you’ve done something like this, are you retiring crowd work for a while after this next tour?
Barry: I’m calling this tour the Final Crowd Work Tour, so that’s the plan. Just because I really want to go back to just being a comedian. I’ll always do crowd work but I don’t want to be the guy who doesn’t do his act or has no act. If someone makes me an offer to go to a festival and do that, I’ll come out of retirement.
Paste: You mentioned before working with Louie. He’s someone who’s developed a real pedigree both because of his show and his innovative ways of doing business. Do you feel your special was received differently coming from him as opposed to other outlets?
Barry: Oh, yeah…I would have sold 10 percent of what I’ve sold so far, I’m guessing—if that. He wrote that email that he put on his site that was pretty glowing and touching even. I probably shouldn’t say “touching”…but yeah, what the hell. They were very lovely things he said about me. I think he has so many fans that they read that and think, “Todd Barry, he’s probably good.” I’ve gotten some tweets from people who were like, “I didn’t know who you were but you’re great.”
Paste: Moving away from comedy, are their any acting roles in your future or do you want to stick with stand-up for now?
Barry: I’m sticking with stand-up. I will be on the new season of Louie.
Paste: Oh nice, can you tell me what the role is?
Barry: It’s probably better for people to be surprised. Although, I talked about it with Terry Gross. I gave her a little bit about it, but I don’t know if I’m supposed to.
Paste: Was that your first time on Terry Gross?
Paste: How was it?
Barry: It was great. When I got the inquiry I was like, “Holy shit, this is high-profile shit.” It’s hard because she’s not in the room with you…I shouldn’t say hard because she’s really nice and super thorough. What she does that I’m really glad is she plays a lot of clips. So if I’m giving a boring answer and somebody thinks, “Oh, this guy is boring,” she plays a clip and they go, “Oh, he’s hilarious, he’s just being boring in this interview.”
Paste: I like to think of her as her character from that Mike Birbiglia segment.
Barry: Oh yeah, that was really funny. But it was really great. I made her laugh a few times and she was already a fan of mine.
Paste: Doing a tour like this, you get a chance more than most comedians, to really meet and interact with your fans. What was that experience like?
Barry: You know, it’s usually fine. Most people are nice. Some people talk a little longer than you want to talk. I didn’t really get any people getting in my face. A couple of drunks…well, maybe one drunk. But you step away from it or have someone deal with it.
Paste: What was your favorite stop on the tour? Portland?
Barry: No, I wouldn’t say that was my favorite. I really liked all of them. Vancouver—I got a standing ovation in Vancouver, and I can’t say I’ve gotten a lot of those. Seattle was really fun. They were all pretty good.
Paste: Do you feel like your profile has gone up in the wake of the special’s release. You mentioned Twitter earlier, have you gotten a burst in followers?
Barry: I probably am. I’m getting the most positive feedback I’ve gotten about anything I’ve ever done, I think. At least, since I was on Twitter. Twitter-wise, it’s been pretty nice.
Todd Barry’s “Crowd Work Tour” is available now on LouisCK.net for $5