While Todd Barry may be best known for his dry delivery and television appearances that include insulting Louis C.K. on his own show and a turn as an egomaniacal bongo player on Flight of the Conchords, he's actually not that bad. In fact, he's a nice guy. He thanks you when you pay him a compliment. He doesn't leave you waiting for a call back. And while Barry may spend a good portion of his sets roasting members of the audience, it's really just his way of keeping things exciting.
One of the last times Barry performed in Charleston, he arrived with no prepared material — no jokes, no stories, nothing. But that was all part of the show.
Setting out on his Crowd Work tour, which was filmed and released as a special, the comic decided it was time to challenge himself. For each show, the low-key performer would look into the audience and ask questions. "What's your name? What do you do for a living? What's the name of your band?" Each show was different because each crowd was different. And each night, Barry would rely on his wit alone to craft an entire set off just the responses from his audience. It seems like the stand-up equivalent of performing without a net, and when I spoke with Barry, I called the tour a pretty brave move for a stand-up. He disagreed because, as I learned, while the comedian remains humble, he is not afraid to tell you when you're wrong.
"I don't know how brave it was, but I know what you mean. Part of it was just kind of being bored with myself and wanting to shake things up a little. I don't remember which tour that was that I was in South Carolina, but I booked the tour on my own, then did another one, then did another one because I kind of enjoyed it and people liked it. It was different," Barry says. "Most people thought it was cool. A lot of comics have told me they watched it and really liked it. That always makes me feel good. I'm not up there to just destroy people. I kind of am curious, and, of course, I playfully insult them."
Scheduled to perform as one of the headliners of this year's Charleston Comedy Fest, Barry returns with a new set of jokes, but the comedian plans to keep challenging himself, both on and off the stage.
In addition to acting, Barry hosts a podcast where he interviews fellow comedians and performers and has also started work on his first book. "I've gotten sporadic acting roles for a while now. It's always nice to mix things up by doing those. The podcast I just kind of did because, I don't usually do things because everyone's doing them, but I sort of did it for that reason. I like doing it. I just don't make any money off it," he says. "I'm writing a book. I don't want to give too much away, but it's basically a tour diary. That's also a very different thing for me, just the amount of writing and writing it all out, as opposed to jokes, which I don't tend to write out word for word."
As a touring stand-up, Barry's work has given him plenty of material for his book. Performing all across the country and overseas, the comic comes face to face with audiences from a lot of different backgrounds. For many comedians, tailoring jokes for one city to the next can be a bit of a challenge, but for Barry, it's easy.
"If there are stores and stuff that they may not have, you just kind of find the equivalent of what their Walgreens is, or whatever. Then there are expressions that they might not use that you use. For example, in England, they say 'hire a car.' They don't say 'rent a car,'" he says. "But for the most part, they're going to know what you're talking about. It's not like they're not going to know what 'rent a car' means or something. I did a European tour last year, and I was able to pull off New York-specific jokes by just kind of explaining things a little bit. I was doing jokes about New York pizza in Helsinki. If the audience is nice and they're there to have a good time, they'll go with you."
As with any comedian, Barry has had his share of rough shows. Even after decades as a stand-up, he still runs into audience members looking to interrupt his performance. Luckily, he's learned to manage the crowds over the years and finds that his fans are usually up for whatever he has to say.
"You just have to figure out, 'Did I have a bad show because I was bad or was the audience bad?' Some people say never blame the audience, but I think you can definitely blame the audience sometimes. If it's just like a tepid reaction, I guess that's fairly OK to deal with, but if there's a real hostility or something terrible or shitty happens and there's abusive behavior going on, that's what takes a toll on me the most," Barry says. "If there's someone who is disrupting the show, I just deal with it in a straight-forward, get-them-out-of-here kind of way. I don't want to give them 15 minutes of my show destroying them so they can go home thinking that they helped out."
As for Barry, he still manages to enjoy shows by other comedians. Although he may watch with a more critical eye than most, he has no problem being a part of the crowd.
"It's good to go see a show every once in a while because it reminds you of what you're doing," Barry says. "You kind of go, 'Oh, that's what I do for a living. That's pretty cool,' instead of getting caught up in whatever other part of the business you're upset about. It's interesting to see what people can get away with and what they can turn into a successful comedy bit."