Todd Barry on the Crowd Work Tour, Podcasts and His best-Known Roles
In addition to providing the pizza-soaked lifeblood of Denver's comedy scene and sponsoring some of its best local showcases, SexPot has really hung its hat on its namesake showcases at the Oriental Theater. And producer Andy Juett has pulled out all the stops for the one-year anniversary show, "A Chilly Evening with Todd Barry," landing SexPot's biggest headliner yet for the December 19 event. Todd Barry is a veteran standup best known for his appearances on such TV shows as Flight of the Conchords and Louie, as well as films like The Wrestler. Fresh off his last special, The Crowd Work Tour -- which consisted of nothing but crowd-generated riffs and good-natured mockery -- Barry has a fresh bundle of jokes for SexPot's loyal crowd. Although this month's showcase concludes SexPot's monthly engagement at the historic Oriental (which will hitherto be reserved for high-drawing headliners and special occasions), the SexPot brand is charging forward, relocating the monthly show to that Baker staple, 3 Kings Tavern, in 2015.
In celebration of SexPot's special showcase, Westword caught up with Barry to discuss working on new jokes after his Crowd Work Tour special, his European podcast fans and his most well-known film and TV roles.
Westword: So, in the course of doing research for this interview, I watched the Crowd Work Tour documentary. How has it been working out new material after having focused on crowd work for so long?
Todd Barry: I'm kinda glad to be back writing jokes. When something hits me and I'm working on stuff -- like I am right now -- I want a balance. I don't just want to be Mr. Crowd Work. But I'm definitely glad that I did that special.
One thing I noticed was that anyone who seemed really earnest about themselves seemed to get embarrassed really quickly.
Uh, okay. Yeah, it's possible. I think people are just shy. I understand, it's a lot of pressure to have a comic talk to you in the middle of a show.
But for the most part, they all knew what show they were going to see.
Yeah, they definitely did.
I've read that you didn't generate much material on that tour, but did it influence your performance style at all? What did you end up taking away from it, other than, you know, download sales.
Well, I definitely felt way more comfortable on stage not knowing what I was going to do than I do with a set prepared.
At times, yeah. And I think it's just because when you don't know what to expect, you don't know what to be nervous about.
I'd think that was worse. Isn't the unknown always scarier?
Once I got used to it, though, I kind of enjoyed it. I always have, but after this tour I really started to like it a lot.
How many hours of raw footage did you end up with? Did you have to cut anything you liked?
Well, yeah, of course. I mean, it would have been a 3,000-hour movie. There's always a moment, but sometimes you just gotta get rid of stuff. It was seven shows, and traveling. We were trying to figure out how much offstage stuff to add versus how much onstage stuff, the momentum and what order to put it in. I decided to just put in chronological order. It's easier.
Who tends to draw your eye in an audience as someone to potentially interact with?
It's hard because it's not like people are showing up with...
Wearing vampire teeth?
Yeah. I kinda look for someone who maybe has a quirky look. Sometimes it's purely random. I gotta pick someone, so I just pick someone and see what happens. It's hard to tell what someone is going to say based just on looking at them.
I actually know that one guy in San Francisco who makes those fancy dog collars.
Turns out he's a comedian, yeah. I just saw him a few weeks ago, actually. He had a nice vibe about him.
In the film, you reveal that you have some OCD around hotel rooms? When did that start?
I mean, I have a little of that in general. It's not just hotel rooms.
I don't want to overstate it.
Well, I'm not a complete lunatic, but yeah. When you're in a hotel room, you sort of have to suspend all of that or else you'll end up traveling with your own sheets.
Comedy condos are reputably pretty gross.
I don't stay in those anymore, no. I've been lucky that where I haven't had to stay in a lot of those. You go in there and there's like, leftover mustard in the refrigerator. That's just not what you want to see.
You're a regular at the Comedy Cellar, which has the reputation as a place for comic's comics. When did you start performing there? Was it intimidating to try and navigate that culture?
I started working there over twenty years ago. I've had different periods when I was working there more and then times when they maybe weren't using me as much as they are now. It's a great room, and it's one of the only New York rooms where there's like a real hang scene upstairs. It's not a place where you go in there and you want to leave five seconds after your set. There's a nice social aspect to it. The room itself is pretty well- designed. There's a challenge because the bathrooms for the restaurant upstairs are in the comedy club, so everyone walks by and they're nervous that they're going to get picked on. It's a minor distraction at first, but then you get used to it. I think it makes you stronger.
In general, do you think it's a good impulse to try and get comedians to laugh from the back of the room?
Well, that's not what's really going on there. Occasionally a comedian will wander down there, but it's pretty much just audience members. The comics usually hang upstairs.
I meant in a broader way, not necessarily just at the Cellar.
Well, it's always nice to make comics laugh, but sometimes they'll be laughing because you're struggling. But when I go on the road and make the comics laugh, I'm always really happy about that. Very flattered.
How has feedback for The Todd Barry Podcast been? It seems like regular podcast listeners can become a really intense fanbase.
Yeah, I mean, I haven't figured that out. I was just over in Europe and people were coming up to me and saying that they listened to the podcast. I didn't necessarily expect that, but I guess you can listen to podcasts anywhere. It's always interesting when someone says they listen to it because I have no idea. I can find out how many people downloaded it. It's hard to tell if I'm getting maybe 100 people at a show because of the podcast. I don't know that it hurts, either.
What has it been like to perform in Europe?
It was different in a good way. I did six shows and in the first five, I got an encore every night. Which is something that happens maybe every year and a half, two years here in North America. I was really nervous about losing material. Like, "What if they don't get this?" But their mindset wasn't like, "Make us laugh." There were zero assholes. Maybe at the last show there were some jerks, but that was more of a festival show with more random people as opposed to people who came to see me. But in general, they were there for the show and respectful and happy that I was there. So anything that I was worried about, like, "Oh, they're not going to know what Walgreens is," you can just kind of explain it to them, then you just do the joke. They're really smart over there.
There wasn't any language barrier at all?
No, I mean, I imagine there's some sort of processing that goes on that's a little different, but if you've been to Scandinavia, they speak better English than I do.
So, as a relatively new podcaster, do you worry about comedy podcast over-saturation?
I worry that I'm kinda just another comic talking to comics. I think there's a lot of that. Probably enough.
It seems like the appetite for them is small but strong. People who listen to podcasts listen to a fucking lot of them.
I don't listen to a whole lot of them. I'll listen to Maron's. There's some really good episodes of that, but I don't regularly listen. I think if I was driving a lot I'd be listening to more podcasts. They seem perfect for that. Cleaning up the house, too.
You've got a pretty low-key delivery style. Are you ever frustrated by sharing a bill with a really high-energy performer? It's discouraging sometimes when a dude is up there mugging to cover up for weak joke writing and it works, anyway.
Well, I try to have people go on before me who I brought, or at least I've looked at a clip of theirs. Occasionally, I'll get somebody where I have no idea what they're going to do, but as you get more well-known and get people there to see you, the less likely it is that you're going to get smoked by the guy who went on before you. It's not always about energy. It could be about tone, like if someone's real feel-goody. It's not just jumping around like a lunatic.
Out of all your movie and TV appearances, what role do people seem to approach you about the most?
It's probably Louie and Flight of the Conchords. Maybe The Wrestler, too.
Any Delocated fans?
Yeah, I get that, too. I'm not sure which I get the most. Probably Flight of the Conchords.
So, the SexPot showcase is partially sponsored by a dispensary. Do you have any thoughts or experience with performing for a stoned crowd?
I didn't know all that was happening. I'm not a pot smoker. It's not really my scene and I don't really have anything to say about it.
Well, they just book people who they think are funny, but yeah, usually it's a crowd of people who like to get high.
Is that a relatively new thing?
A little bit. People are enjoying their freedom. Do you have anything coming up on the horizon that we didn't cover yet?
Uh, no. Not really.
Are you putting material together for another special or anything?
Yeah. I'm thinking about doing another special. I kind of want to ride this current one out so there's not two competing specials. But I do want to get one ready.
Doors open at 7 p.m. for the 8 p.m. SexPot show on Friday, December 19; tickets cost $20 on the Oriental Theater website. SexPot guest host Ian Douglas Terry along with comedians Karl Hess, Shayna Ferm, Elliot Woolsey and Chris Fairbanks will join Barry in celebrating a fine 2014 for SexPot Comedy.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.