Q&A With Comedian Todd Barry

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Photo by Matthew Rodgers

Todd Barry's twenty years in the comedy scene and far-ranging television credentials (Wonder Showzen, Sesame Street, Chappelle's Show, Sex and the City, Hot Off the Grill with Bobby Flay -- plus one of his more recent stints on the tube, the insane bongo-player who nearly breaks up the band in the season finale of Flight of the Conchords) have made him more recognizable than ever before. The Oriental Theater, 4335 West 44th Avenue, presents Barry on Thursday, July 10 at 8 p.m.; tickets ($15) and information are available at 303-455-2124 or www.theorientaltheater.com. Matt Vogl and our own Adam Cayton-Holland open for Barry.

Cayton-Holland was able to trade e-mails with the comic fresh off a five-show stint across the pond. Here's their exchange:

Westword (Adam Cayton-Holland): How was London? Do you find you have to change up anything in your act there? For example, the changing of “soccer” to “football” in your ubiquitous soccer material?

Todd Barry: London went quite well. The crowds were good, and I got some nice reviews, which is a bit of a relief. Comedians are rarely reviewed in the US, and it’s fairly stressful seeing these guys scribbling in their pads while you’re performing. As far as material, there are things that you obviously leave out, like really specific New York City references, but I found that some jokes work better over there then they do over here, and if I wasn’t jet-lagged and lazy, I’d give you an example.

WW: How did those shows come about?

TB: I know a manager who used to live over there, so she hooked it up. I’ve done shows there before, so some people were aware of me.

WW: You certainly have some eclectic appearances on your resume, from Hot Off the Grill with Bobby Flay to Wonder Showzen to Sesame Street. How do you decide which opportunities you’re going to pursue?

TB: I didn’t pursue any of the shows you mentioned. The Bobby Flay thing happened because a woman who used to work at Conan started working at The Food Network. Wonder Showzen was created by friends of mine, and the guy who made the film for Sesame Street had seen me work in New York.

WW: Do you have any desire to appear on The Food Network again? If so, what program? And would you do anything differently?

TB: I don’t think they still have a show that uses comedians. The Bobby Flay thing was weird because I basically woke up at eight a.m. and was driven to some mansion to watch him grill shrimp, then I was supposed to “chime in” with hilarious comments. It wasn’t easy. In fact there’s a montage of the most awkward moments on my MySpace page.

WW: Where do people most recognize you from?

TB: Lately, I’ve been getting recognized a lot from Flight of the Conchords, which is fine, but also a bit odd. It’s weird to do comedy for twenty years, then have people think that you’re this guy from the TV show. But it’s a good show and I’m glad I did it.

WW: Have you ever performed in Denver before? How was that experience for you?

TB: I performed at the Comedy Works many years ago. I have a distinct memory of sitting at the PF Chang’s bar for a pre-show meal, which I guess I could just call “lunch.” Anyway, the place was practically empty, and I overheard heard these two women talking. One of them said something about “going past the light,” and I realized she was a local comedian talking about how she did too much time on her open mike set. I was like, “I can't escape comedians, even at PF Chang’s in Denver.”

WW: You’re doing the Sub Pop 20th Anniversary Show the day after Denver with Eugene Mirman, Kristen Schaal, Patton Oswalt, to name a few. Is that all comedy or is it a music showcase as well? Also, care to ruminate on the importance of Sub Pop to the so-called “alternative comedy” scene these days?

TB: It’s a three-day event. The comedy show is on the first night. Sub Pop is not my label, but they’re very supportive, and they organize some great benefit shows that use comedians.

WW: Speaking of “alternative comedy,” do you think that’s a kind of bullshit term? Or do you think that it is a legitimate comedy scene, with opportunities that didn’t exist just a few years ago?

TB: I might use the term as shorthand for a show that’s not at a full time comedy venue, like in the back room at a bar, but I’m less likely to use it to describe an actual type of comedy. Although, there are a handful of comics that probably wouldn’t go over in a “mainstream” comedy club, you will see a lot of traditional standup going on in “alternative” rooms. The upside to these rooms is that they often attract smart, enthusiastic crowds. The downside is that these rooms can be too “comfortable” -- you always know a bunch of people in the crowd -- so you see a fair amount of lazy comedy on stage. I also don’t think it benefits a comic to align him or herself with a particular scene. I think the best way to develop is to go on stage as much as possible, in a wide variety of environments. Wow, that was pretty heavy-handed and lecture-like!!!!!!!!

WW: I read some of your essays in The New York Times, were those something where they sought you out or did you blindly submit them?

TB: You read “some” of my three essays? Thanks! I was asked to submit by John Hodgman, who was (and maybe still is) an editor over there. Basically I’d tell him an idea I had -- it had to be a true story -- then I’d write it up. If he liked it, he’d pass it along to another editor who would decide whether or not to publish it.

WW: Where did you start comedy? Florida? If so, how was the transition moving to NYC? Did you find that a hard scene to penetrate? And should I have chosen a better word than “penetrate.”

TB: “Penetrate” is the perfect word when you consider how sexual my act is. But yes, I did start in Florida during the famous “comedy boom” of the late 80's. I moved to New York after doing comedy a little over a year, which, in retrospect, was probably too soon. A year into comedy is when most comedians think they’re better than they are. And there’s a lot of competition in New York.

WW: Do you enjoy touring or is it mind-numbing for you? I imagine it’s pretty all over the place.

TB: It’s both. It’s great to travel to go to Oklahoma and find out you have fans there, but coming home, throwing your bag on the kitchen floor and leaving it there because you know you’re gonna leave again in three days -- that makes it a bit mind-numbing.

WW: Lastly, I couldn’t help but notice that I’m opening for you on this show, a choice I find quite inspired. What are your feelings about performing with me?

TB: My feelings about performing with you are good, but my feelings about you running all over town hanging posters are great.

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