Q&A: Comedian Todd Barry Like You’ve Never Seen Him

On his “Crowd Work” tour, the noted comedian makes an entire show out of audience interaction. Sept 20

By Jamison Taffel September 17, 2013

Todd Barry is a veteran comedian who is most recognizable from his roles on FX's Louie, HBO's Flight of the Conchords, and feature films like Wanderlust and The Wrestler. Barry is iconic for his deadpan delivery and sarcastic dissection of seemingly innocuous subjects like air conditioning and leftovers.

Todd Barry: Crowd Work
Mississippi Studios
Sept. 20 at 8:00

He's trying something new on his most recent tour, called "Crowd Work.” Instead of performing written material, he's doing a full set of audience interaction and banter. It’ll be a challenge even for someone with Barry's comedy chops, and a once-in-a-lifetime show for the audience. Barry will also appear as a guest on Live Wire! on Sept 21.

We wanted to learn how it works:

Culturephile: I want to take a step back for our readers not familiar with your work. So you're ditching the stand-up to do a "Crowd Work" tour. For those not familiar, tell us what a show is like. Where did the idea come from? How did you develop it? 
Todd Barry: "Crowd Work" is a comedy term describing when a comedian stops doing prepared material and interacts with the audience. Some comics do this by asking questions "Where are you from?" or "What do you do?;"  etc. So it's not something I invented, I'm just doing my own spin on it. 

It's unscripted and unrehearsed, do you consider it improv?
I guess it is. It’s not stuff you see at improv theaters. I've seen one-man shows at those kind of places. I don’t take audience suggestions like you'd see at an improv theater.

How long have you been doing the crowd work tour? How’s it going so far? 
The second part starts next week. The first [Crowd Work] tour was back in January – it was good. Challenging. Nerve-wracking.

What do you like about this kind of show over stand-up? What are the kind of moments it enables? 
I don't like it over stand up. I'm not going to stop writing jokes and performing them, I'm doing this to mix things up for a bit. I'm not really planning to do another crowd work tour after this one. But it is fun and challenging, and you end up talking to some interesting people. On my last tour there was a woman in Chicago who works as a therapist who specializes in swallowing disorders. So that was a good way to kill fifteen minutes. 

Barry will also be a guest on Live Wire!
Alberta Rose Theater
Sept 21 at 7:30 

After coming to Portland a few times, what do you think?
[Portland’s] definitely got a vibe to it, but I don’t find it weird. I live in New York. I find Portland people pretty nice actually.

[Ed. Note: This is the point where we wanted to ask him how audiences differ in different parts of the company, but we were afraid it would result in an answer like this from his 2008 Heaven show:
I love touring the South. Some people up North are afraid of the South, it's weird. I'll do a show in, like, Alabama. I'll tell someone I did a show in Alabama and they'll be like, "Oh my God! What was that like?" Oh, you know, chairs, a microphone. Oh, I'm sorry, I know what you're looking for. I'll tell you what it was like. Well, I flew into Birmingham. The Imperial Wizard from the Klan picked me up at the airport. Rode to the club on the back of an old mule. Tried to get a joke out over the shouts of "jewboy go home." At the end of the night I go "Where's my check?" They go, "You're not gettin' a check. You're gettin' this bag of porkrinds." Is that the answer you were looking for, you narrow-minded fake-liberal f**k?]

You’ve been voice acting for almost 20 years, so if you could pick any voice to play, who would it be?
I would love to be in one of those Pixar movies. It’d be great to get a job where they you fly into a recording studio everyday and you get to wear a t-shirt. It’s not very stressful.

Is it hard to maintain your TV career while on tour?
Stand-up is my main career. I want it to be. I don’t really do a lot of auditions. Most of my TV work comes from people seeing my stand-up.

You started a podcast earlier this year. Do you feel intimidated starting a podcast when there's so many popular comedy podcasts flooding the internet?
Yeah, I never thought of it as intimidating, kind of daunting. Suddenly having to schedule people and think about how long you’re supposed to do it. I’ve been putting out one a week since it started. I don’t really have a producer like Marc Maron, so I just kind of email people.

What's the biggest backlash you've faced from telling a joke?
Silence. I did Conan once where I got no laughs, barely any laughs. It was my second time on Conan. I never thought it was backlash, but I’m certainly not looking to bomb on national television. 

Filed under
Show Comments