Todd Barry on the “fucking awful” people who bring kids to stand-up shows
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Todd Barry’s concise comedy bits consistently mine situations most observational comics overlook. On the new album and Comedy Central special, Super Crazy—his first since 2008’s From Heaven—those subjects range from the grossness of the phrase “lip-smacking good” to sharing a comedy-club dressing room with “five cases of off-brand honey-mustard sauce.” While plenty of comics have an ear for minute silliness or uncomfortable situations, Barry becomes increasingly engaging as the scenarios he describes become more pitiful and crummy—see the album’s material on pedophile-hunting and a friend whose “travel tips” amount to stealing things. Though he’s commonly (and rightfully) called dry and deadpan, Barry even finds something like wonder in a bit about a Swedish woman who makes up a new English word, “boundaryless.” Barry, who’s previously performed with musicians including Yo La Tengo and Jens Lekman, also recruited his friend A.C. Newman of The New Pornographers to record a theme song for Super Crazy. He recently spoke with The A.V. Club ahead of the album release and his upcoming tour of the Southeast with Neil Hamburger and Brendon Walsh.
Todd Barry: There’s been a lot of stuff since then. You missed the one where I talked about his mom soaking in a bathtub full of homeless diarrhea? You’re caught up.
AVC: You’ve talked in the past about your preference for small venues. When you’re getting ready to do a special, is there ever a push to get you in a bigger theater?
TB: Yeah. I mean, the place was pretty good where we did it. I really wanted to do it in a 200-seat place or something, but there’s certain sorts of camera angles and crane shots that they do that I think they’re married to, so there’s limitations as far as what kind of cameras you can get into a smaller place. It was still small enough, but it does look big. I saw some clips, and it seems like there’s 10,000 people there, but there’s only 9,000 people.
AVC: How did A.C. Newman come to do the theme song for the special?
TB: I asked him. He said yes. He’s a friend of mine. So that’s pretty cool, because he’s a real songwriter.
AVC: At the start of the special, you can just catch a little bit of the lyrics—something about a sleepwalking cobra?
TB: I don’t know if he pulled things from actual reviews about me, or he made those things up. I guess if he gets sued by a reviewer, then we’ll know. Whatever you heard is pretty much it. It’s kind of my name and some other little incidental stuff. But there’s not like a million breaks or changes in it. It’s not like a Yes song or anything. They let you do it. It’s part of a deal [for comedy specials] that you can find somebody to do [a theme song]. Comedy Central didn’t give me a lot—they didn’t really fuck with me that much. Except saying, “You can’t say ‘fuck.’“ But it was pretty easy to work with them.
AVC: There’s a contrast between the A.C. Newman or New Pornographers sound and your pace as a stand-up.
TB: Well, I didn’t want music that was as slow and boring as I am.
AVC: On this special, you sometimes get as much of a laugh for stating the facts of a situation—like the name of the dating website It’s Just Lunch—as you do for a phrase like “chocolate dick helmets.” Are those laughs something you really work for?
TB: Ideally, I’d like the part that I wrote to be what gets the big laugh… It would not have made the cut if it didn’t get a strong reaction. That would be on the floor. That was just one thing where I used to see those ads. You always see them in airline magazines, in-flight magazines. Those magazines always are geared toward some sort of person that I’m not, which is a rich businessman, so it seems like those dating sites have kind of an angle toward those, I don’t know, busy people.
AVC: This album seems heavy on material about travel, to the point that it becomes a prominent theme. Did that come about inadvertently?
TB: There’s certain topics I seem to gravitate toward—food, travel. I used to talk a lot about music, but for some reason, I ran out of music jokes. I guess when you travel a lot—I mean, it’s sort of a cliché to say, “Why do people do airline jokes?” or whatever, but there’s a reason people do a lot of airline jokes, because it’s a bottomless pit of possibilities. I guess it’s just something I’m interested in.
AVC: You’ve previously joked about your New York friends asking you what a show in Alabama was like, expecting something horrible. Have you ever played a place that did meet some preconceived notion, or realize your fears about that place?
TB: Well, my point with that joke was, I guess, to talk about sort of liberal people being as bigoted in their own way—people who fancy themselves not bigoted are actually quite often bigoted. That’s one area that I often find people are bigoted, against Southern people. You’ll often hear a comic do a dumb person, and they’ll do a Southern accent. Sometimes the person they’re talking about isn’t even Southern. They’ll be like “oop doop doop doop,” and they’re talking about a guy from Colorado or something. Why did you give them a Southern accent? It’s always kind of bothered me. As far as some place living up to the stereotype, I can’t think of big examples of that. Once you get a tiny bit of a following, you tend to get people who are like-minded, so if I were a racist comic, I could probably play to racists all over the country, even in New York. But I’m not. Not yet, anyway.
AVC: What’s changed in the past few years about the way you approach your material?
TB: I don’t know if I’ve succeeded, but I’ve tried to up the quantity, just because the more you get exposed, the more you’re going to get shit for not having new stuff. I mean, especially with people like Louis CK, who pump out a new hour and 20 minutes every year—I don’t know that I can do that, but it’s something to shoot for, and you always win when you have new material. But I can only write as fast as I can. My style isn’t necessarily long-winded, so I could come up with five new jokes and have three new minutes. That’s always a thorn in my side, is output.
AVC: You use crowd work pretty sparingly, but you seem to try to integrate it into the bits. Is it something you think about when you’re working out new material?
TB: When I was editing the special down to a CD, I cut out a lot of the crowd banter, because it really depends on looking at a person and having a camera aimed at them. I think a lot of it wouldn’t translate and would be a bit snoozy, so I kept it to stuff that I think will translate just on audio. I like doing crowd work, and the people who like it seem to think I do it in a way that isn’t—I don’t like to just survey the room and go “Where you from, where you from?” At some point, I just get the urge to talk to someone. And sometimes I’ll just see someone who makes me curious, and sometimes I just get bored with myself, so I start a conversation with someone. And it makes the show a little more fun for me.
AVC: At a show a few years ago in Milwaukee, you started into a bit about pedophiles, then noticed there was a couple up front with a young kid. You basically said, “I guess I can’t do a pedophilia joke right now,” then decided you could, and went ahead.
TB: I definitely don’t like to do an act that doesn’t factor, or integrate, my surroundings. If there’s something I could say that comments on where I am, not necessarily in a cheesy, “finding a cheap laugh I know they’ll laugh at” kind of thing, but just the situation, or a kid being in the audience… I did a show a few weeks ago, and there’s a kid up front. It seems like the people who bring kids to comedy shows often always want to sit up front, like “Our kid’s smart.” Well, you’re not smart. Because my act isn’t particularly filthy, but no one wants to see a kid in an adult nightclub. It just puts a chill on everyone. It puts a chill on the people around them. And then if you’re someone who’s dirty, who wants to talk to adults in an adult way, and some fucking awful couple brings their kid, it’s just disrespectful to everyone around them. Get a babysitter, or just buy a DVD with a bunch of filthy comedians on it.
I’m sure they’re nice people, and maybe they just don’t think of it the way I think of it. There’s things you have to ignore. More and more, I’ve been trying to ignore stuff and not bring it up, because then it involves bringing everyone into your onstage world. Sometimes, at the same time, it’s fun to go, “Here’s what’s going on with me onstage, and let’s see if you can get why I’m feeling the way I’m feeling all of a sudden.” Sometimes you’ll have people talking up front, and that’s rough, because if you’re in the back and you don’t hear it, quite often people come up to you, “Oh, I didn’t even hear what was going on.” I mean, they’re smart enough to figure out that you’re suddenly stopping your act to tell someone to shut up. Sometimes they’re not, and then you just are this guy who looks like he’s losing his cool.
AVC: Is part of that crowd work finding chances to put some extra tension into the set?
TB: I’m not interested in consciously looking for tension. A lot of these things I just kind of go with, for better or worse.
AVC: What are some things you’d like to do with comedy that you haven’t yet?
TB: I like doing comedy and I like doing live shows, but I wouldn’t mind doing something that was more of a production, believe it or not. Not necessarily with me doing a dance number. I mean, I’d love to be involved in a really great comedy movie, whether writing it, or I don’t know. I don’t have the best attention span, so I don’t have this 12-hour-day writing thing, but I do get a certain amount of work done. I wouldn’t mind being a bigger comedian, like theaters and stuff. I don’t want to be, like, the guy on a show and I don’t like the show.
AVC: Do you like that your style of comedy allows you to take down someone like Nancy Grace without focusing primarily on the outrage she inspires, and just making her sound silly above all?
TB: I just don’t want to be name-calling. I obviously want to be creative about how I criticize her, because otherwise it’s just—oh, never mind. She does generate a certain feeling in me that would bring out name-calling if I were the type that would do that.
AVC: On the album, you talk about being asked whether a guy throwing up at your show was a setup. When disruptions happen, is it hard maintaining the demeanor you tend to have onstage?
TB: I’ve remained pretty cool through things. People passing out and throwing up and fire alarms going off, stuff like that. But I mean, I guess, there are certainly things that were tests of how cool I am. A couple times I’ve had stuff thrown at me. One was sort of, the comic on before me was talking to this woman in the audience who didn’t speak a lot of English, and I think she thought he was insulting her, then I went up there, and I don’t know what I said, but I certainly didn’t insult her in any way that deserved the wine glass she whipped at me. In Knoxville, once, I did a show with Yo La Tengo, and some guy threw something just because, I don’t know. Some people just are not good people.
AVC: Of the bits on this album, which ones changed the most over time as you worked them out in front of an audience?
TB: Jesus. I don’t even know what’s on the album, honestly. That North Dakota bit changed. That was a real hit. Sometimes you write a joke and it’s just kind of half an idea, and then you give up on it, and then you find a minor change, and it just takes it to a point where it’s now a solid thing that almost always works. I kind of gave up on it for a while and then changed something in it, just made it a clearer joke and piled on some other lines.
AVC: You’re doing a tour of the South soon with Neil Hamburger. How does his audience-baiting mix with the feel of your set when you’re on a bill together?
TB: This is more of a co-headlining thing, with a special-guest thing for Brendon [Walsh], although he’s a headliner, of course. But not on this tour, he ain’t. I go on first, before Neil, before it gets fuckin’ insane. It’s definitely, uh, we’re not the same performer. I think it’s good because it’s a variety. I mean, it’s good if you like variety.