Todd Barry Punches Up His Own Interview
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As his new CD From Heaven attests, comedian Todd Barry is funny. But his subdued style and dry speaking voice—his 2001 debut is called Medium Energy—belie the almost obsessive perfectionism he puts into being Todd Barry, Comedian. That vigilance isn't just reserved for the stage: Barry favors e-mail interviews, so he has time to craft appropriately amusing responses to questions. During the 33 minutes The A.V. Club spoke to him on the phone, he frequently worried that he sounded boring—anxiety that only grew after the interview, when Barry persistently requested follow-up conversations to spice things up. So, to try something new, The A.V. Club decided to let the 43-year-old comedian—whom much of the world knows as Todd, the bongo-playing third wheel from Flight Of The Conchords—punch up his own interview. He spoke to The A.V. Club about e-mail interviews, bad audiences, and MySpace awkwardness.
[Todd's notes: DELETE all mentions of me saying that I might be "boring." If you leave those in, the readers will be looking for me to be boring, and it will be one of those self-fulfilling prophecies.]
The A.V. Club: How did you end up working on Flight Of The Conchords?
TB: I know those guys—I met them in 2004, I think, when I did a festival in Australia. We sort of crossed paths a number of times in different festivals, and when they came to New York and when I went to L.A. We just became friends. I auditioned for another role a while ago. I didn't get that, or they cut that part out, or whatever. Then they said, "We have something better for you," and they wrote this thing. I said, "Wow, that's a pretty big part." A pretty big, annoying part.
[Todd's notes: Nice, lean, informative answer. Leave as-is, (LA-I)]
AVC: Did you get recognized a lot more after the show?
TB: Yeah, I have. It's interesting. Some people think that I'm a cast member. Last time I was in Chicago, just walking, someone yelled at me out of a bar. "Like, how did you process that in like an eighth of a second of me walking by?"
[DELETE AND REPLACE WITH "Yeah, I actually had a guy follow me into a Laundromat. He tapped me on the shoulder and said something like "Where are your bongos?" That's a true story, and a bit spicier than the Chicago story.]
AVC: That raise in profile usually involves lots of Internet debate, which you used a while back for your solo show Icky. Has your reaction to people slamming you online changed over the years?
TB: I don't know; no one's said anything overly awful lately. I guess it's worse when someone saw something and they're right—like if you saw a bad show, and you're like, "Aww, oh damn. That was a bad show." I think some people write these things as if they're just sending an e-mail to their friends. I mean, every comedian I know has a Google alert set up for themselves, to torture themselves with.
[Phenomenal answer. LA-I]
AVC: One interviewer described you as "blogger-friendly." What does that mean?
TB: Yeah, I remember that. I don't know what that means, actually. I don't ban bloggers from my shows. I have a separate line: VIP seating for bloggers.
[DELETE AND REPLACE WITH: "Yeah, boyee. I luv to get krazee wit da bloggerz after da show."]
AVC: You do tend to do a lot of e-mail interviews.
TB: I prefer that. I had a guy recently for some small show I was doing. And he e-mailed me, he goes, "Hey, can I interview you for the show?" It was a small show where I was doing like, 10 minutes, and was getting a small amount of money. He writes back, "I really prefer to do it over the phone." Well, guess what? I prefer to do it over e-mail to craft my answers. Some people will ask "Who are your influences?" and I can't not be boring. I hope that wasn't your next question.
[UNDO italics on "do" in the question. It makes the question seem confrontational.]
AVC: From Heaven is your third album. How has your approach changed?
TB: This one I kind of—I hope it doesn't show—but I wasn't ready to record it when I booked the shows that I was gonna record. It was just to kinda kick myself in the butt to write some more.
[This answer is so brutally honest it would be tragic to change it in any way. I guess what I'm saying is: LA-I.]
AVC: So did you have to do a writing binge?
TB: I did a little bit. I realized I'd been sorta been coasting a while. No matter what you've done on TV or what you put out, it seems like always, the majority of the people haven't seen 99 percent of it. So if most of the people haven't seen most of it, you can pretty much get away with [it]. It's just about being lazy [and] trying not to be lazy.
[What's with those brackety things you put around "it" and "and"? That tells me and the reader that you cut something out—probably something crazy-funny or interesting, too. Find out what you cut out and put it back in.]
AVC: Was there a lot of untested stuff on there?
TB: No. Really, I just don't think I had another 45 minutes when I booked the shows. I book them few months ahead of time. I just ran around and did as many shows as possible.
[Another brutally honest/massively interesting answer. LA-I]
AVC: What's your writing process like?
TB: It's really thinking of an idea and working it out onstage; there's very little sitting down and writing it like a script. I think of something, and oftentimes I think, "Oh, that's gonna be funny. I'll write it down later." And then of course I forget it, or I'll write in a way that I can't even remember what I was thinking of: "the party." I'll think, "Fuck, what was I gonna say about 'the party'? Something happened at the party?" I think of something, and then I try to talk it out and do shows over and over again. Because quite often, it comes out in the heat of trying it out onstage, and you didn't have any idea it was gonna come out.
[DELETE AND REPLACE WITH: "If you want to know about my writing process, do a Google search for the last 50 interviews I've done." Yeah. I'm saying that was a lame question.]
AVC: Do you record your shows?
TB: When I first started out 20 years ago, I used to. I started in Florida. I would record the show and actually get excited about popping the tape into my car stereo and listening to it on the hour drive back from wherever I was doing my open-mic. Now I don't know if it's just getting jaded, but listening to myself is torture. I recorded three shows this time when I usually record two, which I guess is different. I guess the problem is, I'm sort of obsessive in that sort of situation, and I get very perfectionist-y, which I think is probably a good thing. You listen to three hours of your stuff, but it's fucking brutal. Sometimes there's rambling bits where you just go off. Because I always record in a small space, for a number of reasons. It's a little easier to stray from the script if you have a small room, for me it is. So bits like that, I want to see if I can make them funny. So there might be editing, and then, "Do I include that? Is this gonna transfer?" Is this a boring interview I'm doing so far? I feel like I'm being boring.
[ADD THIS SENTENCE AT THE END: "Maybe some better questions would be helpful. Ask me something that will get my juices flowing, like maybe 'So why small rooms?'"]
AVC: No, it's fine. So why small rooms?
TB: Well, first, I want a room that I can definitely pack out. I don't want to sweat that part, "Am I gonna have enough people?" So I usually pick like a hundred, a relatively small room. Also, I'm looser in a small room. I don't want to record an album in front of a thousand people, not that I could draw a thousand, but I just want a room that I can really work back to front. That's just a very comfortable place for me to be loose.
[A fascinating look into "the process." LA-I]
AVC: Do you tend to have more audience interaction in those situations?
TB: I do, but then I listen and go, "I remember this being funny when I was there—is this gonna be funny if someone's listening to it? Or is this kinda a had-to-be-there kinda thing?" And it's probably "You had to be there," but then they put it on the album anyway.
[Are you sure I said "they put it on the album anyway?" They? I probably said "I" put it on the album anyway. NO ONE TELLS ME WHAT TO PUT ON MY ALBUMS.]
AVC: Speaking of audiences, you've said that sometimes an audience is just bad. But what about the argument that if the audience isn't laughing, it's your fault, not theirs?
TB: There are some people who just go, "That was the audience's fault." I mean, I've seen comics storm offstage, "Those people suck." Well, actually, you kinda sucked. I don't say that out loud, but what were you expecting with what you just did up there? Sometimes you're just mad that it didn't work out, so you just lash out. But there are also a lot of times an audience is really quiet, but is actually having a great time. I've had shows where you think, "Is this going well? I can't tell," and then you say goodnight and you get this ovation. They're sorta like a theater audience. I've learned that much; that they're not always going to be doing backflips—but I'll never figure it out. Because sometimes you walk up there, and they're so excited, and then other times, it's just… But sometimes an audience is bad, and you can tell them they're bad, and that sort of breaks the ice a bit.
[DELETE AND REPLACE WITH: "It's never my fault, asshole. You're pissing me off. If this wasn't a phone interview, I'd fuckin' walk off. I'm tempted to have my personal assistant book a flight to Chicago right now, where I'll do something that will be my fault."]
AVC: "Bad" meaning—
TB: Like, "You guys kinda suck." You sorta have to finesse that. But sometimes they're all collectively thinking, "Wow, we're kinda a shitty audience," and then if you point it out, it's kinda like, "Hey, I know what's going on. We know what's going on up here. Or what's not going on. And I'm letting you know that I know. And now we can fix this."
[DELETE AND REPLACE WITH: "'Bad'" as in…you know what the fuck the word "bad" means.]
AVC: You've done a fair number of performances outside of traditional comedy venues. Do you feel that they're fading in relevance?
TB: I don't think so, because they're still doing quite well, depending on the club. The problem with a lot of comedy clubs is not that they are a comedy club; it's just the cheesy way they're presenting themselves. I think that's why a lot of people have a problem with them. I work them, and I certainly know. But at the same time, there are clubs where people go, where the club has a bit of a draw itself. If you're a relatively unknown comedian, you can play at a comedy club, you might play to hundreds of people every night. Some of those people are going to like you, and then you get new fans. But if you try to make a concert event out of it, and try to play a rock club or something, where you might play to 10 people or no people, because it's just gonna be the people who know you who show up… And the flipside of that is, that's also a great thing, to play to people who are your fans. Some people are too hard on the comedy clubs. I could talk about this all fucking day.
[DELETE AND REPLACE WITH: I do shows outside of traditional comedy venues? Really? Are you telling me the drainage basin of the Amazon river is not a traditional venue?]
AVC: So comedy clubs aren't going anywhere.
TB: It's a bit more expensive. That's the problem with some of these places. But the flipside of that is, if you do too many shows for free or $5, then people don't understand why you can't fly to Milwaukee and do a show for a $3 cover. That won't even pay for my flight.
[I used "flipside" in two consecutive answers. As a journalist, you should've caught this. REPLACE second "flipside" with "other motherfuckin' side."]
AVC: Do you tend to get a lot of offers like that?
TB: It's weird. Some days you can make an insane amount of money, and other days, it's insane in the opposite direction. Sometimes I'll get an e-mail from [Affects voice of wimpy college student.] "Hey, can you perform at my school? I've got this little pub." I'd love to, but probably not. I feel like there's more to say about that subject. It depends on how the club is run. If it's run like, "Hey, bring your bachelor party here," then that's gonna suck. A lot of them just don't know. It's very artless, especially some of the chain comedy clubs. It's a business opportunity. It's a guy opening a Taco Bell or something, a franchise. He's not necessarily a passionate comedy fan. He's just a dude who can make money. Then, within a few months, he has to make decisions that are artistic, and he's really not qualified. Then you have situations where your opening act is just absolutely, inappropriately paired with you. You just kinda wanna go, "Have you ever seen me work at all? Do you have any idea what I do? Because if you did, you wouldn't put the guy who puts ass-wiping jokes in front of me." And not even good ass-wiping jokes.
[DELETE EVERYTHING EXCEPT second mention of "ass-wiping."]
AVC: You have a bit on the album about the odd requests that you get, like "It's my friend's birthday. Will you rag on him?" What else do you get?
TB: I had a woman call me at my hotel room once, who worked at the hotel, and said, "Hey, you're a comedian, I'm gonna come to your show tonight. Can you totally rag on my friend Dennis?" "Are you sure the hotel would be cool with you calling me? As a guest of your hotel?" Ugh.
[DELETE "ugh" because we both know I didn't say that.]
AVC: They always want you to rag on somebody.
TB: It happens just from time to time. I try to be polite about it. I mean, that's another problem with some of the comedy clubs, is that they encourage that. I mean, one of my biggest pet peeves in comedy is the MC going, "Hey, before we get the show started, is anyone celebrating something?" Why do we have to address this? You don't see fucking Bob Dylan go out there, "Hey, before I sing songs, it's really crucial that we break the boundary between audience and performer." It just sets that kind of tone. It's a pandering tone.
[DELETE AND REPLACE WITH: "Yes, Kyle. They do."]
AVC: You consider anything fair game for comedy, but what wouldn't you put in your act?
TB: There are certain things that are probably too mean. I don't particularly like fat jokes. Those kind of bother me. But I guess what I was trying to say is, if I said I would never laugh at this, you could probably dig around and find a situation where I did laugh. I try not to be a hypocrite with that one. I find when there's a controversy about someone saying something offensive, I usually take the angle of, "Well, I don't know if that was offensive; it just wasn't funny." I generally don't gasp, "Oh my God!" I think people have been getting raked over the coals lately.
[An incredibly controversial answer. The kind of answer that will get picked up by various wire services and take both of us to the next level. LA-I.]
AVC: Just lately?
TB: I mean, no, not lately, it's just… I just glanced at something, I guess Jane Fonda used a profanity on The View or something. In 2008, that's on CNN.com? Jane Fonda used a profanity. That's just ridiculous.
[DELETE AND REPLACE WITH: "Yes, Kyle. Just lately. Hey Kyle, we're all excited that you got an advance copy of the new Deerhoof CD, but that's no reason to be a condescending cock."]
AVC: Speaking of being raked over the coals, David Cross took it on the chin for appearing in Alvin And The Chipmunks. Have you had any similarly iffy offers?
TB: I can't say that I turned down some huge offer. I tend to not even put myself in the running for things, so that I don't have to turn them down—not that I assume I'd get them. I just kind of go with my gut, and if it's something I feel like I'm not going to be happy with myself doing…
[You left out the part where I said I didn't think it was bad for him to do a children's movie, and that my niece saw it. I know you have to edit some things out, Kyle, but David and I go to the same make-your-own-sundae shop, and I don't want to get dirty looks from him while I'm trying to add Butterfinger crumbles to my cup of vanilla-chocolate swirl.]
AVC: Like what?
TB: Oh, you want specifics, to make the interview better. Well you know, "Do you wanna do this tour sponsored by a cigarette company?" No, I don't. Thank you though. "Can we hang Camel posters behind your thing? We'll give you an extra $300." No, you can't. Just stuff like that.
[Camel posters behind "your thing?" Are you sure that's the quote? MAYBE YOU SHOULD GO TO RADIO SHACK AND GET A TAPE RECORDER SO MISQUOTES LIKE THIS DON'T HAPPEN, KYLE.]
AVC: When you were first starting out, did you find yourself doing more stuff like that?
TB: I performed last night in a room that holds, like, 20 people. I don't have a problem doing that. It helps me. I think people have this "It can't hurt to ask" mentality, which is true on some level. I get comics like, "Hey, will you look at these videos of me on MySpace?" I was like, "Well, who's gonna benefit from that? What if I don't like you?" No, I'm gonna write to a stranger and say, "Hi. You like me, and I don't like you. And now I feel bad when I didn't need to feel bad, because you put me on the spot." Or like, "Can I open for you?" Well, I've never seen you work, so no. I certainly made awkward mistakes when I was starting out, and they're just trying to have a career. I think I answered your question. Probably not in the best way. —Kyle Ryan
[DELETE AND REPLACE WITH: "Stuff like what, Kyle? What the fuck are you talking about? You said this would take a half-hour, tops. I'm looking down at my Rolex, and it's telling me you've been bumming me out for nearly 33 minutes. I gotta go, Kyle. I'm sure you're a nice person, and if we met under different circumstances I wouldn't be bummed out, but really. What the fuck?"]