Todd Barry at Turner Hall
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Over Todd Barry’s 25 years of stand-up experience, the comedian has logged immeasurable stage time, accumulated a heft of memorable supporting and guest roles on film and television, and has virtually perfected his distinct variety of hushed humor. The veteran comic’s-comic has spent a career assembling hours of material almost any comedian would kill for, but he elected to use absolutely none of it at a close-to-capacity Turner Hall Friday night. Instead, Barry opted for the daunting task of populating his entire hour-long set with crowd work.
Showing no one was immune from the potential of being “destroyed,” Barry barely arrived to the microphone stand before tearing into opener C.J. Toledano’s misuse of the term “registered mail.” “The past three days have been torture hearing that ‘registered mail’ line. Of course, after the first time he said it, I made him keep saying it.”
Barry then asked for volunteers to be “shit upon,” which yielded a treasure trove of particularly un-interesting audience members that included an aspiring comic who moonlights as a YMCA water aerobics instructor, someone whose sister works at the YMCA, a salt truck driver, and a giggly retired corrections officer. Barry did the most he could with the lackluster early participants with snappy retorts like, “Can you get me backstage at the Y?” and “Truck driver? I came here from New York in a truck. A comedy truck.”
“In Chicago, I had to go through 50 people before I got to the speech therapist who specialized in swallowing disorders,” Barry deadpanned for his largest laugh of the night. “Saved the whole show.”
From there, other audience members—willing or not—helped Barry’s off-the-cuff material trend upward, especially an inconsiderate bartender/optician (“Why do you need that part-time optician gig?”), an outreach manager (“Why would we talk about this? You’re killing my show.”), and a social worker with a gripping tale of convincing a client not to a taxi to Potawatomi (“That was a good story. I made it really funny.”).
The highlight of the crowd work came at the expense of an attendee from the Illinois village of Northbrook. “Tell the people of Northbrook I talked about your village. They’ll fucking faint,” Barry said after an extensive line of questioning. “It’ll be in the paper in a month: ‘New York comedian talks about us on stage a month ago.’”
In all, Barry did as much as anybody could with the difficult crowd work gimmick. Though the laughs were consistent and well deserved, Barry’s quarter-century track record of comedic quality would’ve been better served in a traditional format that allowed him to showcase his best material, as opposed to squeezing humor out of stand-up comedy’s worst byproduct.