The pleasantly slothful pace at which Todd Barry’s new stand-up special/documentary, The Crowd Work Tour, unfolds pretty well mirrors his actual jokes, none of which are on display here. Instead, as the title suggests, Crowd Work captures a seven-city tour during which the always-funny Barry abandoned all pre-written material and instead struck up conversations with audience members—or whichever audience member had the microphone at the time—hoping that somebody would set him up for a good line or two.
It was a pretty daring move: Though Barry is fairly well known (and is undoubtedly beloved by his peers—Louis C.K. financed Crowd Work and released it via his own site), it’s certainly a gamble to get up in front of decent-sized rooms with no net. He advertised this tour as all crowd work and stuck with it, and the audiences were game—at least the ones that made it into these 75 minutes, directed by Lance Bangs.
It’s a testament to Barry’s skill that everything seemed to go so well, particularly in light of the fact that his crowd work never falls back on making fun of people, at least not in a mean-spirited way. He finds a pair of musicians in the front row at one show, and his assessment of their terrible band name—Avant Abstract—becomes the source of more gentle teasing than shredding. (“I did my business cards in that font!”) Elsewhere, he has plenty of opportunity to unleash wickedness on audience members—a drunken Portland woman won’t stop talking about organic eggs—but the meanest he wants to offer is, “What if I just walk out of here right now?”
The concert bits are intercut with footage of Barry traveling from gig to gig, and he’s not much different offstage than on: In his hotel room, he delivers a short monologue about how he keeps his toothbrush clean on the road that could just as well have been a bit, and a long car ride with fellow comic Blaine Capatch just yields some pleasant conversation. Since The Crowd Work Tour is sort of pitched as a documentary, it would’ve been nice to hear from Barry exactly why he decided to do it—he clearly knew it wouldn’t go perfectly, and that it was an odd thing to do at this point in his career, but it’s tough to say whether it was a lark or if he was looking to scratch some comedic itch he doesn’t get from more rehearsed material.
But that’s a minor complaint considering how funny The Crowd Work Tour is. If he did it just to see if he could do it, he succeeded. If he did it to prove that he doesn’t need material—that he’s just a funny, quick human being despite his low-key delivery—it worked.