Talking to Todd Barry About His New ‘Crowd Work’ Special

Todd Barry has a new crowd work standup special coming out on Louis C.K.’s website.

That’s the narrative we’ll be hearing over the next few weeks. Louie and Todd are friends, Louie thinks Todd is funny and offered to produce his special, Louie holds a lot of sway in the comedy world.

Just keep in mind Barry’s special isn’t some run-of-the-mill comedy special C.K. is producing as a favor.

A standup special consisting entirely of audience interactions hasn’t been done before, and Barry is definitely a master of the skill. This is going to be worth checking out.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Barry briefly about his new special before he headed out to LA to promote it on Conan, @midnight, and WTF.

You’re doing one final show for your Crowd Work Tour. How come you’re ending it?

I just want to go back to writing jokes. I don’t want to remain just the crowd work guy.

Do you feel invigorated or inspired to write new material after having done so much crowd work recently?

Yeah, I haven’t really generated a lot of material from the crowd work. I just don’t want to be the crowd work guy. Which is why I’m releasing a special of it, which is all crowd work. [Laughs]

Was it Louie’s idea to put it on his site?

Yeah, it’s his site. I couldn’t force him on his site. No, I know what you mean. I was talking to him and I told him I had this idea of filming a Crowd Work Tour because I did one earlier in 2013 where I didn’t bring a film crew, and I told him I was going to write to Netflix, and he’s like, “Well do you want me to do it and just put it on my site?” I said, “Well, yeah. Let’s do that.”

Was it expensive to produce?

I have no idea what he spent, but more expensive than what I could afford.

And you got Lance Bangs to direct it. How did that come together?

He is a friend of mine, and I told Louie about him and just looked him up. Luckily, on pretty short notice, he was completely available, which is lucky because he’s a really busy guy.

How much time did he spend with you?

All seven shows on the west coast. And there was a whole crew of these pickup sort of people with various talents. They like to local hire people, but yeah, they followed me around, offstage, onstage. It’s mainly performance, but there’s some offstage stuff as well.

Did you have any hand in editing it?

Yeah, I did sit in with the editors. We had a lot of hours and I kind of picked what I wanted. So I did have a hand in the creative process.

Was it a challenge in that with normal standup specials, the cameras are trained on the performer the entire time, there might be like a pan to an audience reaction or something, but for this the camera had to be trained on the audience members more because you were interacting with them?

Yeah, there were cameras onstage and in the back and all over. Yeah, they were ready to still go and focus on the audience – and they handed them a microphone which makes it a little better for filming.

The special is a compilation of all the different shows that you did?

Yeah, I did seven shows starting in San Diego and working my way up to Anchorage, Alaska.

Are audience members funnier or less funny than you expected when they’re doing back and forth with you?

It’s always better when they just kind of give me straight answers. Some people were really funny, actually. Some people, you can sort of make things funny and other people were funny and then you were hopefully funny while they weren’t funny.

But it works better if they’re the straight person? And you’re making the jokes, you’re the pro up there.

In the end, it’s always better for crowd work if someone’s not trying too hard and just let’s you control things.

Has doing all this crowd work changed your perspective on it? Do you appreciate it more?

I think the one thing is how long some of my shows were out of this. I did some shows that were an hour and a half, an hour and forty-five minutes. And I don’t anticipate doing that very much, I think that’s too long. But the audience seemed to go with it.

Have you considered why audiences respond so well to it? Like why audiences…

It just takes longer to have a conversation than it does to tell a series of jokes. Generally speaking in terms of crowd work, audiences seem to love it. They do like it. A common situation is where you do some jokes and you do some crowd work and the crowd work just works way better than the jokes.

Do you have any insight into why that is?

I guess because it’s spontaneous and it’s like a magical moment.

Since you’re such a crowd work expert, going back to the old days and knowing Louie all these years, how would you judge his crowd work? Does he do much? I don’t even know.

No, he doesn’t do much crowd work. He’s terrible at it.

[Laughs] Are there any other good crowd work comedians who you would recommend? 

Jimmy Pardo’s really good. There’s a guy who’s the head writer now on Conan, Mike Sweeney, who was really good at it when he did comedy in New York. There’s other good crowd work people, I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but those two are really good.

Any funny stories you can tell us about the old days doing comedy with Louie? What was your first impression?

I don’t even remember when I met him. He’s got three short films he put me in, so you can see me when I was 23 years younger or whatever. Yeah, I don’t know, he’s just one of those people who I’ve stayed friends with for a long time.

Do any patterns emerge for you from doing all the different crowd work shows? Do any topics come up repeatedly with audiences?

I ended up talking to a lot of musicians because I think I get a lot of them in my audience. I talk to people about their jobs, I didn’t really do a lot of “Hey that’s an ugly shirt” kind of stuff. So just about their jobs and their lives and kind of being curious about it.

Since sometimes crowd work is making fun of the audience – is there a line you can’t cross?

Yeah, I try. I feel it out. There’s even one guy where I go “Are you cool with this?” and he says, “Yes,” so I continue. I’m not interested in ruining someone’s night.

You’re not Don Rickles up there.

Oh, I don’t think Don Rickles is interested in that either. It’s an honor to be insulted by Don Rickles.

What’s after the final Crowd Work show? Any plans?

I don’t know. I need to go on vacation.

Yeah, you’ve been busy.

Yeah, and I never take vacations. Hardly ever. So that’s my exciting answer to that.

Todd Barry’s new standup special, “Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour” is available for $5 on Louis C.K.’s website.

Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.

Talking to Todd Barry About His New ‘Crowd Work’ […]