Comedy Central’s The Half Hour series continues this Saturday night and I talked to the man holding down the 12:30 a.m. spot, Barry Rothbart. The Half Hour was filmed at The Royale in Boston, a fitting venue, considering that Rothbart got his (kind of weird) start in Massachusetts. Rothbart was one of Variety’s “10 Comics to Watch” in 2013, has appeared on The Tonight Show, The Late Late Show and Conan, and played the role of Peter DeBlasio in The Wolf of Wall Street. We discussed the Half Hour, his unconventional foray into standup, and the strange effects of snorting B-12 vitamins.
How much time do you spend on the road?
Lately, in the last year/year-and-a-half, I’ve been mixing up clubs with these one-nighter tours. I’ll book these showrooms that aren’t in clubs, or music venues, for one-nighter shows. I’ve been doing that once every two or three months, for maybe a two week stint. Then maybe I’ll do one or two club weekends a month. I’m doing a good bit, but I’m not doing these crazy six months of not being home type things that some comics do. I don’t like to do standup. [laughs] No, I like standup, but you don’t want to lose the fun of it by being on the road all the time. That’s how I feel.
Do you book your own tours?
I book with my agent. Mostly, the clubs are booked through my agent and I book the other stuff on my own.
You started doing comedy when you were in college in Massachusetts, right?
Yeah, my first show was in Randolph, Massachusetts when I was in college. I didn’t do it again for about two years. Then I started doing it regularly in New York in like, 2003-ish. That was when I went full steam. My first show was the day after 9/11. 2001. The real 9/11. It was a weird time to start comedy. It went terribly and I was like, “Well, that’s it for that. Never going to do that again.” I had always wanted to do it. I had to try it one day. I had always loved comedy. Plus it’s like this secret… I think for a lot of comics, when they first start doing it, it’s like this secret drug addiction, this thing that you don’t want to tell anyone that you’re doing.
A lot of people go out and lurk at mics for a while before they finally get the nerve to go up. When they do finally go up, they often don’t tell anyone about it because they’re not sure if they’re good or not. Did you just go straight into to a room and ask to sign up, or did you hang around the scene for a while first?
My first exposure to comedy was at the Comedy Cellar in New York. My dad took me there. I think my first time was when I was 13 years old. I went all the time after that. A few times a year through my teenage years I would go with my dad to the Comedy Cellar and see Seinfeld, Hedberg, Gaffigan, Chris Rock. It would be all these legendary guys in this small setting. I was like, “This is insane. This is wizardry what these guys do.” I had never seen anything like it. I thought it would be so cool if I was able to do that. I would have it in my head and when I wanted to try it, I called up a bunch of comedy clubs in Boston and was like, “Hey, I want to be a comedian. What do you guys think?” Really. Honestly, I called them up and was like, “I want to do this. Is that cool?” They were like, “Oh, yeah, of course it is. You just need to bring four people and we’ll get you set up on a bringer.” I was like, “Really? All right!” I guess there was something in my voice where they thought I would be funny. So I did a bringer, but I didn’t bring anyone. I thought that I could just pay for four tickets. They were like, “No, you have to bring four people.” It was at a Holiday Inn in Massachusetts. I was like, “All right. I guess I’ll just go to the lobby and see if people want me to pay for their admission.” I started barking in the lobby and ended up getting two people and they were like, “Okay, we’ll throw you up last.” I was like, “I did it!”
So you started out in the hole at your first set.
Yeah, it was crazy. You don’t know anything. How do you know? If you start out hanging out at mics and stuff I feel like you’re probably older than I was when I started. I was 18. You don’t know anything when you’re 18. I thought that I’d be discovered my first set. I was getting ready for SNL to discover me.
Did you suck?
How long did it take you to find your footing? When did you feel like you could actually call yourself a comedian?
I think the day I did the Half Hour. That was it. I think I figured it out. No, I don’t know. I don’t think there’s a moment. It’s like when you lose weight. You don’t see it. There’s not just one day where you go, “Whoa, look at all that weight I lost!” You just keep doing it and eventually you’re like, “Oh, people are responding better. That’s weird. But I still suck.” I wish there was a day, a moment, where I was like, “There it is. Now I’m good. Let’s coast. It’s time coast for the rest of my career.”
What was it like filming The Wolf of Wall Street?
It sucked. No, it was incredible. It’s a hard question because when you’re thrown into something like that it’s hard to savor it because you’re out of your mind most of the time. I shot on it for five months. You meet these people that are all also kind of scared and also wondering what the fuck is going on. You make friends with them and spend all day… you know, making a film is 99.999% hanging around and waiting. That’s all it is. You’re sitting around with a bunch of people. You end up doing activities and arts and crafts. You just sit around with a bunch of these cool people, DiCaprio, Jonah and the people that were in my circle of broker friends like Ethan Suplee, PJ Byrne, Henry Zebrowski. That was like my crew there. It was like summer camp, to be honest. Then every once in a while the Head Counselor, Scorsese, would come in and talk to us.
I was reading an article about the making of the movie and it said that Jonah Hill developed some kind of bronchial infection from snorting so much fake cocaine. Did you have any similar issues? How much fake coke did you do?
I did a lot of real coke and fake coke. After the shoot I would do real coke. No, I did a bunch of B-12, which is just crushed up vitamins. That’s what they use for coke. It gives you a rush. That’s the weird thing. I had one scene where I had to do six lines in a row, sitting right next to Leo. The whole time he’s talking I’m just doing coke. I’m not exaggerating, they did maybe 80 takes of this scene. I had to just keep doing it over and over again. Eventually I started to get really dizzy. I started to feel really coked out, because it’s B-12. You’re getting a rush. It brings back muscle memory. I had tried cocaine a few times in my life. If you’ve ever done it, just the act of snorting a white powder brings back this weird placebo effect of what it was like to do coke.
I feel like if any teenagers read this article they’ll be like, “Thanks, Barry! I’ll just go to GNC and get some B-12.”
Hey, any time. I think it’s great. Do that. Don’t do real coke.
Let’s talk about the Half Hour. You haven’t seen the final cut yet, right?
How do you feel it went?
I was having fun. I know that. The audience was laughing a lot. It felt good. I purposely added a few things that were untraditional. I had a guy in an owl costume pop up in the audience, things like that to make it more fun. It felt really fun. The crowds were amazing.
You kind of go in and out of you as a person and this sort of character work. You’ll say something intentionally shitty as a slightly bro’d out version of yourself. And the whole owl thing was a segue that bordered on performance art. Is that because of your sketch and improv background, that you want to put stuff in to make your standup more interesting?
Yeah. You know, I’ve never had anyone in my real life find what I talk about genuinely interesting. I think that’s what it stems from. I never really enjoy being sincere, which is probably some sort of autism. I don’t know what it is. I like having a kind of irony to certain jokes. I think that you can prove a point from a lot of different angles and just saying what the point is. You can make a joke by making the opposite of that joke. And then I like doing fun act-outs. I think that’s really fun. I get bored with standup. You have to do weird things to mix it up.
Other than the Half Hour, what else do you have coming up?
I’m in a movie with Demetri Martin that I think is going to be at Sundance. There’s no confirmation on that yet. Rory Scovel is in it. It’s Demetri Martin’s directorial debut called, Dean. I’m hopefully going to record an hour special soon. I don’t have any word on that. This Half Hour is big.