Comedian Todd Barry is usually characterized as a cerebral comic with a mellow, low-energy stage style. What’s less often discussed is how Barry – a veteran who came up in the late ’80s and early ’90s New York scene with guys like Louie CK – is a master at the stand-up comedy art of “working a room.” Listen to his comedy specials, and you’ll hear a performer who plays the audience like an instrument, effortlessly blending jokes, stories and banter.
In fact, in Barry’s latest special “The Crowd Work Tour,” the comic forgoes prepared material entirely. Filmed in seven West Coast cities, the shows feature Barry simply talking to audience members, spontaneously generating runs and riffs out of whatever presents itself. The special is currently available for digital download on Louis CK’s website for $5.
Barry also has a lengthy resume in TV and film – he had a role in the “The Wrestler” with Mickey Rourke, and has appeared on “Flight of the Conchords,” “Chappelle’s Show,” “Sex and the City” and even “Sesame Street.” Barry will perform this Wednesday at Motorco in Durham. He recently spoke to the N&O about joke writing, Jerry Seinfeld and rowdy crowds.
Q: Your energy is similar to Steven Wright. He came to town a while back and said something interesting – that his jokes tend to pop into his head more or less fully formed, and he rarely changes them onstage. Is that your experience?
A: No, not for me, but I can see why his might, because they’re shorter – these funny thoughts he has. Once you’ve got the thought, you’re pretty much done, and he’s got a million of them. For me, I tend to kind of beat the jokes to death onstage. I try to rewrite them as much as possible onstage. But I should probably be rewriting offstage as well. I know Seinfeld writes his stuff down and works them out on paper. I talk about doing that, and I don’t end up doing it.
Q: You were recently on Seinfeld’s online show, “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” and he said how much he admires your life as a working comic. You sensibly asked if he wanted to trade. But aside from Seinfeld’s money, would you want that level of fame?
A: Well, to begin with, I don’t think he’d really want to make that trade. He wouldn’t want to be carrying his laundry down the street. I’ve seen him and other really famous people, and how they’re treated, and often it’s really good, of course. But there’s also the constant staring and the pictures.
But yeah, there’s things I’d like about his life. I think all the money might freak me out a little bit. I think he enjoys it and appreciates it. He doesn’t seem like someone who’s a mess because he has a lot of money. He loves comedy. He’s still on the road a lot and he doesn’t need it for the income, I don’t think.
Q: Your “Crowd Work” tour seems like a frankly terrifying idea. The concept of being onstage with nothing prepared – that’s like the number one phobia on the planet. Was there any anxiety around that for you?
A: Yeah, I was nervous. I was half nervous and half relaxed. I remember doing the first show, I think it was in Philadelphia, and thinking beforehand – well, I should get ready for the show. Then realizing – there is no getting ready for the show.
I made sure that I did them in venues where it was promoted as a special event – in a music venue or a little theater – where most of the people were followers on Twitter or found out though my website. When you can get your own people in there, it’s easier. It’s not like these were going to be rowdy shows.
Q: Speaking of which, you’re known to be pretty formidable when dealing with hecklers. Has it ever gotten out of hand, like a physical confrontation with some drunk guy?
A: I’ve had situations where people would throw stuff at me or get mad or want to kill me. I try to ignore them. I’m not going to take 20 minutes to destroy this guy, mostly because I don’t want to hand anyone 20 minutes of my stage time. But yeah, there have been times when I think this could turn into me getting my ass kicked. So I’ll withdraw a little bit, defuse it. Then get angry the next day.
Q: The Durham spot you’re playing, Motorco, is primarily a music venue – but they do all sorts of events now, comedy and film series. Do you find the vibe is different for you in music venues versus dedicated comedy clubs?
A: Yeah, and I like that vibe. It’s kind of what I talked about earlier. With Motorco, I imagine it’s going to be a cool crowd. It’s not going to bachelorette parties or 50 people that just got in free. Sometimes the music venues can be challenging, just the layout – like if there are bathrooms right next to the stage, things like that.
For the most part, I think the rock venues are usually pretty excited to have a comedian there. It’s something different – they don’t get their head pounded in for a night.
Who: Todd Barry
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., Durham
Info: 919-901-0875 or motorcomusic.com