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Todd Barry's New Stand-Up Strategy: 'Does Anyone Want To Talk To Me?'

NPR
Monday, May 5, 2014

Todd Barry is one of comic Louis C.K.'s favorite comedians. So when Barry had the idea to film a tour in which all he did was crowd work — or, engage the audience in improvised conversations — Louis C.K. decided to produce the film, called The Crowd Work Tour, and feature it on his website.

Barry also plays a version of himself on Louis C.K.'s show Louie, which begins a new season on Monday. He's recorded several comedy albums, appeared in the film The Wrestler and done a lot of voice-over work for animated TV series.

He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about doing stand-up in the dark, and that time Mickey Rourke threw a chicken at him.


Interview Highlights

On how he got into comedy

I started comedy during the big comedy boom of the '80s, and I started in Florida, so people were losing their minds over comedy. I went to these open mic nights and watched. And then I got this little itch, like, oh, I should try this. And I tried it, and I kept going immediately, every night I could. I remember like seven months in, going, "I shouldn't be doing this, I shouldn't be doing this." But I realized, like, "But I'm pursuing it pretty vehemently." And at some point I just said, "All right, I guess I'm a comedian." Because I was in bands and probably wanted to do that, but realized you have to practice and stuff. Around 24 is when I locked myself into it.

On performing in the dark

I actually like to perform with the house lights up a tiny bit. I like to see them. I actually weirdly find it — I get more nervous if I play in a completely dark [room]. ... I've done shows with [Louis C.K.], and he likes it pitch black, and I just feel lost, like I don't even know if I'm in an empty room or not. So [I] kinda like to look out and see a smile or two to keep me going.

On his crowd work shows where he goes onstage with nothing planned

What I'll do is I'll look around for people who maybe are intriguing, someone who has an interesting look or seems friendly and welcoming. And then I kinda just go, "Does anyone want to talk to me?" They're surprisingly not as enthusiastic to do that, but once I kind of ease into it, they kind of slowly warm up to it. But there are people who sit right up front who don't want to talk, even at a crowd work show.

On the challenges of touring and being a germaphobe

Luckily most hotels are cleaner than my apartment. ... Most rock clubs are cleaner than my apartment. It's not a big problem. The only time it actually is a problem is when I'll play a music venue, and sometimes you play these music venues, and they're like, "Oh, this place has the worst bathroom in the history of bathrooms." And you're kinda like, "You know, you could fix that and have a different reputation." ... That's always an issue. ... But hotels, I feel pretty safe in hotels unless I watch the housekeeper clean and then see her throw the pillows on the floor, and I get upset.

On his role as Mickey Rourke's boss in The Wrestler

I was like a little bully, twerp boss, which certainly exists out there. ... It was really fun. It's kind of surreal just because I'd always been a real Mickey Rourke fan, so then to suddenly be insulting him was kind of weird. It was also weird because we didn't really do a lot of chatting beforehand, so it was weird to go right into looking in his eyes and being abusive to him. I had to kind of go, "It's film. He knows it's film. He's not going to beat you up." And he didn't beat me up.

But there was a scene where he flips out in the deli, and he kinda — he threw a chicken at me. There were things there like, "I didn't remember that in the script — throwing chicken at me." He beaned me once with an industrial-sized box of foil, and it kinda hurt. ... They didn't have to call a medic or anything, but yeah, it certainly hurt.

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