Theater & art
    Next Score View the next score

    G Cover

    For comedian Todd Barry, nothing but crowd work

    Todd Barry, a stand-up comedian, has decided to go through his current tour with no set -- only audience interactions.
    Julie Glassberg for The New York Times
    Todd Barry, a stand-up comedian, has decided to go through his current tour with no set -- only audience interactions.

    Todd Barry doesn’t smile. He’s not demonstrative, and he rarely raises his voice. Like Jack Benny or Steven Wright, he’s a classic deadpan comedian. The fact that his sense of humor is perpetually churning inside just makes his expressionless persona that much funnier.

    Even on Twitter, where the comedian has more than 200,000 followers, his humor comes across so dry it needs its own wildfire warning. “Ordering coffee with a shot of espresso,” he observed recently, “is like asking me to do one of my amazing jokes with another one of my amazing jokes in it.”

    In his stand-up act, Barry likes to break up his set with impromptu observations and “crowd work.” As a kind of challenge to himself, he’s calling his latest tour, which arrives at ImprovBoston for two sets on Tuesday, the Crowd Work Tour.


    “I’m half nervous about the show, and half relieved I don’t have to prepare anything,” Barry says with characteristic restraint, on the phone from his home in New York. “It could go either way.”

    Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
    The day's top stories delivered every morning.
    Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

    Like so many comedians before him, he’ll launch a riff by asking an audience member about her occupation, or to name a type of fruit, or he’ll inquire whether a couple in the front row are married. Unlike most stand-up acts, his reaction to the replies he gets will constitute the whole set.

    “I find myself curious about some audience members,” says Barry with the faintest hint of inflection, as if the notion has just occurred to him.

    Todd Barry, pictured performing in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2011, brings his Crowd Work Tour to town Tuesday.

    On one level, his brand of comedy is a single long-running gag on the egotism it takes to declare yourself funny enough to deserve a microphone. “I’m America’s number one topical comic,” he claims drolly during one routine.

    He’s also a studious observer of life’s little inanities, like the wheeled baskets in a laundromat, which, he’s noticed, he’s supposed to use for his clean clothes after another customer has put his disgusting dirty laundry in it. On “Super Crazy,” his latest CD, Barry draws an analogy: “Hey, what’s that big green box over there?”


    “Oh, that’s a Dumpster, and we also use that to store soup.”

    Barry says he was even more of a wise guy when he began doing comedy in Florida in the late 1980s, fresh out of college at the University of Florida. “I was probably a little smirkier, a little more ‘comic-y,’  ” he says. He sounds amused by the thought that he might not have evolved at all as a performer in all those years: “I don’t think anyone wants to be the same person they were 25 years ago, like, ‘Nailed it!’ I think — I hope — I’ve gotten better.”

    Fellow comic Tom Ryan, who also started in Florida during the comedy boom of the ’80s, says Barry arrived onstage with a gift. They met at the Comedy Corner in West Palm Beach, a place that was drawing as many as 300 people for a Tuesday open-mike night.

    “From the early days, he just knew how to go about it,” says Ryan. “His material is very structured, very dependent on exact wording. He’s a technician. He’s good at dissecting the stupid things people say.”

    More than most careers, comedy typically requires a cruelly long period of apprenticeship before the form can be mastered. Comic bitterness is hard-earned.


    “If you’re famous after six months in comedy, you’re not going to be good, no matter how slick you are,” says Barry, acknowledging that some of his peers can get wildly jealous when a newcomer lands a late-night guest appearance. Not that he could be bothered to exert that kind of energy.

    Outside of stand-up, Barry, 48, has built a modest acting career. He played a more bilious version of himself in the 2008 movie “The Wrestler,” portraying the mean-spirited deli manager at the supermarket where Mickey Rourke’s character punches the clock. Of the occasional work he lands voicing characters on animated series such as “Bob’s Burgers” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” he says there’s blessedly little preparation involved.

    “I don’t even always read the scripts,” he says. “You go in, they go, ‘You’re a head of lettuce,’ or whatever. It’s not like being in ‘Chinatown,’ or ‘The Godfather.’ ”

    He’s also had a recurring role on the FX series “Louie,” playing a comedian named Todd who is part of the title character’s circle of friends. In real life Barry is a good friend of Louis C.K. and other comedians, such as Sarah Silverman, with whom he recently toured Australia (including a performance at the Sydney Opera House).

    Though Barry’s Crowd Work Tour is based on audience interaction, he’s not looking for hecklers.

    “It’s still my show,” he says. “I want to steer the ship.”

    His old friend Ryan says Barry might be one of the best in the business at crowd work.

    “Some nights you just don’t have the ad-lib muscle going, but I’ve seen Todd enough to know he’s good at it almost all the time.

    “What a leap, to do a show without any prepared material. That’s a gutsy call,’’ Ryan says.

    But Barry doesn’t see it that way. Or if he does, he’s not letting on.

    “I want to be thought of as a good joke writer,” the comedian says. His Crowd Work Tour, he says, “is just kind of a goof.”

    James Sullivan can be reached at jamesg