The opening shot of Todd Barry’s new special, “The Crowd Work Tour,” shows a seated man smiling somewhat nervously, holding a microphone, intermittently looking toward the stage. Barry is off-camera, trying to coax a response from the man. “Do you not want to talk?” says Barry.
“Do I know how to talk?” the man says. It gets a great laugh from fellow audience members, and serves up a giant softball for Barry. “So far I don’t know the answer to that question,” he says.
Barry immediately apologizes for the gibe, which also gets a laugh. The point of these shows, which consist entirely of improvised dialogue with the crowd, isn’t to skewer the fans unfortunate enough to be sitting within Barry’s immediate view. No one coming to “The Final Crowd Work Tour” at the Sinclair Sunday night should feel threatened.
“I’m not just pounding people,” says Barry. “I think they usually like talking to me, for the most part.” That includes the man at the opening of the special. “I think he was shy, but I made sure that he was into it,” says Barry. “I think he was having a good time. He had a big smile on his face the whole time.”
Barry picks his participants at random, and he has great empathy for those who would rather sit in quiet anonymity. If someone looks like he or she is trying to avoid talking or doesn’t have much to say when Barry starts a conversation, he moves on. “I also understand that people, a lot of them just want to watch. I probably would be the same way,” he says.
Barry started doing the crowd work shows in January 2013. He was coming off of his “Super Crazy” special for Comedy Central and looking for something different to do. “I was just getting a little bored with myself,” he says. “I didn’t necessarily want to go on the road and do 90 percent of the special, and I didn’t really have, like, a brand-new hour [of material]. It popped into my head to do an all-crowd-work special. It gives people something to talk about.”
Talking with his audiences comes naturally to Barry, but it was a risk to do a whole show, and a whole tour, with no set material. “I didn’t know starting out what I was in for, really,” he says. “Which was kind of part of the reason to do it. For the challenge, and for the slight bit of danger involved.”
A lot of things could go wrong when a comedian depends on spontaneous interaction with the audience. People could be rowdy or unresponsive, or Barry could just have a night where he has nothing to say. So far, Barry says that hasn’t happened. His crowds tend to be well-mannered, and only one person has gotten tossed from a club for disrupting a performance.
Despite the possible pitfalls, Barry feels even less pressure doing a crowd work show than he does performing written material. “I don’t have an expectation of, when I’m done saying this, they’re going to laugh,” he says, “because I don’t know what I’m going to say.”
Even seemingly pedestrian stories can turn out well. “A guy in Minneapolis had like a corporate lawyer job, and it just seemed like it wasn’t going to be anything to talk about,” Barry says. Then the man volunteered that he was currently representing a sex toy factory. “You know, I have questions then.”
Sometimes there are recurring subjects; Barry seems to have more fans who are musicians than most comics. But the conversations are always different. One of his favorites from the special was when he talked to members of a band called Avant Abstract, whose name delighted Barry. “Oh my God,” he said. “I did my business cards in that font!”
The first tour did well enough for Barry to hit the road a second time with “The Crowd Work Tour” special, produced by his friend Louis C.K. and released on www.louisck.net in March. Barry thought the film might spark interest in the tour, which led him to this third and, as the name says, “Final Crowd Work Tour.” He has been doing some shows with written material in between stops on the tour. While he may do a one-off crowd work show again in the future, he doesn’t want it to become a shtick. “I don’t necessarily want to be like, ‘Oh, he’s the guy who doesn’t do his act,’ ” he says. “Or, ‘He doesn’t have an act.’ ”
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.