Over his 30-year career, stand-up comedian Todd Barry has become a master of working a room. With his signature dry wit, he can turn everyday small talk into hilarious banter that keeps an entire crowd rolling with laughter.
Naturally, he’s decided to celebrate 30 years of telling jokes by going out on tour and not telling any jokes — as he so frankly puts it.
Anyone expecting to just sit back and laugh at an ordinary stand-up show might want to be ready to suddenly become part of the act.
“I get excited not knowing what’s about to happen as opposed to knowing an order or a set list of jokes,” Barry said of doing crowd-work shows. “I love doing that also, but (this is) just a break from that.”
For those who haven’t seen his 2014 special, Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour, these shows consist simply of him picking out members of the audience to talk to, and finding the humor that comes from having a conversation on the spot.
Produced by his good friend and fellow comedian Louis C.K., the Crowd Work Tour special drew a spotlight onto an aspect of stand-up that Barry readily admits he didn’t invent, though it has gone underrated for a long time.
“I’ve had comics talk to me, and they say things like, ‘This inspired me. I should work on my crowd work,’” Barry said. “But you don’t really have to do crowd work. I do it because I want to. In certain circumstances, I don’t even like it when comics do crowd work. I guess there are some times when you need some skills when there’s some trouble in the crowd, but I don’t think it’s something you set out to practice. A lot of my favorite comics go out and tell jokes and don’t do a second of crowd work.”
Adding that he doesn’t want to become known solely for doing crowd work, Barry said he has a new special tentatively slated for release sometime next year, when he plans to hit the road again to tell jokes.
“It’s a little narcissistic to think that people are sitting at home thinking about me and whether I’m a crowd work comic or not,” he said. “No one really gives a shit other than me. But for my own self, I was thinking about doing another crowd work special, but I thought, ‘Why don’t we just make this a one-time thing as far as a special and not beat it to death?’ At the live shows, I will beat it death.”
Looking back on his comedy career, Barry said he never imagined he’d end up doing stand-up for more than 30 years.
“I just did it as a goof, and I just didn’t stop really,” he said of getting his start in comedy at an open mic night.
Since then, he’s travelled the country countless times, performing in cities big and small. He’s also recorded four comedy albums, hosts his own podcast, and has appeared — often as himself — on everything from FX’s Louie and Netflix’s Master of None to animated shows like Fox’s Bob’s Burgers.
Most recently, he wrote his first book, Thank You For Coming To Hattiesburg, where he chronicled some of his mundane misadventures in some of America’s lesser-known cities.
“A lot of touring is not interesting. A lot of it is I’m looking for some Thai food in Lansing, or somewhere,” he said. “It’s not like being on the road with Guns N’ Roses in 1985.”
Part tour diary, part travel log and part memoir, the book captures Barry’s sardonic voice perfectly while using his own ordinary experience as a way to explain how everyone is even more connected than they realize.
“There’s a point to the book, and it’s that even people who fancy themselves as progressive, a lot of them have prejudices that aren’t as spoken about as much as other prejudices,” Barry said. “People think, ‘How can you do a show in Little Rock? Or how can you do a show in Birmingham, Alabama, or the Midwest?’ There’s people who think there’s only four cities in the world where smart people live, and it’s just not true. I can get a workable size crowd in any city I go to, regardless of where it is, or whether it’s a red state or a blue state or anything like that.”
Todd Barry: 30th Anniversary Crowd Work Tour
The Pyramid Scheme, 68 Commerce Ave. SW, Grand Rapids
Dec. 7, 8 p.m., $18
pyramidschemebar.com, (616) 272-3758