All comedians are freaks by categorical design—what normal person gets up and elicits laughter by telling the world (including you) how stupid it (including yourself) is? But Todd Barry, who’s become a regular at Bumbershoot’s Comedy Stage, is one of the medium’s sneakier practitioners. On paper, you could typify the 41-year-old New Yorker as a cross between Jerry Seinfeld (low-key, observational) and Steven Wright (insidious deadpan, the tendency to zag where others would zig, lotsa pauses), but Barry’s his own kind of animal. His written routines are meticulously constructed, his use of product names is so specific he could be Nicholson Baker’s brick-wall-background cousin, and his riffs build and stack up on each other like LEGOs.
“You ever watch that Queer Eye show?” he asks on last year’s excellent Falling Off the Bone (Comedy Central), Barry’s second CD (the first was 2002’s Medium Energy). “My favorite guy on that show—the grooming guy. He always acts shocked when these men don’t use the right products: ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it. [pause] You’re a 50-year-old taxi dispatcher [pause] from the Bronx [pause], and you don’t use chamomile antioxidant [pause] under-eye wrinkle reduction mist? [pause] Let me get this straight: [pause] You’re a 60-year-old retired Navy SEAL [pause], and you never once waxed your elbows. [pause] Not even in ‘Nam? [pause] I am flabbergasted.”
We talked to Barry about his beginning, his craft, and his part in the funniest movie ever made, Pootie Tang.
Seattle Weekly: When did you begin as a comic?
Todd Barry: I lived in New York City till I was 5, then upstate New York till I was 8, then the suburbs of Fort Lauderdale. When I started comedy, there was tons of comedy in Florida. I don’t know if you’re aware of the comedy boom that happened in the ’80s, but I was right there in the thick of it. It was countrywide—tons of one-nighters. At some point, someone realized all you need is a microphone and $600 and you could get people. There were whole touring circuits. You could work at least seven weeks, probably, in Florida just at one chain of comedy clubs. I wasn’t like, “Hey, there’s a boom”— I didn’t do it for faddish reasons. It helped me in that once I decided I wanted to try it, [I] could start immediately. It’s not like New York, where you have to work a lot harder to get onstage at all.
How long did it take to hone your comedic persona?
I think I was more comicy then, more sort of sport-coaty, with the rolled-up sleeves. I don’t think I was terrible, but I probably was not as loose as I am. I was probably more “hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm-hmm.” My stuff was more linear, maybe, than it is now. I sort of like when I have a power chunk of something where I tag it out, to use the comedy lingo. I don’t like to use one-liners. Sometimes I use one-liners—some things just have to end. But I try to see how far I can take it, if there’s more I want to say about this.
How much of your stand-up is generated in the moment? You’ll often goof on audience members.
I love when that happens and it’s not cheesy. Sometimes I’ll just go up and feel that. There are some clubs I’ve worked regularly where I almost never do my act, where I’ll sort of fly off the handle for the entire time. It always feels great when I can do that.
You’ve made two CDs. Did you ever feel any pressure for the second one to be better or funnier than the first one?
Maybe not in those terms, but I’m sure that’s implied. I certainly don’t go, “I hope this is as good as the last one.” The first CD is basically the best of my entire career—I had 15 years to choose from, not that I was doing 15-year- old jokes, but some of them were older than others. If a joke isn’t time-sensitive and people haven’t heard it, I have no problem doing it.
You had a small part in Pootie Tang. How did you get involved with that?
Louis C.K., who wrote and directed it, is a good friend of mine, and he handed me a little part in that.
That movie didn’t do much in the theaters, but it’s something everyone I know loves.
It’s insane. I was really surprised, because it was in the theaters a very short time. It’s the type of thing where I’ll be at bars and overhear a conversation about it, or people come up to me and talk about it. My hot neighbor who lives upstairs said she owned the DVD. That made her that much hotter.
Todd Barry plays Bumbershoot’s Comedy Stage at 6:30 p.m. Fri., Sept. 2; 2 p.m. Sat., Sept. 3; 5 p.m. Sun., Sept. 4; and 8 p.m. Mon., Sept. 5. www.bumbershoot.org.