If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years from interviewing veteran comedian and actor Todd Barry, who remarkably is still one of my favorite stand-up comedians, it’s this: He likes to keep it short and unsentimental.
Known for his wry demeanor onstage, Barry either doesn’t feel the need to develop his public persona in interviews, or doesn’t like to talk about his feelings regarding much of anything, especially politics. He’s a joke man who seems to prefer to remain a blank slate. Unless he’s talking to an old buddy like Marc Maron, or for a much larger audience demographic, then he relaxes a little and opens up.
However, anyone who caught Barry’s last few shows in Central Virginia, his dry, slow-aged blend of observational humor and hilarious, cutting crowd work at Gallery5 in Richmond — or the last time out at the wonderful, Art Deco-styled Ashland Theatre – will understand why the man is a legend among comedians for his timing and delivery. Barry returns to the Ashland Theatre on Saturday, Aug. 6.
I’ve enjoyed his stand-up, as well as his acting in films like “The Wrestler” and “Wanderlust”—but I knew the 58-year-old was tight-lipped. Still I thought I might get a quick 15 minutes on the phone with him before his Ashland pit stop. It nearly happened too, but our schedules didn’t align that Friday, and instead Barry asked the dreaded: “Can you just email me a few questions?”
For the love of comedy and Hanover tomatoes, I did just that.
But instead of a few questions, I sent him a dozen, somewhat random multi-parters because I knew from experience that he would only answer a few, if any, and that the answers wouldn’t be long (sure enough, he answered maybe half). Barry told me years ago that he preferred natural conversations to interviews, which is kinda hard to do through a series of short emails sent weeks apart.
However, none of this should discourage anyone from checking out the Ashland show. The guy really is funny onstage; also his relaxed speaking voice feels almost like an antidote to pandemic exhaustion. Maybe watch his 2017 Netflix special, “Spicy Honey,” to see if his written jokes do it for you, or dive into his catalogue with the aptly-named album, “Medium Energy.” (Below is a NSFW clip of Barry’s crowd work during a packed 2015 show at Gallery5, after an audience member informed him that George Clooney kept a summer home in Richmond.)
Style Weekly: How are things out there on the road? Did you notice any big differences between Europe and here when it comes to the pandemic?
Todd Barry: The crowds have been smaller all over, but things are picking up. I just spent two months in Europe, and the big difference is the lack of masking. I was in Sweden for over a month and maybe say, two people wearing masks. But I love performing in Europe. Very appreciative and respectful audiences.
Ashland, Va. is a pretty little town in Hanover County with really amazing tomatoes this time of year. It also features a sign at the county limit that reads: “Hanover County: Home of Patrick Henry. Conservatives, welcome home. Liberals, thanks for visiting.” Did you get to explore last time you were there? Are you a fan of tomatoes? Any thoughts about that sign?
I don’t really do political comedy, so I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the political makeup of a city in my tour. I just need people who like me to show up and we can have a good time. I’m sure some conservatives like me, but I’m guessing most of my fans are pretty liberal.
The last comedian I saw in Richmond was another former drummer, Fred Armisen – and he does a lot of musical bits. Nonstop, actually. Have you ever used drums in your act or other props, be they musical or watermelon? Given both your knowledge of music, you could tour together and that would be like a music geek fantasia. I’d pay gas money to Ashland for that.
Fred is a much better drummer than me, so I’d feel weird playing music on the same show as him. (Although he actually texted me to do a set on a Brooklyn show when I was in Europe). I’ve done a few musical bits, including a Billy Joel tribute band called A Matter Of Trust with H. Jon Benjamin, Jon Glaser, Tom Shillue, and James McNew from Yo La Tengo. I’ve rarely used a prop in my act (although I once made a banner size copy of my American Express bill that I went over with the audience).
How do you decide who to take with you on tour? What do you wish someone had told you earlier in your career? (Side note: I would love to see a tour with you and the Found Footage guys. Maybe the yo-yo extraordinaire, Kenny Strauss. Not that you’re taking requests …)
For opening acts I try to get someone who’s funny, sets a good tone, and hopefully isn’t annoying off stage.
What was your favorite response (critical or otherwise) to your 2017 travel memoir, “Thank You For Coming To Hattiesburg”? Did anything interesting happen after your comments about Gwar or Richmond? [Barry tried to go hang at GwarBar but it was too loud for him.]
A recent Amazon review of my book described it as “cozy” which could be an insult but this was a five star review.
Other than your timing, I think the skill of yours that most consistently impresses me is your crowd work, and how hilarious you are riffing off people’s reactions. When you were 18, a young David Letterman called you at home [after Barry wrote him a letter saying he did a great Paul Shaffer impression]. For me, the best part of that was when he asked if you had just picked up the phone and you said, “Yeah, that’s the way that thing works.”
How did you become so good at being funny in the moment like that? Are you interested in doing or releasing more crowd work?
I never tried to be good at crowd work, it’s just something I did organically. It’s really just a conversation, and if you have a quick wit, you can make something of it. I’ve thought about doing another crowd work special, but I don’t necessarily want that to be my “thing.” Jokes are still important to me.
Last October, I took a quick weekend trip to Key West for my birthday and it was soooo different than I remembered from a college trip in the early ‘90s. [The coral was bleached, beaches were kind of gnarly, food was not great]. Unknowingly, we were there during something called “Fantasy Week,” which apparently involves a lot of older folks in S&M getups staggering around, drinking the most sugary mix drinks imaginable. I’ve never heard so much crappy live music in one place in my life. It was insufferable … You’re a Florida native, what happened to Key West? Any special memories there?
I’m not a Florida native (but lived there for about fifteen years). I haven’t been to Key West in decades, but did comedy there my first year in the business. It definitely has it’s own vibe, and I have pretty good memories of it, especially visiting the Hemingway house and meeting some six-toed cats.
Are there any other big projects you can mention in the pipeline?
I did [a] part in an animated series, “Ten Year Old Tom.” I don’t know when it’s going to air, and I just filmed a new special coming out. I’m not sure when or what platform, but that’s my biggest upcoming project.
Todd Barry’s 2021-2022 Stadium Tour stops at the Ashland Theatre in Ashland, Va. on Saturday, Aug. 6. This show was previously moved from the Richmond City Music Hall. Tickets range from $25 to $42.50 and are available through etix here.