It's rare for audiences to arrive at a stand-up comedy show knowing—psyched, even—that the entertainment will rely on them. But when you attend a Todd Barry gig, you expect that some or all of it will consist of him trying to find funny things about Y-O-U.
In recent years, Barry has been touring the country armed with the balls to step on stage and do nothing but crowd work. (That's when a comedian has no set and wings it by talking to the audience.) He'll have a set at Motorco, but it's been polished by that no-safety-net approach, and leaves room for spontaneous crowd work.
"I've always done a lot of it," says Barry, on the phone from Manhattan. "I just wanted to do something to make touring a little different for me."
Barry has done several crowd-work tours, playing venues such as Kings in Raleigh. "I definitely didn't assume it would work," he says. "But the crowds ended up being even better than I thought. I think it's because I play places like Kings, where anyone there is there to see me."
When you've been doing comedy for 27 years, you can get away with spending your stage time shooting the shit. Barry's been around long enough to reach "comic's comic" status, appearing on other comedians' shows such as Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, Chappelle's Show and Louie, where he plays a comedian pal who basically just hurls insults at the star.
Barry and Louis CK are tight enough that Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour, a 2014 stand-up special/documentary, is available exclusively on CK's website. The film shows how effortlessly Barry, with his quiet, breathy monotone, leisurely pace and slothful demeanor, comes up with quips while conversing with audiences, whether it's at a hipster spot in L.A., a room full of hippies in Portland or some bar in Anchorage, Alaska.
In one exchange, he gets to know a mustachioed kid in the front row who says he's in a band called Avant Abstract.
"Oh my God," Barry says, not missing a beat. "I did my business cards in that font."
Barry insists you have to know how to riff on, and with, the audience for this to work.
"When I see someone do bad crowd work, I think, 'Why are you wasting everyone's time, including your own?'" he says. "It's different when you're doing an all crowd-work tour ... They know what they're in for. It's not like, 'Why is this guy abandoning his act?'"
At Motorco, don't be surprised if Barry does go off-script. In fact, hope for it. "I'll always end up doing some crowd work," he says. "It really is the ultimate you-have-to-be-there."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Crowd control."