With his gentleman-like demeanor and low energy deadpan delivery, Todd Barry has steadily carved out a very unique niche for himself in the world of stand up comedy. This coming November, Barry will celebrate his twenty year anniversary in stand up, and most recently recorded his third album for Comedy Central Records at a club in Boston. My buddy Jono was lucky enough to sneak in an interview request for IMPOSE while working the club’s merch table. Todd gladly agreed, and I was able to get him on the phone to discuss his former careers as a drummer and substitute teacher, and also to reveal why performing stand up at rock venues isn’t exactly as fun as it sounds.
Gordon Downs: How did everything go down in Boston, you were actually recording there right?
Todd Barry: Yeah, it was great. It was a good place to do it.
And this was for another Comedy Central Records album?
Yeah, yeah. And I don’t know the name of it yet.
Will all this be new and completely fresh material?
Well, I wouldn’t go that far. Yeah, I mean there’s no repeating from any of the albums.
So is there like an underlying theme throughout this next album?
No it’s not a concept album. No. It’ll just be more shit from me.
Is there a tentative release date for this yet?
I think in January?
Will there be a DVD accompanying the record as well?
Yeah, I’m not sure what it’s gonna be? There’s a good chance it’ll be my second Comedy Central special with maybe the unedited version.
How many years have you officially been doing stand up comedy?
Well, actually November 1 is my twentieth anniversary. It’s a long time.
Do you have anything planned for that or is it just another day for you?
Well I’m trying to put together a show actually right now; I’m trying to do that. I think it’ll be in New York. Just a small maybe like one hundred seat place; and then a party. Make it a benefit.
Like for a real charity?
An actual charity yeah, as opposed to me raking it in.
So what club did you start at, was it in the Bronx?
No I started out in Florida. I mean I left the Bronx when I was five. It was this place called Coconuts, which was in North Miami Beach, or North Miami I can’t remember? Yeah, it was an open mic night and it was during the big comedy boom of the eighties, which you may or may not have heard about it? Yeah, so that’s when I started and it was just kind of a crazy time, especially in Florida. Florida you could get there at that time and work; there were guys who would come down and there were three of those Coconuts clubs and I think you could work like seven weeks in a row in Florida.
So how long was it before you actually started the open mic process to when you first got passed?
Yeah they really didn’t have like a “passing” system back then. That’s more of an east coast west coast thing.
Can you recall the very first joke you performed onstage?
Yeah, I think it was either a McDonald’s joke or. . .I remember I did two long bits about McDonalds and circumcision. I don’t know how I connected those two? I think that’s the only two things that I did? Like five minutes.
From the very beginning, did you always have a very smooth cadence, or did you start out very nervous and erratic like most open mic comics?
I’ve never been aware of how low key I am. But I guess, I am? I think I’ve changed the way I’ve delivered my jokes. I would hope? I think I was probably always comfortable.
So there was no real evolution of your stage presence, you’ve always been very laid back?
Yeah, I never had a guitar or jumped around.
In your first five years of stand up, were you searching for your voice or did you know what you wanted to talk about outside of the observations and crowd work?
I don’t know when I started doing crowd work? Depending on the night I tend to do it, I always do a little of it. Partially just because I get bored with myself. It kind of enhances the whole night, if I can find something fun that’s unexpected. But I don’t think I necessarily experiment; everything I think with me is sort of just organic. I never set out to try and be high energy tonight, or try to do on one-liners tonight or anything like that.
It’s just always been extremely natural then.
Yeah, I mean I can’t be all over the map with what kind of jokes I do.
I recall reading that your original vocation was being a substitute teacher?
Well, I don’t know if I would call it my vocation? I guess that is a vocation?
It’s a great noble calling.
Yeah, I wouldn’t call it my “calling.” It was just an extremely flexible job. It was sort of perfect. It was good and bad. It’s substitute teaching, so that would be the bad part. It was just very flexible. Like if I had to do a show somewhere there was never, “Oh I have to trade shifts with Susie,” so I could go do a show somewhere.
And I guess you never really could form a bond with the students as a substitute?
Yeah, especially when the teachers didn’t leave lesson plans and the kids knew that they could run wild.
So did you start teaching before you started doing stand up comedy?
No, I started doing comedy before I was subbing. . .I believe? Umm? You know what? Maybe not? You know what? No I didn’t, now that I realize it. Because I started in Gainesville, substituting, and that was before I started doing comedy. I’ve never thought about that? But yeah, I was subbing before I was being hilarious.
Can you recall the moment where you realized you would rather be a comedian than a teacher?
I do remember, I mean I was always a comedy fan. Like I remember; like Merv Griffin just died, and just watching comics on like Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and the old Letterman, the Late Nite Letterman. I always loved it, and would from time to time go to comedy clubs in Florida. And then I had a friend down there who did [stand up] a couple of times, and then it just got this kind of like tug, this kind of feeling of, “Oh shit I have to try this.” I just made a phone call and they put me up maybe the next night even?
Were you prepared to spend the rest of your life teaching?
I was hardly a teacher. I mean I’m sure you remember what a sub did in your school. But there was not a lot of teaching. I was too dumb to be a teacher.
So you never wanted that to evolve?
No, I wanted that to be a flexible job. That’s what I wanted. The things I was exploring; I was in bands and I kind of wanted to do that. I dabbled in acting classes in college. It is weird, I guess I really wanted to be in a band, but I also never practiced enough to be good enough. I was in bands, but you don’t necessarily have to be good.
Can you name check some of these bands you were in?
Yeah, I was in a band called The Chant, which was probably the biggest; we sort of had a bit of success in Florida.
Did you guys put out anything?
Yeah, we put out an album. And they ended up putting out another album. And if you maybe really dug around you might be able to find it somewhere. It was on Safety Net Records, which was a small Florida label.
Was that out of Gainesville?
No that was out of Fort Lauderdale, and the album was called Three Sheets to The Wind. I know there’s another band that has an album with that title. But I think the second album was called Two Car Mirage, I think? And I’m not on that one, but the CD has most of the first album on it. And I think that was distributed by DB Records out of Atlanta. The band I was in while in Gainesville was called Die Trying. Which I’m sure every town has a band called Die Trying now. And then I was in a band called Cuddle Fish for a couple of minutes. They were geeky white dudes.
Was this all punk no-wave? Die Trying sounds like a hardcore band?
It was sort of jangly garage band. These guys were very into psychedelic music and R.E.M right when they came out.
13th Floor Elevators, Rickenbacker type of sound then.
Yeah, definitely Rickenbacker, Paisley Shirts, Paisley Underground I guess? Yeah.
Did you start out on bass or were you always on drums?
I was always the drummer. In my band Die Trying, this might interest you, I remembered we opened for the Circle Jerks in Gainesville, at like a VFW Hall or an American Legion Hall. It was sort of wonderfully hateful. The crowd hated us. The song would stop and there would be nothing. Like no boos and no applause. It was very punk rock and very cool.
It seems like there a lot of comedians out there were at some point musicians in their life.
Yeah, Fred Armisen was a drummer.
Yeah he’s actually got an instructional DVD coming out in October called Complicated Drumming Technique.
It’s like a mock instructional drumming DVD on Drag City.
That’s great. Just like a guy overplaying?
Yeah, exactly. Have you ever come across him playing drums before?
Yeah I have, he’s a pretty good drummer. He’s better than me.
You honestly think that?
That he’s better than me? Yeah, I’m not that good, so that’s not saying much. But he is definitely better than me. Yeah I got no beef.
So when did you stop playing drums and start focusing on comedy?
I remember doing the open mic and having a creepy feeling; for awhile I denied that I wanted to be a comic, at least to myself and maybe to other people; but just kept doing it. Even though some of my actions didn’t really meet up with my thoughts or words. And then it just; I don’t remember when I said, “Fuck, I guess this is what I do?”
Do you remember your final farewell gig in your last band?
I don’t think we had an official farewell? Because the guys in The Chant moved up to Atlanta and I didn’t move up there with them. So it was kind of just faded. I mean I still keep in touch with those guys from time to time.
How did you end up becoming friends with Yo La Tengo?
They’re comedy fans, and we just started talking at one of my shows, and I guess it just evolved. They’re friends with a lot of comics, actually.
What songs do you play with them when you sit in on the drums?
We did a Dylan song, I forgot which one, but the last thing we did in Florida; well a couple of times I played “Jeepster” with them, that T. Rex song. And then last time in Tampa, or St. Petersburg, they were rehearsing, “What’s So Funny About Peace Love And Understanding?” and I was like, “Man, I don’t know if I have the chops for this?” And they were like, “Yeah, this is what you’re doing.” And I did it. It was great, it was fun.
As far as their Chanukah shows at Maxwell’s, how may times have you performed at those?
I dunno? Probably four maybe? Three of four? I dunno, I could probably look it up, but. We also did a thing, I don’t know if you know about A Matter Of Trust?
Yeah the Billy Joel cover band. Did you originally do that at Maxwell’s?
We originally did it at a comedy show at the Bowery Ballroom that Eugene Mirman set up. And then the second or third time we did it was between The New Pornographers and Belle and Sebastian in front of 2,000 people.
So you guys did that in between the two sets and not at the end of the night?
Yeah, it was a very balls move on The New Pornographers part, because they were opening for Belle and Sebastian. I really don’t feel Belle and Sebastian were quite into the idea of them bringing up their friends to play music which I can’t say I don’t understand? Because I do, and I think I might be what the fuck is going on. But it was very cool and that was crazy fun. We did it with Yo La Tengo. We did it with Yo La Tengo at one of their shows, and the way we did it; [Ira] brought us out with a real serious introduction, so we did the song and the premise is that we had a layover in Newark, we were on our way back to Germany or something? For their encore, they said “Bad news, A Matter of Trust missed their flight; the good news is the want to play again!” So they brought us back up and then we did it again with them.
Whose idea was it to do a Billy Joel cover?
I remember James [Mcnew] calling up and said, “Do you want to do a band thing?” I think between me, Jon Benjamin and James McNew it all evolved. I can’t really remember who came up with most of the idea. That time with Yo La Tengo, it’s extra good when Ira really gave these great serious intros; just like he really thought this band they met at a festival was about to come up.
Have you ever played drums for James side project Dump?
I did a show actually, oddly enough, a few years ago in Brooklyn at South Paw. Where I asked Dump if he would open for me? And he said, “I’ll open for you if you play drums for me?” So I did a show with Dump as the drummer and then did stand up after that.
It would be a great idea to have a Todd Barry & Dump tour where you two go out on the road together?
I’ve proposed it and I need to propose it again. I would love to do that. It would get attention and it would be super fun.
When you perform at the standard two-drink minimum comedy clubs, how much do you rely on the club staff to help you with hecklers and loud audience members?
I mean that’s the thing. I like doing the rock venues; some people are over romanticizing doing a show at a rock club because they don’t know how to do comedy for the most part. Not necessarily that they fuck it up or they’re not willing to learn, but I’ve done shows where you’re doing a show and everyone is cool except the bartender is talking at full volume thirty feet from you. Because it’s never occurred to him to speak in a whisper, because every band that plays there is too loud. So it’s never occurred to him that he can’t talk like that while a show’s going on, because Dinosaur Jr. is not going to tell him to shut up. And it puts me in an awkward position sometimes, where it’s like, “The audience was great your staff needs to quiet down.” Rock venues are great in some ways but you sort of have to educate them. They’re usually very nice and very willing to accommodate you, and they’re usually very excited to have you there, but you sort of have to tell them. It’s a more volatile situation.
When you do encounter hecklers at Zanies, or any other two-drink club, do you enjoy handling that yourself or do you prefer the club staff getting your back?
I don’t necessarily have like a, “This guy needs a drink.” That kind of signal. This is often a problem with the comedians and the staff; some guy will interrupt, the comics will have to address it on some level, and then the staff won’t do anything, “Oh, well he’s talking to him.” He’s talking to him because he was just interrupted by the guy; he’s not talking to him because he just wants to have a conversation with a drunk guy. I mean it happens, but then there are clubs that are really on it in a great way. I mean I’m always in favor of. . . .
Yeah, just. I’d rather; because there’s sort of myth that you can shut people down; if a guy's there drunk and is an asshole, he’s probably not that bright. So there’s no like zinger, that he’s gonna go, “Wow I learned a lesson, I’m gonna quiet down.” If someone gets a little over excited and they yell something, and you slam them, then they often will be quiet, because they get it. But if a guys just a complete asshole, then I just think it’s better to get rid of people. It’s just like getting rid of a tumor. Every time I go to a rock show; I just went to see Aimee Mann, and there’s this guy at the bar talking full volume at the bar. It’s like, she kind of does quiet songs, and even if she didn’t, there are bars we could go hang out and talk to people. You don’t have to do it while someone is singing songs. I think at any show there’s always going to be curiosity seekers and people there for dubious reasons.
You’re one of the few comics that successfully works both rock venues and the traditional two-drink minimum clubs. What do you attribute that to besides talent?
I’ve had people say that to me, but some people act like, “Wow you can do that room and you can do that room?” It’s not like a fucking techo musician is making a country album. It’s like, they’re here to laugh and they’re here to laugh over here. Who cares? I don’t want to be judged on where I do my shows. There’s definitely a cool thing about doing the rock venues. I don’t want to perform for people who are standing, I think it’s absurd. Who wants to fucking stand? Why would you stand? I mean kids seem willing to do it, and I’ve done shows that are partially seated. It’s kind of cool to have the excitement of standing room only, but I wouldn’t want that to be my default way to do comedy. Not everyone wants to stand and not everyone goes to rock clubs, there’s a lot of people that would show up not even considering the possibility that they would have to stand to watch a fucking comedian. I mean it’s cool, because I could go to a place like Birmingham, Alabama or Oklahoma, where I might not get booked at the comedy club and two hundred people show up and they’re excited, it’s fucking great, and they make posters. It’s got a much more special feel to do a one night performance somewhere. It’s more like you’re in concert for lack of a better term than, “Oh you’re doing eight shows at that club? Yeah I just did eight shows at that club.” Sort of like the regimented show times and the mill of like, “We do three shows on Saturday whether there’s a demand for them or not.” That kind of thing. But there are some really good comedy clubs out there.
With regards to the Red Wine Boys, is that something you could turn into a show for Super Deluxe?
I am going to be doing a show for Super Deluxe, which I think will start in September. It’s called Sexus, and I play the title role of Sexus. It was written by me and a guy named Erik Richter. He’s the guy who created Harvey Birdman. It’s a live action thing. We just spent our entire budget making it, so no money for me. I think it’ll look good. That should be out in September. And if we’re doing plugs I’m going to be playing the third Conchord in the season finale of Flight of The Conchords. I’m also in a new cartoon called Lucy, Daughter of the Devil.
And how much time are you going to be doing on your upcoming fall tour with Louis CK?
I’ll probably do twenty and then he’ll do, I guess an hour?
You got anyone doing warm up for you?
No, there’s no warm up.
Does Todd Barry have a message for the children?
Go to the bathroom, when you have to go to the bathroom.
Check out Todd in the season finale of Flight of The Conchords this Sunday night on HBO, and visit toddbarry.com or myspace.com/todbarry for tour dates with Louis CK, Sarah Silverman and Jens Lekman this fall.