Todd Barry: Crowd Work Tour on video
You can almost hear Ross Noble scoffing. Because the technique that Todd Barry has employed for his latest video release – to go on stage with no prepared material, and base a full show on audience interaction alone – has been the cornerstone of his entire career.
But Barry is not, on the face of it, one of comedy’s most obvious improvisers. His usual stand-up is slow, deliberate, precise, with nothing left to chance, and based on a dour, grumpy persona that would consider engaging with the rest of humanity a wearisome chore.
So it’s a bold move to go on the road to six cities – Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Anchorage – to see what magic, if any, he can spin from his crowd banter. As Louis CK, the executive producer who’s selling the video through his website, says: ‘It's not just a stand-up special with a guy on a big stage doing his well honed hour... It's a high wire act.’
A full set of riffing can, indeed, be revealing about the mechanics of stand-up, because of that potential for failure. And seeing a seasoned pro outside of his comfort zone is always interesting. A fully interactive set may have its highs and lows, but the experience creates a shared moment with the audience who appreciate the spontaneity.
This footage,directed by Lance Bangs, bypasses that immersive experience to a certain extent by using about ten minutes of the best riff from each town, interspersed with on-the-road footage, backstage conversations with Eddie Pepitone and Tom Papa and so forth. It is a ‘best of’ compilation of moments from the 2013 tour, rather than an attempt to faithfully capture one gig.
The first exchange sets the passive-combative tone for the 70-minute recording, when Barry is confronted with a guy wearing a T-shirt proclaiming himself a fan of ‘rival’ comic Marc Maron. Elsewhere, the ‘what do you do?’ gambit finds a man who’s embarked on an implausibly long journey just to catch the show, a plumber who works all hours, and a disproportionate number of people who are in bands. One of which, interestingly, were called Sleeper – and received a $125,000 pay-off from the Britpop band of the same name to drop their claim on the moniker.
Sometimes Barry is remarkably quick-witted, sometimes he simply lets the aloof sarcasm that he’s perfected put punters in their place. ‘No, you don’t ask me questions,’ he assertively tells someone who overstepped the bounds of the regimented conversation. Yet he allows the seemingly drunk woman with a bee in her bonnet about eggs have her bizarre, semi-coherent rant, happy to let the audience laugh at her rather than with him. Often it’s what he doesn’t say, rather that he does, that’s funny, so established is his dry, withering attitude.
Crowd Work is a good fit for CK’s low-cost download model. It’ll appeal to comedy aficionados, and while the lack of polished, perfected routines means it’s not a classic you’ll want to watch time and time again – but for less than the price of a magazine, it’s certainly worth a punt.
• Todd Barry: Crowd Work Tour has just been released on Louis CK’s website, priced $5.