Any comedian can claim a personal association with Louis C.K., and if you’re connected to any New York City stand-up on Facebook these days, then you’ve likely already read a knowing (and winking) status update or two hundred.
They all want what Todd Barry has.
An actual connection to Louis C.K., both professionally — Barry playfully mocks him in a recurring role on FX’s Louie — and personally. Such that when Barry decided last year that he wanted to record a tour of him performing crowd work and only crowd work to audiences across America, C.K. offered to finance its production and release it exclusively on his website for $5. Todd Barry’s “The Crowd Work Tour” film is out today on louisck.net.
CK praises the special in this online sales pitch: “A Todd Barry show consists of two things: amazing jokes and amazing crowd work. In September 2013, he went on a tour without the amazing jokes and did entire shows of riffing and bantering with the audience. Filmed in seven west coast cities, “Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour” was directed by Lance Bangs and produced by Louis CK.”
CK previously released Tig Notaro’s “Live” CD on his site (which later, in a physical re-issue, earned Notaro a Grammy nomination). But don’t look for a CK Records label to grow out of this anytime soon. As he told Dave Itzkoff of The New York Times: “I’m not going to become some mogul, putting out wholesale chunks of comedy. If I find something I haven’t seen, that’s unique, and I could get it out the right way, then I’ll do it.”
Earlier this week, Todd Barry exchanged emails with The Comic’s Comic to discuss bringing his crowd work from the stage to the screen via CK.
How did you wind up making this special with Louis to release exclusively on his site? Did he approach you with the idea? Had you considered other avenues for The Crowd Work Tour — Comedy Central, Netflix, HBO/Showtime/EPIX/
I got a random call from Louis (maybe I texted him first). He asked me what I was up to. I told him I wanted to film my next crowd work tour for a special. I’d already drafted a letter to someone who might be able to finance it. He said ” would you let me put this out?” I said “sure!.” That’s the short version of the story.
I’d seen you do an all-crowd-work set at Whiplash once or twice before hearing about the tour. When did you decide you could mount a tour without any prepared stand-up material? Was there a particular show or night that stuck out as a game-changer?
There wasn’t a particular show, and wasn’t actually sure I could pull of a whole tour of it. But I was looking to do something different, and thought I’d give it a whirl. It turned out to be pretty fun, and of course, a little nerve-wracking.
And I suppose we should address the whole notion of crowd work in stand-up. Some comics and critics consider it a crutch for comedians who don’t have good enough jokes already prepared. Plenty of audience members who are unfamiliar with stand-up comedy in a live setting are worried about sitting up front because they fear the comic will pick on them. So when people hear “crowd work,” they may have pre-conceived notions about the comedian’s agenda is. What’s your agenda? And how do you make sure the crowd is on your side, so it’s not more “work” than it needs to be?
There are some comics who are really good at crowd work (Jimmy Pardo, Don Rickles for example), but when I see someone who’s bad at it, it can be pretty painful, and it does seem like a crutch. I also don’t like going on after someone who does a lot of it.
When I do crowd work, my goal isn’t to actually insult someone. I mean, I end up doing that, but only after feeling it out, or getting the sense that the person is cool with it. I’m actually a great guy who doesn’t want to hurt feelings.
So, getting back to the last part of my question, then — how do you make sure the crowd is on your side, so it’s not more “work” than it needs to be for you? I mean, they know it’s The Crowd Work Tour, but still, they may not get it right off the bat that you’re not doing jokes, routines, set-up/punch material or anything they may have heard or seen you do before. Does that feeling out process vary from gig to gig at the top of the show?
I feel it out. If I’m talking to someone and it’s going nowhere, I just ease out of the conversation. And I try to make sure that people are aware of the type of show it is. Most people seem to understand it going in.
For the tour, even if you didn’t arrive at each venue with prepared material, did you otherwise arm yourself with any research on the city/region you were in that evening? How might that have been different from previous stand-up gigs on the road, in which you may or may not want to drop a local reference into the material?
I didn’t necessarily do “research” but if I thought of something to say about the city or venue, or thought of something to say on my way to the stage, I might say it.