The last two specials I watched had some weighty themes and emotional moments. This week I needed a little lighter fare. Scrolling through Netflix, I stumbled upon a Spicy Honey from 2017. Todd Barry is a joke machine. He doesn’t tell a lot of long stories. His jokes come from his everyday life and his unusual way of looking at the world.
The best comedians have two things, a unique worldview, and a unique voice. The voice does not mean they sound funny. The voice is about their ability to speak to something. Voice takes years to develop. Many great comedians work for years before they finally break through to superstar status. I believe that breakthrough happens when they hone their voice. For as long as I have been aware of Todd Barry, he has been a consistently funny and unique voice.
In this special, he talks about the absurdity of texting emergencies, the odd pressure of goal setting, paying someone to help organize your house. Barry is great at taking very mundane things and highlighting their absurdity.
Barry also does a great job of interacting with his audiences. He has done tours that showcased his crowd work. I this special, he has several moments where he stops telling his jokes and asks the audience members in the front row questions. These questions service the joke that he wants to tell in a moment, but it’s risky to stop your show and invite your audience to be a contributor to the program. But this is part of Barry’s brilliance. By interacting with the audience directly, he is bringing the room of strangers together. It creates an openness to his comedy, that welcomes people into a little community for the evening. He only interacted with a handful of people, but every time he stopped to talk to the audience, it re-engaged me differently.
Crowd work like this can be risky. But Barry never lost control. When crowd responses were strange, Barry would point that out. One of the audience members, when asked what he wanted to do for work, said he wanted to be a comedian. Barry took a moment to coach him and say, comedians never sit upfront. They always sit in the back. As a pastor, I love his interactions with the audience. I wish the church were a little more interactive. But I also strongly resonate with comedians sit in the back. Pastors at their churches always need to sit upfront. But when we go to pastor conferences, back rows fill up first.
Fans of Todd Barry would know that he does a fair amount of crowd work. I’m sure they came expecting to participate in the show in some way, but they could never know exactly what would happen. Crowd work like this makes comedy special. It’s a once in a lifetime experience. This combination of comic and audience members will never happen again. Every show can be radically different. Years ago, Pearl Jam released a bunch of bootleg audio recordings from their tours. They had unique evenings, and they wanted to share that with fans. I would love to have a series of bootlegs from Todd Barry’s tours. Yeah, a lot of the jokes would be the same, but a good joke, like a good song, can be played on repeat. But the crowd responses would keep the shows fresh.
My professor, Len Sweet, recommended a book during a lecture called Interactive Excellence by Edwin Schlossberg. It is a short book that addresses how art and performance that will resonate in the future will invite the audience to become co-creators with the artist. Stand-up comedy depends on the audience. If they don’t laugh, the show bombs. But crowd work, the way Barry does it, goes beyond generating laughter. Barry is inviting the audience to make the jokes with him. In doing so, he is turning fans into a family. These people will always remember this show, and they will rave about Todd Barry for the rest of their lives.
If you like a dry comic, Todd Barry is a great choice. He is a veteran of comedy; he’s done the work for years, and he keeps getting better. There is some swearing in this special, but there is nothing graphic.