When you go to LouisCK.net — the website where comedian Louis CK sells his online comedy specials directly to consumers — you are greeted with a pitch to buy something else entirely: A special by comedian Todd Barry.
Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour was recorded during a seven-city run of shows in which Mr. Barry’s entire set came from humorous conversations with the audience. No prepared jokes — just banter with the audience. It’s a unique twist on the comedy special, which may explain why CK made it his first venture into bankrolling, producing and distributing another comedian’s work.
We talked to Barry about the special, the art of crowd work and working with his friend Louis CK:
TIME: For the comedy newbie, what is crowd work?
Todd Barry: It’s when a comedian interacts with the crowd instead of doing prepared jokes. It’s just talking to the crowd, bantering with them, trying to get some comedy out of that.
So it’s not just a comedian killing time?
Oh it can be that, too. There definitely might be an element of that as well. Who knows what the motivation is, but ideally, it’s just to get some laughs in a spontaneous way.
What’s the skill set that makes someone good at crowd work?
Well, it’s about being quick to react and coming up with a smart reaction on your feet… I’m not very good at it right now. [laughs] It’s not just taking cheap shots at people, but coming up with smart, surprising responses. People like Don Rickles and Jimmy Pardo are really good at it. Mike Sweeney, who is the headwriter on Conan right now, back when he used to do stand-up, he was great at it.
Crowd work can be seen as a crutch for comedians who don’t have enough material. How do you overcome that stereotype when you’re doing an entire special of just crowd work?
Well, I’m stating right out that it’s what I’m doing. It’s an all-crutch comedy special. It is a crutch, but I wouldn’t call it a crutch if someone is doing it well.
How did you decide to do a crowd work special? I don’t think it’s been done before.
I can’t say it’s never been done before, but maybe it hasn’t. But I had just finished a special and then I was going on tour again and I didn’t want to just do the jokes that I just did on the Comedy Central special. It popped into my head that I wanted to do an all-crowd work tour. I did that in January 2013 and then in September I did another one and filmed it and that was the one that Louis [CK] paid for.
How do you prepare for an all-crowd work show?
You don’t really, which is both the nice and the scary thing about it. You come to the city and you don’t have to write anything down, you don’t have to prepare anything, but still you’re thinking: I have to fill an hour. I have to do something. There’s not a lot of preparation, if there’s something I think about when I’m walking around or on my way to stage I might work it in, but there’s no preparation. You just hope it goes well.
Which tour stop or city surprised you the most?
Portland surprised me, in that I thought they would be slightly more polite than they were. Overall they were nice and a lot of people said nice things afterwards and a lot of people came up and were sort of embarrassed after the show. There were just a few drunk people.
And my hometown just can’t help but express their love of free-range chickens.
Yeah, the chicken thing. I just learned about that. I don’t know how I missed that chicken egg thing. That show just sort of evolved into a kind of a chaotic show. 95% of the people were perfectly nice, but there were definitely some drunk people there.
Did you pick and choose the cities you went to in the hopes of stacking the deck in favor of getting good crowds?
Portland and Seattle are pretty reliable and Los Angeles and San Diego I’ve performed in before. Alaska was the one we sort of stuck on to make it a little different, to break up the monotony of performing in metropolitan spots in the states. I mean, I know it’s a state, but the environment just felt a little different there. I end the movie in Alaska and, yeah, it’s a different vibe up there. They are a little rowdy, but in a friendly harmless way. They drink quite a bit up there.
Did the audience know what they were in for?
I try to make sure they do. I put in the title and I put it in the posters and in any email blasts and the clubs should let people know that. I think for the most part they know. I’ve had very little resistance from people saying, ‘Oh hey, what are you doing up there? You’re wasting my time.’ I usually have the emcee or opening act explain it a little bit too. If they didn’t get it by then, well… sorry.
Do you think doing all this crowd work has honed your joke-writing skills at all?
No, it’s probably just honed my crowd-work skills. I wish it had. I was hoping that when I went out there I would get some material out of it, but I really didn’t get any new jokes out of it. So, no, I don’t think I got anything out of it joke wise.
Now that the special is done, do you feel like there will be added pressure to incorporate crowd work into future shows, like you’ve thrown the crowd-work gauntlet down?
I’ve always done a little crowd work on my other specials, but I would never do another one of these. As much as I wanted to do this one, I don’t want to be the guy who is known only for his crowd work. I want to go back to writing jokes now.
You have three Comedy Central specials under your belt — how did making this one differ? Was the pressure the same?
This one was different in that the Comedy Central specials you’re done in one night. This one was much more of a tour documentary feel, and ended with me sitting in the editing room for hours.
What was the process for making the film? How did you end up making the movie for Louis CK’s site?
I was talking to him about wanting to do a Crowd Work Tour special and that I was going to write to Netflix, and he asked me if he could pay for it and put it on the site and I said, ‘Well, yeah. Let’s do that.’ Then he asked if I knew any directors and I said I knew Lance Bangs, who was a friend of mine, and I was expecting him to be busy, because he’s a busy guy, but he just happened to have that block of time free. So he followed me to all seven cities on the tour and directed the special and then we edited it. Well, I’m not an editor, but I sat in the room with the editor, and we just kept making different versions of the film until it was done.
You must have been flattered, because he had never really done that on his site before.
I was flattered! He put out Tig [Notaro]’s set at Largo, but hers was recorded already and he offered to put it out. This is the first one he bankrolled. So I owe him money. But I think this is going to be taken care of. It seems to be selling pretty well.
Do you think this special is introducing you to a whole new audience?
Yes, it’s already done that. It’s not lost on me that if I had put this out myself, I would be in an entirely different set of circumstances right now. I would have sold a few of them but it wouldn’t be like what is going right now. I’ve already gotten a lot of tweets from people saying, ‘Hey, I’m a new fan! I had never heard of you before.’ People love telling you that they’ve never heard of you before. It’s my favorite thing for people to say.
What are you going to do with all your new-found fame?
Oh, probably go sit in a coffee shop like I always do.