Todd Barry is a sharp, precise joke writer. It speaks to his talent as a performer that he appears loose and not overly rehearsed, but if you follow his stuff from set-up to tag, it’s wonderfully efficient, high-percentage comedy. Zero fat. So why would a guy like that mount a seven-city tour doing two shows a night of nothing but crowd work? Turns out, because he’s very good at it.
Barry started his set for his second sold-out show at ImprovBoston’s 100-seat theater more understated than usual, speaking a couple of notches up from a whisper so the crowd had to lean in a little. The host introduced him by saying Barry wasn’t going to tell any jokes, “He’s just going to talk to you.” Barry acknowledged the premise and said, “It’s going to be an awful show. Terrible idea for a show.” He hyped the previous “Crowd Work” shows in Philly and New York and the early show, and then said he was due for a bad show and this was probably going to be it.
He was vamping, catching a thread to establish his particular blend of mock arrogance, self-deprecation and sarcasm; and simultaneously getting himself and his audience in the flow. And he found a lot he could work with. Once on his feet, Barry started building a cast, addressing a woman in the front row who turned out to be an opera singer. “You do, like, the music version of what I do,” said Barry. “Most people don’t get it.” He picked a small group of five or six people and set them up like spinning plates, returning to them when the mood struck.
Barry’s method was standard, asking names and professions. But his reactions were not. If he had any stock jokes about the professions of the people he talked to, he hid them well. He kept his conversations short and efficient, and while there were moments when he was feeling his way toward the bigger laugh, he was always building and never flailing. Of course, some laughs were easier than others. An aspiring screenwriter from Emerson said he was hoping to work in comedy. “Mmm, I don’t see it,” Barry said.
There were lucky moments. Earlier in the show, a woman had to use the bathroom, and there was no way for her to go without walking in front of Barry. He told her to go ahead. Later in the show, someone else had to go, and he gave them the go ahead. He had his back to another woman who started to stand, and when he said, “This whole crowd can go pee for all I care,” she passed in front of him, and another guy raced out.
Barry isn’t likely to give up writing jokes. But working without a script didn’t change his comic voice, and he didn’t resort to anything gimmicky. If he wanted to prove he could entertain a crowd for an hour without the best weapon in his arsenal, he’s done it with this tour.