Todd Barry is an American stand-up comedian, actor, and voice actor. In addition to appearing in a wide variety of movies and television shows, Barry has released five comedy albums over the past decade and recently published his first book, Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg. Here Barry offers writer Julian Brimmers some tips for aspiring comedians about life on the road, finding your voice, and what to do when you have a bad night on stage.
Your stage persona and delivery style got copied quite a bit over the years. What advice would you give young comics who try to find their comedic voice and character? How long did it take to find yours?
I never set out to find my voice. It just happened organically. I’ve been doing comedy 30 years, so it’s hard to pinpoint when my persona developed. I never thought I really had a unique cadence until people started doing impressions of me to my face. As far as advice for comics about finding their voice, I would just say keep going onstage, and it will happen eventually.
Many comedians have talked about the loneliness of the road. Traveling by yourself for a living for so many years, how do you deal with downtime on travel and performance days?
It can definitely get lonely on the road. I always try to explore something about the city, even if it’s just a neighborhood to walk around in, or a coffee shop to linger at for a few hours. I also search for good local food. I don’t usually have a lot of time, so I’m not in full tourist mode, but I don’t just want to sit around in my hotel room.
You’ve often been described as a stand-up who works well in front of a variety of audiences, whether it’s intimate “alt-comedy” type settings, colleges, or more mainstream-oriented shows. To what degree does the audience and the venue affect the material and the performance, if at all?
For the most part, there really isn’t much difference between an “alt” room and a mainstream room. It’s just a group of people waiting for you to do something, so just do it. Having said that, there are rooms that are notoriously “rough” or attract a lot of idiots. That’s mainly the fault of the venue for not really “training” the audience. If you run your club and make it really clear that disruptive behavior won’t be tolerated, then you cultivate a group of people who are fine with that, and eliminate people who think that ruins their good time.
You went on a full tour without any pre-written material. What makes good crowd work and what’s the number one sign you should or shouldn’t approach someone in the audience?
I never really know who is going to end up to be a good candidate for crowd work. Sometimes a person will have a low-key personality and maybe even a boring job, but they have a killer story to tell. The only people I won’t approach are people who seem too eager to talk.
Your first book, Thank You For Coming to Hattiesburg, came out last year. Was it challenging to transfer the pace of your stand-up into the written format? And, by implication, when reading from the book in front of an audience, does it feel very different from performing stand-up?
I’ve intentionally never read the book in front of an audience. I don’t think I could do that without feeling self-conscious. As far as the experience, it is much different. I could write a stand-up idea today, and try it out in front of an audience tonight, and get some feedback as to whether it’s good or not. With the book you sort just have to trust that it’s good.
You don’t belong to the category of comedians who abandon all their old material and write an entirely new hour every year. What makes a comedy routine work over long periods of time? Did YouTube affect the longevity of certain classic bits?
Well, most of the jokes I do are pretty evergreen. A joke about Trump probably has a shorter shelf life than a joke about pizza. I think YouTube is a double-edged sword. You can have a video of you go “viral” and gain a whole bunch of new fans, or you can get someone who posts material that’s not ready for mass consumption.
The success of a stand-up comedy show seems, compared to other solo performances, particularly dependent on one’s form on the day, but also on some external factors beyond your control. What’s your best advice for dealing with a bad gig?
I think reminding yourself there are going to be bad gigs and deciding what you’re going to do next. I think analyzing why the gig was bad is important. Was it an off night for you? Was the crowd awful? Another thing I learned is that sometimes an audience is not very vocal or effusive, so you think you’re not doing well but everyone is having a great time.
How much discipline does it actually take to maintain a successful, decades-spanning career in comedy?
I’m more persistent than I am disciplined. I wish I were disciplined, I’d get a lot more work done. But I think it’s really just hanging in there for the low and high points.