The laid-back, unassuming, eminently cool aesthetic of Pilsen’s Thalia Hall is such a harmonious fit for veteran stand-up Todd Barry that it’s wild he hadn’t performed there yet in his many stops through Chicago. The ASMR-voiced comic and author will play the historic venue for the first time February 22 as part of his facetiously-named Stadium Tour.
In your book, Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg, you say you’re not a “road dog,” but I think it’s fair to say you’ve seen more of the country than most people. After three decades in stand-up, what’s your relationship with travel like?
It usually works out to like three or four months [out of the year]. I definitely do the road, but I mean, there are comics who live on the road—40 weeks out of the year they’re on the road. The ups are that I get to go do [venues like] Thalia Hall, which is very nice. Chicago crowds are very nice. But like, right now, before I was calling you, I was in the middle of packing. I hear about these people who can pack in ten minutes. For me, it’s a multi-day thing with checklists. It causes me incredible stress, even for a short trip, but that’s my problem. I like the gigs, I like the hotels, I like checking out places to eat and other sorts of cultural things. But, you know, when you have five delays in a row . . . it sounds like I’m complaining, but when you fly more than most people, then you’d probably end up complaining.
It sounds like you’re a green room aficionado, too.
Well, one of the best green rooms is near you, actually, in Evanston in a place called Space. I think it’s a famously good green room. There’s multiple rooms and there’s couches, and it’s clean—it seems like it’s meant to be a green room. There’s food and lots of tissues out. Oftentimes, you’ll play a place where you’re sitting there next to a drum of Diet Coke or something. “This is a storage room, and you’ve got a folding chair.” I don’t need a whole lot. The only thing I get a little prickly about is if I just feel like they didn’t know a show was about to happen. And another thing is it’s great when there’s a bathroom backstage. Oftentimes, I’ve done shows where you’re like, “Well, you can go to this restaurant.” I just don’t want to use the bathroom with people who are about to see me. I like to have some delusions that there’s a mystique involved.
You just got back from performing in Thailand.
Yeah, I did a show there in Bangkok. It was quite fun. It was like in an English pub. It’s the first time I’ve done a show in southeast Asia or even been to southeast Asia. It sounds exotic—I mean, it is exotic, but the actual show is expats, so you’re just kind of performing for people who moved there from Denver or something.
Does your teasing style of crowd work translate to other cultures when you’re performing abroad?
I’m fortunate in that, while it’s not a huge following, I have a small following. So I can go to Finland and other places where English isn’t their first language—although they probably speak English better than most people do—and get my crowd.
I’m always interested in hearing what artists think about the adjectives that get ascribed to them in the press. [Playwright] Sarah Ruhl, for example, is on the record as hating the word “whimsical,” which critics called her work during her early career.
I would be on her side on that one.
In your case, the press go-to seems to be “super-dry,” “bone-dry,” “famously dry,” and “dry like a fine wine.” Do you identify with that?
I get it, but it’s not calculated. It’s not like, “I don’t think I was dry enough tonight. Got to be extra-dry. I’m going to Milkwaukee. I wasn’t dry enough last time.” But I don’t think about a lot of the shit that people ask me about. I remember that band Belle and Sebastian, people would just use that word “twee” to describe them. And I’ve just never heard that world used other than in the context of Belle and Sebastian. The only thing that I remember for a while—and this hasn’t happened in a while—would be, people would lump me in with, like, “one of the kings of the alternative comedy scene,” and I would ask people to remove that.
“Alt-comedy” was a strange term to begin with. I never wrapped my head around the idea of, say, Patton Oswalt being an “alt-comic” versus whatever traditional stand-up is.
Patton Oswalt could go to any club in the country and destroy for any audience.
Did it have to do with the style or the venues?
I actually don’t hear it nearly as much as I used to, but I mean, I’d always played what they referred to as alt-rooms. They were oftentimes very good rooms with smart people. No one is eating chicken fingers. And there was a great scene about it, like just socially. But as far as the actual comedy—during the alt-comedy era, you saw a lot of very ordinary comedy. Even Andy Kaufman was a mainstream star. I mean, he played big places. There are definitely acts where, like, all right, maybe that’s not going to work with the Funny Bone. You know, something might not work at the Funny Bone because it’s bad.
You came up in Florida during the 80s comedy boom. Are we in another boom now, or have podcasts and social media just made club-style comedy feel more accessible?
People have been asking me about multiple booms for 20 years now. I get the 80s boom, because I can see the drop off between the way it used to be and [today]. I started in Florida, and you could literally tour Florida for seven weeks, eight weeks in Florida in the 80s. Someone would go into some bar and go, “What have you guys got going on Thursdays? Are you slow? We’ll do comedy here. I’ll bring in a PA and comics and you can just advertise it, and I’ll rip off the comics and we’ll take it from there.” There was a time when you could just headline and play to a packed house being basically unknown, because people were just checking out comedy for comedy’s sake.
There’s a moment in your Crowd Work Tour special that packs in like five different audience energies into a minute or two: the loquacious woman in Portland passionately delivering an unsolicited diatribe about urban chicken farming.
She wasn’t a mean person. She was . . . lively. People would often think that the crowd work shows are rowdy, and they’re generally tame. But I don’t live for chaos—too much chaos. But yeah, I’ll probably do a healthy dose of crowd work at Chicago and on this tour. I mean, I like the crowd work because I don’t get bored with myself, because I don’t know what’s about to happen. So it’s exciting on that level. And I’m generally even more relaxed doing a crowd work show than I am doing one with material. I think it’s because a show where you’re doing jokes, there’s an expectation they’re going to laugh right here, and I know it’s coming up. And they better laugh right there, because that’s my intention, whereas when you don’t even know what’s about to happen, there’s a little less pressure. v