Comedian Todd Barry 

Medium Energy: Comedian Todd Barry creates high comedy with a low-key approach.

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  • Todd Barry
You’ll be forgiven for not knowing comedian Todd Barry by name, but chances are you’ve seen him without realizing it.

Renowned for his low-key, deadpan speaking style, the New York City native is a modern-day Zelig; he’s popped up as an actor on any number of hip shows over the past couple decades. He’s done small roles on Sex and the City and The Larry Sanders Show, and provided voice work for Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. More recently, he was Mickey Rourke’s deli boss in The Wrestler, and played “Todd,” a bongo player who joined Flight of the Conchords and tried to change the band’s name to The Crazy Dogggz.

While Barry’s hangdog persona has helped his acting resume continue growing, he remains most comfortable as a stand-up. He’s been doing comedy for nearly 25 years, and will be making his first appearance in Utah Monday.

It won’t be his first time visiting the state, though. “I hosted something for the Sundance Channel in 1999. It was me and Allison Anders co-hosting from the festival’s opening night party,” Barry relayed via e-mail from a tour stop in Australia. “I remember seeing, and liking, The Blair Witch Project. They also gave me a gigantic hotel room. And I also got to meet Robert Redford. He probably doesn’t remember.”

That’s Redford’s loss, because Barry is a wickedly funny fellow, whether taking hipster New Yorkers down a notch for protesting the arrival of a Manhattan Kmart (“We hate you Kmart, you and your affordable products!”) or reflecting on shopping at the mall.

“The Body Shop? They should call this place Last Minute Thoughtless Gift Warehouse,” Barry says on his Medium Energy album. “You could be asleep and shop there. Grapefruit Body Wash? ‘Well, my sister eats grapefruit. And she bathes.’ Done. Total shopping time: nine seconds.”

If one were to walk into a Barry show without knowing him, you might hear his low-key vocal style and think he comes from the “woe is me” Rodney-Dangerfield school of comedy. Listen to what he’s saying, though—whether skewering the idea of sharing a bill with Sugar Ray or laughing at the thought of Suzanne Vega touring with Jethro Tull—and you realize he’s cut from the same hipster cloth as much of his audience.

He’s performed sets at music festivals like South by Southwest, and will do a show at the Sasquatch Festival later this spring. His peers are fellow New Yorkers Eugene Mirman, Sarah Silverman and Louis CK, and he’s been pulled on stage by Yo La Tengo to go to work on the bongos with the New Jersey indie-rock heroes. In other words, Barry is one hip cat, and he’ll let you know that in no uncertain terms over the course of a performance.

Like many comics, Barry got into standup via open-mic comedy nights, in his case when he was studying English at the University of Florida. It was 1987, “during the big ‘comedy boom’ of the ’80s.”

“There were comedy clubs everywhere,” Barry recalls. “You could pretty much call up and say you wanted to do five minutes, and a few days later you’d be onstage in front of a decent-sized crowd. I watched a few open-mics and just got the urge to try it. Then I never really stopped.”

Within a few years, Barry was a popular guest on Letterman and Conan, eventually landing his own Comedy Central half-hour special. In 1998, he won the jury award for stand-up at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, and shortly thereafter released his first album, Medium Energy—a nod to his approach on stage.

Decades ago, comedy albums by the likes of Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby would regularly top the sales charts, but now they act more as a calling card for a comedian’s live shows. “I think a CD helps get the word out about your comedy, although I have no idea how many people download the CDs illegally. I’m guessing a lot,” Barry says.

Still, he recalls the influence listening to comedy albums had as a kid. “I listened to comedy albums a lot when I was younger. Some of my favorites were Steve Martin, Sam Kinison, George Carlin. I also had a Martin Mull 8-track tape that I played constantly.”

Since his debut, Barry’s released two more live shows on CD, Falling Off the Bone (2004) and From Heaven (2008). They make for fine snapshots of his act, but don’t expect to hear too many older jokes at his show Monday. Barry is constantly working on new material, and he does it without a net, onstage and in front of a crowd.

“I generally think of an idea and just try to work it out on stage,” Barry says. “It’s not really easy for me to sit down and formulate a whole joke without getting feedback from an audience.”

Rose Wagner
Center for the Performing Arts
138 W. 300 South
Monday, April 12, 7 p.m.

Dan Nailen:

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