May 5, 2014
Guest: Todd Barry
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Louis C.K. has described my guest, Todd Barry, as one of his favorite comedians. Barry is especially good at crowd work, which means interacting with members of the audience. Barry had the idea of filming a tour in which all he did was crowd work, all improvised, no script, and Louis C.K. decided to produce the film for his website.
It's now the first work produced for and sold on the site featuring a comic other than Louis C.K. Todd Barry also plays a version of himself on Louis C.K.'s series "Louie." You can see Barry on the season premiere tonight on FX. Todd Barry has recorded several comedy albums. On the HBO series "Flight of the Conchords," he played the bongo player foisted on the duo by their manager. He was featured in the film "The Wrestler" and has done a lot of voiceover work for animated TV series.
Let's start with a clip from the film "Todd Barry: The Crowd Work Tour." It follows his performances in seven cities. This is an excerpt of his performance in Portland, Oregon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TODD BARRY: THE CROWD WORK TOUR")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm from Seattle, Washington.
TODD BARRY: Seattle, Washington, holy (bleep).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I came 200 miles to see you today.
BARRY: Really? You know I'm doing a show there on Sunday, right?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I've got to work that day.
BARRY: You've got to work? Where are you working?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I work at the naval yard.
BARRY: Naval yard? Are you in the military?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
BARRY: OK. I'm not the smartest guy. So but you're hitting me with a double-whammy of guilt trip, aren't you?
I'm in the military, yeah the military, and I drove 200 miles to see you, and I'm sitting up front, but hey, if you want to insult me, go ahead.
If you need to insult someone who's in the military, who drove 200 miles from Seattle, and I'm going to tell you the state, Washington - Seattle, that's huge, sir. Did you really come just for the show?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, just for you.
BARRY: I can't believe that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's it, yeah.
BARRY: Did you get a hotel and do it that way?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nope, I've got to drive home tonight too.
BARRY: Oh my God. That makes me uncomfortable. If you said you were getting a hotel, I'd be like, oh, you know, he's making a little trip. He's cool. He's like, drove 200 miles, going to turn around and do it whenever this is done. I mean after I talk to you at the merch table for four hours.
Can you - are you allowed to ask for days off?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh yeah, but it's...
BARRY: It's a (bleep) excuse to get a day off?
BARRY: Hi, I was wondering - what do you call your commanding officer?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Captain.
BARRY: Captain, I have a request. Can I get Sunday off? Why, soldier? I don't know much about the military.
Why is that, soldier? Uh, Todd Barry's doing an experimental show where he's just going to wing it.
I would be a heartless man if I didn't give you the day off.
Wait, is he doing a show in Portland? Why don't you drive there and back the same night?
GROSS: That's Todd Barry, from his new film "The Crowd Work Tour," which is on the Louis C.K. website. Todd Barry, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on the show.
BARRY: Oh, I'm excited to be here.
GROSS: So I'm listening to that part of your show, and I'm thinking if I were on stage and somebody told me that they had driven 200 miles to hear me, my first reaction would be, oh, that was so nice of you, I'm so honored that you made the trip, that long a trip just to hear me. But that wouldn't work for you in this show, would it?
BARRY: No, that would be just the nice guy tour.
GROSS: That's right.
BARRY: But yeah, I mean I was flattered that the guy - I mean, it always weirds me out when people do that because I just, you spent eight hours driving to see a show. I mean it's probably something I would've done when I was younger, but yeah, I gently played that guy a little bit, and he seemed to enjoy it.
GROSS: Oh, he seemed to want it.
BARRY: Yeah, yeah, I mean I think he...
GROSS: He wanted to be in your show.
BARRY: Yeah, he was front row center.
GROSS: So what's it like to walk onstage having nothing? Do you know what I mean? Like all you have is, like, your wits about you. You don't have any material you're going to use. Maybe you have some things planned because you know you're likely to talk to somebody who's a musician, and you're likely to talk to somebody who, I don't know, does social media or something. I don't - do you have anything planned?
BARRY: I don't really have anything planned. I mean, sometimes if I think of something, like walking to the stage or when I'm walking around, I will say that, but I won't do any of my actual act. What I'll do is I will look around for people who maybe are intriguing, someone has an interesting look or seems friendly and welcoming. And then I kind of just go does anyone want to talk to me.
And they are surprisingly not as enthusiastic to do that, but once I kind of ease into it, then they kind of slowly warm up to it. But there are people who sit right up front they don't want to talk, even at, like, a crowd work show.
GROSS: They're afraid you're going to insult them?
BARRY: Yeah, and I don't think I'd want to sit up front at a comedy show. So I totally get that, but I try to be nice.
GROSS: Handing over the microphone to the audience, did anyone use that as an opportunity to actually heckle you?
BARRY: Well, one guy in Portland who I cut out, he just, I don't know. Sometimes people, I think they - because you're a comedian, they don't think they can just be real with you, and they think that, oh man, this guy is waiting for me to say something really clever, which is never the case. And there was just some guy just sort of like insulting what I was wearing. He's like why are you wearing like a gray shirt and a gray pant. Like it was just some weird insult, and he just had a nasty energy to him, so I - he did not make the final cut in the movie because I just, I just moved on from it because I was bummed out.
But then he talked to me afterwards, and he was perfectly nice. So I don't know. I don't know what people are thinking when they're talking to me.
GROSS: Right. Well, I want to play another example of your comedy. That sounds really horrible, an example of your comedy.
BARRY: I like it.
GROSS: He's another specimen of your comedy. And this is from your most recent album, and let's hear it. This is my guest Todd Barry.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ALBUM)
BARRY: I've been touring all over, did a show in Missoula, Montana, ordered a drink at the place I was working at, ordered a gimlet, classic drink. The guy said he didn't know how to make it. The bartender next to him goes, oh, I can make that. I used to work at a gay video club.
I was like, I don't even know what a gay video club is, but I'm pretty sure you don't have to work in one to know how to make a gimlet. It's a 10,000-year-old drink with two ingredients in it. Sorry, what's he want, gin and tonic? Oh, I can handle that. I used to work at a bisexual shuffleboard court.
What did he ask for, rum and Coke? I'll handle that one, Freddy. For many years I refereed a transgender Scrabble tournament.
You keep me posted on any more nutty drink orders that come in. With my life experiences, I can be your go-to guy for any two-ingredient beverage.
What did he ask for? Vodka, soda. Let me deal with that. After high school I had a job supervising an S&M lawn crew.
GROSS: That's Todd Barry from his...
BARRY: I think I took that one one punchline too many, but...
GROSS: Do you? Why are you saying that?
BARRY: I just forgot about the S&M lawn crew. I think I could've come up with something better than S&M lawn crew. But I do like to extend the joke as long as possible.
GROSS: Right. Well, that's from Todd Barry's album "Super Crazy," which was released in 2012. So did you actually overhear a bartender saying that...
BARRY: Yeah, that's a completely true story.
BARRY: Yeah, he kind of - I was at a place in Missoula, it was my first show in Missoula, or in Montana, and I asked for a gimlet, and he kind of, like, I don't know how to make that. And the other guy was like, I got it.
BARRY: And then when he said, you know, because I worked at a gay video club, I just was like, oh, oh, it was just delightful.
GROSS: So did you take out your notebook and write it down after that?
BARRY: I'm not - in the way that I do that, yeah, which is hopefully remember it and then write it down eventually, but...
GROSS: So that works for you, like you actually have a memory?
BARRY: No, I don't. That's the problem with my writing discipline or lack of, is that I - I'll even write, sometimes I'll take a note, and I won't even understand what the note was. It'll just be like green shirt, and you're like, I don't even know what I'm remembering here because - but I did have a funny thought about a green shirt, but then it's gone.
GROSS: Yeah. So does most of your material come from actual observations?
BARRY: Yeah, I mean it seems to be. Yeah, you know, I don't get political, I don't get personal. Some people say I don't get funny, but...
BARRY: Not you.
GROSS: How come you don't get personal onstage, and you don't talk autobiographically?
BARRY: I've just always been squeamish about that kind of thing. I just, when I see guys, you know, talking about their sex lives and everything - I mean, I have done jokes about it, but I, I just, it's just not my - I guess I'm just kind of a close-to-the-vest guy, really mysterious and intriguing.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic Todd Barry, and he has a new comedy show that's called "The Crowd Work Tour Show" in which he just interacts with the audience, there's no written material. There's a documentary of him doing that show in several cities, and that film is available on Louis C.K.'s website.
So as a comic you're on the road a lot, and there's a really funny scene in your "Crowd Work Tour" in which you're in a hotel room explaining that you're kind of a germaphobe.
GROSS: How do you live on the road if you're a germaphobe?
BARRY: Well, luckily most hotels are cleaner than my apartment.
GROSS: How do you live in your apartment then?
BARRY: Most rock clubs are cleaner than my apartment, but...
BARRY: But I - yeah, it's not a big problem. Actually, the only time it is a problem is when I play a music venue, and sometimes you play these music venues, and they're like, oh, this place has the worst bathroom in the history of bathrooms, and kind of like, well, you know, you could fix that and have a different reputation, as the people who fixed their bathroom.
So you get into these disgusting bathroom situations. So that's always an issue, where the bathroom is in the place I'm performing. But hotels I'm pretty - I feel pretty safe in hotels, unless I watch the housekeeper clean and then see her throw the pillows on the floor, then I get upset.
GROSS: So you don't think about, like, what's happened on the bedspread the day before I got here?
BARRY: Yeah, I actually once got accused of - I'd stayed at a hotel in Chicago and there was a $100 charge on my credit card afterwards, and they're like, yeah, the bedspread was missing. I was like, if there's anything I wouldn't steal in a hotel - I'm not going to steal anything, but I guarantee you if I was a kleptomaniac, the bedspread is not going to be stuffed into my bag.
GROSS: You actually have something very funny in one of your albums about being a germaphobe.
GROSS: So let's hear that, and this is from your 2012 album "Super Crazy."
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY ALBUM, "SUPER CRAZY")
BARRY: A germaphobe, also very lazy. It's a rough combination, a lazy germaphobe, because if the cleaning job is easy, like washing my hands, I do that compulsively, like 500 times a day. But if it's more difficult, like mopping my floor, I've never done that.
I always rationalize that. Hey, I've only been walking around the same floor for 10 years. How dirty can it be?
It's not a cleaning emergency like that time I accidentally touched my pinky against my belt buckle.
I had to walk out of a wedding, where I was the best man.
It's paralyzing being a germaphobe. Lots of places are really paralyzing to me. Laundromats have these baskets on wheels. Some guy will come in with a big bag of disgusting laundry, put it in the basket, move it into the washer, and then I'm supposed to take my clean laundry out of the dryer, put it in that exact same basket. It's like I don't mind something having a dual purpose, but it can't be like, hey, what's that big, green box over there? Oh, that's a dumpster, and we also use that to store soup.
GROSS: I think that might be an either/or situation.
That's my guest Todd Barry, from his 2012 album "Super Crazy," and his latest work is a documentary of his comedy tour called "The Crowd Work Tour," and that's on the Louis C.K. website. Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is comic Todd Barry. You can see him playing a version of himself tonight on the season premiere of Louis C.K.'s series "Louie." The episode is about a typical day in Louie's life. Here's a scene in which he's having lunch with Todd Barry at a diner.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "LOUIE")
BARRY: (As himself) So you want to go to a movie later, by yourself? Do you want to go to a movie later?
LOUIS C.K.: (As himself) I can't. I've got to pick up the kids at school.
BARRY: (As himself) You don't sound very excited about it.
C.K.: (As himself) I'm not particularly excited about it. It's just, you know what, it's Tuesday, and Tuesdays are hard because that's, like, the transition day between - from, like, show hours, you know, nighttime work to, like, morning with the kids, get up early. It's just hard. It's stressful.
BARRY: (As himself) Yeah. Can I make a suggestion?
C.K.: (As himself) Sure.
BARRY: (As himself) Abandon your kids. Then you can sleep later.
C.K.: (As himself) I can't do that.
BARRY: (As himself) Why not? You're not their mom. You're their dad. No one cares about dads. Dads don't matter, man.
C.K.: (As himself) Is your dad not around?
BARRY: (As himself) My dad is great. He showed me unconditional, continuous love since the day I was born. I'd be nowhere without my dad.
C.K.: (As himself) So why is it OK for me to walk out on my kids?
BARRY: (As himself) Because your kids suck. And you suck at comedy. I hate your kids. I've met them. I don't like them. I drew little pictures of them when I saw them, and I ripped the pictures up right in front of their faces.
GROSS: You and Louis C.K. are old friends, and he produced the comedy show that's now on his website of your "Crowd Work Tour." He cast you on his show, "Louie," and I want you to describe the version of yourself that you play.
BARRY: I kind of play, you know, a slightly heightened version of myself. A lot of the banter he writes or the lines he writes are just really me telling me he's bad at comedy, which is something I will do from time to time. But he likes to insult people too, so - for me, though, it seems to be just nonstop assault of insulting him.
GROSS: So you've played yourself on "Louie." Is it odd playing yourself? Because you have to - I mean, it's still a performance, and you have to be probably a little bigger than you are when you're really just yourself.
BARRY: Yeah, I mean I think I play it about at my energy level, but it's weird when he writes a script, and like I remember a scene we were filming that's on the upcoming season, where he kept - he had me say boom after, like, every sentence. And at some point he goes, Todd, you don't want to say boom, do you? I go, I just don't feel that I would, in real life, since I'm playing Todd Barry in this, I don't know that I would say boom after every sentence like this.
So we kind of - he let me not say it.
GROSS: That's funny because in your "Crowd Work Tour"...
BARRY: I do say boom.
GROSS: You say boom once, and then you almost like correct yourself. It's like whoa, what, why would I use that?
BARRY: I was hoping you wouldn't call me on that, but yeah, sure.
GROSS: No, no, but you're kind of like shocked at yourself and, like, disappointed in yourself, almost apologetic for using the word.
BARRY: Yeah, it's one of those things, you're like, oh, I'm one of those guys who says boom? Yeah, I thought I was cooler than that.
GROSS: So how did you know you wanted to go into comedy?
BARRY: I started comedy during the big comedy boom of the '80s, and I started in Florida. So people were losing their minds over comedy. And I kind of went to these open mic nights and watched, and then I just got this little itch to like, oh, I should try this. And I tried it, and I kept going, like, immediately, just almost - you know, every night I could.
And I remember like seven months in going I shouldn't be doing this, I shouldn't be doing this, but I realized, like, but I'm kind of pursuing it pretty vehemently. And at some point I just said I guess I'm a comedian because, you know, I was in bands, and I probably wanted to do that but realized, you know, you have to practice and stuff.
But yeah, so, I mean around 24 is when I kind of locked myself into it.
GROSS: When you're with a band onstage, you're in company onstage, you're not carrying it all by yourself. When you're a comic, you're alone onstage. It's just, it's all you. Which do you enjoy more, being, you know, with a group or just out there on your own?
BARRY: I mean, if I could be in a band, I mean occasionally I'll sit in with a friend's band, I'll do a show with a band, like Yo La Tengo or something, and they'll graciously let me sit in during their encore, especially since I insist on doing it.
BARRY: But they graciously cave and let me do it, and I do really - every time I do that, I go, God, it's so nice to be onstage and kind of looking around at an audience without having to constantly talk, because you can just, you can watch them more. But when you're talking, you kind of just, you've just got to - it just takes you in a different place, and it's just harder to just kind of look around and enjoy what you're doing as far as all these people are looking at me. I don't know if that makes sense. Does that make sense?
GROSS: Well, but what are you saying? Because usually aren't the house lights off, and what you're seeing is a lot of darkness in front of you instead of actually seeing the audience?
BARRY: Well, I actually like to perform with the house lights up a tiny bit. I like to see them. I actually, weirdly, find it - I get more nervous if I play in a completely dark - like Louie, I've done shows with him, and he likes it pitch black, and I always feel like - I don't even know. I just feel lost, like I don't even know if I'm in an empty room or not. So I kind of like to look out and see a smile or two to keep me going.
GROSS: What happens if you notice the one person in the audience who's sleeping?
BARRY: Oh gosh, I think on my first album I called somebody out on that. Yeah, I get a lot of sleepers at my show.
BARRY: And I'm always good to point them out, but...
GROSS: Do you do that?
BARRY: Oh yeah, I will, but it's one of those things - yeah, I have definitely pointed out - I mean I have that kind of voice that I guess puts people to sleep. It's kind of hypnotic. And some people, you know, they go to a show, like on a Friday at 11 o'clock, and they worked all day, and they're exhausted, and they nod off. And I will point them out, but sometimes I don't want to wake them, I feel like.
BARRY: I'd rather have someone sleeping than talking during my set. So sleep away.
GROSS: Todd Barry will be back in the second half of the show. His new comedy performance film, "The Crowd Work Tour," is available exclusively on Louis C.K.'s website. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with comic Todd Barry. He plays a version of himself on Louis C.K.'s show "Louie." You can see him on the season premiere tonight on FX. Todd Barry's new comedy performance film, "The Crowd Work Tour," was produced by Louis C.K. and is available exclusively on his website.
So one of the things that you've done, you were on "Flight of the Conchords."
GROSS: ...and which is like really funny show about a duo, a band from New Zealand comes to the U.S. with the hopes of really making it big and they're just like so smalltime.
GROSS: And they have a real smalltime, crazy agent.
GROSS: And it's filled with really funny parodies of rock songs and rock videos. And so you play the bongo player that the manager hires. And, of course, the two members of the band want nothing to do with you and you're hysterical in it. You're the kind of bongo player who, first of all, is incredibly narcissistic and thinks that they're really great. And when you play the bongos, it's like, you know, your arms are kind of moving all over the place and your face is all passionate and scrunched up as if like it's really like so artistic and such hard work to just play this corny thing that you're playing on the bongos.
You're a drummer, right?
BARRY: I mean yeah, I try. But I guess I don't try that hard. But I used to be in bands and I - but I was never particularly good, as demonstrated in "Flight of the Conchords."
GROSS: Well, you're not supposed to be particularly good.
BARRY: Yeah, I know but it was easy for me to not be good.
GROSS: Do you have anything against bongos?
BARRY: No. I don't have anything against bongos. I wish I knew how to play them. I think they offered me a lesson, actually.
GROSS: And you thought it would be better without it?
BARRY: Yeah. I don't know - I think it was like wouldn't yeah, wouldn't it be better if I wasn't really masterful at them? Because now you're adding someone to the band without their permission and the guy's not even good.
GROSS: And for people who remember "Flight of the Conchords," the duo, the two musicians in the band, have one fan.
BARRY: Right. Mel, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. And the fan is known as the fan base. And there's a scene in which the two members of the band, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement, are walking down the street with you, the bongo player, who they really don't want to be part of their band, and they run into their one fan. And they always just ignore her but you're like yeah, she's hot and I'm hot. So I want to play that scene where you run into...
GROSS: The fan base.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS")
KRISTEN SCHAAL: (as Mel) Whoa. What are the chances we're always bumping into each other?
JEMAINE CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) One in one?
SCHAAL: (as Mel) Oh, hi.
BARRY: (as Todd) Hey.
SCHAAL: (as Mel) My name is Mel. I don't think we've met.
BARRY: (as Todd) I'm Todd. Nice to meet you.
BRET MCKENZIE: (as Brett) Todd's a new band member.
SCHAAL: (as Mel) What?
BARRY: (as Todd) I'm the third Conchord.
CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) Yeah.
SCHAAL: (as Mel) Good. Why would you even have that and you didn't tell me...
BARRY: (as Todd) Oh, you're the fan, right?
BARRY: (as Todd) Murray told me all about you. Actually, he neglected to tell me what a hottie you are.
SCHAAL: (as Mel) Stop it.
BARRY: (as Todd) It looks like the race is on. Gentlemen, start your engines. Vroom. Vroom.
SCHAAL: (as Mel) Oh, my God.
BARRY: (as Todd) Am I right?
SCHAAL: (as Mel) What do you play, Todd?
BARRY: (as Todd) I'll give you a clue.
(SOUNDBITE OF BONGOS)
BARRY: (as Todd) The bongos.
SCHAAL: (as Mel) Ah. Rhythmic.
BARRY: (as Todd) Yeah. Tribal.
SCHAAL: (as Mel) Powerful.
BARRY: (as Todd) Very physical, if you know what I mean.
SCHAAL: (as Mel) Oh, I know what you mean, Todd.
MCKENZIE: (as Brett) We got to go. Good to see you.
SCHAAL: (as Mel) All right. Bye. Bye, guys.
CLEMENT: (as Jemaine) See you later, Mel.
BARRY: (as Todd) Sweet dreams, babe.
GROSS: OK. So I don't know you at all, but I...
BARRY: Yeah. That's not quite me.
GROSS: I bet you are not that at all.
BARRY: No I'm not. I don't say sweet dreams, baby. But, yeah, that was, that's one of the things where you're like you're getting billed as your name and you don't necessarily want people to think that, you know, it's not a documentary. It's just a, it's fictional TV show where they're calling me Todd. But yeah, I don't really talk to people quite like that, a little subtler than that.
GROSS: You actually seem like you'd probably be on the shy side. You have a very kind of low-key persona onstage and a kind of, you know, white persona as we're talking now.
BARRY: Yeah. I am definitely shy, which is, which confuses some people but, because they see you on stage and then they think you're going to be a loose cannon off stage and you're just kind of this quiet person and then they get mad and they leave - they walk away from you at the bar, so it works out.
GROSS: But you're not exactly a loose cannon on stage either, are you?
BARRY: No. A good point. Good point. No, I'm not a loose cannon. But I think that they expect you to at least - I mean sometimes it's just hard to talk to someone, period, and someone after the show, it's sometimes hard to talk to them, depending on who they are. So sometimes I feel a little smothered and I'm sure it shows, but it's not because I'm being mean. It's just discomfort.
GROSS: So you don't talk about your personal life really onstage. But can I ask you a few questions about your life?
GROSS: Thank you. So do you live alone? Do you?
BARRY: I do live alone in New York City.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. And do you like living alone?
BARRY: Yeah. It's the way to go. I mean I'm also, I just turned 50. Don't really want to have like six roommates when I'm 50. But, yeah, I do like living alone. It was always a goal of mine even when I had roommates. And like even in college, I found a place in Gainesville, Florida, where I went - the University of Florida, and I remember having, I had a $160 a month apartment and I lived alone, it's like no one lives alone in college but for a while I did.
GROSS: I noticed you mentioned roommates, you don't mention like a partner.
GROSS: Like the alternative is like roommates or living alone.
BARRY: Oh, I mean I have a girlfriend but we're not living together.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. OK. Where did you grow up, in Florida?
BARRY: I was born in the Bronx and I moved to New Paltz, New York, for three years.
GROSS: That's a little upstate.
BARRY: Yeah. It's a little upstate. And then my dad's company, the entire company moved to South Florida, so we all packed up and moved to South Florida. And I lived there 'til I was like, I don't know, for like 15 or 16 years in western Broward County area, which is an extremely exciting place to live.
GROSS: So what's in western - I'm trying to figure out which place is it.
BARRY: It's like Fort Lauderdale. Like if you're in Fort Lauderdale and then you drive away from the fun and then you come...
BARRY: And you're like wow hoo, this is kind of terrible and then you go then yeah, let's live there.
GROSS: And what was your parent's reaction to you becoming a comic?
BARRY: I think they were fine with it. I mean they seem to be - yeah, they enjoyed it.
GROSS: Did you have a plan B?
BARRY: A plan B. No. I mean I always worked. I always had - like I was a substitute teacher for a while.
GROSS: Oh, where? In Florida?
BARRY: In Florida and in New York.
GROSS: Oh, wasn't that incredibly hard?
BARRY: Yeah, it was. It was especially in New York because the teachers often didn't leave, they almost never left a lesson plan for you, so you just walk into a class and you're like I don't even know what this class is. Then it's all over. There's no - it's not like they quiet and then - it's not like they get quiet and wait for you to figure out what to teach them so you kind of just, it was - I mean people say it's babysitting and it kind of was.
GROSS: Did you have students who behaved really badly like in a threatening way?
BARRY: No. I remember an encounter with - I was talking to a kid who was like 15 and I said something and I was like and I don't know if I was being, I don't think I was being condescending, but I was like you're probably too young to realize what I'm talking about. And he goes, he looks at me and he goes, I have a son. I was like OK.
BARRY: OK. You can have a seat or not if you like. But I remember that. But yeah, they were kind of, it got a little - I didn't get threatened but I also was probably an easy sub because at some point I would give up.
GROSS: I taught very briefly.
GROSS: And there were times when students would just be throwing things at me.
GROSS: So like the first time I did public speaking - not teaching, but public speaking - I thought like no matter what happens no one is throwing things at me. This is great.
BARRY: Yeah. That's like a big - yeah, I sometimes think that with audiences where I realize oh, this is a nice audience. Everyone's nice here. There's no jerks.
GROSS: They're in their seats?
BARRY: Yeah, they're in their seats.
GROSS: They're not in the hallways?
BARRY: Most of them are awake. It was like no texting going on and all that stuff that you have to deal with now.
GROSS: So can I ask you an awkward question? Have you ever been in a club where like the backstage doesn't have its own bathroom? So...
BARRY: You like those germaphobe thing, right?
GROSS: No, no, no. That's not what this is about. So that...
BARRY: Oh, OK.
GROSS: ...you're using the bathroom with the people who have come to hear you. And so before you're on stage, you're in the bathroom with them. And then so how do you go from being the guy in the urinal next door to being like the guy on stage? Do you know what I mean?
GROSS: Is it awkward to be the stage self after you were...
BARRY: I do a - it's not so bad after the show, then they can find out that I go to the bathroom sometimes. But I before the show - I mean that is one of the things where like the layout of the club is really something I wish I can control sometimes, where you're just like, where's the bathroom? Oh, you have to walk through the entire audience and then it's to the left of the stage or something. You're like, I don't well, you know, is there a McDonald's around here or something?
BARRY: But, yeah, I don't want to necessarily talk to them before the show because I do like to have this illusion of mystery...
BARRY: ...and mystique and I just think it kills that a little. I mean I'm always, when I go to see a show a band or whatever, when the lights come down that's probably my favorite part of the show. It's just the excitement of them walking on stage.
GROSS: And what's the most nervous-making part of the show for you as a performer?
BARRY: You mean a "Crowd Work" show or just any show?
GROSS: Any show.
BARRY: I tend to get nervous situationally. Like if I go to a comedy club, you know, I'm probably going to be fairly comfortable on stage. If someone like hires me to do a party for businessmen or something, business people and it's in a conference room, in a Sheraton or something but they're paying me so much that I can't say no, that's not going to be a - that's going to be a rough one. But it might go well but it'll make me sick to my stomach the whole day.
GROSS: And it's not necessarily your audience. These aren't people who came because you're performing. These are people who were there because somebody booked you at their convention.
BARRY: Yeah. And quite often people who do that don't know how to put on a show. So it'll be like all right, we're going to have mariachis come out for an hour and a half. Then we're going to serve cake and as the cake's coming down, you're going to walk on stage. And then I have to go, no, they have to eat the cake and then I go on stage.
BARRY: You have to sort of - I'm not going to follow mariachis and then cake, like there's no one can follow that.
GROSS: Todd Barry, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
BARRY: Oh, thanks for having me.
GROSS: Todd Barry's new performance film is available on Louis C.K.'s website. It's called "The Crowd Work Tour." You can see Barry tonight on the season premiere of Louis C.K.'s series "Louie."
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews an album by tUnE-yArDs, the name Merrill Garbus uses for her adventurous music act. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. tUnE-yArDs is a music act conceived by singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Merrill Garbus that has attracted a lot of attention. The tUnE-yArDs' previous album "Who Kill" was voted the best album of 2011 in the Village Voice Critics' Poll. The new third tUnE-yArDs album is called "Nikki Nack" and rock critic Ken Tucker says it continues Garbus' adventurous experiments.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIND A WAY")
MERRILL GARBUS: (Singing) My dreams aren't about the future. You tried to tell me that I had a right to sing, just like a bird has to fly. And I wanted to believe him because he seemed like a really nice guy. Oh, but I trip on the truth when I walk that wire. When you wear a mask, always sound like a liar. I tried to tell him all the reasons that I had to never sing again. And he replied, you better find a new way.
(Singing) Find a new way. Find a new way.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: tUnE-yArDs is Merrill Garbus. She writes the songs, which frequently consist of musical riffs broken into pieces and shards, glued together with an organizing rhythm. She provides most of the multi-layered vocals, much of the percussion, as well as various keyboards, ukulele and other instruments and objects. Working with bassist Nate Brenner and occasionally a few other singers and instrumentalists, Garbus gives electrifying performances that showcase her remarkably flexible singing voice. In her ability to create music that sounds at once invitingly familiar and disorientingly new, Garbus is the real thing - an original artist.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REAL THING")
GARBUS: (Singing) Givin' up what you've got. And what you are, you're simply not Aren't you tired of this game? And all the emptiness of your fame? You can't hold tight to what you have, because there is nothing there to grab. Now life is a shadow of the but, you never did have what you thought you got.
(Singing) I'm no real thing. They say I'm the real thing. I sound like the real thing. Sing it real loud like the real thing. Makin' 'em proud like the real thing. I come from the land of slaves. Let's go Redskins Let's go Braves. You want the truth in tomes, dig this dirt and sift out the bones. They said I'm the real thing . I sound like the real thing...
TUCKER: That's "Real Thing," whose lyric grapples with what it means to be real, authentic or original. Her stated influences are a patchwork, including everything from kid's games and TV shows to the drum rhythms she's heard in music from...
...authentic or original. Her stated influences are a patchwork, including everything from kids' games and TV shows to the drum rhythms she's heard in music from Kenya and Haiti, as well as every kind of American pop. I also hear the sort of willful naÃ¯vetÃ© that in the past has powered music by idiosyncratic artists such as Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu's David Thomas, Jonathan Richman and the children's-music genius-eccentric Jim Copp.
But in "Real Thing," Merrill Garbus worries over the notion that she's just an accumulation of her influences, and she fights back wonderfully, calling out the, quote, "curse of the real thing." This song and many others are showcases for her striking vocals. There are quiet moments on this album, such as "Look Around," which commences with Garbus' stark, lovely, soulful singing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK AROUND")
GARBUS: (singing) There will be always something you can lean your weight into. There will be always something you can rely on. I will be always something you can lean your weight into. I will be always something you can rely on. There will be always something you can lean your weight into. There will be always something you can rely on. I, I will be always something you can lean your weight into. I will be always something you can rely on.
Never thought I'd call you baby. But look around, look around, look around. We are the dreams that we were made of. Our friends have died waging war against their rulers. Come here, don't cry. We won't let anybody fool us.
TUCKER: That song builds and builds into a rich, multi-tracked, orchestral swirl that surges with confidence even as its lyric describes examples of what Garbus calls the most brilliantly rhyming terrors. tUnE-yArDs' music plays with notions of assertiveness and weakness, power and passivity.
Garbus' voice is so flexible, assuming so many roles within a single song, and her music is so artfully ramshackle, it can confuse a newcomer. Is she a kid just fiddling around with do-it-yourself technology? No. Now in her thirties, Garbus is an Oakland, California based artist whose process has become more complex with each of her three albums.
She took her album title "Nikki Nack" from the "This Old Man" nursery rhyme, but she's never childish - her songs raise the subjects of personal and political revolts, of natural and man-made disasters, of the difficult work of trying to achieve happiness.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEY LIFE")
GARBUS: (singing) One day I wake up with disgust in my head, could not forgive myself. Another moment in the bed. One day the mirror always disappoints. I pinch my skin back till I see the joints. Today I'm feeling like I live on a ledge. At any moment I just know I'm going to fall off the edge. They hang on. I promise them I will but I don't know for how long.
(singing) Wait for a minute. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. Wait for a minute.
TUCKER: At one point on this album, Merrill Garbus sings, "Hey, life, I love you so much I scream and shout." tUnE-yArDs' music contains some of the most thoughtful and artful screaming and shouting I've heard in a while.
GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "Nikki Nack," the new album from tUnE-yArDs. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Amanda Vaill's new book about the Spanish civil war. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Biographer Amanda Vaill says that the Spanish Civil War was the first war which a significant number of radio, newsreel and print journalists as well as photographers and documentary filmmakers were able to cover from the front. In her new book, "Hotel Florida," Vaill focuses on the lives of three couples that chronicle the war. Here's book critic Maureen Corrigan's review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: There's something romantic about biographer Amanda Vaill's device of making the Hotel Florida in Madrid the hub of her new book about the Spanish Civil War; but, then again, there's always been something romantic about the Spanish Civil War itself.
For the Spanish loyalists - who were supported by Russia and Mexico, as well as by the International Brigades of civilians from Europe and the Americas - the Spanish Civil War was a gallant stand against fascism. Of course, the on-the-ground reality wasn't always so black and white: Infighting on the left complicated matters, which is why countless historians have probed the contradictions of that war, which lasted from 1936 to 1939.
Amanda Vaill isn't after anything as quixotic as trying to set the record straight on the Spanish Civil War; instead, she delves deep into the lives of three couples whose chronicling of the war shaped public perception. Some of her subjects - like Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and war photographer Robert Capa - are famous; others, like photographer Gerda Taro and Spanish journalist Arturo Barea should be better known.
Their paths crossed in Spain and all six spent time in the Hotel Florida, a ten-story marble-clad jewel box in Madrid, where journalists, diplomats, prostitutes, pilots and spies drank together and dove for cover as bombs whistled over the city at night. Ultimately, what Vaill seems to be mulling over in this book is the age-old question of what war does to people: whether it brings out altruism or naked self-interest.
Spoiler alert: In Vaill's account Hemingway fails the sniff test. group biography is a potentially cumbersome genre, but Vaill proved her chops at this sort of narrative with her 1998 best-seller "Everybody Was So Young," an ensemble story that centered on Lost Generation artistic patrons Gerald and Sara Murphy.
The Murphys pop up in "Hotel Florida," as do a crowd of other, mostly left-leaning luminaries like Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos and Errol Flynn. Vaill organizes this book in a kaleidoscopic month-by-month diary style, so that, for instance, in December 1936, we hear about Arturo Barea fighting censorship in Valencia at the same time that Hemingway first meets Gellhorn, who's destined to become his third wife, at Sloppy Joe's Bar in Key West.
It's a narrative technique that at first feels choppy, but comes to suit the sweeping confusion of the war. It also allows Vaill to splice in excerpts from her subjects' own diaries and letters that add to the lived texture of her book. Here, for instance, is Gellhorn making this snappy declaration in a 1936 letter to a friend: Me, I am going to Spain with the boys. I don't know who the boys are, but I am going with them.
Despite the glamour of the Hemingway-Gellhorn pairing, the couple that steals the spotlight here is Robert Capa and his lover, Gerda Taro, and it's Taro who's the real revelation. She was an elfin girl who sported a boy's haircut, and was described by an acquaintance as looking like a fox that is going to play a trick on you.
They were broke and in their 20s when they met in Paris in 1936, and, back then, they were both still using their birth names. It was Taro who came up with the idea of the pseudonym Robert Capa, under which they would both take up-close-and-personal photographs of the fighting in Spain.
Under fire, their idealism seemed to grow - so much so that, when Taro was killed in 1937, she was lauded as a kind of Joan of Arc of the left. Taro was buried in Paris on her 27th birthday. At the end of "Hotel Florida," Vaill tells a brief story about the discovery of three cardboard valises in Mexico City in 2007.
Inside were over than 165 rolls of film containing images of the Spanish Civil War - people lining up for food in refugee camps, cratered cityscapes and, most grimly, the inside of a morgue after a bombing raid. The photographs were taken by, among others, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro.
An exhibition of those long-lost photographs, called "The Mexican Suitcase," was held at New York's International Center of Photography in 2011 - you can see some of them online. Like the discovery of the Mexican suitcases, Vaill's "Hotel Florida" adds to the cold hard facts - as well as to the enduring mystique - of the Spanish Civil War.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Hotel Florida" by Amanda Vaill.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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