Now … for something … different

Todd Barry
Sign language not required: Todd Barry

Comedian Todd Barry is playing the Grey Eagle this weekend in a pretty newsy appearance: The Clingman Avenue music hall has never before hosted a comic act. But in talking with Barry, one wonders whether the best venue for his material is instead his own mind.

Barry, whose dry-as-sawdust observations and somnambulistic delivery have earned him a jury award at the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen and a spot on Entertainment Weekly‘s “It List,” peppers his conversation with devastating pauses, during which he apparently considers and rejects a string of zingers his listener probably deserves.

Lobbed the sort of softball question for which publicists pray — “Where can I find your recent work?” — Barry waits a good five seconds before responding: “Maybe a record store?” And how would you characterize that record? Barry finally breaks the silence to say: “I don’t know how to answer that.” The conversational ball will not roll.

In the interludes, Barry is most certainly condemning this reporter’s idiocy. And this isn’t mere journalistic paranoia: In a series of recent essays in the New York Times, Barry’s best material arises from what’s initially left unsaid. In “The Sub,” he writes of being recruited to substitute teach at a school for the deaf:

“‘I don’t know sign language,'” I said.

“‘It doesn’t matter,'” the woman said.

It doesn’t matter if I know sign language? Wow. I’ll remember this conversation when I get a call from 60 Minutes.

“‘Sure, I’ll do it.'”

Unlike many comics, who try to demonstrate the density of their funny bones by always being the funniest guys in the room, Barry is content to save his laugh lines for a future audience. His delayed venting has garnered a passel of faithful fans, many of whom first encountered him as a recurring character (voicing Todd the Video Store Guy) on the now-defunct animated show Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.

“I guess a lot of people know me more from the cartoon work I’ve done,” Barry concedes.

Maybe it’s appropriate that a comedian who’s more often heard than seen would be drawn to the music circuit. Barry has an admirable alternative-rock resume for a guy who doesn’t use an amp: He’s opened for Yo La Tengo, The Shins, They Might Be Giants, and Luna. And he’s not shy about venturing into music venues as the main act: The Grey Eagle is the second stop on an eight-date jog through the Southeast in which nearly all performances are scheduled for music clubs.

“Lately I’ve been trying to do unusual venues,” says the comedian, an 18-year veteran of show-biz. “It’s sort of a refreshing change. You get true fans when you do something like this, and less people at the ticket window saying, ‘Is this guy funny?'”

Comedy-club owners — who likely have provoked their share of his quiet, eye-rolling contempt — have no reason to fear the recent exodus of comics from their venues, says Barry, pointing out that Richard Pryor regularly blurred the boundaries of music and stand-up by opening at jazz shows. According to Barry, the music-club model only expands comedy’s reach by allowing comics to play cities that may not be able to support a full-time comedy club.

Asheville’s last such venue, the Asheville Comedy Club & Deli, closed in 2003 after less than a year of operation. Its old-style amateur shows failed to fill the club’s 250 seats.

Brian Landrum, co-proprietor of the Grey Eagle, believes those Borscht Belt tactics risk alienating younger artists.

“Some of the young guys are playing music clubs because there’s not a two-drink minimum and all that other B.S.,” he explains.

Barry, who wanted to visit Asheville on his first trip through the South — a layover in the Charlotte airport and a wedding in New Orleans are the sum of his travels in the region — contacted Landrum to set up the show.

“My partner and I had his record Medium Energy and really liked it,” says Landrum. “He’s not cracking up at his own jokes or talking about airplane food. He’s hilarious, and we’re thrilled he contacted us.”

Landrum hopes Barry won’t be the last comic to perform at the Eagle.

“This should,” he says, “be the start of more to come.”

[Contributing writer Hanna Miller lives in Asheville.]

Todd Barry performs at the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) Sunday, June 18 at 8:30 p.m. $10/$12. 232-5800.


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