Louis C.K. surprised a massive crowd at the Mahalia Jackon Theater when he introduced, offstage and with little fanfare, his unannounced opener: Todd Barry, a longtime presence in comedy circles and master of timing — particularly in his long pauses and low, measured voice.
"That crowd was unbelievable," Barry says in his characteristic sigh-speech. Barry, whose credits include more than two decades as a stand-up comic and numerous film and TV appearances, was asked by C.K. to open some of his 2011 dates. (After the show, their driver took them to Cooter Brown's Tavern for oysters.)
Though familiar with performing at Mahalia-sized auditoriums, Barry now is on a more intimate tour preceding the release of a new Comedy Central stand-up special (airing July 21) and corresponding DVD and album. On Saturday, May 19, Barry performs two sets at The New Movement theater.
Before his 2011 performance, Barry last performed in New Orleans in 2006, a big show (thanks to local comic Bill Dykes) in the comedy-dry days following the 2005 floods.
"I was on tour and I barely had any time to check it out," Barry says. "Now I won't really this time, now that I think about it. When we were walking around (last year), it was like, 'Wow, this is a really great city and I want to come back here soon.'"
It would be easy to mistake the arid declaration of his enthusiasm as sarcasm if not for his stand-up persona — dry, deadpan and sharp as hell. A regular on late-night TV and on series as diverse as Flight of the Conchords and Sex and the City, Barry's stage presence (slouchy, quiet, bald) and self-deprecation hide his subtle but sour commentary that's anything but observational humor.
His stand-up albums Falling Off the Bone, Medium Energy and From Heaven offer 60-second bursts of low-key commentary (UPS having the hours of an "East Village trance record shop," a punchline made better by the several preceding it), carefully dropped slayers (to a guy with a neck tattoo: "Hey man, you forgot to not do that") and moments of absurdity. On From Heaven, he takes on comics "afraid of" performing in the South through a biting, over-the-top retelling of what it's like performing in Alabama.
"I've had a good time in the South. I like the South. I feel like the people who show up are people familiar with me. I do some New York stuff but it's not like you have to live here to understand," Barry tells Gambit. "I still hear people, when they're talking politics, they just trash the South in a way that seems sort of bigoted, or stupid. (New Orleans) is probably less maligned."
What about Alabama?
"I like it there, too, so I dunno."
A New York native, Barry grew up in Florida's Broward County, first taking the stage in Miami, then West Palm Beach. "I think I went on three nights in a row. I kind of had a weird love for it," he says. "When I first started, I did it as a goof, and I was like, 'Oh, I like doing this,' but I felt weird because I didn't know I ever wanted to do it before." (His jokes were "about McDonald's and circumcision — but we don't have to try and remember those," he says.)
Barry made a dozen appearances on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist, and currently appears with C.K. on his acclaimed FX series Louie. Most recently, he starred in David Wain's Wanderlust opposite Paul Rudd as lunkhead co-worker "Sherm." He also starred as dirtbag manager Wayne in Darren Aronofsky's Oscar-nabbing The Wrestler.
"Most of my comedy friends now I met in New York. ... I've been lucky, some people ask me to do little bit parts on their shows. I don't know if I'm a good actor or not," he says. "I've never played a soldier or anything. It's usually a wiseass."
Improv school and comedy conservatory The New Movement opened in March and runs several recurring weekly shows, like its flagship series, The Megaphone Show, and improv troupe Stupid Time Machine's showcase. Founders Chris Trew and Tami Nelson perform long-form improv as Chris & Tami, and the theater has developed new showcases like the half-scripted, half-improvised You Don't Know the Half of It, the storytelling series Shipwrecked!, and faux-expert talk series Motivational Mayhem.
Comics Kyle Kinane and Sean Patton headlined at the theater during the inaugural comedy installation of the foburg music festival, and Hannibal Buress will headline the space for two sets June 6.
Barry, who also has dropped in to play drums with bands like Mates of State, Superchunk and Yo La Tengo, hasn't counted out returning next time with a band, though it's unlikely.
"I've considered doing some goofy band, but I don't know," he says, sighing. "I can't do everything."