While it’s important to avoid sweeping generalizations, it’s prudent to draw small, if not fully formed, conclusions from particular situations. For instance, last Friday, at the Arlington Drafthouse & Cinema (which was moonlighting as a comedy club on weekends), I learned from Todd Barry and Leo Allen that comedians are only funny when they want to be, which is to say, only when they’re performing.
The interview might have started off on the wrong foot when Barry, a seasoned veteran of the late night television circuit with a Comedy Central special to his name, asked, “When’s the piece gonna run?”
“So it’s not promoting the show?”
He seemed a little bit peeved that a college newspaper wouldn’t be publishing on a Saturday to plug his second night in Arlington. The interview soldiered on.
“So, do you like performing in D.C.?”
“It’s fine. The crowds are really good.”
Wait, no elaboration? No knocks at Bush or Cheney or Marion Barry? Denied. My next question might as well have been, “So…you like…stuff?” Thankfully, the sound crickets chirping or tumbleweeds rolling were covered up by the James Bond theme. That night’s showing of “Casino Royale” was finishing up, and we were sitting in a room right behind the screen.
Barry seemed a little nervous. Pre-show jitters? Maybe he’s never been in the mood for softball questions from a college journalist. Or maybe he saw no need to make a good impression. Likewise, when Leo Allen, a former Saturday Night Live writer, would interject from time to time, it seemed like he wanted his punch lines lobbed to him as well. I’ve met hipsters at GW less taciturn and disaffected.
One question inspired Allen to talk about why he enjoyed grade school so much more than his later school years. “Recess…somebody reads you a book,” he said. The opening act, a local boy named John Mumma, gave a much better answer about being young while warming up the crowd:
“I was playing with my nephew, and suddenly he tells me, ‘Uncle John, I pooped my pants.’ I asked him why he didn’t stop to run to the toilet, and he says, ‘Because I was having so much fun with you!’ Can you imagine doing something so much fun that it’s worth [crapping] your pants for?”
Thankfully, while laughs during the interview were few, far between, and especially awkward, Allen and Barry were striking the right chords on stage, which is to say, I’ve rarely laughed harder (maybe the beer helped).
Allen was rather blas? during the interview, but on stage this translated into slacker humor with a perspective detached enough to find humor in the mundane and the absurd in the everyday.
He acknowledged that you can’t really make fun of certain demographics of people anymore. “Except for vegans! Even vegetarians make fun of vegans.are there any vegans in the audience? [A single, muffled affirmation] One person who can barely muster the strength.” This as a starting point, he was able to crack jokes about eating babies and a chocolate-flavored Ibex (it’s an African goat) before he made way for Todd Barry.
Barry’s set was a little less consistent, as he stumbled out of the starting block. “How’s it going, Arlington? Look at that, I learned the name of your sh*t suburb.” [Muffled laughter]. Now, you could live in the crappiest suburb this side of Turd Town, but it’s still not cool when performers inform you that they don’t think very highly of your home.
He did manage to win over the crowd with a (his words), “really well crafted anal sex joke, that had a twist ending,” and his physical attributes – diminutive, balding, a raspy monotone – lent something to his raunchy comedy. But Todd Barry was a little too into Todd Barry.
There was one joke he told, about the National Zoo in D.C., which was funny, but for different reasons other than Barry might have understood it. Paraphrased roughly, “I wanted to see the pandas,” he began, “and right before the pandas are the prairie dogs, which were just adorable. I went on to the pandas and I couldn’t help but be disappointed.so I went back to look at the prairie dogs. And that’s what it’s like for other comedians when I open for them.”
But after this weekend, Barry should have a better idea of what it’s like to be the panda, even if he didn’t make it to the Zoo.