Last Night’s Dream: “Todd Barry And His Fashionable, Space Age, Puffy-to-the-Max, Ski Vest”
Last night I ran into a comedy friend (from back in the day) at a rooftop birthday party in Venice Beach. Richard Register. THE Richard Register. Of “Register and Gans, Gans and Register!.” Never heard of him? What?! He was one half of a comedy duo who performed all over downtown back then. (Where did all the comedy duos go? Register & Gans, Slovin & Allen, The Sklars, The Two Andy’s, etc.).
Register and Gans are alive and well, but are no longer hanging out on Ludlow Street psyching themselves up for their next bit. They are in L.A., and are quite successful as a TV writing team. As Richard and I ate Korean-style bbq on the rooftop, we began to reminisce about NYC’s Lower East Side comedy scene in the early to mid 90s. And it was surprising how much the streets of Venice Beach below resembled our old stomping grounds in all of it’s… cracked-outness. Weird. (WTF happened to Venice Beach, people? It used to be so mellow and beachy-groovy, but now? Now it felt like a third-world country. With a really bad drug problem.) Anyway- Richard and I agreed we were lucky to have spent our formative years in such a specific time and place- drugs and all.
The fact that the subject of last night’s dream turned out to be Todd Barry came as no surprise, because I think of Todd as one of the poster boys for that early 90s, Lower East Side comedy scene. I was lucky enough to get to watch Todd work at various hole-in-the-wall “alternative” rooms when we both happened to be on the same bill (if you could even call it “being on the bill” in joints like that- it was more like “being on the yellow legal pad”), but I also got to watch him at more traditional, mainstream comedy clubs, because I waitressed for years at different standup clubs. Places like The Original Improv (before it was torn down) and StandUp, NY (which is still standing).
It was a genuine crash-course in comedy. Before I waitressed in standup clubs, my only exposure to standup was on TV. And I naively assumed that standup comics created a whole new set of jokes every single time they performed ANYwhere. I was shocked to learn that a lot of them will work the same ten to fifteen minute set for decades if they can. Getting to see a wide range of comics go on stage night after night (most of them doing the exact same set over and over) was a real eye-opener. So much sweat and rejection goes into crafting a “solid ten.” But a few comics always amazed me with how prolific they were– comics like Dave Atell, Todd Barry, Jim Gaffigan, Louis CK — they were constantly trying out new stuff. I admired the hell out of that. And the thickness of their skin against the crowds who didn’t give a shit.
I wanted my skin to be so much thicker. Going on 20 years later I’m getting there. But back then I was encased in a thin, people-pleasing layer of tissue paper.
The list of comics I was exposed to back then goes on and on….
Larry Amaros, Lewis Black, Kevin Brennan, Eddie Brill, Brett Butler, Mario Cantone, Dave Chapelle, Margaret Cho, Mark Cohen, Sue Costello, Jim David, Nick DiPaolo, Uncle Dirty, Susie Essman, Maria Falzone, Mitch Fatel, Greg Fitzsimmons, Zach Galifianakis, Janeane Garofalo, Greg Giraldo, Judy Gold, Darrell Hammond, Allen Havey, Tom Hertz, Bill Hicks, Dom Irrera, Mike Ivey, Laura Kightlinger, Marc Maron, Rusty McGee, Kevin Meany, Patton Oswalt, Jay Potter, Caroline Rhea, Greg Rogell, Jeff Ross, Mike Royce, Angela Scott, Sarah Silverman, William Stephenson, Adrianne Tolsch, Dan Vitale
I was even lucky enough to be working the night George Carlin stopped by (unannounced) to do a set. We didn’t have twitter back then, or facebook, or cell phones (not really) or camera phones, or texting, or the internet (not REALLY). So we just watched him. And laughed. And didn’t alert any “followers.” The fact that that surprise visit was totally UNdocumented makes it all the more special.
I still remember a good portion of all of those comics’ sets- even the Jamaican dude, Barrington, who worked french fry duty back in the kitchen of The Improv– he barely spoke a word of English, yet one night he got up on stage (I guess as a dare?), and did a pretty impressive chunk of Dave Atell’s “go-to” FUNNY (and a light sprinkling of Mark Cohen gems for his closer). Then… back to the fryalator.
I think the Todd Barry in my dream was inspired partly by an old joke of his I still remember. It wasn’t so much a joke as it was a pickup line. He’d tell the audience that Brad Pitt, who’d recently been voted “sexiest man alive,” was known for not bathing very often, but that he, Todd Barry, was very hygienic and bathed daily. Then, turning to a woman in the front row, he’d say in his most seductive Todd Barry voice:
“So, Ma’am… what’s it gonna be? Would you rather have a filthy, germ-ridden, unhygienic Brad Pitt? Or a sexy, squeaky clean, well-scrubbed Todd Barry?”
To me, the answer was clear. Still is.