Barry Rothbart: Not Just Another Cover Band


barry rothBarry Rothbart’s latest comedy album dropped several months ago and has a brand new Comedy Central special that airs September 5th. One of the original writers for Adam Devine’s House Party and a cast member on Punk’d, Rothbart appeared in The Wolf of Wall Street and has a new feature coming out at Sundance that is Demetri Martin’s directorial debut called Dean which stars comic Rory Scovel and actor Kevin Kline. The dude’s got chops and is appearing at The Crepe Place on August 27th. Check out the event page and attend:

SUSC: What was your earliest comedy experience?
Barry: I’m from New York. Early on my dad would take me to comedy clubs when I was 14. I got to see all these legends. I saw Seinfeld while his show was still on the air, Chris Rock before he was famous. As a little kid I thought it was wizardry. I find it difficult to quantify how awesome it was. In the back of my mind I thought I wanted to try it one day

Then I went to college in Massachussettes at Lowell and I was really depressed and down. I thought I had nothing else going for me, so I gave comedy a shot. It was terrible. My first show was in Boston, right outside actually.

Who did you come up with?

I don’t think anyone I started with is still doing it.  I met Aziz Ansari who had been in it a few more years then me. We met at The Comic Strip. I had passed the late night spot, which was a bone they would throw to younger comics and so had Aziz and Mike Birbiglia.

The year I did Montreal Just for Laughs, that was my “graduating class”.  Jared Carmichael, Sean O’Connor, Brooks Wheelan and a few other people. But people I started out with, very few are making a living out of it or still around.

Was Montreal Just for Laughs your big break?

I actually had management before Montreal, but it opened up a lot of doors. I had the Tonight Show with Jay Leno after that and became a cast member of Punk’d. I think Montreal is the only thing that can propel you from being a non-working comic to a working comic, overnight. It’s a rite of passage that late night TV no longer is.

There was that day when one late night spot was your career making move. It’s a new world.

I had never even done the road when I did the Tonight Show. I think a lot of comics believe there is a hierarchy where you start off on the road MCing, then you feature and get a late night spot and then headline. I literally did the Tonight Show and became a headliner. I had never featured before or been on the road. I was not ready at all. I got thrown into being a headliner.

You only played with the home court advantage.

I started in a major city, so there was no reason to go on the road. I never learned how to do a half hour, because I had only done 5 and 6 minute sets, because that prepares you for TV.

How was it becoming a headliner so soon?

A lot of people who haven’t headlined think it’s just about doing a longer amount of time, but its not. You have all the pressure of being larger then the other comics on the show. There’s a different context. Comedy is about context. If you come off like you are great, or you act like you are great and you’re not and you look shitty, or if you’re humble about it and you’re decent, you look like a genius. There are contextual things about being a headliner that you don’t expect. The fact that people paid to see you, you must have more energy or a bigger stage presence then the other comics. Otherwise, it’s just a comic at the end of a show doing more time. It took me a while to learn that. At first I was just stringing together 6 and 7 minute sets. There was no act. I had to develop what it means to have an act.

Is it like a narrative?

It’s not really a narrative unless you tell one story your whole set. There is a point you are trying to make with your set. It’s about having a consistent point of view, which is term that’s thrown around a lot, so it sucks. But what it means to me is that you have a thing that your consistently trying to explore. You could put your set into the context of “These are things I’m mad about,” or, “These are things I think are really interesting,” or, “This is stuff I am amazed by.” Look at Louis CK he’s always like, “Here’s another thing I’m annoyed about.” Pete Holmes once said the point of view he comes from is things that he finds amazing. That is what gives you a consistent tone—and then, you can talk about anything.

I just watched Bill Burr on Conan speak his mind, and it’s getting a negative spin in the press.

There are certain subjects that are popular to be mad about. Right now you cannot bring up anything about Transphobia or Transexuals without somebody saying “How dare you.” And it’s a knee jerk reaction without looking at the context of what was being said. People get attention by announcing how offended there are. People will be offended just so they have something to talk about. Did you go to college?


Do you remember your freshman year or your sophomore year when you would go home that first Thanksgiving? You had all this new shit you learned about the world and you just couldn’t wait to let everyone know. No matter the topic at the table you were going to let everyone know about Feminism. It’s a very strong opinion because you have convinced yourself that you have figured it all out—that’s what the whole internet is like now. It’s like a freshman home on Thanksgiving. There’s a weird rush right now to put everything into the context of, “I’m offended.” I don’t understand it and it’s childish.

It’s not even righteous indignation.

I read an article lately that said that attitude is even more dangerous then a lot of things. Colleges are catering to students like they are clients or consumers. They don’t want to piss off the students because they are giving them money. Let’s not challenge their thought patterns, let’s feed them what they want.

Let’s save their anger for after they graduate, owe $40,000 and can’t get a job.

Colleges are run like country clubs.

How does that translate to being a comic?

When you don’t explore anything new as a comic. When you are doing the same stuff that everyone can get on board with and they are not pushing any boundaries. You are basically just a cover band. You’re basically playing the hits everybody likes. If you go to a bar, everyone cheers when the band plays Journies, “Don’t Stop Believing,” because they know it and its familiar. That’s what comedy turns into when you don’t try to push any buttons.

And deal with people being offended.

It’s not even people being offended sometimes, its people thinking other people are being offended. I imagine few people are personally offended by comedy.

Being offended is a personal choice. You choose to be offended.

And then it becomes about you.

Why come to a comedy club? Go to Wal-Mart, there’s plenty of things to be offended about there.





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