Comedian Todd Barry has an old joke about Fugazi, the almighty high priests of DIY punk rock. The joke rests on the idea that Fugazi didn’t believe in charging more than $5 for a show, a fact lost on people outside of punk rock. Barry wonders if everyone in the band felt as fervently bound to this principle as the band’s leader Ian MacKaye. Perhaps, say, the drummer had a different point of view. “Hey fellas,” Barry jokes. “I have the craziest idea. How about six bucks? I was thinking that extra dollar times 800 people a night, times five shows a week means I don’t have a roommate when I’m 47.”
This joke appeared on his 2001 album, Medium Energy. And if you’re wondering, MacKaye doesn’t mind being teased.
“We met because of the Fugazi joke,” Barry tells me in an email. “I think he’s good with it. He usually comes to my D.C. shows and has given me a tour of the Fugazi house.”
In the past two decades, Barry has become a fixture in alternative comedy with his wry, intelligent wit, deadpan delivery and offbeat, sardonic material. He has played venues large and small, landed a Netflix comedy special in 2017 (Spicy Honey), and has had roles in Bob’s Burgers, The Sarah Silverman Program and The Wrestler, the 2008 film that nearly earned Oscars for Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei.
Though, after all these years, Barry does still have a thing for offbeat venues. He comes to Santa Cruz for the first time in his career to perform at the Catalyst Atrium, which rarely—if ever—hosts comedy shows, as part of his ironically titled “Stadium Tour.”
“I’ve never been to the Catalyst, but I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve seen many types of venues. I did a show in a barbershop last night,” Barry says. “I’ll make it work.”
His fascination with what are considered “secondary markets” and the unlikely towns you end up in if you step away from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago led him to write the 2017 book Thank You for Coming to Hattiesburg: One Comedian’s Tour of Not-Quite-the-Biggest Cities in the World. This is the path that countless punk and alternative bands proudly follow. But for some reason, when most comedians hit these markets, they see it as a sign of failure. Barry thinks it’s great.
“I like going to cities that don’t necessarily get every band/comedian that is on tour. The people are excited that you made the effort,” Barry says. “Also, I like checking out places I might not go to otherwise.”
One of those places was Santa Cruz, where he sat and had coffee. He says he landed there after performing at Sally Tomatoes in Rohnert Park. That particular show was the subject of one of his essays in the book.
He does occasionally open up for bands, a gig that can be a nightmare for comedians if the fit isn’t right. He is very careful about choosing bands like Yo La Tengo that match his low-key energy.
“I usually work with bands who have a chill, well-behaved crowd, so it usually works out,” Barry says. “And I’m not completely unknown, so that helps.”
It helps too that he came from that world. In the mid-80s, he played drums in the South Florida jangly post-punk band the Chant. He still plays drums, and he even gets to join some better, well-known bands on stage. Once, for instance, he joined Superchunk on stage to play a cover of the Misfits song “Horror Business.”
Earlier this year, Barry tweeted a video of his Superchunk performance at the Foo Fighters, asking if could sit in on a future show, saying that his performance was “flawless and in the pocket.”
“I only play once in a while, mainly when a friend’s band is playing and I muscle my way behind the drum kit,” Barry says. “Dave Grohl has not responded to me, but that 11-year-old girl who challenged him to a drum-off is amazing. Light years better than me.”
Toddy Barry performs at 9pm on Friday, Sept. 24 at Catalyst Atrium, 1101 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $20. 831-423-1338.