Barry Rothbart is a stand-up comic and actor with a few serious credits under his belt, including a Comedy Central Half Hour, several late night appearances, and a role in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Recently he’s been working on a new show called Single by 30 for YouTube Red, as well as a pilot for ABC about a talking dog. NorCal folks might also recognize him as a headliner of the 2015 Savage Henry Magazine Comedy Festival. I caught up with Rothbart recently to talk about comedy festivals, the pain of watching your own performances, and getting arrested for your art.
Isaac Kozell: You just got back from SXSW, where you did a big Funny or Die sponsored show.
Barry Rothbart: It was amazing. It was in this big tent with a great lineup. It was the first time I’ve done SXSW. It was really fun and I got really drunk afterwards.
IK: Are you a festival guy? Do you like that atmosphere?
BR: I like festivals a lot. I almost like them more than clubs. You can hang out with a lot of other comics. It feels like summer camp. I never really had a good summer camp experience.
IK: I feel like the best example of that summer camp experience is probably Savage Henry Fest. You’re way out in the Redwoods, posted up in Humboldt for a long weekend. Everyone’s partying. Good vibes all around.
BR: I know. I love the Savage Henry Fest. I got to do a bunch of good shows at the last one. The final show was in this huge theater. It was legit. Festivals are cool because it’s one of the few times where it’s okay to not be a huge name and you can still sell out the show.
IK: It seems like being solely stand-up famous is a thing of the past now. There aren’t that many household name stand-up comics anymore who people know just from their comedy.
BR: I think that comes from the fact that it’s really hard to make a living doing stand-up these days.
IK: Yeah, comics now have to diversify in order to make a living. You can’t just be a comic. You have to write for something, get on a TV show, in a movie, or have a successful podcast or something. Whatever it takes to stay within the comedic realm of creativity.
BR: On one hand, it’s great now because everything’s become more egalitarian. You can do a lot of shows in smaller markets. There are little pockets of places where you can perform that aren’t just clubs. You can go across the entire country and do non-club rooms if you want to. On the other hand though, like with what happened to music, it’s less money with more people doing it. Unless you can do something on a larger scale it’s really hard to make money. It’s tough, but it’s way more fun. The audiences are better. People don’t have to pay as much so you can attract younger comedy fans, whereas with clubs, you’re probably dropping $50 a person to go to a club for a night.
IK: The last time that we talked you were working on a movie with Demetri Martin.
BR: Yeah, it just premiered at Tribeca. It got really good reviews. It’s legitimately a great movie.
IK: It’s called Dean, right?
BR: Yeah. There’s some other comics in it too: Rory Scovel, Andrew Santino.
IK: Do you have any issues with watching your own performances, like a comedy special or a role in a movie?
BR: I don’t like it. I only like it if I’m not a major character or if I have just a few funny moments. If I have to see myself for more than a few minutes then it gets really difficult. I didn’t even watch my Comedy Central half-hour until just recently because I had to see what material they used so I could find out which stuff I can’t use anymore. Honestly, there’s no non-emotional reaction that I’ll have watching myself. I won’t be like, “Oh, I like what I did with my hands there.” You’re either going to be like, “That was not as good as I thought,” or, “It’s even worse than I thought,” which is good, I guess. You don’t want to be like, “Man I fuckin’ love everything I do!”
IK: You have to be a sociopath to watch your own special and be like, “Hell yeah, I fucking crushed that one!”
BR: Of course. You’re watching a magic trick when you already know how it’s done. The magic is gone.
IK: This is Savage Henry Magazine’s “Public Safety” issue. Do you have any good stories about encounters with cops?
BR: I was arrested around 10 years ago for stealing a shopping cart from Home Depot. It was on 4/20, actually. I was going to shoot a short film the next day and I needed a dolly shot, so my friend and I went to Home Depot and stole a shopping cart. We got two blocks away and there were four cop cars all the sudden. They surrounded us. My friend got off because she said she had an uncle in the FBI. But I got arrested and had to spend 15 hours in jail. New York Central Booking is the worst. They just throw you in this cell with piss on the floor. You’re in there with rapists and murderers who are like, “What are you in for?” I’m like, “I just stole a shopping cart.” They’re all laughing like, “No way!” The judge ended up laughing it off when I finally went to court.
Follow Barry on Twitter @barryrothbart