Talking to Barry Rothbart About Leno, His Competitive Eating Documentary, and Working with Martin Scorsese

The Tonight Show typically isn’t the place where hip, young New York comics make their late-night TV debuts. They tend to go the Conan or Fallon route.

Credit Barry Rothbart for breaking the glass ceiling.

Things have been going pretty well for Rothbart ever since his first Tonight Show set two years ago. He co-directed a documentary, was recently named one of Variety’s 10 Comics to Watch, and has a role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming The Wolf of Wall Street.

I recently had the chance to catch up with Rothbart at Just For Laughs in Montreal, where he was one of the festival’s stand-out performers. We talked about performing the day after 9/11, working with Martin Scorsese, and pissing off Major League Eating.

How does Montreal compare to other festivals?

It’s the only real festival left. There are other festivals that are fun for comics, but this is the only real marketplace. Everyone’s here. You got like Bonnaroo and South by Southwest and Bridgetown; they’re not as industry heavy as Montreal. And way fewer street performers. Montreal is all about weird, street a cappella groups. [Laughs.]

Does the industry stuff still happen? Have you had any “meetings” in Montreal?

You meet everyone while you’re here. I signed with an agency because of the festival last time I went, and I got the Tonight Show from it. You get things. I think most of the work happens, from what my manager tells me, in the few weeks after. People will have it down in a notepad or whatever. I came here thinking that you walk off the stage and people are like “Hey man you want to sign this thing? We’re gonna give you a bunch of money.” It’s not like that, but I wish it was like that. It’s more about building relationships. It’s just a lot of fun to be a part of. You get to see every single person of your generation of comedy with you.

Do you see many shows while you’re here?

Yeah, totally. I saw Pete Holmes and thought he was great. I accidentally saw the bilingual show ’cause I thought it was New Faces. I accidentally went to the wrong theater and I sat through a half-hour of this bilingual show, and I thought, “This is a really weird way to start off New Faces with a half-English-speaking comic.” [Laughs.] I saw Kyle Kinane. He was so good.

You said Just for Laughs led to you getting the Tonight Show. How did that work? Did the booker see your set?

Yeah, I was already on their radar. And they saw me here and told me they loved my set. Being here kind of pushes people to see that shit’s happening with you ’cause no one does anything unless they have to. Just the act of coming here, even if they didn’t see your set, gets them to move a little quicker. Then if someone sees your set and you really connect with them, you can get more auditions out of it and things like that.

And that was from a set you did a couple years ago?

Yeah, I was a New Face in 2011.

Was the Tonight Show your TV debut?

Yeah. I had a role on Men of a Certain Age before that, but Leno was my first stand-up on TV. And then I did Conan and Craig Ferguson.

Are you the only one of your peers who’s done Leno? You don’t really fit the mold of a Leno comic.

I am. I don’t know how it happened. It’s a weird credit ’cause it’s me and then like, Roseanne Barr. It’s kind of strange, but it’s great for touring. If people see the Tonight Show it gets more establishment credibility, but my friends are like, “Whatever, you’ve sold out man.” [Laughs.]

But who would turn it down?

It’s funny. When I was offered it, I asked my manager, “Should I even take this? Maybe I should hold out for Fallon or Conan.” My manager was like, “Are you insane? Leno gets like six million viewers.”

Do you change your approach at all performing for a Leno audience?

I didn’t know what a TV taping would be like, so I just had to go off what I do. It was the first time I performed without a microphone. It was just a lapel, lavalier mic. I had to naturally be bigger. It’s weird to be up there with your hands at your side with no microphone. It worked out well. It was very high energy. Luckily, I got a lot of attention from that. I was so nervous though. I ended up having two beers before I went on stage, and it was great. It was such a great decision. It loosed me up ’cause it’s the most nerve-racking thing you can go through. It’s four-and-a-half minutes on national TV, and you can’t fuck up. You have to be funny.

Where did you start doing comedy?

I started in college at UMass doing really small gigs in Massachusetts. I went to UMass-Lowell, the weaker of the UMasses.

Right outside Boston, right?

It is, yeah. That’s the most generous thing anyone’s ever said about Lowell. [Laughs.] Yeah, it is right outside of Boston.

[Laughs.]

I always loved standup ’cause my dad would always take me to comedy clubs in New York when I was growing up. I remember going to the Comedy Cellar, and going to see Jerry Seinfeld live. It was this crazy thing where I was like, “No one can do this. How could they do this?” I was fascinated by it, and I was secretly writing a set. And then in college I was so bored and so down, I was like “Screw it I’m going to try standup, I don’t care.” And I booked a shitty terrible gig at this Holiday Inn.

You booked it yourself?

Yeah, I just kept calling places and saying “Hey man, I want to be a comedian. Where can I do a show?” And they were all like, “I don’t know. Open mics?” [Laughs.] So finally, I decided to try an open mic, but for some reason, I thought I was better than open mics, which I wasn’t at all. I had never even done a show. [Laughs.] So I ended up getting a bringer show. And I thought I’m not going to bring four people, I decided I’d just pay four people’s admission. And I got there and they said, “No, you can’t do that.” So I had to go to the hotel bar and recruit people. It was a total disaster. And it was the day after September 11th.

No way.

Yeah. It was September 12th, 2011.

Great day for comedy.

The booker was like, “You can’t talk about it, you can’t talk about it.” It was terrible. I did terribly on stage and didn’t perform again for two years until I started performing in New York.

You started out doing sketch and improv, right?

I started out taking some of the very early sketch and improv classes at UCB back when it was in its original venue. I had a sketch group called The Straight Men and we had a run at The PIT. I loved sketch and improv, but you can’t rely on people to come to shit. So I started to do more standup.

Creatively did you prefer standup? Aside from the logistical problems of getting people together for sketches?

I liked some things about it, but I still do sketch. I still do video sketches. I think there are limitations of standup. I love standup, but I envy in some ways how you can just go to any creative world in improv. In sketch, you have to stay somewhat linear. I like to let my standup wander into weirdness. I think that you can get away with a lot more of that with sketch and improv. But standup is amazing. You’re the everything; you’re the writer; you’re the performer and the director. I love that.

Let’s talk about The Wolf of Wall Street. You got the part through an audition?

Yeah. I auditioned and at first I didn’t know what it was or who it was? Even though my agents had emailed that to me. I read the script and was like, “Oh, it’s just a Wall Street movie,” and I wasn’t super nervous about it. I just went in, and it was a lot of improv, and I played this brash, New York, fast-talking stockbroker type, and, apparently, they liked it. They showed it to Martin Scorsese, and I was thinking there was no way he was going to watch the tape. He’s not going to watch an audition from some asshole comedian, but no, he really watched it and wanted to bring me in. So I went in for the callback, which was in a hotel room, and I had to go in with three other dudes to sit in front of Martin Scorsese sitting on a bed in a hotel, and we just had to improvise phone pitches as stockbrokers.

Did you leave thinking you nailed it?

I guess so. I did a lot of weird stuff because he didn’t want us to go on script. So I was yelling, I splashed water in the reader’s face.

Really?

Yeah, he loved it. He’s a big fan of standup comedy.

Did you do much improv on set?

Oh yeah. It was all improv. He would come in and be like, “Hey man, what do you want to do in this scene?” And you’re like, “You’re Martin Scorcese. You’re asking ME what you want me to do?” You would think that everything would be planned out, but it’s so loose. That’s why I don’t know what they’re going to keep, what they’re going to get rid of, ’cause we would literally do 10 hours of a scene different each time.

Are you one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s buddies in the movie?

Yeah, there’s like seven of us. We pal around with him and do coke and go to orgies. I’m kind of the guy in the group who goes way overboard with everything. A real asshole. Peter DeBlasio, that’s the name of my character.

When does it come out?

November 15th.

You have a documentary coming out about competitive eating. How did you get involved? Why competitive eating?

I always loved the world of competitive eating and thought it had a lot of drama, which I thought was fun since it’s about eating. Then I decided to make the film with this other comic Jeff Cerulli, and as we were shooting it, Takeru Kobayashi (the most famous eater) was kicked out of the “league.” So we were like, “We have to get him on board and the film has to be about that.” Then we did it. We actually started digging so deep that the league tried to sabotage our project on several occasions. It was like a spy movie.

 

Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.

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