Barry Rothbart on competitive eating, sketch comedy, new projects

Comedian Barry Rothbart will arrive in Minneapolis on the heels of the release of his documentary Hungry. "We're really excited about it," he says. "We followed [competitive eater] Takeru Kobayashi, the hot dog-eating guy. He's kind of the focus." Recent Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest winner Joey Chestnut is also featured.

"There's this whole battle," Rothbart explains. "Kobayashi was arrested at the competition four years ago because there was a contract dispute, and he couldn't compete. He showed up anyway, and they had him arrested. After that it turned into a huge battle with Major League Eating, the body that sanctions the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. The film revolves around his conflict with them."

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The subject has always fascinated Rothbart. "I thought it was funny," he says, adding that he and his filmmaking partner, Jeff Cerulli, figured it would be silly. "We thought we would go in and make fun of it, like a mocumentary. Then we found that these people are very serious about competitive eating." The filmmakers also uncovered a dark side. "These people are being taken advantage of, and there's this evil Darth Vader-like figure named George Shea, and he gets them into these abusive contracts. There's been a lot of upheaval against him. So, the documentary turned into that, and it's way better that way because there's a lot of humanity in it."

Another interesting thing Rothbart found out about competitive eating is that the most successful contestants are not overweight. Indeed, they are slender and in very good shape. "People say, 'My family and friends say I can eat so much, so I decided to try and do it.' But the people that do well are not big. If you're thinner, you'll do better at competitive eating. They've figured out that fat actually blocks your stomach from expanding."

Growing up a little overweight himself, Rothbart never imagined being onstage in front of strangers telling jokes. "I wasn't funny at all when I was a kid," he says. "I was really shy. I was a weird, fat kid that didn't have too many friends. I wanted to be a horror writer, and would sit in my room and write scary stories."

He started to come out of his shell as a teenager. "My dad would take me to comedy clubs in New York City," he recalls. "I must have been the youngest person there. I thought, 'This is really cool.' So in college I decided to give it a try. I always wanted to have some sort of attention, I just didn't know how to get it from my peers. I figured if I did standup, people would have to listen to me."

Inspired by Dave Attell, Rothbart has always been drawn to what he describes as weirder stuff.

"I actually like sketch comedy more than standup," he confesses. "When I was younger, I used to watch Mr. Show a lot and the Upright Citizens Brigade. I never got into George Carlin or Richard Pryor, or people like that."

He did enjoy Saturday Night Live, but mostly the cast from the '90s. "People always say SNL was better then, but I think people just like SNL from when they were 14. The best years of that show are from when you were a kid."

In addition to headlining clubs across the country and promoting Hungry, Rothbart is also developing a web series for Comedy Central. It centers on six roommates who hang around together and don't go out much. "I have a bunch of funny friends that are actors and comedians that I wanted to put in something," he says. "I asked myself, 'How do I get everyone I like working with into one premise?' I just wanted it to be really simple and it can go crazy from there."


Barry Rothbart Rick Bronson's House of Comedy Mall of America, 408 E. Broadway, Bloomington; 952-858-8558 Wednesday through Sunday $13- $19

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