Ben Rosenfeld’s Russian Optimism
Ben Rosenfeld began with a Russian nursery rhyme:
In my childhood, my mom gouged out my eyes
So that I wouldn’t find the jam
Now I don’t watch movies and I don’t read fairy tales
But on the bright side, I smell and hear really well.
This is what Ben calls “Russian Optimism.”
As a first generation Russian Jew who grew up in Connecticut, Ben has a foot in two cultures. One is in Russia: notoriously cynical, serious, and unafraid to face the facts; the other, America: notoriously pompous, elitist, and willfully oblivious of its greatest faults. When these two cultures meet, you get the unique brand of comedy that is Ben Rosenfeld.
Ben cannot be idle. For the past six years, Ben has been performing comedy, writing comedy, editing footage of comedy, writing about comedy, traveling for comedy, developing his website, maintaining contact with the comedy powers that be (read: bookers), producing a podcast, writing a book, or putting together an hour-long comedy CD and DVD special. When we met for this interview, he was on his way to a talk by Cory Stern, Senior Director of Development on the East Coast for Comedy Central.
So, how did you get into comedy?
Technically, I guess, the first “official” thing happened my Freshman year in college, at Rutgers. My roommate and I got drunk and registered the domain name “slutgers.com” (as a parody of rutgers.com). Originally it was just a screenshot of the Rutgers webpage, but I photoshopped an “Sl” instead of the “R,” and that was the first month.
Eventually we started writing articles that poked fun at the school, holding caption contests, had a “sexual position of the week”… It was like a lot like Collegehumor, but it focused only on Rutgers, and was (as a result) a lot less successful… I mean, those guys are millionaires… I’m on medicaid… But you know.
It did have an audience and it did make a profit. We sold Slutgers t-shirts, sweat-shirts, thongs, and shot glasses. We went dorm to dorm selling shit and building our brand that way. People knew us.
Rutgers is simultaneously a great school and a deeply annoying school; if you wanna get a good education there, you can, and if you want to be a total moron, you can also do that. Comedy would be how I dealt with the moron portion. It was stress relief.
A lot of my comedy is about turning something painful or annoying into humor. That helps me deal with the world. So Slutgers was the beginning of that.
How long was it before your comedic complaints found a home on stage?
I actually didn’t go into comedy until after college. However, my roommate (and Slutgers co-founder) Jay Schultz was already doing stand-up and I used to go around to shows with him and give him notes. I was his unofficial manager, pretty much. I had a sort of encyclopedic knowledge of the comedy scene: I’d remember all the people from Rutgers and open mics and their acts and their sets, et cetera… I always felt at ease in a comedy club, though I never thought I could do it.
So what did it take to get you on stage yourself?
Well, after college I started doing management consulting. Two years into it, I was in Philadelphia for a project when Jay was coming to town. I started checking out mics for him in the area and after watching like two weeks of Philly open mics, I thought “I could write this shit.” So I just went back to my hotel, wrote a few pages of jokes, and e-mailed them to Jay saying “Hey, maybe you could use this.” He wrote back “It’s not half-bad, why don’t you try it?”
Greg Giraldo said “I would watch ‘Evening at the Improv’ and those kind of shows, and I’d think “Man, those guys blow so bad. I can do that.” And I went from there.” There’s definitely something comforting in knowing that there’s room to fail.
Yeah, and I figured, “I don’t know anybody in this town. How bad could it be?” So I went up at The Helium’s open mic for three minutes. Unlike open mics in New York, Helium Comedy Club has like 40 to 50 real audience members, and they really listen. I was horrible, but I got some laughs. The next day a couple of people remembered one of my bits.
Then that went better than most!
I’m a little overly-organized, so I had notecards for my jokes. I have this grainy video where my hand is shaking and I’m reading my cards…
And after that you were hooked?
The thing I liked most was how after I’d get a laugh, people would be listening. And that felt like it was the only place where people would just shut up and listen.
My favorite sound in comedy isn’t really those roaring laughs, it’s the sound after the roaring laugh, if you just pause, and everyone’s just pin-drop silent and waiting for what you’re gonna say next. That focused silence. That’s what I love about it. I love the laughs too, but when you’re killing it’s that focused silence of “what’s he gonna say next?”, that’s the part I love.
Right. For a lot of us it’s that great feeling of “finally, somebody is listening to me!”
When comics are first starting I think we all go through a sort of “edgy” or “dirty” phase, because that’s sort of all you know. I’ve always had shades of “smarter” jokes and topics, and immigrant stuff, since I’m first generation. The tagline I’m playing with now is “intellectual comedy for the 99%.” That’s what I hope my voice is forming towards.
I get a lot of that backhanded compliment, “I really enjoyed that, but I feel like it was over some of their heads.” I’m not trying to do that. If I wanted to start using $100 words, I could. I don’t want that, I want it to be accessible. But I still want to say something.
When I hear that response, I’m like “tell your friends.” If they told their friends, then I’d fill venues of people who get it.
Definitely, and you have to build a fanbase. I know a lot of comics are talking about how there’s so much free comedy now that it’s almost impossible to build a real fanbase.
The internet and social media has definitely made it a lot easier to find your niche and to be successful, but it’s also made it much harder to have mass-appeal. Before the internet, there were like four networks and everybody watched two of them, and that was what you talked about at the water cooler.
Now everyone has ten different micro-niches that they care about, and you’ve really got to reach into those and that’s it. It’s 10 times easier to make comedy, 100 times harder to get paid, and 1,000 times harder to get noticed.
There’s this article called “1,000 True Fans,” where the point is that if you can get at least 1,000 people who really care about you enough to spend $100 a year on your material, that’s all you need to keep doing what you love with no middle-man. If you can get 1,000 people to give a shit, but you get nobody else, you could still have an okay living doing exactly what you want to do.
So major media definitely still helps and gives you legitimacy and makes it easier, but there are ways around it now that didn’t exist twenty, ten, even five years ago. With all the late-night comedy opportunities, it seems to me (and I might be wrong), that not having it hurts you, but having it (especially in New York City) doesn’t really particularly help that much. It’s not so much a “how did you get that?” as it is a “how haven’t you gotten that yet?”
But marketing people have done studies: you need to be seen ten or so times before your product (in this case, comedy) will actually stick in people’s minds. That’s why McDonald’s has like a billion commercials all over the place. Though then again, Shake Shack has a viable business too, and that’s from people telling other people, but they’re not on the same scale.
So would you say that there are “McDonald’s comics” and “Shake Shack” comics? That is, comics who delve the depths of marketability on an almost corporate level and comics who spread by word of mouth.
Yeah, of course. It used to upset me, but I’ve let it go. I just try to focus on doing my stuff and doing it to the best of my ability. Obviously I can’t help but be jealous sometimes, but I try to let that go as quick as possible. As they say, “be careful how you get famous, because that’s what you’re known for.”
You mentioned that you had another job when you were first getting into comedy; how long did you continue to split your time between work and comedy?
If you have self-discipline, it’s much better to not have a day job. I know this has been a problem in relationships; just because I’m not in an office doesn’t mean I’m not busy during the day. I don’t want to just hang out and watch a movie at two in the afternoon on a Tuesday. I’m emailing a booker, or writing new sets, or writing new jokes, or countless other things… there’s a lot that a comic has to do when they’re not performing. I view it as a job in its own right. So if you have self-discipline and you have a to-do list, each day or each week to get done, that’s fine.
That said, the last time I had a day job, I had never been so productive in my entire life. I’d be there from 7 to 3 and every 15 minutes I felt like I had to write a joke in order to get out of that. But then I also had no social life and I couldn’t really have girlfriend that entire time. I’d get back from work, take a nap for 20 minutes, and then go out and do comedy every night. My rule was always “would I do this show if I didn’t have to wake up at 6am to go to a job I don’t really care for?” And if the answer was yes, even if it’s 1 or 2 in the morning, I’d go do that show and just live with the 4 hours of sleep I got. I napped during most of my breaks. Every day felt like two days. Shit like that makes you work harder though so that you don’t have to do that.
You’ve told me that you flirted with academia a while back, what was the appeal there?
Academia and comedy have a lot of overlap. That’s why, when I was in my PhD program, I felt like “this is the same game, pretty much. I might as well just do the comedy version; I like it more.” In academia, as in comedy, there’s a broad underbelly that supports a few superstars. The difference is that, with academia, if you’re not a superstar, you’ll often end up in a podunk town in the middle of nowhere, and permanently. But in comedy, you end up in a podunk town for one night at a time, and you can live where you want.
With academic research it takes you five years to put together a study that may or may not ever get published, and if it does, maybe like ten people will bother to interact with it in any meaningful way. With comedy: you have an idea, you can put it on the stage that night and see if it has legs or not. The instant feedback of comedy is much more rewarding and you have so much more potential for making an impact.
And there is just something so appealing about the long-game of developing joke ideas, seeing how sensitive a joke can be to subtle wording, organization, etc. Do you have any particular method for that kind of thing, or is it just sort of… however it happens?
Usually I just type the initial thought into my phone. If I say something funny in conversation or a thought just hits me, I’ll jot it down. Then, every day, I’ll sit with it and try to re-write it and expand it. I’ll just set that line at the top of the page and literally just go down a whole page and keep writing punch lines without thinking. I’ll look at it later for something that might be potentially useable.
I also have three main Word documents: one is “Ben’s Act,” which is my polished jokes; I label them by their bit names. Then there’s “Jokes to Sort” which are ideas I’m working on that are sort of ready but not quite. Then I have a file called “Jokes that are Still Forming,” which is my euphemism for “The Garbage Pile.” So anything I’d delete, I just throw in there and it’s just hundreds of pages at this point. But if I ever have something and I think “wait, didn’t I talk about this thing once?” Because sometimes you can bring it back like a year or two later and say “oh now I know how I can fix this; I can make this funny.”
My goal is to write everyday. I have a big board in my house where I have the date and I check off “write/perform” or an “x” if I didn’t do it. I also have “exercise,” “make money,” and “eat well.” Those are my five daily goals. Seinfeld talks about this, he says, “I just try to connect the ‘X’s for every day that I write. Don’t break the chain.”