I took the biggest risk... and got my biggest laugh | Ari Shaffir recalls his most memorable gigs

I took the biggest risk... and got my biggest laugh

Ari Shaffir recalls his most memorable gigs

First gig

I decided to try stand-up when I was at university. It was really nothing but a glorified open mic, but to me it felt so important.

I wore a three-piece suit like a cruise ship comic because I didn't know any better. I thought comedians were supposed to dress up! When did it change? Now that I'm in it, I only know three guys that dress that way and that's because they're fucking dorks in real life.

Anyway, I got there and everybody else was in jeans and a T-shirt like a normal human being. I forget exactly what I talked about, but I think I had something on squirrels, something else on bumper stickers (Jesus Christ, Ari. Why are you so embarrassing?), and then a couple other bits which I don't remember at all.

I was so goddamn nervous! My hand was shaking like Anne Frank when the Germans moved the bookcase. Just to calm myself I ordered a shot and a beer, downed both, and then ordered another beer. When it was done, I felt amazing!

I remember waiting to talk to the host after the show. He saw me waiting and said he'd give me advice in a few minutes. But I didn't want advice. I wanted directions on how to get to where my friends were. Why the fuck would I want advice from an open mic host? The delusion of some of these people. It's crazy.

 

Worst gig

I was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, on a spring break golf trip with my high school buddies. I was maybe thee years into stand-up. I thought I was so fucking good. Idiot.

I got myself a ten-minute guest spot at the Comedy Cabana, some awful room in a purely vacation city. When I arrived, the headliner wasn't having the guest spot. Mitchell Walters. He cut me down from 10 minutes to 5 and said if I did a minute over he'd cut my mic. What a dick.

I was too green to know how to handle it. I ended up dropping one bit and then trying to squeeze seven minutes into five. It went terribly. I'll never forgive that fucking dick. I know it was just me being awful, but I don't care. Fuck him. I bombed HORRIBLY. It lasted for maybe 45 minutes in my head and four-and-a-half minutes in real time. That was the first time I got the cold sweats.

Afterwards I sat in the back, away from my friends, until the show was over, when we walked to the car in silence. It was uncomfortable for them, too. On the drive back to the hotel, a car of chicks were flirting with us through closed windows at a light. They were saying something none of us could hear and smiling at us.

My buddy Tom said, "They're probably saying: ‘There's that comedian who wasn't funny.’ Oof. It stung like crazy but at least it helped release the tension. Anyway, Fuck Mitchell Walters. I hope he dies soon if he's not already dead. He might already be dead.

   

Worst heckler

The Comedy Store in Los Angeles (the real Comedy Store) was a dark hole for the first 15 years I was there. Dark both physically and emotionally.

When you’re on stage in the Original Room you can't see past the first row because of the darkness. Anyway, there was some special needs guy in the audience. And I mean deep special needs. His normal wheelchair sitting posture was that Bikram yoga stance. And he didn't have much use of his mouth. When he laughed it sounded (and I'm not being funny here) like horn that guides ships into the harbour.

So, when you're not on stage, but in the crowd you can see everyone else pretty well. It's only when you have the lights in your eyes on stage that you get kind of blind. So everyone in the crowd saw that kid in the wheelchair. And not one comic saw that kid in the wheelchair.

One after another, every comic that night made fun of the anonymous laugh they heard from the audience. One after another. And every time, the crowd (who could fully see this severely handicapped guy) was aghast at what horrible humans these comedians were.

And when each comic got off and saw who it was they had been making fun of, to a person they all got embarrassed and disgusted with themselves. But here's what I love about comedians. Not one of them warned the next comic. They all just sat in the back and watched the next train wreck unfold. Because comics, real comics, all love a good train wreck.

Most influential road gig

In 2014 I did a run in China. My first real foreign travel. 17 days and seven or eight cities. Chief among them were Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing.

The comics I met there reinvigorated me with a love of stand-up for the sake of stand-up. These scenes were full of people doing comedy only because they loved it. There were no development deals to be had, no TV shows to get on, no writing jobs to find.

They were all so friendly with each other. There was no competition. These were all super-adventurous people who were on a contract somewhere exotic and who were now trying an even more adventurous hobby. When they came up with a good new joke, the rest of the scene congratulated them for it and they all celebrated each other.

And they did shit tons of coke.

But mostly I remember the way they celebrated each other. It changed the way I looked at what I was doing. I had gotten caught up in the business aspect of the world's funniest job.

When I got back, my whole approach was different. I was in it for the joy of stand-up. Money can go to hell. It'll come when it comes. But life is short and I'm here to have a good time with my craft. Now, I do comedy all over the world. Even being at Edinburgh for the third time is a ridiculous notion to most of my American comedy friends. Why would I give up four paid weeks I could be working for a break-even month in Scotland that AT BEST opens up markets that I won't get to anyway?

Why? Because it's awesome. Drinking with comics for a month. Working on my act in front of crowds that don't know me. It's the best. The money will come. The experiences you have to grab.

Funniest moment on stage

I was on stage at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles (again, the real Comedy Store and not that seclnd rate one in the Times Square of London). I was doing a bit about how Jews were the original N-words in America. I was using the actual word, but I'm not going to now. This was 15 years ago but it was almost as electric a word as it is now.

Anyway, the laughs were in the specifics of how the Jews and the blacks had very similar experiences here in many ways other than slavery. Honestly, looking back I don't remember there being all that many punchlines. It was probably me just trying to say something deep but without the ability to get laughs on it. So it was just some uninformed 26 year old not being funny.

But I was using the n-word to make my point. It went with the bit. This chubby, really jovial black dude spoke up from the crowd: ‘It’s ah!’

I didn't understand what he was saying. What?’ I asked. He explained, ‘It's uh. Nigga! You don't pronounce the ER.’ I had already built up good graces with the crowd and this guy wasn't mad at me, he was just joining in. This kind of thing happened all the time back then at the one true Comedy Store so the playfulness was always fun for me.

There were tons of times when the audience interaction was not playful, when it was purely antagonistic. But this was not one of those times. This guy was friendly as shit. ‘It's uh. Nigga not n****er’ And I kept playing around with him. ‘So as long as I don't use the ER at the end I'm OK?’ I asked. ‘That's right,’ he answered, ‘Nigga is always OK.’ ‘Always?’ I asked. ‘Yes, my nigga,’ he assured both me and the rest of the 20 or so people in the crowd with a beaming, infectious smile, ‘always’.

So I went for it. ‘All right. I'll give that a try.’ I paused for maybe half a second while I pondered the chance I was about to take and then dove in. ‘I'm sick of all these niggas dating our white women. These niggas should be stopped! And what's more, these fucking niggas are taking our jobs. I hate their nigga music and their nigga way of dressing.’

And then I stopped.

He laughed so fucking hard. Deep, crying type laughter. You should have been there, man. It was beautiful. I'm telling you, the laugh I got from this guy, which spread to the rest of the room instantly, was the greatest single laugh I've ever gotten.

I'm not kidding. I've gotten laughs from relatives, from comics I've admired, from giant celebrities. It's awesome when you can pick out an individual laugh in a room and it's someone you look up to for one reason or another. It's really amazing as an ego boost.

But no single laugh I've ever gotten has equalled this one. Not even close. And it came off the first time I really took a legit chance on stage. The first time I risked horrible, horrible backlash for the sake of a possible laugh.

And when it hit, there was this gigantic tension release. It was rolling laughs for a solid minute even after I stopped talking. It taught me that when my intentions are pure, I don't have to worry about whatever borders people have put around right and wrong. I only have to worry about hitting the technique correctly.

If I can do that I can achieve the highest levels of laughs. I can get to a stage version of Valhalla.

You should have heard that guy laugh. It was cathartic. That's pretty much the dragon I'm chasing whenever I'm on stage now.

Ari Shaffir: Jew is at Heroes @ The Hive at 18:00

Published: 3 Aug 2018

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