By Ben Hoffman’s own admission, The Ben Show (Comedy Central – 10/9C) is tough to describe in one sentence. In our review of The Ben Show last month, we deemed it “equal parts “man-on-the-street” interview segments, and pre-packaged sketch comedy,” which is both entirely accurate, and a wholly inadequate description of the comedy Hoffman hath wrought. But, when it comes to one of the fastest rising stars in Comedy Central’s constellation of funny people, “accurate” but “wholly inadequate” just isn’t good enough. So, we went to the source – Ben Hoffman, himself.
Born in Kentucky, Ben Hoffman got his start in comedy by taking classes at Chicago’s famed Second City, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in showbiz. Hoffman worked in commercials before a stint with Al
Gore Jazeera owned Current TV. Ben went on to write for (the criminally under-watched) Sports Show with Norm MacDonald as well as the Comedy Central roasts, before finally landing a show to literally call his own. And, while The Ben Show may not be so easy to describe, that doesn’t diminish how genuinely funny it – or Hoffman – actually is.
Ben was kind enough to take the time to talk with us about his life, his show, and why stories about smoking crack are always better animated.
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You began your comedy career at Chicago’s Second City, where guys like John Belushi first started as well. Growing up, is that where your comedic influences came from?
A friend of mine growing up, his dad had all the old SCTV shows on tape, so I would watch that all the time at my friends house. I got obsessed with Woody Allen and Albert Brooks. Growing up in Kentucky, my friends would come over – I don’t think I act or am anything like Woody Allen – my friends would come over and say “I just saw this movie ‘Annie Hall’, this guy is just like you”.
You were the Jew.
I was the Jew, right. They’d never met a neurotic guy, they’d never seen anything like that before, and then they see another one in a movie, or on cable at night. So, those were my big influences – Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, and of course watching Letterman every night. It kind of came together in a weird way. Even as a kid, I would have reports to do on the Civil War, and I would take my friends camera, my friends would film me. I would take the microphone asking people at the grocery story what they though about the civil war. So, I think that’s why I feel comfortable doing this ‘real live” stuff now – I was doing it at Current [TV], I was doing it as a kid, so I think it’s like a second nature to me.
In Kentucky, asking folks in a grocery story about the Civil War gets you some interesting answers?
To say the least, yeah. And, then of course I get in trouble, because I’d be doing a report on “Say, what do you think about the Eiffel Tower?” and my French teacher doesn’t care. That’s not what she’s looking for. She wanted that report in French. In one episodeI go back to Kentucky and I interview her! Growing up she wrote on my report card [In French]: “Benjamin, you’re on the move”. That’ll soon be in the Smithsonian, right?
It sounds like, on some sort of fundamental level, you’re still very much a Kentucky boy.
Yeah, I’ll never be a big city person. It still freaks me out a little bit. LA is a little easier for me than New York. Here I can at least in my car and drive around and stuff. New York… I mean, my younger brother lives in New York, so now I’ve grown to love it, but I was never the kid who was like “I’ve gotta get out of this fuckin’ town, man, and make something of myself.” I was forced out, because, One: You’re not supposed to live with with your parents your whole life, and Two: When I realized what I wanted to get in to, you can’t really do that in Kentucky, so, if there were any kind of show biz in Kentucky, you’d be talking to me from there. More than likely you wouldn’t be talking to me at all.
I actually know a Jewish stand up comic in Louisville.
See, I’m from Lexington. That’s a whole different world. Louisville is the big city. I’m a country boy. I ain’t from a big town like that.
On the show, at least, the southern accent doesn’t really come out. It’s tough to pinpoint you as a southerner.
You know, it’s funny you say that. I’ve never really had one my entire life. Occasionally it’ll slip out here and there. But, it’s never something I’ve really tried to lose. I mean, it’d be cool if I had it. My mom’s from Tennessee – most of my family is from Tennessee, and they all have accents. My brothers all have accents. My dad is from St. Louis, and he’s kind of adopted one a little bit. I had more of a mumble, but I never had an accent. I have no idea why.
Speaking of your father, while watching the show, I heard more of a twang in your dad’s voice than in yours.
Yeah, which is weird, because he’s from St. Louis. But I guess he’s been living in Kentucky so long that he has it. But, does he have such a strong accent? Because, I go home, and I hear all the accents of my friends, and my family doesn’t sound like they have one. I remember when my brother moved to New York – he went to school there – and everyone in the dorm was like “Man, your phone bills must be so high because you talk soooo sloooow.” I didn’t even know he had an accent.
This is your brother who’s in the Scissor Sisters?
Given that both of you are in fairly high profile artistic roles, were you raised in a particularly artistic family?
Well, that’s the experiment they need to do on our family, because we don’t know what happened. Our parents encouraged us to play music, But they wanted us to play violin and piano, and we hated that, so that didn’t work. They never brought up any kind of comedy or theater. I mean, obviously on the show my dad’s a funny guy, but we both just kind of got interested in show biz stuff – he went to New York, I went to LA. We have another brother, the failure of the family, who’s a doctor. So, there’s nothing really to pinpoint. They were open about it, but it wasn’t like an oppressive family where we had to go out and do something creative or particularly artistic. I mean, my dad’s a doctor and my mom worked with adopted kids. So, it wasn’t like I came home and my parents were painting and dancing around.
Now when you go home, are you the “show-biz family”?
I guess a little bit? But, it’s weird because I still don’t see it. I see it as a regular family. I will say though that my brother’s band is so much crazier, for me at least. But, TV, at least the TV i do at least – I don’t want to perform in front of a live audience or anything – I’m kind of performing in a vacuum. I’ll go to England and watch his shows and there’s thirty thousand screaming fans three nights in a row, it’s a totally different thing. TV is such a personal medium.
It’s interesting that you describe it as a “personal medium” because you really pull both your audience and your on-camera participants into your personal life in a pretty deep way. When I was watching the show, I found myself asking “How real is this? Are they in on the joke?”
Well, first of all, I take that as a complement. Everyone is real. That was my rule, that they all had to be real. Actually, the pilot is actually episode 4, so you haven’t seen that one yet, but the pilot was pretty much as-is, but we didn’t know how to end the episode. It’s a crazy mix of reality, sketch comedy, and in a weird way – story telling. When I was on Jimmy Kimmel the other night, Kimmel tried to explain the show to the audience. He loved the show, but couldn’t even explain it.
I just read the Laughspin interview with your dad, where the writer struggles just to explain what the show is.
Which is so weird, because, hopefully you’ll agree with me, once you watch it, it makes so much sense. I don’t want to say it’s a publicist’s nightmare or a marketing nightmare, but it’s just very hard to describe which I think makes it fun because everyone is kind of “in” on their own new secret show. It works seamlessly when you watch it, but it’s impossible to describe, because I don’t want to describe it as reality TV, and it’s certainly not a straight sketch show. You don’t watch it for the purposes of telling a story. It’s kind of all three of those things. And it all somehow seems to come together. What I was saying before is the original pilot – we didn’t know how to end it, so we scripted an ending, and it was to the Network’s credit that they said “well, the whole show is so real, why don’t you just do a real ending?”Because, unfortunately I’m not a good enough actor to pull it off. All these things are so obviously – in a positive way – “painfully” real, so to see me try to force an ending on it, it seemed just so fake. The Gun Episode is a perfect example. I had no idea what to expect. That was literally the first time I’d ever shot a gun. So you’re seeing it on camera, and that was my actual reaction. They didn’t know if I was gonna buy the gun or not.
You have to prepare a little bit. Say I want someone who’s actually shot somebody, or a penis enlargement doctor..so I have to figure out who I’m going to talk to. But I make sure I don’t meet them beforehand, I don’t talk to them, and they don’t know anything. We tell them “Don’t try to be funny.” It’s kind of up to me to make it funny, or not funny. And, I guess I’ll let the audience be the judge of that. Heeb Magazine’s got my back, right?
I think I alluded to it earlier but when you do those “man on the street” interviews, you’re not out there cracking jokes. You’re as straightforward as the people you’re talking to, and it becomes this weird dynamic where they’re the straight man, but you’re’ also the straight man who slips in these out of nowhere lines – it catches them off guard.
It goes back to the [fact that], if we want it to be “real” I have to be myself, and that’s really the real me. So, if I’m yuking it up and telling jokes, that would be a fake scenario. Because, that’s not really how I act. So, to make them more comfortable, I have to be myself. It’s almost like I’m a talk show host, and every person I meet out on the street is my Ed McMahon. I don’t go in there with a bunch of lines and stuff. And, if you’re more deadpan and more yourself, you can say something crazy, or wacky or funny, and it hits harder.
Has it blown up in your face at all?
Not as bad as you’d think. It’s important for me that I was the butt of the joke, not them. My goal is not to make fun of people, and I’ve been doing it so long that I kind of know areas are bad and what’s not and who to talk to, so I talk to certain people, and within a minute or so I know if they’re gonna rip up…keep in mind, everyone who’s on TV when we’re done has to sign a contract saying they’ll allow their image on Comedy Central, which is in a way helpful because I can’t piss them off so bad, or they won’t sign the thing.
You know, on Current TV, for example. They’d give me a cameraman and a microphone and send me to a tech convention, and say “bring back three minutes of comedy” and I’d say “how do I get comedy out of this technology convention?” I don’t have Triumph on my hand or anything, so I had to try to bring comedy out of real people. And in those days it wasn’t always successful, not that it always is now, either. I’m used to taking something out of nothing, so it’s kind of my comfort zone. I don’t want to say it’s easy, it puts a little extra pressure on me when it’s like “Hey, go meet this hypnotherapist” and if it doesn’t work, then we wasted an hour and we throw it away. But I always love putting pressure on myself.
Do you enjoy those segments more than writing the sketch bits? You seem just as comfortable in both, and when I was watching the sketches, it’s a little jarring to see you who seem so low-key in the person-to-person bits all of a sudden embodying this character.
It’s funny you say that, I consider myself such a bad actor. The other writers, they want to see me play that, because it’s funny for them to see me screaming and yelling. That’s half the joke. So, I’d rather have someone else play that role, but of course I get talked into it. Plus, my name is in the name of the show, so of course I have to. Not to avoid the question, but in a weird way what I like to do is both. I’d get sick of just doing sketches, and I don’t think I have the talent to pull it off. But I’d also get sick of just doing man on the street stuff. So, it kind of is a good balance. I think having both makes me not freak out about each other. I don’t know that I would want to do one or the other. I’m certainly much more comfortable being myself, than playing a character or doing acting. As uncomfortable as I am out in the real world in my real life. I’ve always been very comfortable being on camera. Just being myself on camera is easy enough. I was actually really nervous about Kimmel, and I’m doing Conan next week, and I feel fine when I’m out there – knock on the wood – but it’s weird for my friends back home to see me on Jimmy Kimmel and see me so comfortable, because they don’t talk to that guy.
I have to ask about the Todd Bridges bit.
I’ll tell you the story. I’ll reference Current TV again. At Current we would get the bottom of the barrel guests. Nothing against Todd Bridges, but one of the things that came across my desk was “Todd Bridges wants to come on and promote his book. I’m always look for content, so I read the book. Now, at Current, it’s Al Gore’s network, we can’t talk about this stuff. But, I said “when I get my TV show, man. You’re coming on, you’re gonna tell ’em, and we’ll animate them.” And I think he just kind of nodded. And, as soon as I got [my] show I’m like “we gotta find Todd Bridges.” I think we do three of ’em throughout the series, each one crazier than the last, and they’re the craziest fucking stories I’ve ever heard. And he’s more than happy to tell them. And I think they’d be just jarring to hear them, but seeing them as a cartoon – especially Steve Olson who’s a really great animator. But seeing a cartoon of crack stories, that alone put a smile on my face.
There’s something disarming a cartoon.
Yes, and there’s something disarming about watching Todd Bridges doing crack in one. Altogether, everything works. People have been loving those.
Is there anything Heeb readers should keep an eye out for over the coming season?
Yeah, some of the journeys I go on are really interesting. Episode four I go on a blind date, which is really fun to watch me prepare for this blind date, and then watching me actually go on this date at the end of the show. Episode five I go back to Kentucky thinking I’m a conquering hero. Note to readers: if you want to go home a conquering hero, wait ’til your show airs first.
There was no ticker-tape parade?
No. Quite the opposite. Although, I did go to the synagogue where I was Bar-Mitzvah’d. Now it’s a pizza parlor. We went there and ate pizza.
The Ben Show airs Thursday nights (10/9c) on Comedy Central. Watch it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.