The American Invasion: Ari Shaffir


When we spoke to Ari Shaffir a few years ago, Thomas Black quizzed him on the Edinburgh hour compared to the American model of writing a show with the aim of just being funny over theme. Now Ari is returning with his first themed show. Thomas asks about the attraction of returning and the change of approach.

Edinburgh is often described as a big risk. A big financial outlay and ever growing competition for ticket sales, what’s the attraction for an established act from the States in coming to The Fringe?

Fuck, the ticket sales. Fuck, the financial outlay. There is no risk. The attraction is the work. 25 hours in front of a crowd that barely knows me. 20+ more guest sets on shows where they can barely understand my accent. It’s the work. I can’t find that anywhere else right now. And then the social aspect is pretty amazing. All these comics all trying their best. The way everybody greets each other at the bars at night. “How was your show?” It’s the most common greeting. Because no matter how big you are, whether you’re playing a 500 seater or a 40 seater, your show was just as important to you as theirs was to them. It’s beautiful. Plus, I get to see all these new comics and let myself become exposed to new styles, new techniques that I can use to improve my game.          

We spoke a couple of years ago about the possible limitations in the UK style of hour, where there is often a tendency to have a narrative or theme in the show.  Has your previous Fringe experiences changed your opinion and inspired you to write to a theme for this show?

I mean, for sure it rubbed off on me. Although I’m starting to rethink that term “UK style hour.” I’m starting to understand that the style I was referring to was actually a FESTIVAL style hour. I’m not sure that theme stuff is the norm in London. It might be, but I’m not sure. So, until I learn more, I’m not going to refer to it as the UK style any more. Aisling Bea recently went on an American podcast and vented her gripes about an LA comedy club called The Comedy Store. My home club. It’s where I started. I worked my way up from a wannabe who answered phones and sat customers in exchange for 3 minutes of stage time a week. She was speaking so clearly from the perspective of someone who doesn’t understand the US club system, who didn’t understand the differences between the LA scene and the New York scene, and who definitely didn’t understand how things worked at the Comedy Store. So, I’m trying to be conscious of how little I understand of the UK comedy scene.

But, I do know what I’ve observed. And that has mostly been from Edinburgh. So, that’s what I’ll answer. It’s not the idea that they have narratives or themes in their shows that bothered me. It’s that in order to have that narrative/theme, they end up mortgaging laughs. It seems weak. I don’t understand why you’re making me laugh for 30 minutes only to get serious for the next 20 before wrapping up with 5 minutes of half serious/half jokes. Why not make your points with humor? There’s too much “woe is me” for my tastes. I want comics to be funny the whole way through. That’s not to say you can’t have vulnerable, sad moments. But when I’m watching a show, I want the comic making those moments funny. And I’m not getting that from too high a percentage of festival comics. What I want from comics, what I EXPECT from comics, is that they’re consistently funny the entire time they’re on stage. And I wasn’t seeing that very much. But it wasn’t the narratives/themes that bothered me. It was the execution.

But, that doesn’t mean I didn’t see the possibilities. The few hours I saw out there that managed to have that theme and still stay funny the whole time were magic. I remember Steve Bugeja had one my first Fringe year. It played as a story. One long, amazing story about a driving across England with a man who had just gotten out of prison for the first time in 18 years. It was gripping and interesting and even uplifting. But unlike the other theme hours I was seeing, this one was genuinely funny the whole time. So, I could see that style had the potential to be amazing. And the potential of that style grew in my head like a weed. And I formed a plan. The plan was to go to Edinburgh to show that festival audience what a true American style hour was like when presented by an A level comic. Funny from start to finish. And I even included touch of theme but I didn’t beat it into the ground. It was underlying. And then the following year I was going to show that festival audience what a festival style hour would look like when an American style comedian tried it. So that’s what I’ve been working on. A purely thematic hour (this one about Judaism as told by an embedded journalist who spent two decades as a religious orthodox Jew) as performed by an established US comic. I’ve been working out every word in comedy clubs in New York and LA. I made them work in crowds who had no interest in a theme. On shows where I was the only comic running 15 minutes about the same subject. I figured if I can make it work in shows that didn’t call for it, I could assure myself that the material is up to US standards of laughs. And then I took it to headline rooms where they had never even seen a theme hour. And I began making it work. I took it to places with large Jewish populations and to places where there were no Jews. I worked it and worked it and worked it until it started becoming as accessible to the crowds who knew what I was talking about as it was to the crowds who had no idea about what I was talking about.

And it’s torturing me. Trying to write jokes on a subject instead of writing jokes about whatever comes to my mind was new to me. And it’s hard a shit. For the first time I had to think about how much time to spend on each detail. I had to think about what topics I wasn’t covering but that I should be. I had to think about how to make exposition funny. I haven’t grappled with form like this since maybe I was doing my first story on stage and I couldn’t figure out how to get an ending down. It’s difficult, this festival style. There are problems unique to this style that I had never faced. But, I was going to solve it. I was going to solve it without betraying my beliefs that standup comedy should to stay funny throughout, regardless of what you’re talking about.

This is way too long an answer, isn’t it? Sorry. I got on a roll.

What else do you think the UK and American comedians can learn from each other?

I mean, that last answer pretty much sums it up. I guess if I had to add to it, I’d say American comedians can learn about the joys of pills and the UK comedians can learn that tobacco doesn’t belong in joints.

The whole world is watching America just now with a mix of fear and confusion. As you travel around the world performing, do you see any change in people’s attitudes and opinions towards America and Americans?

Are you talking about Trump? I haven’t actually performed too extensively overseas since he took office. Just Australia and Canada. But I haven’t seen any difference in the audience reaction. I don’t do much about politics on stage so it probably wouldn’t be evident to me even if their attitudes had changed. But I haven’t seen that even when I’m not on stage. What I found is that most people I’ve encountered in Southeast Asia don’t think about America much at all. And when they do it’s usually in terms of our music and film industry. I think in westernized countries it’s mostly just a weird detail about where I live rather than something that changes their opinions of me or what the actual country is like. I don’t know, though. Politics bores me. I gave up on my government years before Donald Trump got into office. They haven’t truly represented the citizens in a very long time.

We don’t have a very big Jewish population in Scotland, what can we expect to learn from your show?

Dude. There are so few Jews that all the Jew jokes I knew as a child had gotten repurposed as Scottish joke. They were like, “How was the copper wire invented? Two Scots fighting over a pence.” And I was like, “Uh, I heard that one already but slightly different.”

It’s gonna be a learning experience for people who have no experience or understanding of Judaism. But, some of the stuff is so out there that even Jews aren’t aware of a lot of the stuff I talk about. So, it doesn’t really matter how big the Jewish population is. But again, that’s mostly not it. Mostly, you can learn what a theme hour looks like when a relevant American headliner tackles it. You don’t have to be interested in the subject. Leave that to me. I’m a professional and I’ve made quite sure that you’ll laugh like crazy the whole time.

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