"I can't express enough how many other comics, random people, and odd connections have really given me everything in my career." --Ophira Eisenberg | Photo: Anya Garrett
Give her a minute and Ophira Eisenberg will win you over to her side, even if she's discussing all the terrible things she has done to people, both real and imaginary. Ophira's discourse will take you on a wild journey, combining seemingly unrelated topics such as e-vites and funerals. She has toured the world, has been featured on a variety of TV shows and indie flicks and even hosts some shows throughout New York City. The Apiary recently sat down with her to discuss the history of storytelling, fitting into the scene and her upcoming show "Live On Tape" at Comix. (Tickets)
As a Canadian, do you think there are any differences in comedic sensibilities between here and there?
It's hard to tell how much of the difference I felt was a cultural thing. I had a pretty respectable career in Canada but as soon as I moved here I was back to zero, at the bottom, trying to get spots, get noticed. Rightfully so, frankly. I think I was a little hacky when I got to New York. Suddenly I was surrounded by so many great writers and people who really knew how to perform and sell a bit. It took me a long time to work up my confidence on stage here and feel like I belonged. Everyone warned me that the New York comedy scene would be cut-throat and nasty. I have to say that I never found it to be like that at all. Comics here have helped me with stage time, writing, all kinds of career opportunities. I think it's more supportive here than in Toronto. Maybe it's because everything's so hard here so there's more of a "we're all in this together" feel.
How did you make the transition from Canadian comic to New York comic?
Canadians can be a little more reserved in that British way. I made a ton of adjustments when I came to New York, dropping idioms and picking up others. I remember saying the word trapeze on stage, but I pronounced it with an accent on a different syllable: truh-PEEZ -- rather than TRAH-peez. The joke didn't work. Afterward, all these people came up to me going, "What was that word you were saying?" I realized that beyond the joke, they didn't understand my accent -- which is hilarious.
Your material can be quite dark. Are you trying to offend on purpose?
I didn't even know it was dark or offensive until I started feeling and hearing crowds' reactions to it. It still surprises me. My hypothesis as to whether you like the dark stuff is based on how much struggle you experience in life. I've always had a gloomy sensibility -- my family has a great sense of humor but it veers very dark and cutting. In New York people get into the dark because New York is so full of struggle, apartment competition, and a general lack of comfort. Or we all just feel closer to death. In the suburbs or anywhere else where there is a higher, cushy standard of living, people are less into the dark stuff. They feel bad for the fake things that are happening in my jokes. I notice a double standard too as I might tell a joke about dating a guy and screwing him over somehow and the audience will feel bad for the imaginary guy in my joke. Yet the comic before me, a man, will talk about mildly raping some girl who said no to his advances and the audience will totally go with him.
Why don't you curse more in your act?
Dirty words have never flowed out of my mouth naturally. However, I use to swear a ton in my act until I was working in New Jersey and the booker told me that I was good but he counted 80 "fucks" in my act. Not one of them had really anything to do with the actual joke. They were just extra words. I think I used to swear a lot more to try to make myself seem more confident and tough on stage.
Why did you choose the Southeast for your tour with Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad? What was your favorite part of the tour?
I actually didn't choose it -- it was the choice of the producer/creator/host of the project Susannah Perlman. She had recently returned from a similar tour with another variety show called the Obama Girls of Comedy. My favorite stop was Charleston, West Va., and not because we had the best show there. The venue was a run down road side bar -- just the most unlikely place to stage a show called Nice Jewish Girls Gone Bad. Half the people looked like they just walked out of Far Side cartoons, the other half was drunk out of their minds and the manager's name was Road Block. During the show it was pretty hard to get a sense as to whether they liked it or not because it was basically mayhem. If you left enough space at the end of a joke they would just cheer. They weren't bad people, but it was clear to me from the second we arrived, we weren't the show that evening -- they were.
You also toured in Edinburgh with The Liar Show. How was that different from your other tours?
It was my first time at the festival and I'm very glad I went with a show rather than on my own because I think I would have cracked. The festival is amazingly fun but it's also four weeks of relentless work, publicizing, performing and meeting people. Oh ... and drinking. There is a lot a pressure to get people to your show as it's not a cheap venture -- especially with the exchange rate last year. There's some statistic like the average show loses about $7000 (that figure might actually be in pounds).
The Liar Show is a storytelling show where four performers tell first-person funny stories, but one is a lie and the audience gets to interrogate the performers to try to figure out who is lying. Then they vote and if they get it right, they win a prize. The audiences in Edinburgh played the game with incomparable gusto and the interrogations would get really intense. I personally loved it because it's much more fun when everyone takes the show so seriously.
Will you be returning there again this year?
It was quite a success over there so we're hoping we can make it happen again. If anyone reading this has a bag of money lying around, please let us know.
How do you feel that the NYC storytelling scene has changed over the years?
I think the storytelling scene is at an all time high. A matter of fact, there are so many storytelling shows out there right now -- there's almost a new one every day. I only wish it wasn't called storytelling. The name really diminishes what it is.
How does your show Moth Slams fit into the grand storytelling scheme?
The Moth is the gold standard of the New York scene, and they've been around for a decade. Storytelling as a specific genre is pretty new as far as I can tell. When I moved here there was one comedy storytelling show hosted by DC Benny at a small bar off of Houston Street but I think that was it. I also remember when I moved here, other comics would come up to me and say, "You have a storytelling style" -- which wasn't exactly a compliment. I think they meant it didn't really fit in with the quick witty one-liners that most people were doing. From what I see, what happens on stand-up stages for the most part are jokes and short bits as opposed to stories. Maybe this is a reaction to all of our shortened attention spans or just a current trend. There are some exceptions such as Tom Shillue who does longer form jokes at shows like Moonwork, but it's rare. More and more comics are coming to the Moth and trying to get up during the slams. I really think it's a positive thing. I personally love seeing people spew their life on stage and getting a sense of who they are.
What is the "Live On Tape" series?
"Live On Tape" is a series of CD/DVD tapings for comics putting together their first or next comedy album. It is completely organized by Comix. In my case, this will be the first. The great thing is that Comix was actually designed as a TV studio and so they have this amazing equipment and set up to tape shows. It was a natural for them to start offering a series where they partnered with stand-ups to help them record their CDs. I've been trying to record a CD for years, but the stumbling block has always been figuring out the technical set up and paying for the equipment and such. Luckily, it's all set up and worked out already at Comix and they walk you through the process.
Has there ever been a time when you met someone who seemed unimportant at the time, but later on that person ended up being very helpful in advancing your career?
I can't express enough how many other comics, random people, and odd connections have really given me everything in my career, so I don't really view anyone as totally unimportant. I've had shows where there unexpectedly is a magazine editor in the crowd, or friend of a friend who is looking to book a comic for some corporate event and you end up making money or doing something cool purely because the right person saw you at the right time. It's such a cliché: you never know who's watching, but it's kind of true. Sure, I've wasted some time barking up the wrong trees, but not so much the other way around. Because of the internet and facebook, the amount of people that end up passing your name around and inadvertently helping you is ridiculous. The lines between people that can help you with show biz titles and people who end up helping you with no title at all becomes more and more blurred.
• Be sure to catch "Live on Tape with Ophira Eisenberg & Vanessa Hollingshea" at Comix TONIGHT! MON, FEB 23 @ 8PM
--Andrew Singer is a contributing editor for The Apiary. He performs regularly as "Soce the Elemental Wizard." He recently wrote about Dave T. Koenig.