Inside With: Harrison Greenbaum, Comedy AddictBy: Andrew Singer
Comedian Harrison Greenbaum is driven. He lives and breathes comedy, either performing, preparing, improving or booking gigs. His hard work is paying off, as he’s always in demand at small, low-key alterna-comedy venues, as well as large clubs and festivals. His material is mostly personal, largely about family and life at Harvard (he only graduated college a few years ago). The Apiary recently caught up with Harrison to talk about his work ethic, his comedy and his fondness for magic.
How soon after graduating college did you get into comedy? Or was comedy something you did back then, too?
I was gigging regularly in college. In fact, my junior year at Harvard, I co-founded the Harvard College Stand-Up Comic Society (we came up with that name so the acronym would be “Harvard College SUCS”). We produced more than 25 stand-up shows a year my last two years at the school. Between HCSUCS, the Comedy Studio (which is located right in Harvard Square and was definitely major in terms of my development as a comic — I’m definitely indebted to Rick Jenkins, the owner, and the club for helping me develop as a comic and artist), and the other Boston clubs, I was kept relatively busy doing stand-up.
By the last week of school, I was already up to six or seven shows a week. Of course, school was also a priority (I graduated summa cum laude), so that was a bit of a limiting factor. But now the combination of having graduated from college (and being able to focus solely on the comedy) and moving to New York City has really been incredible in terms of increasing my ability to get stage time and being able to work on the craft.
How many shows do you do per week now?
I do about 20-30 shows a week. It’s admittedly an insane schedule — the only day off I’ve had all year so far was January 2nd, so it’s been pretty exhausting, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Comedy is a drug and I’m completely addicted. Like any drug, the more you do it, the more you need to do it, so I tend to do as many shows as I possibly can.
In regards to actually filling my calendar, I’ve been fortunate in that several clubs book me regularly, so that certainly helps. I also actively pursue bookings at other venues using any resource I can (MySpace, Facebook, even Craigslist); it’s these shows — where audiences are there expressly to see comedy and where comedians tend to really experiment with their voices — that help keep me fresh (and sane).
Producing two weekly shows (I was actually producing three weekly shows between this December and February) helps me get extra bookings, too; I find that people are more likely to give you spots when you’re able to return the favor. Comedy is my career (I don’t have a day job and pay all my bills by writing and performing comedy), so I try to put all of my energy into comedy, whether it’s during the day trying to get and schedule gigs, during the night performing at the different venues, or during the wee hours through the morning writing and working on material.
You’ve also performed magic since you were 5. When did you change and decide to become a comedian instead? What’s the relationship between your magic training and your current career in comedy?
I made the shift from comedy magic to stand-up comedy my freshman year at Harvard. I was apprenticing at the Mystery Lounge, a weekly magic show that took place at the Comedy Studio, when I realized that the magic was starting to take a backseat to the jokes and the comedy. That’s when I decided to pursue stand-up comedy more proactively. The summer after my freshmen year, I interned for MAD Magazine and hit the open mics in New York pretty hard. It was like a comedy boot camp — writing every day and getting input from the MAD staff, performing every night and getting input from the comedians I met along the way.
Before my first real (non-open mic) spot, a comedian spotted me loading a magic trick into my pocket and told me that if I really wanted to learn how to be a great comedian, I had to put it away and learn how to get on stage without a safety net. It was amazing advice I’m glad I followed. I really resisted having any magic in my stand-up act for the two or three years that followed. It’s only until very recently that I started putting a bit of magic back into my act and even now, it’s still a relatively small amount. I like to think of it as an extra bit of flair that sets me apart from other comics.
Do you prefer doing sets with mostly jokes and a little bit of magic or the other way around?
I definitely want to be known as a stand-up comedian first and foremost, so it’s very important to me that the sets are built around the jokes. When I did the Boston Comedy Festival last year, Sean McCarthy blogged that I “set myself apart from the rest of the pack with magic tricks, but it was magic in service of the jokes.” That’s exactly what I want — for people to see the comedy first. Only once I’ve established with the audience that I’m a comedian do I really feel comfortable doing any kind of magic. If the magic is only enjoyable because the audience is going “Oooh magic!” then I’m not doing it right; the audience reaction has to be the same as it would be for a really great joke — it has to make them step back, think, and then alter their perception of reality, at least a little bit. I do have a magic act that’s more trick-trick-trick, emphasizing the astonishment factor, but I only really do that act at Manhattan Magic, the weekly magic and variety show I created and co-produce. Otherwise, I’m trying to squeeze as much pure comedy as I possibly can into my act.
What weekly shows do you produce and what makes them different?
I currently co-produce two weekly shows. The first show, which I started nearly two years ago, is Stand-Up Comedy: LIVE at the SAGE THEATER, which is now the longest-running, most successful stand-up comedy show in Times Square. I co-produce the show with the very talented Sam Morril. We’ve tried to set our show apart in several ways. First, it takes place in the Sage Theater, which is a gorgeous performance space — theatrical lighting, theatrical sound, spacious green room and dressing room — it’s always a treat to perform on a real stage in a real theater. Second, there’s no drink minimum and no age limit, which our audience members really appreciate. But mostly, it’s a solid, tight (no crazy comedy marathons!) show with top-notch performers (booked with an emphasis on originality, intelligence, and a uniqueness of voice) in a space the comedy deserves — in other words, it’s how I think most comics believe a show should be run.
The second show is Manhattan Magic, a new magic and variety show that’s only three months old. My co-producer Ben Nemzer (a fantastic magician/illusionist) and I wanted to create a showcase for some of the more off-the-wall talent that’s out there (comedians, magicians, jugglers, fire eaters, slapstick duos, sideshow stuntman, and more) and we’ve been having a lot of fun with it. It’s definitely different from anything else that’s out there and it’s refreshing to participate in something like that when nearly every other show I do is just 4-8 comedians in a row (not that I don’t love doing those shows!). Plus, you can’t imagine the weirdness that goes on in the dressing room.
Are you ever able to listen to all your recordings and watch videos of your sets? What are you looking for in them to help improve your show?
I record every set I do, either with my iPod audio recorder or with my video camera. I think it’s important to learn from each set you do. If I can, I try to listen or watch the last set I did before I go up, so that everything I learn from my last set is immediately incorporated into the set that follows. Otherwise, I’m listening or watching to my sets of the night when I get home — taking notes, seeing how certain jokes played, making sure that each word counts and is in the right place. Recordings are especially valuable when you’re trying to work out new material, but they can also be helpful in nailing the small details that can really make a joke shine. With audio, you can also focus on your rhythm, dynamics, and tone and tweak those; with video, you can really see how you present yourself on stage and improve yourself in regards to that aspect of the craft.
What’s next? When do you see yourself switching from your current gigging situation to that future scenario?
I’m really enjoying my current situation — I’m making my living performing comedy, so I feel like
I’m already living the dream — but there are definitely a lot of future goals I’m working towards. I’d like to do more road work, work my way up through all the clubs in New York City, get good TV credits, record an album — I’m currently working on my act with the hope that it becomes so undeniable that these things can’t help but come my way. The bottom line, though, is that I love performing stand-up comedy — that’s why I chose to make it my career. If I won the lottery and had all the money I’d ever need to live comfortably, I’d still be doing exactly what I’m doing right now, which is how I’m following my passion and doing what I love. It would be great to expand into television and film, but stand-up comedy is the art form I’m most passionate about. If it’s all I do, I think I’ll still be very happy.