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Ari Shaffir on Hollywood Comedy Route, Joe Rogan and Mushrooms

Ari Shaffir
Courtesy Photo

Ari Shaffir headlines The La Jolla Comedy Store June 3-4

A bona fide product of The Hollywood Comedy Store, Ari Shaffir has come a long way in his career since he moved to California in pursuit of his dreams of becoming a professional comedian. After finding employment as a Comedy Store doorman, Shaffir was eventually ushered in to a fraternity of comedians, and has since gone on tour with fellow marijuana enthusiast and former host of NBC’s Fear Factor, Joe Rogan.

Shaffir was one of the few comics handpicked to appear in HBO’s Down And Dirty with Jim Norton, and can be seen in an upcoming episode of Comedy Central’s Jon Benjamin Has Van later this summer. SanDiego.com recently had a chance to speak with Shaffir as he prepared for his upcoming shows at The La Jolla Comedy Store, discovered the arduous process he went through to become a paid regular at The Comedy Store, and talked about the international mushroom festival he’s organizing for June 18-20.

Where are you originally from?

Ari Shaffir: I was born in New York. Lived there for a month, and then my mom got sick of New York and we moved to North Carolina. I was raised there until fourth grade and then fourth grade on in Maryland. I usually say that’s where I’m from; my parents still live there.

When and where was the first time you did stand-up?

AS: When I started, I always had this back-in-my-head dream of doing it, just like, ‘That’d be cool.’ I used to watch a lot of stand-up; we didn’t have cable, but I would watch Live From The Laugh Factory and Johnny Carson. I wanted to do it, so I tried it at a sports comedy place in Northern Virginia. I did it at an open mic once. I put on a double-breasted suit, like I had to dress up. I didn’t tell anybody. I stayed with my friend because I couldn’t drive away from my parent’s house on Shabbat, so I had to stay with him. He wanted to come but I wouldn’t tell him where it was, and then I just did it. I prepared my six minutes and did it, and that was the only time I did it before I moved to California.

How old were you?

AS: I would say 22 or 23. And then I didn’t do it again until I was 25.

Where did you go to college?

AS: I went to the University of Maryland. I started college late because I went to Israel for a couple of years. So when I was 22, I was like a sophomore in college.

Do you remember any of the material you did that first time up?

AS: I remember some topics. I know [the host] cut me down. I was going to do eight minutes or 10 or whatever it was, and he only gave me seven. He cut me down like a minute and I was like, ‘Fuck!’ and I had to scramble with all my notes to decide which joke I should leave in. I had all these notes. I know I had a bit about squirrels... something about squirrels, I don’t really remember. And something about bumper stickers. I think the bumper sticker joke was like, if you have a bumper sticker from a failed election, like “Mondale/Ferraro 84’; it’s like, ‘Hey! You’re not going to win!’ so why do you have that on there, or something like that.

What was the catalyst for you moving to California?

AS: I graduated college, so that’s a transition time. I looked for jobs like you’re supposed to, and I really didn’t find a job that wowed me. I had one chance with a cool job at Discovery Channel, doing their website. If I got that job I wouldn’t be a comic, because that was a cool job where I would have some sort of autonomy. So if I had gotten that job I would’ve stayed with that. But I didn’t get that job and I had a roommate that wanted to move to California, and he kept trying to convince me to go with him. So when I didn’t get anything else I was like, ‘Fuck it, let’s go. I’ll go to California and become a comedian and writer.’ But I didn’t tell anybody about the comedian part. I was too embarrassed.

What was your plan once you arrived in Los Angeles?

AS: I got out to L.A. at 25 years-old, so I thought I’d get a job at a comedy club. So I was just looking for The Laugh Factory to be honest, I was driving from where I was in west L.A. down Sunset looking for the Laugh Factory, being confused by the street numbers and knowing it was close, and then seeing this other place called The Comedy Store. I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll apply there on the way back.’ I didn’t know about that place, I didn’t know about The Improv also. So I went and filled out an application and somebody said to keep bugging the manager, that’s the only way you get a job. When they’re ready to hire, just be right there. So the manager made me a phone guy, and I answered the phones during the day. The Store is my home club. I’ve developed a large part of my being as a human at that place. For 12 years, it’s been my clubhouse. That’s my home club in L.A.

How long did it take for you to go from being an employee to becoming a passed-paid regular?

AS: A long time. Back then it took a long time. It probably took like four years. I know I worked the phone for a while, and then eventually after six months I went downstairs to see a show. I remember seeing Jackson Purdue, and I remember talking to him on the phone when he calls in his avails. I was like, “Oh hey, Jackson Purdue, I talked to you on the phone, my name’s Ari, I work the phones.” And he goes, “Oh, nice to meet you.” And he was standing next to Harris Pete, and I go, “Hi I’m Ari.” Harris Pete just looks at me, and my hand is waiting out there to shake his hand and he just goes, “So.” It was so unwelcoming. He was an old door guy that was there forever. He got fired like five years ago, but he was there since 78’ or something. Just a really bitter and angry man, but yeah that was my first initiation into downstairs. Then I got the job in the cover booth, eventually Mitzi let me work the door too. Then after a while I asked the talent coordinator if I could get some advice from Mitzi, that’s all I wanted. And the talent coordinator goes, “Yeah I’ll set up a showcase.” Everybody told me, “Oh you got a showcase with Mitzi, that’s big!” and I’m so goddamn nervous. Everybody psyched me out, I just wanted to get some advice from a lady who’s seen 25 years of comedy, I just wanted some fucking advice from her. She didn’t pass me, though she did give me some advice. She told me I was too hyper onstage and my voice was going too high; which it was. Then after my second or third showcase, she said I could work the door so I could see more comedy and watch more. She liked people watching the show so you could pick up technical aspects of stand-up comedy. Like knowing when to pause for effect; that’s something you wouldn’t even have thought of if you’re just imagining being a stand-up comic. It’s like a painter picking up tricks on how to paint a circle. And after four and a half years she finally made me a paid regular.

When did you start smoking marijuana?

AS: Two years ago. I’ve had my license for two years. I’ve probably been smoking heavily for half a year before that. Joe Rogan used to always get me high before shows; I was never able to do that but then we were working in Boston once and he goes, “smoke weed before you go on-stage.” And I was like, “No, I can’t do that. I’ll lose my train of thought, there’s no way.” But he goes, “You’re working for me, you’re not working for this club. This a 450 seat room, you’re not doing this club on your own for a long time, so I don’t mind, just fucking do it.” So I tried it there and from then on, I would get high with him a lot before I went onstage.

Would you say that performing high takes away from your performance, or does it enhance it?

AS: I would say it takes away. I will admit begrudgingly, it takes away. Here’s the only thing it does for you better, if you’re riffing; if you’re just fucking around trying to come up with material, it’s not a bad time to do it. It’ll get you to think in cool places and feel comfortable enough to take chances and feel one with the audience enough to fucking try something. But, if you’ve got a showcase or you’re taping a special or something, you don’t want to get out of control high because you need to do this in the right order. And T.V. is a time you can’t riff. For just delivering material, it’s not the best.

What’s your take on crowd work and riffing?

AS: I don’t mind it. Sometimes I love doing it and sometimes I don’t really feel like doing it, and I don’t want a crowd to keep yelling so much that I have to do it. I want to do it if I want to do it; if I feel friendly enough with them. I don’t like to do it from an antagonistic place. Some people shit on it like it is the worst ever, but I disagree. You can totally tell who somebody is by their crowd work,3 if they do it honestly enough. So the people who shit on it most of the time just don’t really do it that well and don’t do it very often. I think it’s a huge skill. I used to do a minute or two of crowd work to open, and then that would set me like, however I sound now while I’m doing crowd work; that’s me just talking, my bits better sound like that too. It would set the bar as like that’s what a non-contrived way to speak sounds like, and just continue that when you’re contrived or when you’re not contrived. Some people don’t even need it all. Like Mike Birbiglia tells stories, really great stories. Steve Simone, he’s an amazing storyteller, way better at that than I am.

What’s the name of your monthly storytellers show in Hollywood?

AS: This Is Not Happening is the name of the show. We choose a different topic every show. They moved it to main room in the Hollywood Improv, the lineup’s gotten too good. They want to raise the price and I’m like, ‘Leave it at $5.’ I just want the show to go on. I just like the idea of the show. I don’t want to make any money out of it, it’s just comics all talking about one theme. The next one is June 23.

What can you tell me about Shroomfest?

AS: I’m planning an international mushroom festival June 18 – 20. Here’s the deal, it’s not happening at any place, it’s just a bunch of people that are all getting together on the internet and just doing mushrooms as a unit. People in Holland are doing it, people in Las Vegas, Canada and England. It’s just wherever you are, buy some shrooms, decide what kind of party you’re gonna have. Are you going to go to a music festival? Are you going to be by yourself at the beach? Are you going to go to a party? Whatever it is, figure that out now. I wanted to hold it on Monday so that way we wouldn’t disturb the squares when they’re at work, but then all these people were like, ‘I’m one of the squares and I want to be a part of it, but I can’t skip work.’ I want people to go to the Shroomfest Facebook page (click here) and post pictures and video and stories. If it’s a bad trip, fucking show that too. Right now is the time to start looking for the shrooms.

Are you planning on tripping for all three days?

AS: No, that wasn’t my plan but it looks like it might end up being like that. Then I’m going to be in Vegas one day, so I might do them there. I just don’t know exactly, I haven’t finalized it. I’ve already got my stuff so that’s good. If you want to put anything on Twitter, use the hash tag #shroomfest.

Do you have any television appearances coming up?

AS: I did an episode of Jon Benjamin Has A Van. I’m going to be a Hassidic rabbi. It’s a small part in a dream sequence where he becomes a Jew.

Does Ari Shaffir have a message for the children?

Ari Shaffir: What kind of children are we talking about? Like, 15 to 17? Yeah man, be a part of Shroomfest too, if you’re old enough. But do them responsibly, don’t drive or do anything stupid like that. Don’t do them at school or in class, do them by yourself or somewhere cool. Don’t put anyone else in danger, or your career. They’re old enough; they can be part of it too. But everybody’s gonna be looking extra hard at you, so don’t fuck it up.

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