This interview first appeared online on Austin’s That Other Paper on March 13th, 2007
Growing up, comedian Jon Benjamin toyed with the thought of becoming a Rabbi. But if he had dome that, he might not have written for and voice acted in Home Movies, been the can in Wet Hot American Summer, written, created, and stared in Comedy Central’s Freak Show, or appeared at Austin’s Mess With Texas Party.
What are your earliest memories of comedy, of seeing or hearing things that made you laugh?
The first joke I remember laughing at was, ‘why does Yul Gibbons have purple underwear…because he has grape nuts’. That was when I was about six. I used to laugh at Don Knots movies. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, et al. Don Rickles I remember making me laugh a lot. My Dad used to really like him when he would be on Johnny Carson. As I got older, Yul Gibbons jokes still make me laugh.
Are you able to pinpoint the first time that you were consciously aware that you were able to make people laugh.
I remember being in like fourth grade and I was at this girl’s house with my friend and another girl and my friend was very outgoing and I was very shy and I remember wanting to leave so bad because he was so extroverted and making them laugh and finally I went upstairs and rifled thru this girl’s mother’s closet and put on her clothes and went downstairs in the outfit and they really laughed and that felt nice. That was the first time I remember doing something expressly for making people laugh.
What are some things, early on, that influenced your comedic sensibility?
I think my dad was an influence. He was very droll and sarcastic. And my mom was a ballet dancer who taught creative movement, so I developed a sense of mimicry for dance and physicality.
What were you like in school?
I was a pretty good student and as a kid I was small and cute so people liked me, but because I was really small, I got pushed around a lot. Cute things get handled a lot.
How’d you get your laughs as a kid?
Typical stuff really. Laughing at the kid who stepped in shit. Laughing at the kid who ate shit. Laughing at the girl who experienced her first menstruation in class. Laughing at blind people. Throwing stuff at blind people.
Is school something that you enjoyed?
Overall, yes. I definitely had some terrible experiences at school, but I really enjoy making fun of people and school was an amazing Petri dish of subjects to ridicule. On the minus side, I was beat up a lot and had terrible teachers. I did have a Latin teacher who would tell us in descriptive fashion about her dreams of being a concubine in depraved Roman orgies and an English teacher who would sit in class and drink from a whiskey bottle hidden in his desk and murmur about being in love with Marilyn Monroe.
What sort of creative outlets did you have?
I used to play a lot of sports and I had a friend who taught me how to steal. Stealing was really very creative. We would plan heists and carry them out. It was illegal, but he was a sociopath and I was really impressionable. Later, I starting reading books and writing as a hobby, but that wasn’t until I was about sixteen.
What sort of aspirations did you have as a child?
It changed many times. At one point, I actually wanted to be a rabbi. That would have been dreadful. (sorry rabbis) I had a rabbi who was this diminutive, soft-spoken sweet man and he would come around once a year to our Hebrew school class and talk about being a Holocaust survivor and then he would show his tattoo and I really thought that was amazing. At the time I just thought tattoos were for ruffians. But my rabbi had one. Later I understood that the tattoo wasn’t voluntary. So, in short, I guess I always wanted to be a Holocaust survivor.
Do you think alienation and outsiderdom are essential components of being funny? How about in your own experience?
Most funny people I know have experienced some sort of alienation, but I don’t anyone who hasn’t. In my experience, I have dealt with those feelings by trying to be outrageous. But, yes, I think not being comfortable either in your own skin or your circumstances help compel people into all different sorts of expressions. Not fitting in is definitely a
Do you think bad comedians know that they’re bad?
Even what most would consider bad comedians are good at being bad. I used to really love going to comedy clubs when I lived in Boston and see what most of my friends considered horrible comics, and I would go with my friend James Lemur and I don’t remember ever laughing harder at anything. These were really bad in the standard sense, ie jokes about fat girls and blow jobs and gay airline stewards, but some had this incredible presence. They were really so assuredly bad. I would rather delineate comedy by saying there are interesting comics and uninteresting ones.
Since comedy is such a subjective thing, would you say are some indicators of good or bad comedy?
Inflection is a key determining factor. If a joke is obvious and/or completely irrelevant, but the inflection is hyperbolic, for instance the Jeremy Hoch joke, ‘I come from Tarzana. What kind of name for a town is Tarzana? It’s like tarzan…with an “a”!’ With a really over the top inflection, this sounds like a joke when told, but what is the joke really? Mentioning Tarzan? Sometimes you need to listen to the words to determine when a joke is actually funny.
How do you come up with your characters?
Most of it is very arbitrary. I really like coming up with stuff right before I have to perform a bit I’ve already prepared so to avoid performing prepared stuff. I always feel like it will be way more disappointing if prepared material falls flat.
Do you go onstage with certain points that you want to hit as the character or do you go onstage as the character and let it exist?
Most of the stuff I have done have been at least semi-prepared ahead of time, so I would say it’s half and half, half prepared and half let it exist or thereabouts.
What is the status of the tinkle DVD?
We haven’t addressed it a long time.
Are you able to discuss what happened with Assy McGee or is that something you’d rather not go into? If you are able to discuss it, what happened with the show and how does what the show became compare to your initial creative vision.
There’s not much to discuss. I was doing Freak Show at the time and wasn’t able to really get involved with that show. I did consult on the episodes and co-wrote one. Overall, I think it could have been a better show, but morning DJ’s like it so I can’t really argue.
In terms of Pocket Tanks, how would you rate your skill and who would you say are some of the more tough opponents out there in terms of writers you’ve worked with?
David Cross and I played pocket tanks for sixth months five days a week and I can safely say he is an intermediate level player. The same would apply to Jon Glaser, although he is not as seasoned. I play a game that they can never play. It is on a different level. But, my opponent is the game as a whole, not some random participant.
What are some projects that you’re currently working on or contemplating that you’re able to discuss?
I’m trying to get my show Midnight Pajama Jam made for cartoon network and have a couple movie ideas I would like to work on.
What do you like to do after a performance?
Head over to Hudson Bar and Books, light a Cohiba Robusto and hold court!!