Comedians speak often about the inherent isolation of their profession: the loneliness of the road, the solitary process of joke writing, and the misery that follows a horrible show. But perhaps the most forlorn moments of a comic’s life come when he is actually out on stage, under the glare of hot lights, peering into an inky oblivion where audience members sit expectantly, all thinking in unison one single, exacting demand: Make me laugh.
Jerry Seinfeld once observed that within the animal kingdom of performers, stand-ups are a special sort of species. “Stand-up comedy doesn’t belong in the arts section; it belongs on the sports pages.” Scores are kept, wins and losses assessed. Unfortunately, more often than not, the comic comes in as the underdog and departs as the vanquished. If stand-up is indeed a sport, it’s never been a team one – until now, with the November debut of The Benson Interruption on Comedy Central.
Doug Benson, the show’s creator and host, has long been a fixture in stand-up – he’s released three albums to much acclaim – but he is perhaps best known for his work offstage. The documentary Super High Me, which chronicled one month of Benson’s love affair with pot, is one of the most streamed movies on Netflix. His weekly podcast, Doug Loves Movies, has a diehard following among comedy nerds and cinephiles alike. And in this newest addition to the steadily expanding Benson Empire, the comedian again travels beyond the realm of traditional stand-up as he invites fellow comics up on stage – only to mercilessly interrupt their performances with a bizarre arsenal of questions, jokes, and non-sequiturs.
Gregarious, impishly playful, and usually a bit more than half-baked, Benson is one of comedy’s most engaging and elastic figures. And as the name-branded titles of his projects suggest, to see his shows is to effectively enter into Benson’s own absurd and improbably hilarious world, where he functions as both self-appointed tour guide and king.
And that was the joy and charm of the Benson Interruption in its original incarnation as a monthly show put on at smaller venues around Los Angeles. There, Benson would invite a few of his famous and not-so-famous comedian friends to perform a short set, while he sat just off stage, microphone in hand, and drew them into whatever conversation he wanted to have at that particular moment. What worked so brilliantly in those earlier shows was the rapid-fire tête-à-tête riffing between Benson and his guests, the delightful chaos created when a well-honed set unspooled like a ball of yarn – with Benson tugging gleefully on one end. The cumulative effect was the transformation of a stand-up show into something that more resembled some sort of crossbreed between improv and an interview gone haywire. It was not uncommon for the comic to abandon his set within the first couple of minutes in favor of following his host down whatever bizarre off-ramps Benson found amusing. More often then not, this route was preferable. As Brian Posehn once chuckled after Benson had prodded him into a lengthy digression about assassinating members of the R&B group TLC: “I don’t want to do my bits. It’s more fun just talking to you about stuff.”
On television, The Benson Interruption fails to capture the unrestrained, unpredictable magic of the live show. The three guest comics are relegated to sharing twenty-two minutes of airtime, with the sets clumsily pieced together in the editing room and given hardly any space to breathe. The large theater filled with a TV audience is devoid of any intimacy. Even Benson himself seems chastened by the new format, lethargically doling out remarks from his raised, throne-like chair at the side of the stage. The overall result is a mostly static half-hour of mashed together stand-up that would have been more aptly titled The Benson Commentary.
Rarely on the show does Benson get fully into the mix. Instead he serves more as a full-bodied talking head, chiming in here and there with a quick quip or tag (Guest: “I could go for a power orgy tonight.” Benson: “It’s the opposite of tantric sex.”). Turns taken reading tweets in a “tweet-off” is about as interactive as it gets on stage. Gone is the fresh, thrilling repartee between Benson and his friends as they plunge exuberantly into unknown territory. Comedy intended for disruption is difficult to pull off, and on his new show Benson’s exceptional ability to elevate someone else’s material into something funnier and thrillingly unexpected is not able to shine through.
Yet for all of its unfulfilled potential, there is still something charming, even a little sweet, about The Benson Interruption. If, as Seinfeld suggests, standup is a fierce, adversarial contest between the comic and audience, then Benson’s new endeavor is refreshingly innocent. Just two buddies trying to make the audience – but most of all each other – laugh.
Cameron Tung is a writer living in Brooklyn.