Ari Shaffir and the Importance of Intimacy

Who would tape and produce their comedy show in a strip club? Ari Shaffir. This Is Not Happening has proved its merit as a successful web series since it appeared on YouTube in June of 2013, and on January 22nd it will finally premiere on Comedy Central. A part of its success comes from the dark intimacy of the venue, a feature that Shaffir pays a great deal of attention to.

Shaffir has applied this same philosophy to his upcoming hour-long special, Paid Regular, also being produced with Comedy Central. Taped in the Original Room at The Comedy Store, Shaffir strives to translate something that has often eluded most comedy specials: intimacy. Paid Regular will allow audiences to experience the enjoyment of a comedian at his home club, where he’s most comfortable on stage and can perform at his peak.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Shaffir about how he landed the opportunity to tape his special in such a unique room, the virtues of his DIY approach to comedy, and what happened with Jeff Dye’s controversial confession on This Is Not Happening.

So your upcoming special Paid Regular was filmed at The Comedy Store. I don’t feel like I’ve ever seen a special taped in a room like that before.

Yeah, in the Original Room. It’s where I pretty much started comedy. I’ve been trying to shoot a special there for ten years so it’s kind of my dream. I was an employee there; working the door, the cover booth, answering phones during the day, managed a couple nights, was the talent coordinator, ran the website for a few weeks… I’d always look at it and be like “Man, why don’t they shoot a special here? This is where comedy is.”

It’s sort of your comedy home.

Yeah, Joe Rogan came back to The Comedy Store for the first time in seven years or so and he told me, “Hey, I was thinking about it, and you’re so much more comfortable on that stage than anywhere else. You’ve performed on it more than anywhere,” and I was like, dude that’s the reason I did it there. It really is my home. It’s my hangout. We do fifteen minutes of comedy a night then we hang out for six hours.

It makes sense that you’d feel most comfortable performing in that environment.

I really wanted to show what a regular set was on a given night. It’s a special so it’s the best material I have and it’s built a little nicer but really it’s a playful, relaxed, loose vibe in there. It’s a set from a paid regular.

I’ve had this theory for a while that all the beautiful shots in the world, that’s great, and getting 19 cameras in there, that’s awesome, but there’s something that you can’t replicate with beautiful shots and that’s when a comic is killing. When they’re really killing. Just the joy on their face. You can’t add in laughter, there’s no way you can fake that. It’s just this fun moment. So I’m just like, let’s just do it in a super small environment like that, where we can actually mimic a real club environment. You don’t kill at theaters the same way you kill at clubs. No one does. I was talking to Amy Schumer about it at Oddball, she was like “It was good, it just didn’t feel quite as good.” It didn’t feel like you were doing as good, then you get off and someone says it was awesome and you’re like, “Oh, okay.” And that’s the way it is. You’re like, “I guess that was alright.”

You can’t look around the room and see people the same way.

You can’t see people doubled over, can’t see somebody slapping a table or elbowing their friend. Snorting, or whatever it is. It’s a real one way conversation. They only shoot specials at theaters, but all they can do is good there. They can’t kill.

Is this also why you tape This Is Not Happening at a strip club?

Well, we started it at the Improv Lab, which isn’t around anymore. It’s where a bar is, but they really fucked that room up. God, it’s gross now. Even the room itself, there’s white couches. Why would anybody want to be around – anyway. So we did it in Montreal and then Bobby found a venue the Cleopatra, a strip club with a venue upstairs. At first I was pretty pissed, I was like “Why are you relegating us to doing stories about sex. Don’t make it a fucking niche thing.” But then we realized Bill Burr was in the room before us, so we figured it couldn’t be that bad. And the room was great! It was a little stage, it was really intimate. We did it in that side room for a while, then they got mad at us. They were like “Why are you doing a five-dollar show for forty people max when you have Bill Burr and Jim Jefferies?” I was like “I don’t know, because it’s the room you gave us.”

Well at least that’s a good complaint to have, that your show was doing too well.

Yeah. So they moved us into the main room. But it was never the same as it was in the side room. As you walk upstairs to go you pass all these old weathered photos of strippers and stuff, you just get this vibe that you’re entering into this dark place. Then when comics tells stories about dark things, about getting molested or whatever it is that they’re telling, you’re kinda like, “Yeah, whatever.” You feel dark already.

And now that it’s finally going to be on Comedy Central, how much range do you still get with it? Do you still have control?

Yeah. There’s a few more hands in the pot, but as long as you – the reason they hire comics to do these things, the reason they made me an Executive Producer, is that they’re looking for my expertise. If I hired Donald Trump to come forward on the projects we’re doing, it’s not just to put his name on it, I’d be like, “Hey man, you know business. So if there’s a way we’re going wrong here, please let us know. You’re way more of an expert at this than I am. What am I supposed to be doing?” They hire comics because they want us to say what we definitely fucking know. This is funny, this robs the thing of the funny.

Does the shift also mean a change in venues or will it still be at the strip club?

Still at The Cleopatra. The first few had the lights too bright, but really it’s all the same. I just saw it. We liked the way it looked. So we’re just gonna leave it. So that part was easier. The only hard part was keeping stuff to seven minutes, but we’ll have the stories released unedited.

In one of the earlier episodes of This Is Not Happening, Jeff Dye talked about an ongoing investigation regarding a very important football jersey that he stole [Mike Vanderjagt’s Pro Bowl jersey]. What ever came of that?

I think eventually he gave back the jersey. Jeff Dye is just living life on another level. When we were in Cabo for the Cabo festival, which happened a year ago in October, he took his shirt off in a bar, and people were like “Why are you undressing?” he kept going “We’re comics, we do what we want.” He was saying that the whole weekend, “We’re comics, we do what we want.” He really lives that way. Vanderjagt told him, like “Dude I’m gonna call the cops. No one wanted it to go this far, I’m gonna call the police, you’re gonna go to jail unless you give back that jersey right now.” And Jeff Dye just goes, “No, I’m a comedian. You don’t think I can handle four days in jail? It will effect my life zero. It will just be a cool experience. I won’t lose any bookings over it.”

If anything he’s gaining notoriety from it.

Yeah exactly. A friend always told me “Don’t get arrested for weed, it’s gonna hurt your career until you get more famous. Once you’re like Doug Benson, then you can get arrested for weed. Then it will help you.”

That’s the most condemning thing he could have done though, like a professionally filmed – “Yeah, this is how I did it.”

Yeah, so like things like that – occasionally Comedy Central will be like “Are we admitting to a crime?” And then all you have to show them is that it was already reported, maybe on Splitsider, maybe somewhere else, that the rumors are already out. So we wouldn’t be breaking it, so once you show them that, then you can say it. The only thing we had to do was – he played the voicemail from the police, so we had to beep the name of the cop. Then it was like, “Yeah, sure, absolutely.”

They didn’t have to censor the whole story.

Right, right. Which to me was the heart of it. I’m a purist. I don’t like bleeping a name, any of that. I’m like “Show the thing as is!” But I get it. Names are big, I guess.

That’s the hard thing about translating comedy to just any kind of recorded form, that’s the beauty of seeing it live, you’ll experience all that.

And that’s what I tried to do with Paid Regular. I wanted to mimic the experience as much as possible, so I don’t do any crowd shots. The only crowd you could possibly see is if you see me from the side and the side angle shots in the Cellar from Louie, where you can see people from behind him but you’re really seeing him. You see the tops of peoples heads, it’s dark, you don’t see anybody else. You’re just in there, as much as possible. So it’s trying to mimic that experience but really you can’t mimic it. You can’t replace being there.

Whenever I say I try not to judge people off their Tonight Show sets or whatever, like even Gaffigan, all of them, Burr – when you’re on Letterman, you’re just not as good as you are live. They tell you the exact words you’re allowed to say, so even if you were going to say those same exact words, the fact that you don’t have to while you’re onstage at a club, it gives you this freedom. So we didn’t go over anybody’s sets with them for This Is Not Happening. We were like “Bring it in, do whatever you want. If there’s stuff we can’t use, we’ll tell you.” I was like, “Be careful with specific names and if you’ve got a heavy name brand thing, like if your whole thing is a fight at a McDonald’s, they might say we can’t air that. So that’s all I warned them about, but after that it was “Just do what you want to do.”

And you also had Passive Aggressive, that was your self-produced hour-long comedy special, and now Comedy Central has agreed to pick that up after two years.

Yeah, my career has gone better so people are like, “Yeah, now we’ll take it,” but at the time, people were like “Why are these comics doing stuff on their own like this?” Well, because you guys aren’t doing it. Wait for one network to come around? I’ve got my career to develop, so let’s move. I’m ready to do a special or CD or something. Let’s move. It’s all about the art. It’s not about getting on TV or not getting on TV. It’s all about the art. You just gotta record stuff and move on and make new material. Painters don’t wait until they’re in some specific gallery before they move on to the next painting.

So what was it that finally got them to pick up what you were producing?

I had a meeting with Comedy Central a few years ago. My manager got me a general meeting with them, and they all came in one by one. Then Anne Harris came in, and I was like “Oh hey, what do you do?” And she said “I’m in charge of specials.” I didn’t know any of those people. I never really got to know any of them at parties or anything, they were all New York people. And she was like, “Hey, I’m in charge of specials,” and I was like, “Oh! I want to do a special at The Comedy Store.” She was like “Where is your mind, we’re not even offering you a special, what are you talking about.” But I was like, “She probably won’t even remember,” but it was the first time I had met her, and I was like, “I want to shoot a special in the Original Room at The Comedy Store.” And she was like, “Alright, well, thanks for telling me.”

When was this?

It was like, three years ago, before I had shot any specials. I doubt she’d remember it. That was the first time I’d met her, but then a few years later, I’m doing exactly that.

So that like stayed on her radar then, I guess.

It probably would or she would have been like “Fuck this guy, don’t tell me what we’re doing.” But I was thinking about it when I was an employee there 12 years ago, I was like, “This is where stuff should be shot. In this dark room.”

Well clearly that panned out well.

Fuck yeah. Sure did.

Ari Shaffir: Paid Regular debuts Friday, January 16 at midnight ET/PT; This Is Not Happening Premieres Thursday, January 22 at 12:30 A.M. ET/PT.

Photo by Jesse Grant.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

Ari Shaffir and the Importance of Intimacy