Ari Shaffir’s Renamed Storyteller Show: An Oral History
(Lessons in how to take a bar gig into one of the best nationally touring shows in comedy.)
Part Eight: The Series
After the online success of the first two digital seasons the team came back together to film an additional three seasons. Once again wanting to put in maximum effort, Jeff Tomsic created a new opening sequence for every episode (of every season).
Sam Saifer: We wanted to punch the audience in the face. Similar to doing it at a strip club, you’re forcing an audience to come in without expectations or judgement, those opens threw expectations of what stand-up on TV is out the window.
Ari Shaffir: The first year of the TV series he decided to do eight opens for each episode. And we had three days to film eight different openings. Every season we came in on time and on budget on those openings. And we didn’t have a big budget. It was nuts.
Eric Abrams: Those were wild. I don’t think Ari realizes this about himself, but one of the things that makes him awesome is his decision to put all his trust in Jeff for that part of the show. Jeff would pick him up in the morning, and he’d never know exactly what he was doing, Jeff would tell him what was going on that day, Ari would get beaten up on set, and then he’d smoke a joint, go to sleep and do again the next day.
But now on network cable, they needed a wider net of performers. Along with several comics who would make repeat appearance (Sean Patton and Big Jay Oakerson included), they would also have to find more celebrity comics, as well as new and diverse voices.
Eric Abrams: The first season I was still working for CC Studios and running a show, and it took me a year to figure out how to work with the network. A network always wants to get the most famous people, not necessarily the best storytellers. And if you aren’t paying them much, a famous person isn’t intensified to work out and prepare a story. And that’s a compromise and over the years I’ve had to decide how to make those compromises.
Ari Shaffir: In fact, the people who weren’t headliners or names yet, especially when we started doing the TV show, tried way harder than a lot of the big names. We had a big name comic and I kept trying to go over it with him, he refused to return my calls. And as we’re getting ready to go on he says “I’m thinking of doing this.” We were going on in 30 minutes and of course, he sucked. But then you have someone like Sal Vulcano, believe it or not, and as we were about to go on he whispered “hey man, this is the first time I’m doing anything alone on this level. This is a big moment for me.” He’d been working with The Tenderloins for years, but that was the first time he was doing his comedy on a national platform. He said, “this is validating me as a performer.” And he nailed it, his story’s great.
Sam Saifer: You need one big name for every episode, so you can populate the rest of the show with lesser known comics who have great stories.
Eric Abrams: Between Brian Baldinger, the talent producer who works his ass off, Ari, and I, we really worked hard to find the types of comics we needed without scarifying quality.
Ari Shaffir: Here’s my problem with a company demanding diversity hires. It turns out they don’t really care about quality, they just care about diversity quantity. I don’t feel the same, I want to maintain our quality and find a diversity of life experiences. So, I’m less concerned if we have all white men on a show because you could have someone who grew up rich or really poor. Did one grow up in New York City and the other in Alabama? They can be linked to race and gender, but a rich white lady can have a very similar story as a rich white man. So, a company will just give you a list of names with acceptable levels of diversity. But some of those people suck. Which means Sam, Eric, and I have to work even harder to find quality people who also fit into that approved level of diversity. So, you have to put out a call and say “we are looking for stories, especially from women and minorities.” Not only, but especially. But if we found someone that was good who happened to be a minority or woman, it would be way easier to get them on the show.
Liza Treyger: Regarding the gender and diversity issue, that always happens and it’s annoying. He’s going to want his friends, people he thinks are funny or people he came up with, and his friends are just like white dudes, which is boring to me. But I get that they think they’re interesting or fun. I understand how naturally you want to have your friends on, but the idea that they’re all better than all these chicks or people of color out there is goofy to think about. They’re seen as great comics, but they don’t make me laugh. Like his favorite people are not my favorite people. And it’s his show so he’s going to book his favorite people. But I do think they put in a lot of effort to find people he did not know of that are different from who he is.
Bonnie McFarlane: Ari’s like “I just want to pick the funniest people.” But it’s often those guys who are much more supportive of women. They’re looking at women and minorities just as fellow comics. I don’t think Ari thinks of me as a “girl comic” he just thinks of me as a comic. He likes who he likes, and he happens to have a pretty diverse taste in comedy, and it never feels manufactured. You do try to incorporate other people, but you do it because it will be better for your project, not for tokenism.
Sam Saifer: We took great pride in being inclusive of everyone to make the sure the show doesn’t just have people who look like Ari. For season three we had to ask people to submit videos online and I watched between 300 and 400 stories.
Liza Treyger: With this show the process for it is kind of humbling in a way. People were like, I have credits, give me an offer and figure out a story then. It was hard to get people into the process no matter who they are.
Ms. Pat: Ari and I met in the strangest way. He put up a post on twitter asking “anyone know any black comedians that are funny?” for his story show. And I kept getting texts and reposts about me. And I reached out and said “Hi Ari, I’m Ms. Pat and I think I’m pretty funny.” And we started talking over Twitter and then I went out to New York and sat in a park talking for an hour or two. And after we hung out I thought, he’s cool. I think our expectations of each other were totally different. He told me “I thought you were going to be really loud.” And I told him “I thought you were going to be super religious and look like Jesus with sandals on.” And after that I ended up doing the show twice and we’ve been friends ever since.
Bert Kreischer: Ari was a stickler for booking talent, especially when he booked it for Comedy Central. He was aggressive. There’d be people he believed in and if Comedy Central said no he’d say “trust me, I’ll make this work.”
Ari Shaffir: Someone dropped out…
Bonnie McFarlane: I was supposed to do it the year before. And I don’t know why, but I couldn’t get myself to do it. So, I called Ari, left a voice mail. And he called me back and was like, fine but you have to come on next year. It’s the true story my house burning down, and for some reason I never talk about it on stage. I was just really intimidated to do it. I work in joke form, and I was having a hard time going on stage to tell this story. I don’t think I did it one time before I canceled.
Ari Shaffir: …so we needed someone last minute and thought of Ali Siddiq. And they thought of booking him digital only, but I was like, no-no, that guy is equal to any storyteller we have. You need to book him for TV.
Eric Abrams: We never liked to tell people how long they could tell their story. For a thirty-minute show that’s not possible. But Comedy Central agreed to let us book comics who would just be on the digital platform and comics who would be on the TV show. So, we’d under book for TV and over book for digital so we could move some stories up to fill out of the episode. And that gave some up-and-coming comics their first opportunity to be on TV.
Ari Shaffir: On a lot of stand-up shows, it’s about getting a nine-minute routine down to six. And the editor, because he isn’t the comic, doesn’t realize that something they think is insignificant could be really important to the comic’s performance. Sometimes they pick the close up that should be the full body shot. I knew that a lot of people we got to do the show did it because they trusted me, so I had to make sure they could trust me in the edit.
Eric Abrams: We made it hard on ourselves. Having people do long stories benefited our YouTube presence. But when you have to cut a 15-minute story into a 6-minute story, you have to cut without losing the narrative structure. And once you have that, you have to make it funny. It was really tough.
Ari Shaffir: So Moshe Kasher had done a story for us a bunch of times. We knew it worked. And he had this false ending in the story, and it went another three minutes. It didn’t have to be part of the story but it’s a technique and I told people to feel free to try something. And they wanted to cut it and I said, you can’t cut that without his permission, we have to ask him. And we were told by Comedy Central we can’t ask them because that would set a precedent of comedians editing their own stories. And I was really torn up about it. As a comedian it would be unfair for me as a producer to make a decision about Moshe the comedian’s story. And I toiled over it, editing in Australia. And it hit me, I could just ask him. I just don’t have to tell Comedy Central I asked him. I told him what I thought and told him DO NOT TELL THEM I ASKED YOU, and I’ll just tell them your notes are my notes. And from then on, I did that. I’d send the comics their stories, with my notes. I remember there was a saying Mark Normand used and I asked about cutting it and he said “that’s actually a saying I like to use in my act.” So, I said, “glad you told me, we won’t cut that.” No one should have the right to make those decision over the comic. Kurt Metzger got mad about an early cut. He said it looked like they had him laughing at a rape scenario, but really, he had paused and thought of how terrible it was. And I told him, don’t worry we’re going to go back and make the edit work. We were lucky because we found an editor and he really got it. There were times I just couldn’t make the edit work, got frustrated and said “I don’t know, just fuck it.” And he would always say, “no, don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.” He was so great and really gave a damn. He came to the shows to get the vibe.
Eric Abrams: The most important thing is, the complete version of the story has to go up on YouTube. In terms of the edit, it was always important to Ari that comics have a chance to edit their own stories. Some people didn’t care. Some people told us, I don’t care we trust you. But it was important to Ari so they got to watch a line cut and give feedback if they wanted.
Ari Shaffir: They’d threatened to take the show away from me between the second and third season, because they thought they could bully me into working on their timeline. And what they didn’t realize is, you can’t threaten me financially. I’ve already lived on fourteen grand a year, I can do it again. They wanted us to deliver on one date, I told them we’d already set the date and we need to give comics at least 6 months to prepare their stories. Comics can’t get a story ready in a week. Comedy Central wanted us to film in February, I told them we needed to film in August, that’s what we’ve already decided. And they said, “well, maybe we won’t do the show anymore.” And I said, “fine, maybe we won’t.” They aren’t going to force me to create B plus work when I have A plus work in me. And then they relented.
Steve Simeone: I remember opening for Ari after they shot season two. He was trying to put together his next hour, doing press for the next season, and giving notes for the season going into post-production. I was concerned because you can’t work that hard without a break. He brought up the idea of me working on the show, and that literally changed my life. It was the first time I had a steady source of income. But as a friend, knowing I could relieve some of the burdens Ari was under made me feel great. And it made me feel even better to know that he trusted me with his baby and trusted me with other comics and their babies. I couldn’t have been given a better compliment.
Ari Shaffir: I think these shows need to always have a comic on staff as a consultant.
Steve Simeone: My job was to be the advocate for comics. I felt a lot of responsibility but my first day at work, with Matt and Dan, was so much fun. Every day I’m hanging out with the editors and Eric, and felt like I was part of the team, I learned so much about the process, and it made me a much better comedian. And everyone had the same mission, to make the comics look amazing. It was great to know Ari completely trusted me, but it was also scary. But the worst feeling for me was knowing that no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn’t be able to do it as good as Ari. Because he notices EVERYTHING. He would notice a nano-second of laughter. I remember being with him in Austin when he shot his special that went to Netflix and he would point to a light that needed to be moved. I’m just not sensitive enough to pick those things up.
Steve Rannazzisi: He was putting in a lot of work and felt like he was butting his head against the wall a lot, but he’s also not one to take no for an answer. So I could definitely see his frustration with the stuff surrounding the show. I think he was a little fried by the time the third season wrapped. I’d see him and he’d say, “I’m sick of fighting with them all the time.”
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Lesley Coffin is a feature editor for FF2media and has also written the books Lew Ayres: Hollywood Conscientious Objector (2012) and Hitchcock's Stars (2014), and currently writing a third book. Follow on twitter @filmbiographer for thoughts on movies and cat pictures.