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.)
Courtesy Kevin Christy @kevinGChristy
Part Four: A Happening
Within a few months the show that couldn’t sell 40 seats started to get a buzz as a hot ticket in comedy.
Ari Shaffir: So after Planned Parenthood turned us down, we started splitting the door with all the comedians, just dividing the money up seven ways, even split between the five comics, me, and Eric. I remember I gave Greg Fitzsimmons 50 bucks once, kind of embarrassed, and he was like “thanks, I can take my wife out to dinner.”
Greg Fitzsimmons: I remember him paying us when we didn’t expect to be paid. Normally the club makes the money, or the producers make the money on these shows. But with Ari it’s always about the comedians getting paid. He even pays people to do his podcast which is unheard of.
Ari Shaffir: It’s not an easy show to book because people need to have stories that fit the theme. Sometimes you know they have a story because you’ve heard it. Sometimes you just know they will have a story, like Marc Maron when we did a heartbreak show. I knew he’d have one. Sometimes you try to find a theme which will fit the story you know someone has.
Eric Abrams: Ari was shier then, so I called most of the comics. If he knew someone, like Joey Diaz or Joe Rogan, he’d call them or talk to them himself. Also, for the first six months I had the advantage of having comics avails because I knew who would be around then. I left the Improv in June or July of 2010, so we went to Emilie to keep the room and give intel on who would be in town.
Emilie LaFord: I think the show found its audience when Ari’s career started to gain momentum and he became a draw. It grew completely organically. He got more popular and people who would see his shows started to come to the storytelling shows. And he brought along people like Kyle Kinane and Joey Diaz, who were building their own audiences as well. And then once you have heat, you can start asking bigger names that aren’t just your friends. It felt like there was an overall sense of coolness to the show, it was like this breath of fresh air the LA comedy world needed. The show felt unique and really intrigued people. It was the perfect time for storytelling to make its way into the comedy clubs, but it grew in this completely organic way. I feel like it was the one of the first shows to really show that comics from all walks of life and levels of experience could be great storytellers. There were some green comics who were these amazing storytellers and comics who could sell out Madison Square Garden taken out of their element.
Jay Larson: What Ari did was afford comics a place where all they were asked to do was tell stories. And that kind of show helps comics realized that storytelling isn’t instead of stand-up, it can be your type of “your stand-up.”
Ari Shaffir: Ralphie (May) did one, sports stories, and he was pacing in the back and I asked him what was wrong. He said it was the first time he’d been nervous in 10 years.
Greg Fitzsimmons: It felt like a place where comedians who didn’t always fit in exactly, people with crazy stories, could express themselves to an audience that was ready for that. I hate to use the phrase alternative comedy but a lot of alternative comedy at that time was storytelling. With Ari’s show, the stories were outrageous, and you could go even further than in stand-up. Because you were saying something so personal, something that really happened. As opposed to stand-up where everything’s about your opinion. There was a rawness to it. Ari’s is very politically incorrect. Lots of stories about hand jobs and encounters that might be gay. It was always, what are the stories you might be really embarrassed to share. He wanted you to come out and tell the stories that you held really close to your chest.
Ryan O’Neill: I remember hearing about the show and going to a couple and thinking, this is weird. I was one of the new guys at The Store and still figuring out how to tell jokes. But it was unusual because the only comics telling stories at the time were alt-comics, and Ari would never be identified as that. And most of the comics who were on the show wouldn’t be called alternative either. It made sense that he would have Joey Diaz because he was constantly telling stories backstage, but he wasn’t doing that on stage.
Pete Johansson: The idea of authenticity came to the forefront with the rise of alternative comics, which I consider myself, and that stood out from the artifice in the stand-up world. But there hadn’t really been much vulnerability and Ari brought an opportunity to bring that to comedy and it made the audiences even more responsive to the humor.
Jay Larson: The thing that I love about Ari is, he’ll get up and tell a horrible story. Not a bad story, but he’ll say something that will make you think he might be a horrible person. But really, he’s the sweetest, nicest person and is all about giving people a platform void of judgement. He’s the least judgmental person I’ve ever met, which you want from a storytelling audience.
Sam Saifer: This show truly is a safe space. You can tell these weird, dark stories, and we’re not going to judge you for your past. We’re going to love you for telling us this honest story and sharing part of your past.
Joey Diaz: When I started to tell those stories on stage, I knew I became relatable to those audiences. I was like the fucked-up uncle everyone has in their family they still love. And Ari and I are of the people comics. We don’t want to be above or below an audience. We hate pompous stand-ups. When you tell a story about messing up, making a mistake, you are showing your humanity and the audience can relate directly to you.
Eric Abrams: With stand up you don’t necessarily know the version of the person you’re getting. Is it a character, is a version of the person, is it really them? And from the beginning, I think we were finally getting an honest glimpse into who these comedians are..
Emilie LaFord: I think one of my favorite shows was themed around fights and Greg Fitzsimmons talked about his problems with rage and punching his neighbor in the face. It was a side of him I didn’t know at all.
Greg Fitzsimmons: I think it was new information to most of the comics that saw that show. I remember being nervous, writing out the beats for it, but not wanting to have it all worked out. The feeling is, you’re with a bunch of friends and you’re just sharing your crazy stories. And you just have to feed off the energy in the room. It was about putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation and talking yourself through it.
Eric Abrams: Ari really wanted to take those moments when comics are sitting back stage, bullshitting while they wait to go on and bring that to the stage.
Kevin Christy: Storytelling in comedy is a whole different kind of pressure. It’s more important to be interesting than funny, so you end up being even more honest than you plan to be. In a storytelling show, vulnerability is the true currency. You will probably be saying at least one thing you weren’t planning on saying.
Greg Fitzsimmons: I couldn’t believe the buzz surrounding the show between the first and second show I did. The first show was almost like a workshop, and the second time I did it I felt like it was the place to be. Usually you don’t watch other comics do their sets because you’ve probably seen them before and you’re more interested in talking to the other comedians’ backstage. But they were up there telling the stories you wanted to hear backstage so you’d crowd the back of the room and listen to the whole show. It was great, it was one of those times when you don’t want the set to end. I felt like I’d found something I could add to my act and it made me feel like I’d grown as a comic. And because the crowd was so supportive, you were able to find the beats of the story. I find that when a crowd is that supportive, your mind works better, and you get funnier.
Steve Simeone: I remember when it started to build momentum. One night it was my job to meet Bill Burr in the parking lot of the Improv. I was in awe of him as a comic already and I finally had a reason to talk to him.
Emilie LaFord: I remember that night. I just looked around that night thinking “this is going to be huge.” When the big guys want to jump on board a show that’s in a little room, you know something magical has happened.
Bert Kreischer: I remember that show, I just got chills thinking about it. That show was magic, I even remember the line-up. The story I told was a story I’d been telling other comics but never told on stage. And it’s not that I’m funny in the story, but that is an amazing story. And then Bill told this story of a gig he had in college, and that felt so much like Bill. It was Bill talking about how his brain works, talking about how he interacts in society with other humans. We were howling laughing. And Jim Jefferies was pacing in the back room and asked Bill and I, are these bits? Are you guys doing bits? And we said, no these are just stories we have. And none of us had gone blue at that point, and Jim went up and told one of the most debaucherous, soul-sucking stories I’ve ever heard. Bill and I were drinking in the back and we said, that feels like a game changer. I met Rogan through that show, someone told him the story I’d told at that show. It’s a night you look back on and just think, we were on fire.
Eric Abrams: That was a room that was just like an open space, so they could legally only fit 80 people, but you could get twice that in the room. And because they never put staff on the door, we could easily sneak people in. We just stuffed it and people were sitting on the floor.
Ari Shaffir: The Improv got mad at us that night because on a Tuesday night we had a sold-out show in the Lab with Bill Burr, Jim Jefferies, Jackie Kashian, Eddie Ifft and Bert Kreischer. And they were like, “you can’t have Bill Burr and Jim Jefferies in a side room.” And I said, “you don’t want me to book the best comics I can?” And they said, “well in the main room we have nobody, and you have a line around the block for this show.” So, they told us we had to move to the main room. Which meant more money even though we were still only charging $5.
Eric Abrams: We were firm about it being a $5 ticket because it’s important that people pay something, but we also wanted the comics to feel like it would be okay if they wanted to try something out, even if they didn’t nail it the first time. We were resistant to moving to the main room because we wanted to keep it at a $5 ticket. And by the time they conceded, they agreed to that ticket prices, if we’d move into the main room. The first show we did in the main room was a Year in Review and we asked some of our favorite storytellers to come back.
Steve Agee: I have a memory of being in the main room at The Improv and I think it was actually a pretty full room.
Ari Shaffir: It was never quite right in the Improv main stage. That’s more of a comedy club room and the best rooms for this show are the more intimate spaces.
Eric Abrams: Sam always thinks bigger picture than Ari and me. It took me a while to believe it could be anything more than a monthly live show. Then we started planning to do festivals.
Ari Shaffir: Our first festival was Sketchfest in 2011. Then we did the Bridgetown Comedy Festival. It was a great show. The lights went out because of a power failure. Pete Holmes, Mike Burns, Kumail Nanjiani were all on the bill. Then we went to Montreal and that’s when things started to really happen.
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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.