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 Seven: One Crazy Night
Sam Saifer: We made these digital shows for so little money it would have been a drain on CC’s resources to deal with us.
Eric Abram: The digital series was laughably low budget. CC Studio budgets were always low and we wanted to keep everything under budget.
Sam Saifer: I was working with (director) Jeff Tomsic’s former manager and he recommended him for the job. We met with him and thought, he seems to totally get it. And he got it right away.
Ari Shaffir: Sam and Eric knew (Jeff) Tomsic, and I told him my ideas for what the show needed to be. It couldn’t be the glossy stand-up show we’re used to seeing on TV. I believe I’d already filmed Passive Aggressive and had wanted the special to have a lot of pulling focus like I saw on The Shield all the time. I told Jeff that and he got it right away. And he hired this guy Steven Calitri as the cinematographer and set up this lighting design, so comics could be moving in and out of the light, because comics were telling some really dark stories.
Steven Calitri: With this show it was all Ari’s vision. He was the comic we were certain of, it was his show, and he set the tone. And he had a lot to say about what exactly the show was. He was the one who talked to the comedians about what we were going to do and direction he wanted to go. So his vision of about what the show he created was and should be was what we went by. It was all based on Ari leading the vibe.
Sean Patton: I think the team works because with Sam and Ari because they’re essentially two Alphas working together and they will both stand by their decisions no matter what. And Eric is this perfect counter balance, he isn’t this in your face, aggressive. He’ll wait for the aftermath and go, “and we should do this.” Ari is unapologetically sure of what he wants and just says what he wants in that low voice he has, arms always folded, eyes kind of shut. Sam trumpets what he wants, and then Eric kind of smooths everything over and adds some final touches.
Duncan Trussell: It was neat to see that side of Ari. I’d known him for so long, but I’d never seen him turn into producer mode. And temporarily it was like watching Ari turn into Stanley Kubrick or something. He has that side of him that I’d never seen before. It was like he had this superpower he’d kept hidden. He wasn’t being a dick or anything but he was making executive decisions in the moment. It was cool to see him produce.
Steven Calitri: I do remember him saying that he wanted the show to look real. He might have said gritty, but he used the word real. He didn’t want it to look like a typical comedy show. I went and scouted a bunch of places with Jeff and we were both in agreement that we had to use the strip club. All the other places looked like comedy venues. This (Cheetahs) was about hanging out in a personal space. It felt inappropriate but was also the most intimate venue we could find. And when a comic is in a space where the audience feels physically closer and surrounds them, makes the viewer feel cozier and like they’re in the room with the storyteller.
Ari Shaffir: We needed to find a cool looking place, like Cleopatra’s Cafe and picked Cheetahs. The cool thing about filming in a strip club is, some of the stories people are talking about really bad behavior. And your impulse when you hear about that can be like “ew.” But if you’re already in a strip club, the audience has already entered an anything goes place.
Al Jackson: They didn’t select a strip club to be cute or hire hot actors to work there. The staff was working the floor. As soon as you walked into the Cheetah club, it was a more relaxed setting. It takes a comic out of his element the minute you see a brass pole on the stage next to the mic.
Bert Kreischer: Strip clubs are very natural for me. I think strippers and comics are actually very similar. I almost felt like, this would be the stage I’d be on if I weren’t a stand-up.
Greg Fitzsimmons: I was a little bit trepidatious because it was in a strip club. And I looked at the room before we started and thought, this is a bad idea. I got what they were trying to do, they wanted it to be gritty and real. But I was really concerned it wouldn’t work. But like the live show, Ari completely set the tone and turned them into the best audience. And the stage totally worked.
Kurt Metzger: It was a pretty fun place to perform. I thought it would be difficult to have the audience behind you and on the side, but it wasn’t.
Bonnie McFarlane: I didn’t realize that was a strip club. I was a little intimidated. And I hate having my back to an audience, I don’t even like walking through an audience.
Ari Shaffir: Having the audience behind us came from our live shows. At festivals we’d fill up, but I’d let people who were willing sit on the stage floor during the show. Some people think it’s even better to be that close to the performer. It really adds to that intimate feeling.
Liza Treyger: I’m someone who loves to see the audience. I wish I was in better shape, so I could have danced on the stripper pole.
Kate Willett: Most of the audience is in front of you, even though it looks like a lot of people are sitting behind you. So, I pretty much played to them, I didn’t really turn around.
Ms. Pat: That was kind of awkward, but the good part was, you could look into the mirror and see their faces. I just played to them from the mirror.
Doug Stanhope: They told me everything not to do. They said you’ll have your back to half the crowd, so do it like this. So, I just did the opposite. Anytime I’ve done television, like The Man Show, when they say talk to the camera, I couldn’t not address the crowd. It was a fatal flaw, I can’t act like the elephant isn’t in the room. And it probably fucked with my performance on some level. They said, don’t worry about the crowd behind you and I said “well, I have too.” They’re sitting there. I don’t give a shit about a guy at home.
Eric Abrams: The stories on the digital series were primarily by people who had performed on the live shows and had stories we knew worked.
Ari Shaffir: We had some awesome stories on the first season, One Crazy Night, and Jeff filmed this crazy opening.
Sean Patton: Filming that open, the camera was moving, and we just had to get in our pose and stay completely still. And between the first shot and last shot Ari ran around, getting nude on stage and holding that pose. People were looking at him nude for a full minute. I was barfing in that open and they had to digitally add it to the shot. T.J. Miller was on the show but not there to film the open, so someone put on a T.J. Miller mask.
Ari Shaffir: I’m adamant when I film stuff that the show has to be great. The audience should be having a great time, you can’t just be getting your shots. And so, we hid the cameras in the back, in the darkness. And the comics couldn’t even see them, and they can play to the crowd. Marc Maron gave us a compliment and said it didn’t even feel like a taping.
Steven Calitri: The cameras were in the shadows. All of them on the first season were hidden behind the crowd. The crowd was kind of lit, just to get the sense they were there. But none of the lights went deep enough that the performers could see the cameras. I think it’s better when a comedian don’t notice the cameras.
Ari Shaffir: The next year we did another season and they wanted Jeff to do a similar intro and I was like, you liked what he did and now you want to handcuff him creatively. Let him do something else crazy. He’s clearly an artist. He put me in fight training with the guys who made 300 for the introduction. I had 3 days to learn to fight.
Big Jay Oakerson: Ari did such a cool thing when he started doing the show on Comedy Central digital. He called to ask if I wanted to do it and I of course said yes. And then he called to say there was pushback from Comedy Central, because I wasn’t a Los Angeles comic. And he came back to say, they’ll fly me out, but they won’t put me up, but I could stay with him. And I found out maybe a year or so ago that Comedy Central flat out said, we’re not flying him out. But Ari told me they had flown him out because he thought I’d feel bad that he paid for my ticket.
Eric Abrams: That was a very cool thing Ari did. For all the people who think Ari’s a piece of shit through and through, there’s that side of him they don’t see. He had a friend who needed a break.
Ari Shaffir: They came up with a lot of excuses with Big Jay, but you can use those reasons they give you. They said they didn’t have the money to fly people in from New York. So, I thought, I’m trying to make a great show, so I’ll use the money Comedy Central’s paying me and I’ll fly Jay in from New York and tell them “turns out, he’ll be in town that day anyway. He’s a local hire now.” I got Mark Normand the same way. I let some of the people just stay with me. Because I wanted to make sure the show would be great. Eventually they fell in love with Jay and flew him out for the other seasons.
Big Jay Oakerson: I did feel a weird air in the room because Ari had fought so hard for me with the Comedy Central people, I felt like they were side eyeing me like “you’d better come through considering what this guy went through for you.” And on my first show I had to follow the story Ari, Bobby Lee, Steve Rannissizi, and Natasha Leggero told. So, the four of them were on stage telling all their different sides for 20 minutes. And then they got off stage and Ari introduced me. And I was like, oh shit. But the energy was great, and the story went well. Once I did the digital episode of the show that put me back on Comedy Central’s map.
Bert Kreischer: Travel channel wouldn’t let me do it the first year. They weren’t comfortable with me showing another side of myself. Ari questioned me, he thought I told him Travel Channel said no because I didn’t want to do it. And I was like, are you kidding me? I loved it, the first second I saw that story by T.J. about having a seizure I thought, I missed out. Then I saw Tom’s story about overdosing on drugs and thought how I am not a part of this. And I decided this is not going to happen to me again. So I didn’t even ask Travel Channel for permission and just did it.
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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.