When I call him to talk about the new series, This Week at the Comedy Cellar, Ray Ellin (who is known to many as Aruba Ray) is sitting in Aruba, enjoying a short break in an intensive filming schedule, right before Thanksgiving. Along with Comedy Cellar owner Noam Dworman, Ray is the Executive Producer of This Week, a new intense stand up series that is unlike any that has been televised before. The week off gave us a chance to catch up about the Comedy Central Show that Ray has been working on around the clock since it debuted in late October.
This Week at the Comedy Cellar showcases some of New York’s best stand up comedians telling jokes about the biggest stories in the news each week. The episodes air Fridays- the product of a packed week of shooting- and showcase an average of twenty comedians telling jokes about hot topics ranging from universal to controversial. Blackface on Halloween, kneeling in the NFL, midterm elections, Banksy, the world series and of course Trump are a few examples of source material covered in the first few episodes.
The idea for the series came from the Cellar’s owner, Noam Dworman. Along with Ellin, Noam serves as EP for the series, and Ray told me it was Noam who initially came up with the idea. “I was sitting with Noam in the Olive Tree and he said to me, ‘What do you think about this?'” Ray said. “This” refers to a show where comics talk about what’s going on in the world, as its happening. Ellin loved the idea, and they ran with it. It took three years to bring the series to the small screen. They had interest from several networks, but chose Comedy Central as the show’s home. “I remember I was in Aruba when I found out they had picked up the pilot. I happened to get an email update. It was from Deadline or Variety or Hollywood Reporter, one of those outlets. It said that the show was picked up. I had a feeling it was going to be, because the pilot apparently tested like, I think it was the highest testing pilot in five years.” He was on a boat in Aruba when he got the news, and was so excited he jumped into the water. That was in the spring of 2018, and six months later, they’re bringing their idea to television.
The show tapes three nights a week, shooting three to four shows a night, with some 50 comedians taking the stage at the Cellar’s Village Underground. The live shows follow the familiar showcase format: comedians doing 15 minute sets, a blend of tried and true material and topical jokes. The comics are provided with a list of suggested news topics to target. It sounds easy but many of the Cellar’s regulars aren’t used to writing quick punchy jokes on the fly. It can take weeks or even longer to work out material for new jokes, but Ray says the comedians have been adapting remarkably well to the new format.
“Creatively there’s a lot of comics who, when I first asked them about being on the show, they were hesitant, they were really nervous,” Ray said. When comics worried if they even had the skill set to write and perform such in-the-moment material, he encouraged them to just give it a shot. “And some of them are exceptional. Some just sit down and open a newspaper or take an assigned topic and do something with it and they’re great at it. And I think they never even realized they were good at that. That’s also cool to see suddenly there’s 10 comics that I had never seen do any topical material, and they’re great at it.” For those not ready to write on the fly, there’s also room for the comics to modify some existing jokes to fit the show. “You have an old joke about your family and then you add a Thanksgiving setup and next thing you know it’s a topical Thanksgiving joke.” Some of Ellin’s superstars who seem to make the cut every week include Pete Lee, Joe Machi, Mike Vecchione, Greg Rogell, Dan Naturman, Sam Morril and Adrienne Iapalucci, to name a few.
Some of the comics seem made for the format, others can be hit and miss. As EP, he encourages those comedians to just “go out and have a great set and worry less about it being spot on topical.” There’s plenty of room for jokes that are topic adjacent. “Because if you have a topic about something about Colin Kaepernick, you can have a couple spot on Colin Kaepernick jokes and then maybe there’s some football jokes or Nike jokes or something like that that will still fit within the structure of the show.”
“Certain comics will write seven new bits. Other comics will write one or two new bits that are brand new bits. Someone might only produce one brand new joke that week. But they might have a really unique take on that topic versus someone who wrote seven new jokes, and maybe six of those are just sort of, you know, are just kind of unusable or not super funny. It’s not an exact science. If it was an exact science then we’d all be billionaires, you know?”
Ellin dismisses the notion that the show encourages jokes that are more “late night monologue jokes” in tone than they are stand up. “See I feel like it’s not that the jokes are not too monologue-y. When I see someone like [Mike] Vecchione, for example, talking about Jeff Sessions or whatever it is, it really feels like just a natural extension of his act. I didn’t feel like it was so set up punch like you’re watching a late night talk show.” He admits that the jokes are short– typically 30 to 40 seconds, which he likes because it keeps the pace of the show moving. “I think I always sort of envisioned that it was going to be tighter bits and not like two minute rants. Cause it does I think help hold the audience’s attention and also allows, it lends itself in getting a lot of different voices and faces on the show.” And that’s means more comedians getting tv credits and getting some extra income. “The thing about the show that makes me happiest is that a lot of the comics are getting this great extra paycheck doing what they do every week in their home club. That’s really satisfying. It’s a lot of extra money and TV exposure for a lot of people that might not typically get that. Every episode has always over 20 comics. So that’s a lot of air time for people. And we’re filming well over 50. So obviously people get paid whether they’re on the air on the screen or not. There are some comics that were practically in tears. They were like, “My God, I was so broke.” It’s really something. That’s pretty cool.”
Choosing what airs is complicated, but Ray said funny comes first. Most of the time. “First and foremost you want to choose the funniest stuff,” he told me. “But then sometimes it it boils down to just timing, and I don’t mean timing of a comic, I mean timing within the shows. So sometimes we have to cut down a segment because that segment needs to be a little bit shorter to get to the commercial break. In order to do so, well now the other section might be a hair too long, so we pull one joke that was 42 seconds long in favor for another joke that was actually on the same topic, that was also funny but was only 19 seconds long. So really that is sort of the trickiest part. It’s fun but also a huge pain in the ass because sometimes you have to remove a great joke that is 12 seconds too long and that is super frustrating. But we’ve literally had notes where it’s like, replace Mike’s e-cig joke with Lenny’s e-cig joke, there’s an 18 second differential. So that happens a lot. But sometimes you get in a situation where clearly Naturman’s Michelle Obama joke is far better than so and so’s Obama joke and then you just have to go with the funnier one.”
Controversy is welcome. In fact, the show steers directly toward hornets’ nests and divisive issues. That can bring other challenges. On stage, a comedian can help control how an audience reacts to a potentially offensive joke using context, and controlling what leads up to a particular joke: where does it go in the set, have they won over the trust of the audience. Those devices are all stripped away in the final cut- all the audience sees is the joke itself. Ray said he and his team are sensitive to those issues, and structure the show to try to offset that problem. “When you’re dealing with an individual person in an individual set then they can craft it and take the audience in the direction they want to go and it makes sense.” “But on the show, each topic becomes one long set but it’s comprised of multiple comedians and multiple voices. So you want to sort of craft it in such a way where you’re moving the material along but trying to take the same care that an individual comic would do with their own set. If you have five great jokes about a topic and the most abrasive one might very well not be the way to open up that segment. You build toward that.”
In week two, for example, they covered a pretty raw topic- the Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting- and they covered it while people were still reeling from the news. “That story happened late enough in the news cycle where it’d be a glaring omission if we hadn’t addressed it,” he said, “but that was such a super sensitive topic. It was really one of those things where I remember saying to an editor, we have to have some level of empathy on stage.” He recalled that Jessica Kirson had said a genuine heartfelt statement on stage during one of her sets about the shooting before she went into jokes. And before the show she had talked with Ray about how devastated she was about what had happened in Pittsburgh. “So if you run a clip of a news story, you see news anchors talking about 11 people killed in a synagogue or 12 people killed in a synagogue, whatever it was, and then immediately just going into Jewish jokes, it would seem painfully insensitive. So I sat down and I made sure that we included Jessica’s short statement on stage and then we also included footage where you see comics sitting at the table talking about coping, coping mechanisms. Both those things were brief but it made a world of difference because you can’t just run a news story and then have people joking about that stuff. I think to the home viewer, it just lacks any kind of tact or decency.”
Another pitfall arises when a comic tells a joke early in the week, but then the story keeps unfolding as the week goes on. Sometimes the subsequent details that arise prior to the show airing can make a joke seem inappropriate. But there is trust between the comics and the producers that those jokes won’t appear in a way that would make them seem callous. “I’ve had comics calling me or texting me saying, hey that joke that I did, would you please kill that second half because I seem like a total jerk,” Ray explained. “I absolutely have no problem with that. I don’t want any comic to be unhappy with what they see on screen. There’s probably been more of it than I expected where some comics are like, hey that thing I did, that really shouldn’t be televised.”
They’re also juggling the sanctity of the Comedy Cellar. This isn’t a closed set with a groomed studio audience, it’s a functioning club with a stellar reputation, and those comics still have to deliver, not just for the cameras, but for the room. “That’s really important, that the shows still be terrific even though we’re shooting something for TV,” he said. “The Cellar, look, they have a reputation for putting on arguably the best comedy shows in America, right? They want the shows to still be fantastic for the people that show up for the taping. Because even though it’s a taping it’s still also a regular comedy show. The live show really needs to be fantastic, so there’s been a lot of care, I think, to try to make sure that experience doesn’t diminish.”
Creating the show, Ray says, can be a grind. “It is exhausting. It’s definitely a labor of love, which is so cliché. But it’s, I mean everyday there’s something to do on the show, for the show.” They tape on Saturdays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays with Saturday shows running until 2:30am. And then the Thursday edit process can run as long as 22 hours. “I’m probably in there from 2:00 pm to 6:00 am maybe. It’s a super long day and the hours, you’re tired. But you know, generally when you’re done you feel…. it’s very satisfying. Then you can’t really go home and go to sleep right away. You’re usually up for another hour and a half watching Sports Center or something.” Friday becomes a day to go on stage without thinking about cameras, and then Sunday is his literal day of rest. On Sunday there’s still work to do because they have to start prepping for Tuesday and Wednesday, but its the slowest day of the week, and he uses it to take a spa day which helps with the grind. “I’m definitely not bitching, I’m happy about it, but it is a seven day a week thing. ”
“At the end of the day, we kind of … would it make my life easier if I just pointed to eight comedians and said, all right you eight. Here are the topics, go do a ton of bits and fill up the show? I mean, that could be easier but I don’t know if it would make the show as interesting.”
There are three more episodes left until the first season wraps, with hopes of a season two. But until then you can catch a taping live every Saturday, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Village Underground or tune in on Comedy Central every Friday night at 11:00pm.