It’s hard to imagine a time where the art of comedy didn’t intersect with the art of offense: humor and all the best things about it are often so deeply rooted in racial stereotypes and the social landscape that it consistently splinters the public on just when, if even possible, comedy goes too far. Can an interpersonal joke work if it has no social stigma to play against? While the disputes are many, it’s hard to pinpoint a universal line that should never be crossed and what stigmas are off-limits, and it’s for that reason the most notoriously crude comics are often the most polarizing.
And then there’s Ben Hoffman, who spends most of his time on Comedy Central’s new sketch show/man-on-the-street/adventure series The Ben Show pointing out all of his own shortcomings and flaws instead of yours, and while that could be where the real comedic heart of the show lies, you have to wonder why that is. We talked to the comedian about this week’s Oscars controversies, the recent comedic trend of straight guys going gay, and why he turns the insults inward on The Ben Show.
A lot of the humor on The Ben Show comes from your own self-deprecation: you consider yourself a pansy, you admit to not being well-endowed, you call yourself a “flabby jew.” Why is that?
It’s so much funnier for me to insult myself; I’m not a mean person, I don’t want to make fun of these people who are nice enough to be on my show. I mean, I don’t mind letting them hang themselves on the show, but for the most part, it’s much more fun for me, and I can leave with a good conscience knowing that I just met someone and they had fun. I always turn the humor on myself, and yeah, there’s other comedians who go after celebrities, but the number one target of my humor is myself. That’s the person I wanna go after.
Speaking of that, a lot of people had an issue with Seth MacFarlane hosting the Oscars: they felt he was racist, misogynistic…
I didn’t catch it at the time, but I saw a lot of sites talking about it. I read some of it, and I think it’s misguided; they were talking about George Clooney and Quvenzhané Wallis, and to me, that’s a joke about George Clooney likes young women. It has nothing to do with the girl. To make fun of Kim Kardashian being hairy, that’s not making fun of a woman, that’s making fun of a Kardashian. It felt to me like the target was misplaced. I know he did the Boob song, but weren’t the women in that on-screen as well? I don’t like to judge other comedians on their work, but if Seth MacFarlane makes fun of Naomi Watts, and Naomi Watts is in on the joke, it’s not for me to say [if it’s offensive]. I didn’t get it.
There was also the controversy with The Onion calling Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt. Do you think that went too far?
There’s always limits. People say that there aren’t any, but you have to watch what you say. I don’t know who wrote the tweet, but he obviously didn’t personally mean that she was a cunt. I’m not a big fan of apologizing for comedy, but I’m also not a big fan of calling underage girls cunts. I think you just gotta go with it and see what happens. There’s balls in being willing to apologize, but I guess my main concern is that I’ve been a big fan of The Onion for years. I’m used to what they do, so it didn’t throw me personally. I like that kind of humor, but it’s their right to apologize for it. I find it impossible to believe that there was any sort of malicious intent in that tweet. But controversy moves at the speed of a tweet these days, and I refuse to think about my comedy in that sense.
You come into Comedy Central while they’re the midst of a heyday: they have a pretty successful roster comprised of Workaholics, Key & Peele, Tosh.0, and even Kroll Show, which recently took off.
And I watch all those shows! I’d be watching those shows if I didn’t have a show on the network. It’s really weird; my friends are making fun of me for praising what they consider to be The Man. But Comedy Central isn’t The Man; it’s like a new era over there, and they’re letting young new comedians they like do the shows they want to do. There wasn’t a bidding war for this show; I didn’t pitch this show anywhere. I wanted it on Comedy Central, and they wanted it. It was mutual, and it just kinda lucked out that this show happened at this time at this network. And I couldn’t be at a better place. It’s weird for me to say that, because I kind of thrive on hating my boss.
Does that fuel your work?
I work out of anger, and I don’t know what to do anymore because I like the people I work with, and the notes they give me are helpful and make the show funnier. They want me to make the show I want to make. If I were someone who could feel the emotion of appreciating things, I would appreciate it. But I don’t know who to take that anger out on. Maybe my family, or something.
Just to compare, many of those shows are goofy and work through a lot of writing to produce these incredibly outlandish scenarios and jokes. On the other hand, The Ben Show follows you around doing normal stuff. It’s pretty subdued.
Well, there’s a good chance that you only get one shot at this, and I wanted to put the real me on the screen. I didn’t want to be filtered at all, and I’ll go down with that ship. I can’t control whether or not people like me personally or my sense of humor, but if you were to hang out with me, that’s the guy you’d be getting. For better or worse, that’s not a character [on screen]. That’s just me. For the most part, people don’t want to hang out with me. And as much as I’ve tried to change my personality, it’s stuck! I can’t do anything about that. But I can sleep at night if I do the show I want to do.
Another side of your humor, the “Guys’ Night Out” sketch, comes from a growing comedic trend of straight guys being gay.
Well, I was just out with a bunch of my friends for the night, and as usual, we look around at the end of the night, and all the women had disappeared. So then we just pretend that it was on purpose, and that leads to us sucking each other’s dicks. I think we’ve been bombarded in culture with so many beer commercials and things like that saying you have to be a man’s man that it forces people to go the opposite way. Like, it’s almost more manly that you’re not afraid to do gay humor. Listen: I watch the NFL, I drink beer, I do all this typical guy stuff. But there’s so much pressure on being macho that it’s a relief to be able to go the other way. In the sketch, you’re looking at the four least manly men screaming, “Guys’ night out!” It’s another way of making fun of myself, to pretend that my night didn’t go well and we all went home and blew each other.
We’ll let you pitch to the public: why should people watch The Ben Show?
I really think that when all is said and done, there is no other show like this on television. For better or worse, I think there’s a new movement with Louie and Girls and this personal type of comedy, and I love Real Life, the Albert Brooks film, where Albert Brooks plays a character called Albert Brooks. I’m not comparing myself to those things, but I’m taking it one step further: I’m not even playing a character, I’m just myself. So it’s almost a new way to do comedy, to do sketch, but in between, show me in my real life. This hasn’t been done before: it’s an experiment, in a way, I think it works. The goal of the show was just to pack it with so much comedy, and there’s no downtime, there’s no time for laughs, it’s a show made for this generation, and I can’t think of a comedy show that’s done that before. Am I wrong to say that hasn’t been done before? I’m kind of right, right?
I’d say you were right.
Now I feel like I’m complimenting myself too much. (Laughs)
The Ben Show premieres Thursday at 10pm EST on Comedy Central.
Terron R. Moore is a writer in New York, NY. You've previously seen him at VIBE, Bullett, and Ology, among others. Follow him on Twitter, he's a real funslinger.