Splitsider

Tuesday, June 11th, 2013

Talking to Ben Kronberg About 'The Half Hour', Music, and the Unavoidable Humility of Comedy

For the past 15 years, Comedy Central’s half hour specials have showcased the future stars of standup. Looking back, the early years of Comedy Central Presents included memorable sets from the likes of Mitch Hedberg, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Dane Cook and dozens more. Re-branded The Half Hour in 2012, the series continues to feature the best up-and-coming comics in the country.

For many comedians, it’s that history that makes doing a half hour special so significant. While a half hour may once have been a comic’s first major exposure, comedians now have many ways to build an audience. Almost everyone who taped a special this year does non-standup comedy as well, branching out into the worlds of podcasting, sketch and improv, web series, acting, and more. In this new series, I sat down with each of this year’s 16 Half Hour comedians to talk about their specials, their careers, and their generation of comedians. Each interview will also feature an exclusive clip from the special. All the interviews can be found here.

New York-based standup Ben Kronberg fits in the tradition of low-energy, one-liner comics, often incorporating his joke-filled notebook into his act. But his talents are varied; he also does the music for the excellent Modern Comedian series. I met up with him recently in a Williamsburg coffee shop to talk about DIY shows and the rat-race that is New York comedy.

So, my first question for everybody has been, how did your taping go?

Well what has everybody been saying? Cause I don't want to be too above or below what everybody. Mine was just as good. It went equally as well as all the others. Yeah, it's an interesting questions, because it’s like, the subjectivity of experience and, you know, two people sitting in a movie theater side-by-side, are they seeing the same movie?

Yeah. That’s a great answer.

Like, I'm performing at colleges a lot now, so I'm doing an hour in front of audiences that may or may not be into comedy. I've been hired to do this thing, and so many of the contexts that I'm performing in are these—not all things are created equal. Just because I'm getting paid good money for the show and there's people there doesn't always mean it’s good. But that said, I think it went good. When you get off stage, all that you can think of is, "Where did I fuck up? What didn't I do right?" I should have done this or I pussed out on that joke. So that happened a little bit, but that happens every time you get off stage. I mean, sometimes you get off stage and just like, "Yeah. Couldn't have gone better." But when it's something that's being recorded, it’s impossible to not to evaluate that process. But people laughed when they should have and I was just lucky to get to do it. Now that I'm in the Comedy Central realm of things, I feel like, this is where comedy happens. I just felt lucky after it. And I had a lot of people come to watch, like family and friends from out of state, so that was an awesome part of it. I actually had people there who can talk about the experience and not just me being like, “This is what happened.” It would be better if you interviewed my mom right now.

What did doing a Half Hour mean to you, either personally or practically as far as your career?

Well, it couldn't have come at a better time. I've been doing comedy for ten years and never had any specific goals within comedy necessarily. Things would come up, opportunities or possibilities or potentials. I never had them pre-arranged as like, I want to marry a prince. Though that wouldn't be bad.

I don’t know if that would be helpful for your comedy career, though.

Yeah, exactly. It would make me lazy. All he's doing is shopping. But I mean this was as cool of a thing that could have happened as far as feeling like I'm on the right track. Even thought I've been making money and doing colleges, there's still so many things that I haven't cracked the code for. Like, I've been starting to perform at more comedy clubs lately, but historically I've been relegated to indie rooms, DIY shows and colleges, luckily, which is the thing that I'm making money with. But it’s still, this year was pretty light on colleges and I could always be busier. But I've been busy enough to keep going and move forward and then having this happen has already yielded me some opportunities that I definitely didn't have before it happened. And just the news of it being out there engaged activity or attention in my career. Though expectations are funny because, though ideally I would want this thing to equal, now my next year or so is gonna be booked up because I got this thing, right? And people are gonna see it and give a fuck. But you never know what's gonna happen. Especially in New York, there's the rat race-ness to it. And we're all just rats going for whatever pieces of food we can find that will let us keep being rats.

You try to make all the shows as cool and fun as possible but having to stay good at it means sometimes you just eat what's in the fridge, you can't always design your perfect meal. So until my schedule's booked, it’s still very much patchwork DIY indie shows that are sometimes have audiences, sometimes don't, but comedy happens anyways. And like last night, it was a good show but as the show went on the crowd got more disenchanted and more drunk and then started to filter out and then once I got on stage, I kind of noticed that maybe they're not so interested in comedy anymore. What am I gonna say? Do I go with what I'm planning on saying or do I switch it up and just try to be in the moment and get their attention? And it's not always a cool experience performing for cameras and people for future broadcast.

Dan St. Germain talked about that. You go from this big show to performing for four people in a basement. 

Yeah. There's the inherent, unavoidable humility of it all. But that's the beauty of it. Keeps everybody on the level, especially in New York. On any given show, there could be a range of performers, [from] just beginning or wants to try it one time to just needs practice because they're in between road gigs and are practicing for a special or whatever. All that co-existing is beautiful. I don't think that happens a lot in so many other forms. Like music, once you get past the open mic stage, people just want to play gigs. They don't want to do open mics because they don't want to be playing with these horrible people that are doing stupid folk guitar songs. Though there's still the elitism with comedy. And shows that are impossible to get on. Like, there was a show I was trying to get on in LA in preparation for The Half Hour with the emails saying, like, “Hey I'm gonna be in LA in the next couple weeks, and I'm just wanting stage time. I'm going over my jokes for this Half Hour that I'm taping.” And thinking that that is gonna be the thing that's like, “Sure. Come on the show.” But I was still met with like, “Sorry, the show's booked up.” So there's always codes to crack.

You do music as well – I noticed that you do all the music for the Modern Comedian episodes. Do you perform music as well?

I do. I started out as a music comedian, as a guitar comic, and then quickly learned in the comedy world the stigmas of a using props or guitars or puppets or whatever, and then that got me writing jokes more. But I still kept some of the songs in my repertoire. I do them at colleges and stuff, and I get to do them for The Half Hour, so that was cool to see these things that I started with come to fruition. And I do some rap songs, some dirty hip-hop just for fun, because it’s fun for some people. I mean, not everybody would like it but given the proper context and show, I think people appreciate it, even if they aren't hip-hop fans, because everybody's a dirty word fans. And even people that don't like blue comedy love to hate and judge blue comedy so it’s like, you can't lose.

Speaking of Modern Comedian, you talked a lot about your notebook on your episode, and how you didn’t use it during your set on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Did you use it on The Half Hour?

Excellent question. I did get to use it. I got to use it for part of it, not for the whole thing. Because that’s still a thing, using your notes on stage. just like guitar comedy, with this stigma within comedy realms. I had seen Mitch Hedberg in Denver at the Comedy Works one time and he came up with his backpack and he had a notepad and laid it out on the bench. I mean, he's doing hundreds of jokes. How do you expect some guy that's maybe on heroin, maybe not, to remember all of his jokes, and are we gonna forgive him if he reads one? Well, we just want his jokes ultimately. Just tell me what it is. You can look at your sheet music, just play the song right.

But also, not always giving the audience what they think they want, because I've been heckled for my notebook, like, “C'mon put the book away.” Sometimes it would spark that. And then at different showcases I would do, managers or representation, they would say, “Well, don't use the book.” So I just decided in certain contexts, it doesn't have to happen. I'm not married to it, because I know my jokes. I've been doing them for a long time, but at the same time, it’s something that I've been developing as a part of when pauses happen, to let the pauses happen and be somewhat justified in that moment, as opposed to, he's just not saying anything. So that's the thing. But Comedy Central has seen me enough times on stage using the notebook, but then they've seen my in other contexts or showcases where I wasn't, and I was trying to be funny all the time. And I think that was what helped me get on their [radar]. If it comes to my hour special and I'm given more carte blanche to what I do and how I do things, I would probably use the book more. 

One of the most striking things to me was that everyone doing a Half Hour this year tends to do a lot of things, and I’m fascinated by how that informs their standup.

I think its great. It’s great that comedy doesn't just have one destination. When I started out doing comedy, it was based on some ideas I wanted to say or some songs I wanted to try. And then those ideas kind of begat opportunities and now it’s like, you're a standup comedian, you are eventually going to be considered to write, to act, to do all these things other than and including being a comedian. Some people are just into the craft or the vocation of standup comedy, which is fine because that's a thing, but travelling around and being a road comic can wear you down. It’s also nice to have things that you can just work from home for. Writing gigs pay a lot of money, which is one of the reasons that’s a great option for comedians. Here's a way that you can actually a living using your talents, but when you're a writer for a show, they're also using you for as much as they can, right? Long hours, and your creative energy's going toward them a lot.

And then what’s next for you?

Some serious conversations with my representation about what the fuck is going on with shit. Yeah, some serious conversations. I'm meeting with Comedy Central publishing next week, because I'm working on a book right now. And now I'm in the Comedy Central realm, meeting with them for development things for some other ideas I have. That I'm gonna do and not talk about it, but my mom knows what's going on. As long as I can tell my mom, that won't jinx it.

Ben Kronberg's Half Hour airs Friday, June 14 at 12:30 am (technically Saturday morning). He's on Twitter at @benkronberg.

Elise Czajkowski is a contributing editor at Splitsider and comedy journalist in New York City. She occasionally tweets at @EliseCz.