Talking to Ari Shaffir About ‘This Is Not Happening’
Among Comedy Central’s newest online offerings on CC:Studios is This Is Not Happening, which features comics like TJ Miller, Kyle Kinane, and The Walsh Brothers telling true stories in front of a live audience. Host Ari Shaffir is the perfect choice for fostering an environment where no story is too risqué, embarrassing, or heartbreaking to cover, and so far there are twelve tales of pot cookies, a GHB overdose, a less-than-attractive Parisian affair, and shitting in a Munich alley during Oktoberfest. Last night I had the chance to ask Shaffir how the show came about, how telling stories helps standup, and what it’s like to host a web series.
How did the idea for This Is Not Happening come about?
One day Eric [Abrams] and I were sharing mushroom stories and I was like “Hey dude, can we just do a show where we get a bunch of comics telling mushroom stories?” We’d all done them, and half of us had some cool stories. So Eric was like “Okay, let’s do it,” but he wanted to change it to psychedelics in general, so that’s what we did. It was me, Steve Agee, Joey Diaz, Marc Maron…there were probably 15-20 people there and everyone told their mushroom or acid or peyote stories. And it was different than standup – it was still funny because comics were doing it, but it was just this weird honest open thing, kind of like Annie Hall as opposed to Happy Gilmore; Happy Gilmore would get more laughs, but there’s just something that resonates more with Annie Hall, you know?
So we did it once and it was so good that Eric was like “Let’s do more of these.” Next we did sex stories, then we did psychedelic stories again, and then we did heartbreak. We’d just pick a theme – a lot of the times comics are like “Oh I don’t have a story about that,” like we did one on prostitutes and I think Maron was like “Nah, never been a prostitute guy.” So then it’s like okay, he just won’t do it. But when people have something on the subject, they’re great at it. It’s like stories you tell at parties, but it’s comics doing it.
When did you originally start putting on these shows?
About three years ago, then eventually they started getting mad at us at The Improv because we’d have really great lineups – people like Eddie Ifft, Jim Jeffries, Bill Burr – and they said “Why would you have all these people in the side room for five dollars?” I’m like “I don’t know! Because that’s the room you gave us?” So then we moved to the main room at The Improv, which I’m honestly not as much of a fan of because things tend to work better in a more intimate environment. But we’ve done them at festivals, we’ve done them in San Francisco at The Purple Onion, in Portland at the Back Door Theatre, and we just had great comics who would just share like Harland Williams, Margaret Cho, Joe Rogan, and Bobcat Goldthwait. We did a show that was all about the law, and Tommy Chong told a really good story near the end about getting arrested and what led up to it and how the cops just kept letting him go with small amounts of weed until he got so complacent. He’d get caught at the airport and they’d say “We just found this in your bag” and he’d be like “Uh oh” and they’d say “Oh no, would you just take a picture with us?” It was just such an interesting story, and I get to host the show, which is fun because it’s also my favorite show to watch.
It’s an interesting mix between storytelling and standup. How do you draw the line between those two?
Sometimes I start off shows by explaining to people that it’s just a bunch of stories – I always say “It’s like standup, just less funny.” [laughs] A lot of us started at The Comedy Store with shitty spots late at night when there weren’t a lot of people left in the room, so comics just started to heckle each other, but in this friendly way. My friend David does this thing where he gets out his phone number and people can text him heckles. So he just keeps saying his phone number. He looks like he thinks he’s better than you and he does, and people don’t want to heckle him to his face so then they’ll text him and he’ll be like “Okay, getting a text…just so you know, ‘fag’ is spelled with one G, you moron.” And it’s just this fun moment and all the comics in the back laugh, so I wanted to develop this habit.
The themes might be different, but all the stories are humiliating moments.
Oh yeah sure. You don’t brag about staying at a Four Seasons and fucking three supermodels. Most of us have learned by now that nobody but our best friends are going to be impressed by that. We’re doing a fight story episode, and almost all of them are going to be about people who lost fights. [laughs] Very rarely are you going to see a story about a comic winning a fight. Yeah we’re all degenerates in some way and we’re all awful people, so we just show our weaknesses.
That seems sort of therapeutic.
It sort of is. My mom never understood this – she always wanted to come see me perform and I’d be like “I don’t know, I don’t want to know people in my audience,” and she’d say “You’re supposed to know them, you’re supposed to pretend to act—” Yeah, but I don’t actually know them. That anonymity that comes with talking in front of a crowd of people you’ve never met allows you to reveal anything, because you don’t really have to associate with any one of them. If you’re talking to one dude somewhere, then it’s super awkward to say something. It’s like a bunch of friends at a party listening to you talk about this thing you did on the way there. Everyone’s just interested – we’re all comics and we can’t help but do it in a funny way.
So how has it been hosting the web series?
Comedy Central is really cool about not needing to go over the stories with comics or pull it down to a certain amount of time. And they knew it was the web so they were like “Just let the stories go as long as they go.” That way you don’t worry about fitting it in to a hole. When Joe Rogan started his podcasts he’d have me, Joe Diaz, and all our friends help him for the first few. And I told him “Dude, no one will listen to audio that’s over an hour long. You’ve got to end it at 59:59 or less.” And I was way wrong. People just want the content – it can be a seven-minute podcast or a five-hour one – it doesn’t matter. And when we do these shows live I always tell people who ask how long, I say “However long it takes, whatever that ends up being. If you gotta go long, go long, but I’m not gonna give you the light.” They just go until they’re finished – there are no rules. Comedy Central was really cool about that.
That gives you a lot more freedom than traditional TV.
That’s the thing with time — when you start worrying about content you’re trying to please a housewife in Arkansas, and they’re not ever going to watch it anyway. So why are you trying to please them? Instead, just really try to please that college junior who really wants to watch the show and won’t be offended by anything or even think twice about it. Just try to make those people happy.