Standup, Storytelling and Radio Hosting with Ophira Eisenberg
Ophira Eisenberg is a standup comic, the host of NPR’s live quiz show Ask Me Another, and a regular host and contributor to the popular live storytelling series The Moth. Somehow, she also managed write a memoir, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy, which was published last year and was quickly optioned for a feature film (the script is being written as we speak). Her new comedy album, Bangs!, is available on iTunes starting today. I spoke to the Canadian-born, New York-based comedian about giving accidental advice, storytelling versus joke telling, and living happily ever after.
Tell me about your new comedy album.
Well, all of my stuff is autobiographical. There are observations about living in New York or a big city in general, how there’s a fine line between insanity and what is just now everyday living. And also the perks of being able to cry in public — nobody caring, nobody noticing. Because I do storytelling and stuff with The Moth, I also wove in a couple stories that have a different pace to them. There are some one-liners, some longer bits, but then there are a couple stories.
How does storytelling differ from joke telling?
It’s like working an entirely different muscle in the same muscle group. The expectations on the part of the audience for storytelling versus stand-up are vastly different. The audience is listening in a totally different way. In standup, the whole purpose is for me to make them laugh — they don’t want to sit there and wait for it. You’re not there to make them think, and you’re not there to make them feel. You’re there to make them laugh.
In standup, you are never vulnerable on stage—otherwise you will be eaten alive. You can talk about a time you were vulnerable or joke about vulnerability, but you yourself cannot be vulnerable. And with storytelling, that’s how you engage your audience, other than having a well-crafted, interesting story. You just have to write something that’s very meaningful to you and that’s story-worthy, and you engage the audience on an emotional level by allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
You wrote a book about a year ago, Screw Everyone: How I Slept My Way to Monogamy. Like a lot of funny women who write books—I’m thinking of Mindy Kaling, Julie Klausner, Tina Fey, most recently Amy Poehler—the book is autobiographical, and there’s a bit of a self-help element to it. It almost reads like a dating manual.
[Laughs] I certainly would not take it that way. That was never my intent, as a matter of fact. When I had done some readings along the way, I had people asking me for pure advice. I am happy to give advice but I would never present myself as an expert. I learned from my experiences, and I’ve had some hindsight and perspective, but I would never paint myself as someone who’s like, “Here’s what you should do.” I made a load of mistakes, and the book is there purely to entertain. I’d love it if anyone gets something more out of it, because that’s the thing about good storytelling: If you relate to it and think, ‘This struggle reminds me of my struggle, which makes me feel like it’s not as bad” — that’s what good storytelling does to an audience.
In another interview you mentioned that you originally didn’t want the book to end happily, with you getting married.
When I was working with my literary agent on the initial proposal, she’d say, “There’s nothing wrong with a happy ending! Why is that such a problem for you? There’s a good story here, and you’ll never tell a story that’s been told before if you just tell it from your point of view.” I had so many bizarre ambitions for what I wanted to do with this one book. But you just sit down and tell a story — you don’t have to break convention and do something bizarre, some new creative take on how someone writes a memoir.
I was trying to figure out a way to end it that was not necessarily things working out, basically. Can’t we end it with a dot-dot-dot? Wouldn’t that be satisfying? That’s hilarious, because I hate books like that. Like, don’t be lazy, write an ending.
But you do seem to be happily married. Did you just not want to suggest that marriage is the end of the story?
I’ve never related to a fairy tale and I don’t think I live one by any means. I also wanted to make people aware that things are complicated. Just because I got married doesn’t mean there weren’t other problems or other challenges. And I don’t think everybody should get married, either! If someone was like, “So I should get married?” I’d be like, I dunno, maybe not! See if you can avoid it!
You put a lot of stories into this book. Were you worried about using lots of good material that you wouldn’t be able to use in your standup shows?
Not at all. If anyone listens to my live show and says to me, “I read that joke in your book,” great! I don’t think there’s any problem with that. I don’t think there’s an expectation with standup that you’re out there every night of the week, doing 100 percent brand-new material. It’s called a routine for a reason, as they say. There are jokes and lines in that book that I probably still say onstage. One of the stories is actually on the new album, a slightly different version of it. I just think that’s how it goes.
How does your standup experience inform your job as host on Ask Me Another?
My role up there is like being really high on caffeine — I have to be so actively involved in listening to about four people at the same time, and hopefully make up a joke in the moment, and keep that flow going and say the words correctly. It’s a lot of work. I do think that years and years and years and years of being onstage in so many different scenarios has given me a skill set that allows me to do it. It’s really fun when it all clicks. And talking to the contestants, who of course are people I’ve never met, is endlessly entertaining.
Ophira Eisenbergperforms at the Bangs! Comedy Album Release Party on Thursday night at Union Hall in Brooklyn, NY as part of the New York Comedy Festival.
Photo by Anya Garrett.
Lara Zarum is a graduate student in the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Slate, Guernica, and the L.A. Review of Books, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter.