Ari Shaffir on Giving Artists Free Rein and Life without a Smartphone

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When we last spoke, Ari Shaffir had just released his special Paid Regular. His storytelling YouTube series This Is Not Happening was just making its first appearance on Comedy Central. Now that his show is entering its second season, I had the opportunity to chat with Shaffir about the brilliance of director Jeff Tomsic, what makes his favorite stories, and the benefits of life without a smartphone.

Any big changes to This Is Not Happening we should expect this year?

No, that’s what they [the network] try to do. Get you to change shit. And I’m like “No, everything’s fine, quit meddling.” It’s all good, no changes really. We’re doing less fourth acts on the show.

Fourth acts?

They have this thing where we had to do this minute-and-a-half or two-and-a-half-minute fourth acts that don’t fit in the stories at all. Jonas was able to talk to them and go “Guys, it’s just not fit for that show. It’s fine for Workaholics. Just not for this.” They let us do away with it, so we can devote more time to the actual stories.

You’re trying to maintain consistency.

Yeah, just great stories. Those fourth acts are fine, sometimes, but they’re just filler a lot. We have of filler that are fine, but otherwise, like: focus on stories.

Are you starting to get more comfortable with the storytelling vibes yourself because of the show?

Because of the live show, for sure.

What do you like to see in a story, personally?

I just like to see some stuff happen. Like Ms. Pat, she got shot in her tit. You know, tell me the story of how you got shot in the tit! It’s already great. That’s like, you actually do something. Ali Siddiq got stabbed in a prison riot. T.J. Miller told a story about his brain tumor and waking up in a hospital. Just whatever makes you say “Aww, shit went down.” So I prefer that. I like drugs, I like talking about drugs, I like talking about sex. I never like the stories that were like “Yeah, I did a bunch of acid and it was great I was psyched and that’s it.” Sorry, I like if it goes wrong or I don’t want to hear about it.

Like a more elicit version of The Moth, if you will.

Yeah, exactly: The Degenerate Moth.

I also noticed that the intros have become much more action-packed. They’re getting so intricate.

Well it’s this guy Jeff Tomsic, he’s brilliant. He’s a fucking amazing guy. So, he came on the first year. We needed someone to direct it when we were going to YouTube, when we were actually going to film them, and we needed someone to direct them. He’d done some shorts for T.J. Miller. He just came up with this crazy thing of like, I don’t know if you saw the early, the YouTube one where it’s like the one around the bar and it’s half fast motion half slow motion. And seeing people in top hats and weird poses…

The next year, the people at Comedy Central were like “Hey, all our bosses love that. So just do that same opening again. Just do that same one.” And I’m like “Whoa, whoa, guys, this guy just wowed you and now you’re going to handcuff him. Let him do something else crazy, like he came up with that on his own.” And the next year I did some crazy fight scene to get me trained with the guys who did the choreography for 300. It was crazy. I had to train for two days with them just so I can get this shitty thing down with the mic stand and playing to people and make it look okay. And I’m like “Yeah, you got my body. Do whatever you want with it. I’m here for you.”

And then last year we had eight episodes and he was like “I’m going to do eight intros.” I was like “We don’t have any more budget for that.” He goes “No, I’ll make it work.” And yeah, he got a bunch of these top level guys who just don’t really get to do stuff like that. They’re willing to work for next to nothing. It’s like crazy shit going on.

What’s in store for this upcoming season, intro-wise?

All the intros are one story. Split up eight ways to hold on their own. Each one leads to where the next one picks up and after this one it goes straight into the next one. Like if there’s one about crime, it’s just me doing a crime, like alone. But the reason I’m doing this crime is because I just got kicked out of this car the last time and that’s how I travel. You know? So when he showed me the game plan I was like “Dude, fucking nuts.” And he was like “You told me when I started this to do the craziest shit I can.”

You do not see that anywhere else.

Yeah, eight different opening for eight different episodes. You don’t see that at all. That alone, that kind of crazy — these kind of guys are getting called in for major studio movies at like a super high price and they’re just in the desert with us for like a few hundred bucks a day just making some alien thing come to life. We got like costumers and stuff. A guy made aliens this year, a bunch of horror movies, and he just came to do alien costumes from scratch.

So is that a thing you sit around the table and discuss or is really just straight from his head?

It’s Tomsic. I mean I’ll give him my thoughts, but that’s not my art. I’m not going to tell him what things to do and not to do. I’ll tell him things like “When I watch this, I couldn’t tell who was the alien and who was the non-alien.” Things like that. Just like almost like a screening for a random audience. That’s how I view it. My opinion means nothing, but here’s what I saw. And once in a while I’m like “Oh, that sound effect came in way too early. You’re right.” But almost always it’s “Naw, that’s not what I was going for.” And I’m like “Cool, great, do what you want.”

And that’s the kind of thing that comes out of someone who is actually passionate about it. That’s like the kind of thing where you really just enjoy your job.

Yeah, you can’t manage by committee. You can’t be like “Well, some of us like this, but one guy doesn’t.” You got to let a guy do what he does. No one’s telling Tarantino what to do. You might like it or you might not like it, but the reality is he’s getting his own vision out there. So it’s better to have some parts of Tarantino you like and some you don’t rather than a bunch that’s just okay because people got their hands in it.

Yeah, just give somebody the license. I mean that’s something that you must feel strongly about because that’s your own history. You produced This Is Not Happening as a web series first, and you also produced your own specials and albums and so forth…

Yeah, that’s the thing too. We don’t tell the comedians what they should and shouldn’t say, it’s like “Here’s a topic. Come up with the stories you have on this now, but I’m not going to tell you anything about what should be chopped. This is on you.” Like, even things that don’t have anything to do with this. Like if they say “Oh, I have trouble ending stories. What do you do?” I’ll tell them about stuff I’ve observed, like Marc Maron’s stories have really good endings. So I watch them over and over again so I get a feel of how to really complete a thing. Just talk like that. So if they ask me questions, I’ll share that with them but I don’t ever tell them “I want you to do this thing. Here’s some stuff that’s worked for me.” They got to find it on their own. They’ve got to be their own person.

Let them find their own sources of inspiration and elaborate on their own ideas.

Yeah, I’ve had stories that have tortured me, ending-wise, for months and months and I’ll get off stage and people are like “Great set!” I’m throwing a temper tantrum in the back. It just didn’t quite finish the way I wanted it to. I’ll ask Tomsic “Did you see another direction I can go there, is there a character I’m not remembering?” Maybe I can be like “What happened to that guy?” And when I finally find it, it’s so rewarding. I wrapped this up in a nice tiny bow of my own work.

Are you the type of comic who benefits more from working it out on stage than on paper?

Yeah, almost always on stage. Repetition, repetition, repetition, boredom, boredom. And then I’ll just throw some shit out and I’ll be like “And by the way, later that afternoon it fucking rained and ended up ruining that shirt anyway.” You know, so now I’ll remember something new and I’m like “Oh yeah.” And if I say it once and it wasn’t funny, I can say that in a funnier way now. You know? But that’s just from being on stage and following another detail or following another thing or reminding me of a side story that will help illustrate this story.

Those are techniques that just come, for me, anyway. Super repetition. But like Joey Diaz, he’s this other comic we have every year because he’s great. For a lot of his stories, he never runs them ever. He never goes over them. So it depends who you are and what you like. But, he’s just better at that than me.

Just straight from paper to performance?

I mean Diaz will really think about it. He’ll really think about what he wants, and what he wants to say. He talked about that Cuban funeral, he’ll then go in with a pen and paper at home or a computer and he’ll like write up a bunch of stuff about Cuban funerals, like “Here’s what they do. They go for forty-eight hours, they don’t go for fucking five hours. You can tell that to people.” Then he’ll write a couple jokes about “These mooks, these Italian mooks who only work for five hours!”

That’s admirable, although I feel like it’s still good to run it by people.

Yeah, we did a show once at the Village Underground in New York and Robert Kelly was on it and Keith Robinson was on it and a few other people. But the point is Robert Kelly finished his set and then what I like when we do live shows we fuck around with each other a lot. Marc Maron yells at people. I have a memory of him yelling at Jonah Ray from offstage about something he was saying, just fun stuff. Anyway, Keith Robinson was talking about getting out of his car and fighting cops. Like literally, “Let’s do this.” A cop was like “I’ll take my badge off, let’s go.” Yeah, get down kind of stuff. And he finished and it was a good story, but then afterwards Robert Kelly was to me “Hey, get me back on stage!” And I did, and as Keith Robinson comes down then me and Robert both went on stage and Robby’s like “You forgot about the part where you shit your pants. Where they beat you up, you shit your pants.” And then Keith Robinson’s like “Oh, I forgot that part.” “You didn’t forget it coward. You didn’t fucking forget it, you left it out on purpose.” And then they start arguing on stage, and it’s like “Oh, this is great.”

Yeah, that’s the best. That kind of thing keeps you honest and in the moment. I remember hearing last year you had abandoned your smartphone in the hope of not being too connected to social media all the time. How’s that working out?

Yeah, I’m on a flip phone right now. It’s great. It’s just a few months of withdrawal. Literally withdrawals, like a sense of shaking and I would still feel like a buzzing in my pocket when there was none, because you want that fucking stuff so bad. I was like “I can’t do this, I realize I’m wrong, I can’t do it.” But then I’m pretty lazy as well, so that entailed me of getting a new phone and I was like “Ugh, I don’t want to fucking shop.” So then it’s like “I’ll do it later, I got to go, I’ve got plantar fictitious… I keep meaning to go to the doctor… Should I make the appointment first and then go down there?” So I just suffer instead.

After a few months past with this “dumb phone” I got used to it. And it’s fine now. And there are moments here and there, like I get lost, I have trouble finding my way back sometimes… But, not as much trouble as you’d think. You eventually just learn how to look at the sun. “Oh that way’s west. Okay, let’s go that way.” Look up, take a minute and you’ll figure it out.

Do you think that helps you to be more in the moment?

Oh, a hundred percent. Nikki Glaser was asking me about this right away because she was like “Wow, a lot of comics are intrigued by it.” See, I think we all sort of feel this pull. And by the way, those withdrawal symptoms of “I need it, I need it.” That tells you it’s an actual addiction. It’s like “I got to get this.” When you get cranky because you don’t smoke pot all day, that’s because you’re addicted to marijuana. That’s a sign of a drug. You know, people be like “Well, I’m not addicted at all to marijuana.” All right, then don’t do it for two days, see if it affects your mood in any way. And if it does then yeah, you’re addicted; you need it to be funnier to write. Yes, you’re fucking leaning on it. And I do that, actually, but I’m willing to say it’s a fucking addiction. Smartphones are the same thing.

So Nikki was like “How is it, is it hard?” I’m like “Yeah, it’s a little hard; I need to check Twitter, but I can’t.” But the reality is you don’t need to check Twitter. Robert [Kelly] asked me about it once too, he goes “Well, I got to be on it.” This was like right when I got out, a year ago. And he goes “Well I need it. I can’t live without Instagram. I got to be honest with you.” Well you did live without it seven months ago, before you got your account? So what do you mean you can’t live without it? And he’s like “But for business you got to post stuff.” I’m like “Okay, counter argument: you have to check the fucking comments people write on your pictures and check the at-replies on Twitter. You know when you write a joke.” And he’s like “True, good point.”

Nikki asked me “How is it different now?” I’m so much more social. I wouldn’t be having this conversation with her right now if it wasn’t for not having a phone I can disappear into. I think what happens is you get uncomfortable, in any sort of party situation or on the train or anywhere and no one likes feeling uncomfortable. It’s just not a good feeling. So, you end up going to check Twitter, going to check Instagram, let me see what my friends are up to, let me get on Facebook, let me see what people are doing. I’ll write an email to so-and-so or whatever so you don’t have to feel uncomfortable. So now you have a friend next to you.

But if you didn’t have that, you would feel uncomfortable and you would end your discomfort by filling it in some other way. Like, you see some guy on the train and his kid is crying about a lollipop. This is a legit conversation I had with a stranger, I was like “Oh, is he always like this or is it just a certain age?” And he’s like “Uh, certain age, you know. Just tired, he gets sort of bratty. He wanted lime instead of grape.” I’m like “Oh cool.” And it’s not like we became best friends or anything, but my world view expanded. I had a conversation with a human.

Sure, and you’re more open to more stories happening, to that end.

Yeah, definitely, there’s that too. Where it’s like “Naw, I should go back to my hotel and check my shit.” It’s like: get lost, go out there. If you follow the same directions to a place every day you’re going to get Alzheimer’s. Following the same route, go a different way and be like “Woah, there’s restaurants here.” Yeah, two blocks out of your way, you never would have known. You know? And it’s not like it’s always better, but I don’t know, I think my life is overall richer for it. And I can tweet from texting; I don’t have to not tweet. I can be like “Come see me at The Improv tonight!” I can’t just cut and paste a link. And I can tweet from my computer too. Then I can time stuff. You can overcome it; I just look at my maps before I leave some place. “Where am I going? Yeah, it’s a block away from first and a block west of Rowena. Okay, I’ll find it from there.”

And you don’t get bogged down by all the stuff that everybody is trying to throw at you all the time.

Yeah, that’s another thing. With the emails, I would say most of it just gets solved on its own. Like, before, it was “I’ve got to answer this question and I got to answer this question,” and then I come home at the end of the day and it’s “I’ve got to answer this question but guess what, in that email that guy answered that question,”  so I don’t have to deal with any of it. Shit just gets solved. So I tell my manager if it’s an audition for tomorrow where I’ve got to be learning lines, follow up with a text and say “All right we need you to go home and check your email.” But if it’s for that week, I don’t need to respond to you right away. I can respond to you at midnight. I feel like I get more shit accomplished. They’re like “You’ll get less done, business-wise.” I’m like “Well, I don’t know man, I promoted a special and a season of my show and I got it picked up through press that I did myself, so I don’t know what you’re saying is true.”

It sounds like you’re doing pretty well without it.

Yeah, exactly. It’s like when Nancy Grace says “If you smoke pot, you can’t do anything but live in your grandmother’s basement.” And all these potheads are like “Uh, I smoke pot, and I’ve got three jobs. I released a special this year.”

Right, and honestly that’s practically the entire entertainment industry.

Yeah, they’re going off an old idea that hasn’t been backed up. Yeah Kevin Smith smokes weed does tons of shit. Yeah, Harrison Ford smokes weed for forty years straight. So yeah, exactly: the whole entertainment industry is fucking weeded up all the time but are accomplishing shit. Artists smoke pot, so people like that are just wrong. Same thing with smart phones, “You can’t get by without it.” I disagree.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

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