Ari Shaffir Moves from Censorship to Creative Control with ‘Double Negative’
Ari Shaffir’s new two-part special Double Negative hit Netflix today. Presented in two episodes, Children and Adulthood, the special is a sprawling look at where the comedian is at in life right now. He’s getting older, exploring his sexuality, and dealing with pressure from family and friends, all in front of the backdrop of a world that is kind of fucked. He breaks down the overarching message of the special like this: “One side is what I’m against, the other side is what I’m for in this life I’ve chosen.” Ari and I had an in-depth chat about the development of the material, the business side of shooting your own special, and the difficult dance between comedy purism and Comedy Central’s censorship.
Your new special Double Negative is divided into two parts: Children and Adulthood. What led to you dividing this release into two separate sections?
Generally I try to have some kind of through line in my specials. Otherwise, I find it just becomes sort of a collection of bits, which is fine, but it’s sort of more like a Van Halen album than a…what is it, Sea Change by Beck?
Yeah, that’s a breakup album. There’s a reason they’re all together. If you add another song in there…it’s like, “I’m going to save this one for myself because it doesn’t fit.” So I just need a through line, even if it’s just in my head. With this one I couldn’t really center on a through line. The bits were sort of everywhere, unlinked. I had all this stuff on children and then I had all this other stuff that wasn’t quite enough for a special. At the time, I was listening to a lot of Smashing Pumpkins because me and Big Jay (Oakerson) saw them at Rock on the Range in Columbus a few years before. It was so bad. It was just Billy Corgan. He had people that looked like the regular band and he played all of his old songs at double speed just to get through them. He just did it for the money. He walked half the crowd. I don’t even know if I stayed for the whole thing. I was mad at him for a couple of years. Then I was like, “Well, let me remember what I liked about them.” So I started listening to the old albums: Gish, Siamese Dream, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. That one is such a good album. I listened to it over and over again. As I was listening to it I thought, “I could apply this to my special and have like a double album.”
Then I started thinking about how to break this down in a twofer kind of way. One is all about children because that’s the pressure I’m getting from my family a little bit and my friends, who are like, “Come on, man. Why aren’t you having a kid yet?” I’m getting more and more in my thoughts about why I don’t want that. They’re like, “Why?” Well, let me tell you why. The screaming and you being tired all the time is a negative. Plus, this positive thing that I’m going through, you can’t do if you have a wife and kids. You can’t go to Thailand for two weeks and explore your homosexuality. You’re not going to have STD call drama with random girls. This is a life you’ve given up. Some of it’s good, some of its bad. It really started to form in my head that way. One side is what I’m against, the other side is what I’m for in this life I’ve chosen.
Once the segments started to become clear in your head, how did you structure them for the stage, being that it’s essentially two shows worth of material?
I really worked it. I took it to Edinburgh. I started taking intermissions at the ones I did in Scandinavia. I wanted to see what it felt like to close on each one. I’ve seen people do this thing when they’re getting ready for their late night sets where they do their five that they’re going to do for late night and then they keep going and do the rest of their 15-minute set. But you don’t know what it feels like to close on your closer joke. So I was doing that. I would flip flop nights, doing adulthood first or children first and then take an intermission. It was going well, but then I talked to (Joe) Rogan about it and he said, “That’s all well and good, but that’s a Scandinavian crowd who might be used to that stuff. You try to do that in America and they’re going to revolt. You’ve got to do it in America before you tape the special.” So I started running it like that with little intermissions. I told the clubs to book me a 10 or 15-minute opener and then I ran an hour-and-a-half to an hour-and-45 until I felt like I had two strong closers and two completely free-standing, yet together, specials.
How much did the material change once you brought it back to the States?
It needed more jokes in there for sure. Edinburgh audiences are hoity-toity smart people who are willing to see things like that. I learned that the attention span here is not quite as long and I needed to throw some more tags in there. There’s also other things, like abortion material. Out there it didn’t play very well. The attitude here that I’ve found in people who are going to comedy clubs is that they’re for a woman’s right to choose, but then they also think something is wrong with you if you’re doing it. You know what it’s like: “I heard she had four abortions.” “Oh, what?!” In the UK and Scandinavia it’s more just like a procedure — if you have to get one, just get one, no big deal. So those jokes didn’t hit as hard there, but when I got back here people were more shocked by them.
Where did you record these two sets?
Any reason in particular that you chose Austin?
I have a list of all of my favorite clubs and I want to shoot at all of them. My CD, my first release, was at the Comedy Works in Denver, one of the best clubs in the country. Then I went back to the original room at The Comedy Store, which is probably my favorite room. Then Cap City.
The two sections of Double Negative have slight variations in aesthetic, plus a wardrobe change.
I had to decide how I was going to shoot it. I didn’t want two separate locations because I didn’t want two separate specials. I wanted it more like a front side and back side. Chappelle’s special was two separate specials recorded years apart. I don’t know why they put those together, to be honest. But there’s a George Carlin album FM & AM. It was right after he became dirty and he was exploring his clean side and his dirty side. He had one clean album and one dirty album, like two sides of the coin. So I decided to do it at the same location, but make it a little different. Change the wardrobe, change the color scheme of the set.
This is your first time working with Netflix, which means you probably had to front the whole production and then shop it and sell it, right?
Yeah, it was a risk for sure. I was at the point where I didn’t want to…the last special I did I got a call about two weeks before I shot. I was in Appleton, Wisconsin. I try to go up at really shitty clubs for two or three weeks beforehand. Sometimes I don’t even tell people I’m going, no promoting it at all. I’ll just be like, “Give me the minimum you would give somebody with no draw. I’m not going to tell anybody I’m here. I just want to get this stuff real sharp in front of people who don’t know me.”
So anyway, I was doing that in Appleton, which is actually a really good room, and I get this call saying, “Hey, your closer that you’re planning on doing…we can’t show it.” At first they were like, “We have notes.” I was like, “I don’t want notes. I don’t want them. Keep them to yourself. If you want to cut stuff, cut stuff.” They were like, “You’re going to need to hear this. We can’t show your whole closer.” I was like, “Why?” They said it was just an S&P rule. It was some rule about how you can’t describe the smell of a vagina or something like that. I had already worked on it the way I wanted to, so I had to figure out what I was going to close with. When they told me that, right then I thought, “I can’t ever let you have control over what I do again.” As long as I have enough money where I’m not destitute, I’ve got to do it myself with no notes. It’s my special, not anyone else’s.
So I talked to my agent and manager and told them what I wanted to do and they said, “You might lose a lot of money.” I was like, “I’m willing to. I live like a fucking pauper.” So I saved up enough money. This is why I saved up money — not so I could take a vacation, but so I can do this, build my special the way I want. I figured if it didn’t work I could make $10,000 of it back in iTunes sales and then, lesson learned, I can’t do that anymore. But I did sell it. So now this is the way I’m always going to do it. Get out of my way, let me do what I want, and then I’ll show you what I have. It’s like a painter or an artist. They just say, “Here’s my work.”
I remember when Paid Regular came out on Comedy Central it was advertised as “uncensored.” It sucks to hear the backstory of you having to drop your closer. Your special was censored before it was even finished.
It’s not the way comics are supposed to do things. It’s like the show I did, This Is Not Happening. The first day we had a meeting where we had to go over the stories with the comics. I remember raising my hand in the meeting and being like, “Well, we could go over their stuff with them or we could trust professional comedians to be prepared on their own when they’re doing comedy.” They all kind of laughed. I was like, “It’s not funny. Let them do what they want. We shouldn’t be giving them any notes.” I’m a comedian and I don’t want to give them notes. Anyone else who is not doing it should never tell anyone. Get out of people’s way and let them be who they are. If they make a mistake, fine, that’s on them.
I saw that you were doing an Off-JFL thing in Montreal. They have your show listed as “Ari Shaffir’s Renamed Storytelling Show.” I assume that Comedy Central is keeping the rights to This Is Not Happening as they are bringing Roy (Wood Jr.) in. But what are your plans to continue doing the show the way you created it? Will you be taking it back to stages and…
I’ve always done it on stages. I never really stopped doing it throughout the year. I do it at the Bell House, different spots, festivals. It’s like, whatever, man. They’re not going to stop me from being a comic. It’s like, fine, do whatever you feel that you have to, but I’m going to keep going.
What are your plans once the special drops? Are you going to beef up touring or are there any other big projects in the works?
I’m trying to build my next hour. I’m trying to do it all about Judaism. I’m building that slowly. I’m writing stuff. I want to do a travel book. I want to do a roast battle in the Belly Room. You know, just fun stuff. I want to be home for a while. I’m not going to start touring again until December or January. I want to build my new hour here in the city.