With stand-up comedy at the center of a national debate circling around censorship and offense, now is about as good a time as any to see one of comedy’s loudest and least tame-able voices right here in the Bayou City. This weekend you can catch comedy phenom Ari Shaffir at the Houston Improv Friday and Saturday in his never ending effort to toe the line.
These days some of those in comedy attempting to navigate contentious material have learned that taking a risk can extend to consequences off stage, following a performer for weeks or months instead of one bad show. And while comedians can risk being de-platformed or “canceled” for their work, Shaffir has somehow pulled off a better version of every joke that has landed others in hot water over the course of his career.
If you’re not familiar with the humble steward of comedy that hails from Maryland, Shaffir started his career at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles where he was a doorman before becoming a paid regular and developing an infatuation with the venue that many greats have over the years. Forging a path for himself and later others who refused to clean up the act to appease late night TV bookers, Shaffir began producing his own web series and appearing on the touring with Joey Diaz and Joe Rogan. He’s appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience a whooping 44 times and developed This is Not Happening, a comedy story telling show that featured comedians and celebrities telling never before heard stories.
His two part Netflix special Double Negative showcases Shaffir’s foresight and consistency, with both 45 minute sets being thematically linked despite covering seemingly different subject matter. His current hour evidently showcases that skill further, with the entire set being oriented around Jewish law and the Talmud (And have no fear, it’s an hour of club comedy meant for everyone to enjoy). At the end of the day, Ari is a student of the game. His passion and love for standup is not only apparent in his well-honed act, he exudes it as he speaks about the state of comedy and his hopes and fears for young comics of the future.
I spoke with Ari about his comedy, travels, and how he pulls it all off while he drove across a scenic stretch of Texas highway between gigs.
Byline Houston: You love to Travel nowadays, you seem to always be off somewhere far away figuring things out.
Ari Shaffir: I took a trip to China for comedy. I told my agent like, I want to see places. I understand things are gonna pay less money, but like I want to see the world. And he got me this 17 day run in China, and Hong Kong which was sort of China sort of not China. It’s so strange. Anyway I went to that. China’s one of the most foreign places you could ever go to. The symbols aren’t even the same. Like in France I don’t know french, but you get by. Just go like Ruuuu- Saint Duh Nis ya know? Somebody you know, they’ll figure out what you’re talking about. In China, those things look like trees, you can’t read anything. So you’re just guessing, every time you order from a restaurant you just point, and hope.
Byline Houston: Some people are complaining that it’s a tough time for comedy because of how reactive people can be, and yet you’ve been doing and saying whatever you want since even before you were even in the public eye. Are you made of Teflon or is there something else going on?
Ari Shaffir : Oh good question, I think it’s a little of both, and a third thing which is that like stuff that was deemed, “I can’t touch this project” you know 10 years ago is now “I can’t touch you forever.” I did these videos called The Amazing Racist, people get angry about them every year and half or so. Like I had agents and managers at the time, you know that I needed to shop it who said, “Dude this is hilarious but I can’t take this into ABC cause if somebody there is like ‘I don’t think it’s funny’ then I’ll never be able to pitch anybody to ABC anymore. So I was like oh well that kind of sucks for me, and it did suck!
These people were saying, if it was something like about cars they’d be like sure we could pitch that if it was that level of funny with something non-walking-the-line, they wouldn’t have any problem with it. But they were going look we just can’t sell it. So really though all it comes down to generally, is a sense of scale. So like maybe you can’t do this crazy Amazing Racist thing on NBC, but you know you could do it for a National Lampoon CD and if it gets ripped to the internet as it did by other people then millions of people might see it and laugh, so you might make millions of people laugh. So that’s a good job. The only complaints really are about the money. Now I never heard of it actually getting someone fired over, over something they would do for the sake of comedy. So that’s a new one.
And what worries me about that is the message it sends to young comics, which used to be try and find where the line is, and if you’ve gone too far you just got to pull it back you know, and you find out on stage. But now, what you have is, “Hey if you do this (attempt offensive material) and don’t do well, it’s not just bombing, you won’t be able to get major jobs and for the rest of your life you have a black mark on you.”
Byline Houston: All that being said, do you feel like it’s a better time to be performing now then closer to when you started?
Ari Shaffir: I’ve been doing this 20 years and it’s never been as great. There’s never been as many platforms, there’s never been your own way to get ahead, through podcasts and Twitter and Instagram. Chris D’Elia made a name for himself off Vine you know? Bert Kreischer is running marathons and doing shit on Instagram, and he’s managed to combine promotion and entertainment in an artistic way. So now there is hundreds and hundreds of comedians making a living, and we didn’t have that before. I was 12 years in and I was doing like side jobs, it was like there was sitcoms or nothing! So yeah, aside from some landmines I think it’s the best time to do comedy.
We have more taboo subjects then ever before, and as a guy who likes to “Destroy Gods” thats perfect. When I see Beyonce release Lemonade and everyone loves it my first instinct is to shit on it, not even having heard it! I wanna find some little thing that might be hypocritical about it and tear down these gods you know? Literal gods as I’m doing in my new hour, or just figurative gods. Whenever a celebrity dies I love shitting on them on Twitter, like the day of. And it has nothing to do with my real views, my job here is to shit on something revered for the sake of laughter.
And if you want only positive comments that is okay too, I can guide you to them sometimes. Like once a year I get asked to perform at an Orthodox Synagogue, and I always answer the same like, “You’ll get fired if you book me. I’m too dirty, I’m not the guy you want, I understand why you want me because I used to be Orthodox. But like, I’m not the guy you want, let me point you to a couple people who will give you the right kind of time. Elon Gold and Abi Liberman, those are the good religious Jewish comics. They can do those jokes and they’ll kill, and you’ll get a raise for booking them.”
Byline Houston: Would you say your current hour is your most thematic thus far?
Ari Shaffir: Yeah its definitely my most thematic, I always have through lines to my hours but those are usually like combinations, like my first hour is all about growing up so theres a bit about me acting very mature, and it’s bookended by one about me acting very immature. My next one (Double Negative) is more about like two lives, how you can choose either raising children or actively being single. And it was all about the differences in those lifestyles to some degree. But this one, I am shoving the theme down your throat. I’m doing it in a way where it’s club funny, so if you want just stand-up this is that, but you’re gonna leave going “Oh it was all about one subject” This is all because I started going to Edinburgh. And it exposes you to the UK festival style of hour, which is reaaaally thematic. Now they’re not nearly where we are stand up wise, but what they do have on us is these themes, they just often have them at the expense of being funny. So what I wanted to do was create a show like that, without compromising the jokes. So I’m trying to show them how to do a theme hour with high level club comedy.
You can see if Ari showed those Brits a thing or two about comedy this Friday and Saturday at the Houston Improv at 7620 Katy Fwy #455, Houston, TX 77024