Doug Benson is often classified as an “alternative” comedian. But the pervasiveness with which he’s invaded the pop culture consciousness, first with his “that guy”- cementing appearances on Friends, Best Week Ever, and Last Comic Standing, and then with his marijuana-themed documentary Super High Me and debut stand-up album Professional Humoredian, would indicate that mainstream America is catching onto Benson’s uniquely charming stoner sensibilities. He recently stopped by Austin to perform at Cap City and then came back the next weekend for South By Southwest, where he debuted Super High Me last year. He sat down with the Travesty to discuss making it in show business, Twitter, and the moral struggle of stoners boycotting Kellogg’s.
(And yes, this is a real interview.)
Texas Travesty: This trip marks the second time that you’ve performed in Austin in less than a year, and you have a longer engagement at Cap City compared to your other tour stops. Why the Austin love?
Doug Benson: [laughs] ‘Cause I’m trying to help keep Austin weird? I just really like Capitol City Comedy Club. It’s one of my favorite places to play, and that’s their standard engagement for most of the acts who come through: Tuesday through Saturday. A lot of clubs I play for just a night or two, but I have such a good time here that five nights isn’t even enough.
TT: You have a few regular shows in L.A. How do you decide when to go on the road?
DB: The road decides for me. Basically, the clubs and colleges, and I’m starting to play some theaters and some rock clubs too, they negotiate the dates with my representatives. For the most part I say yes to most things, but every once in a while I turn something down, and the shows in L.A. are based around when I can be home to do that stuff.
TT: Before getting into stand-up, what career did you have in mind?
DB: I knew I wanted to be in show business in some regard, but I thought I would have been an actor or a writer. I’ve gotten to do both of those things anyway, but stand-up is my main bag.
TT: At what point did you know comedy was something you could do for a living?
DB: After I’d been doing it for about six years. [laughs] It was a long, slow start, because I would have day jobs, and I would go on open mics and things like that, and after several years of that, I finally started getting paid to go out on the road and do stand-up. And then I realized that could be the main way I pay my bills.
TT: What was your day job before you made that the main way?
DB: I always just worked stupid, tangentially-connected-to-show-business jobs. I was an extra in movies and TV shows, I did some stand-in work, I was a tour guide at Universal Studios for a while, stuff like that. When I first moved to L.A., I had a couple of friends, but for the most part I didn’t really know anybody, and I just sort of had to dive in and do what I could to get work and get noticed.
TT: You’re from California though, right?
DB: Yeah, I grew up in San Diego, so it wasn’t a huge risk to move to Los Angeles, but I essentially did just pack everything up and move to L.A. and hope that everything would work out.
TT: And it did.
DB: Yeah, eventually, things really came together nicely. [laughs]
TT: Your live show, The Benson Interruption, will be released as your second album soon. Why’d you decide to go that route instead of just releasing another straight stand-up album?
DB: Well, I am doing another stand-up album that will be out sometime this year, but it’s with Comedy Central Records, and I wanted to keep doing stuff for this smaller label, AST Records. Comedy Central was nice enough to not mind me doing CD with those guys while I’m under contract with them for the more straight stand-up.
TT: You also have a podcast called “I Love Movies.” What movies are you looking forward to?
DB: That’s a good question. Let me think. What’s coming out this summer that I’m excited about? Well, in the near future I’m excited about I Love You, Man, and I love the trailer for Duplicity, the Clive Owen/Julia Roberts thing. I don’t know if the movie will hold up to the trailer’s standards, but I really like that trailer.
TT: Have you seen the trailer for [the upcoming Judd Apatow/Adam Sandler film] Funny People?
DB: No, is the trailer out?
TT: Yeah, a pretty long trailer.
DB: I don’t watch trailers on the Internet. I only watch them when they’re in front of movies that I’m seeing. That’s my favorite part about going to the movies, seeing five or six trailers on the big screen, so I don’t like them ruined for me by seeing them on my tiny computer. So I haven’t seen that one yet.
TT: Based on your experiences in stand-up, how hard do you think it will be to accurately portray stand-up comedians and the culture of stand-up on film?
DB: I think Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler have been close enough to stand-up their whole careers to understand it better than, say, the people who made that movie Punchline with Tom Hanks years ago. But also, the point isn’t to make a movie about what stand-up comedy is truly like. The point is to make a movie that entertains people who are mostly not stand-up comics. It’s like, anytime you watch a cop show with a cop, or a law show with a lawyer, they’re always going to point out the things that aren’t incredibly accurate, but were changed for the sake of making an entertaining story. So that’s what I expect first from Funny People: an entertaining movie. And if it happens to catch what stand-up’s really like, then that’d be a bonus.
TT: Are you happy with the format change of Best Week Ever?
DB: Yeah, for the most part. It’s a little frustrating that I get less screen time, but I think the show is funnier, and I think [new BWE host] Paul F. Tompkins is really funny, so if they had to do something like that, then that’s certainly the way to go. And people seem to like it, so yeah, I’m happy.
TT: You’re constantly coming up with jokes, as evidenced by your MySpace and Twitter use. How do you decide what jokes to use in your act? When you come up with a one-liner, do you immediately designate it for “Twitter” or for “stage?”
DB: Well, I Twitter as I go. I’ve been ignoring my MySpace blog because of Twitter. I’m really so much more excited about the immediacy of Twitter, in that you just send it out there and tons of people see it right away. I’ve got a certain number of readers on my blog on MySpace, but it doesn’t compare to the number of people I’m reaching on Twitter. So every dumb joke that comes into my head, for the most part, I’ll go ahead and tweet that out to the world, but it’s really hard to get it into the act, because my act isn’t just a bunch of short jokes. I have jokes of all varying length, so if I put too many of them in there, then it seems like I’m trying to be Stephen Wright or Zach Galifianakis. I’m working on a thing where I just read a bunch of Twittered jokes in a row onstage, because some of them are good enough for the stage, but they’re too short on their own to stick in the act. But there’ll be something. I’ll work them in somehow.
TT: Do you have any bits that you love but don’t ever get the audience reaction that they deserve?
DB: Well, every comic has stuff that they think is really funny but the audience just doesn’t get on board for, for whatever reason. Sometimes you can tweak it to the point of making it work, and sometimes you have to let it go. In a few cases, I’ve just been like, “Screw it, I’ll keep telling it until people start laughing.” And eventually they do come around, just because of the confidence with which you say it, or some nights you get a more… I don’t want to say smarter crowd, because my jokes are so dumb, but a crowd that’s more willing to make that leap. More willing to assume what you said was funny. One thing I can never get audiences to laugh at that I think is a funny line, and now that we’re talking about it, I’ll probably put it on Twitter, is that all the food in Amsterdam is really good, but the last time I was there, I drank a hot chocolate that tasted like a… how did I put it? Last time I was there I drank a hot chocolate that tasted like drinking a crack baby. And audiences at comedy clubs don’t laugh at that. But I think it’s funny.
TT: Is there any one comic that you’ve either consciously or unconsciously tried to model your material or career after?
DB: No, I’ve just had tons of influences over the years. As a kid, I listened to albums by George Carlin and Bill Cosby and Steve Martin, and as an adult I’m surrounded by all of my friends who do stand-up who are all so funny, like Paul F. Tompkins, David Cross, Brian Posehn, and Patton Oswalt… I could list dozens of people. So they’re my influences now.
TT: I always thought it was interesting how all you guys cite each other as influences, but all your styles are so unique.
DB: Well, that’s sort of what stand-up has become. It took me a long time to figure out that the more like yourself you are onstage, or the more like a character you’ve created for the stage [you are], the more committed you are to it, and the more that creates an individuality. I’m not worried about anybody stealing any of my jokes, because they are all so much from me and my personality that it wouldn’t make sense. They could get away with it sometimes, but in most cases, it’s like, “Well, that’s something Doug Benson would say.” [laughs] And I feel that way about a lot of my friends who do stand-up too.
TT: Is there anyone that you really want to work with that you haven’t yet?
DB: That’s a good question. [thinks] I don’t think so. I’ve worked with everybody. Except for, there are a few dead ones that I would like to work with. I never got to work with George Carlin. I was excited that the History of the Joke special they did on the History Channel had lots of George Carlin stuff in it and lots of stuff with me in it, so I was just happy to be in the same thing with him. But pretty much everyone else, I think I’ve worked with. Lots of them I’d like to work with again. I like comedy. I like watching it almost as much as doing it, or equally as much. That’s part of the fun of it. I bring my buddy Graham Elwood on the road with me everywhere I go just because he cracks me up, so I can watch him before it’s my turn to go on.
TT: The obligatory pot questions. It’s been a year since Super High Me came out, and since then it’s become more mainstream to publicly discuss marijuana. How optimistic are you about the future of pot laws?
DB: I’m super optimistic, ‘cause the Obama administration has already said that the Feds should stop raiding dispensaries in California. So that’s stopped, and now I think Illinois is close to being the fourteenth state to have legal access to medical marijuana. There are still these sad occurrences like Michael Phelps getting in so much trouble for “alleged” pot use one time at a party. I imagine he probably smokes quite a bit, and he finally got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. But that was kind of discouraging, that anyone feels like he should apologize for that. No one made him apologize when he got a DUI, which is much more dangerous to society. At that party, he just passed out and didn’t bother anyone. But he lost lots of sponsorship deals. He lost millions of dollars just ‘cause he smokes pot. So I don’t think that was fair, but it seems like the mainstream conversation about it was that everyone didn’t really think that was fair, and several of his sponsors like Speedo and a couple others are still using him and still paying him lots of money, so I think it’s all very encouraging. The more stuff that’s out there in the world that shows that pot’s not such a bad thing is helpful.
TT: I think Kellogg’s stock actually went down.
DB: Did it really? I know stoners were trying to boycott Kellogg’s, but my trouble is, if I’m in the mood for cereal, I might want a certain kind, and I might not be able to eat exclusively General Mills.
TT: Is it true that you still don’t make any money off Super High Me?
DB: Actually, I think I’m going to be getting my first check, so I need to shut up about that. But it’s not a lot of money. The movie’s been very successful, and I just wasn’t really… As in all show-business endeavors, the first thing that’s a hit, you don’t tend to have that great of a stake in it financially. So hopefully that’ll change in the future. But I didn’t make it to get rich, I made it to make a fun movie.
TT: So if that’s your first foray into film, do you have any more movies coming up or in development?
DB: Yeah, it’s nothing I can talk about yet, but yeah, we’re bouncing around ideas to do another movie, and there’s also talk of doing a TV show that would be similar to Super High Me.
TT: You haven’t always been a “stoner comic.” Was there ever a point that you were apprehensive about discussing weed onstage?
DB: Never in a comedy club; I was always pretty open about it. In other circumstances, like making the movie, I thought, “Do I really want to be the guy who’s known for being a huge pot smoker?” But then I thought, well, I am a huge pot smoker, and my act isn’t completely about that. I talk about it, but I talk about other things as well. So I want stoners and non-stoners alike who want to have a good laugh to come out to the shows, so I try not to put too much of an emphasis on the pot one way or the other.
TT: Last question. Do you ever get any negative feedback for making light of pot use, from the Last Comic Standing crowd or something?
DB: [laughs] No, people are pretty positive. The people who come out to see me because they’re fans of Best Week Ever or Last Comic Standing, they never say, unless they’re keeping it to themselves, they’ve never said to me, “Oh, we liked you better on TV when you didn’t swear and talk about pot.” Quite the opposite – I get a lot of people that come up to me and say, “Your live show is so much funnier than you were on Last Comic Standing.” I’ll take that. I guess it’s a compliment. [laughs]
Interview by Ross Luippold, Photos by David Strohl