Jon Benjamin: Almost a rabbi

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Growing up, comedian Jon Benjamin toyed with the thought of becoming a rabbi. But if he’d done that, he might not have written for and voice-acted in Home Movies; starred as the can of vegetables in Wet Hot American Summer; or written, created, and starred in Comedy Central’s Freak Show. And he certainly wouldn’t be performing during both days of the upcoming Mess with Texas party and comedy festival (Friday and Saturday, March 16–March 17).

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That Other Paper What are your earliest memories of comedy, of seeing or hearing things that made you laugh?

Jon Benjamin The first joke I remember laughing at was, “Why does Yul Gibbons have purple underwear? Because he has grape nuts.” That was when I was about six. I used to laugh at Don Knots movies. The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, etc. Don Rickles I remember making me laugh a lot. My Dad used to really like him when he would be on Johnny Carson. As I got older, Yul Gibbons jokes still make me laugh.

TOP Are you able to pinpoint the moment you realized you could make people laugh?

JB I remember being in, like, fourth grade, and I was at this girl’s house with my friend and another girl. My friend was very outgoing, and I was very shy, and I remember wanting to leave so bad because he was so extroverted and making them laugh. Finally I went upstairs and rifled through this girl’s mother’s closet and put on her clothes and went downstairs in the outfit, and they really laughed. That felt nice. That was the first time I remember doing something expressly to make people laugh.

TOP What are some things that influenced your comedic sensibility early on?

JB I think my dad was an influence. He was very droll and sarcastic. And my mom was a ballet dancer who taught creative movement, so I developed a sense of mimicry for dance and physicality.

TOP What were you like in school?

JB I was a pretty good student, and as a kid I was small and cute, so people liked me. But because I was really small, I got pushed around a lot. Cute things get handled a lot.

TOP How’d you get your laughs as a kid?

JB Typical stuff really. Laughing at the kid who stepped in shit. Laughing at the kid who ate shit. Laughing at the girl who experienced her first menstruation in class. Laughing at blind people. Throwing stuff at blind people.

TOP Is school something that you enjoyed?

JB Overall, yes. I definitely had some terrible experiences at school, but I really enjoy making fun of people, and school was an amazing Petri dish of subjects to ridicule. On the minus side, I was beat up a lot and had terrible teachers. I did have a Latin teacher who would tell us in descriptive fashion about her dreams of being a concubine in depraved Roman orgies and an English teacher who would sit in class and drink from a whiskey bottle hidden in his desk and murmur about being in love with Marilyn Monroe.

TOP What sort of creative outlets did you have?

JB I used to play a lot of sports, and I had a friend who taught me how to steal. Stealing was really very creative. We would plan heists and carry them out. It was illegal, but he was a sociopath, and I was really impressionable. Later, I starting reading books and writing as a hobby, but that wasn’t until I was about 16.

TOP What sort of aspirations did you have as a child?

JB It changed many times. At one point, I actually wanted to be a rabbi. That would have been dreadful. (Sorry, rabbis.) I had a rabbi who was this diminutive, soft-spoken sweet man, and he would come around once a year to our Hebrew school class and talk about being a Holocaust survivor. Then he would show his tattoo, and I really thought that was amazing. At the time I just thought tattoos were for ruffians. But my rabbi had one. Later I understood that the tattoo wasn’t voluntary. So, in short, I guess I always wanted to be a Holocaust survivor.

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photo / tasteful_tn
Creative Commons licensed: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0
Jon Benjamin voiced Coach McGuirk in the animated series Home Movies 

TOP Do you think alienation and outsiderdom are essential components of being funny? How about in your own experience?

JB Most funny people I know have experienced some sort of alienation, but I don’t anyone who hasn’t. In my experience, I have dealt with those feelings by trying to be outrageous. But, yes, I think not being comfortable either in your own skin or your circumstances help compel people into all different sorts of expressions.

TOP What happened with Assy McGee, and how does what the show became compare to your initial creative vision?

JB There’s not much to discuss. I was doing Freak Show at the time and wasn’t able to really get involved with that show. I did consult on the episodes and co-wrote one. Overall, I think it could have been a better show, but morning DJs like it so I can’t really argue.

TOP How do you come up with your characters?

JB Most of it is very arbitrary. I really like coming up with stuff right before I perform a bit I’ve already prepared so to avoid performing prepared stuff. I always feel like it will be way more disappointing if prepared material falls flat.

TOP Do you go onstage with certain points that you want to hit as the character, or do you go onstage as the character and let it exist?

JB Most of the stuff I’ve done has been at least semi-prepared ahead of time, so I would say it’s half-and-half: half prepared and half let-it-exist or thereabouts.

TOP Do you think bad comedians know they’re bad?

JB Even what most would consider bad comedians are good at being bad. I used to really love going to comedy clubs when I lived in Boston to see what most of my friends considered horrible comics. I would go with my friend James Lemur, and I don’t remember ever laughing harder at anything. These were really bad in the standard sense – jokes about fat girls and blow jobs and gay airline stewards – but some had this incredible presence. They were really so assuredly bad. I would rather delineate comedy by saying there are interesting comics and uninteresting ones.

TOP Since comedy is such a subjective thing, what would you say are some indicators of good or bad comedy?

JB Inflection is a key determining factor. If a joke is obvious and/or completely irrelevant, but the inflection is hyperbolic– For instance, the Jeremy Hoch joke: “I come from Tarzana. What kind of name for a town is Tarzana? It’s like Tarzan… with an ‘A’!” With a really over-the-top inflection, this sounds like a joke when told, but what is the joke really? Mentioning Tarzan? Sometimes you need to listen to the words to determine when a joke is actually funny.

 

Jon Benjamin on YouTube

Warning: NSFW This video contains language that may not be appropriate for those under the age of 18.
But it sure is funny.

H. Jon Benjamin and David Cross perform at Bumbershoot 2006

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Read more interviews with comics appearing at this year’s Mess with Texas party.

Comments

anon's picture

assy mcgee was like the worst show ever. I think this guy is brilliant but i just hated that show.

Gavnuke's picture

Yep, the show is awfull but Benjamin rocks!

Marc's picture

Ooooh! Benjamin is the best!

Anonymous's picture

clap clap clap clap clap clap clap clap…
Seriously, he’s the best. He is the best.

Also, Assy McGee was semi entertaining.

Fans of H. Jon should check out Lucy, Daughter of the Devil.

Anonymous's picture

WTF? I was suckered in by his hilarious references to “throwing things at blind people” then it just kinda petered out. AND the poxy video “is no longer available”. Take the bloody thing off the page then, you slackers!

PS Assy McGee sucked elephant dick.