Compared to, say, Chris Rock and Dane Cook — whose celebrity wattage even eclipses the spotlight that illuminates both cosmic comics — Ben Bailey emits the equivalent of star-lite.
But here in Morristown, N.J., about five miles from home and maybe 25 miles from his office of sorts, New York City, Bailey, a comedian for nearly 15 years, projects enough fame rays to attract the attention of two cordial commoners refueling midday at Greenberry’s coffee bar. The inquisitive civilians, a man and a woman, recognize Bailey from Cash Cab, the fun and innovative game show that Bailey has been hosting on the Discovery Channel since 2005.
Certainly the biggest name in the establishment and easily one of the biggest acts in all of comedy (in terms of height, anyway), Bailey humbly accepts their compliments and good wishes. But after the couple leave, Bailey, who sprouts to “a hair under 6-foot-6,” shakes his nubby noggin and, in a voice as deep as he is tall, admits, “In three years, I’ve gone from a virtual unknown to this. It’s nice, but it’s all so strange, in a good way, but it takes some getting used to.”
Weird the way life turns out when childhood dreams suddenly bisect with adult reality. Instead of delivering papers or pizzas to people hungry for news or an easy dinner, two earlier jobs among millions, he says, Bailey now delivers jokes to audiences craving laughs, his occupational destiny since birth, he figures.
“Oh, I was born to do this job,” he says, smirking and leaning back in his chair to stretch his legs and his back, which he had strained the day before while installing new windows in the house he shares nearby with his wife of 12 years, Laurence, and their 1-year-old daughter, Emma. “I’ve been a smart-ass all my life.”
Sometimes, though, even a professional wise guy’s dependable weapons — a hair-trigger wit and 20-megaton sarcasm, in Bailey’s case — can jam during a surprise attack by an amateur antagonist. He lurches toward the table to be closer to his coffee and to the digital recorder taping the amusing “war” story that further reveals Bailey’s human side and the B-side of fame.
Chuckling throughout, Bailey recounts how he and fellow comic Dave Attell were standing outside the Comedy Cellar in New York City one night recently, “and we both had fans come up to us to say hello and stuff. I’m lucky I have nice fans. I think I’ve had only one obnoxious fan. He came up to me that night and said, “Hey, you’re the guy from Cash Cab, right?” I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Ya know, you’re kind of a dick on that show.” I didn’t think of it in time, but what I should’ve said was, “Well, you’re kind of a dick in person.” But instead, I became the ‘Insecure Comic.’ I asked him, “What did I specifically do to make you not like me? I wouldn’t leave him alone.”
While relating this encounter, Bailey sounds faintly apologetic. He seems to regret his response, likely a common one among comedians, humorous beings composed of the contradictory combination of preternatural confidence and overdoses of self-doubt and anxiety.
In context, his reaction really was no nuttier than how this onetime prospective marine biologist and former aspiring actor became a comedian in the first place. It’s your atypical boy meets girl boy breaks up for like the 10th time with the woman he mistakenly considers his girlfriend writes a bad check to fly from New Jersey to California with nothing but $40 and a bag of clothes in hand coincidentally meets and eventually becomes roommates with the secret boyfriend of the supposed girlfriend bums a cigarette from an employee of the Comedy Store in LA who hires him to answer the phone four hours a day four days a week for $5 an hour story. No joke.
FREE BEER AND COMEDY SCHOOL
The second act of this tale starts 15 years ago in the green room at the Comedy Store, where Bailey is amusing two comics and several staffers with a hammy retelling of his introduction to his “girlfriend’s real boyfriend in Laguna Beach. (“It’s my first day in California and an old friend takes me to a party at guess whose house. This dude answers the door, and I don’t know who he is, but he knows who I am. He thinks I’ve flown across the country to kick his ass.”)
Bailey says one of the comics interrupts his “act” to ask him, “So how long have you been doing stand-up?” His honest reply: “I just started, I guess.” At that moment, Bailey continues, “I knew exactly what I would do or at least what I’d try to do.”
Although the third act of this dramedy opens in the Belly Room of the Comedy Store, the lab there for starter comics experimenting with their routines, Bailey surmises his comedy career actually began in the audience at the club, where, after every shift, he says he would redeem his free-drink tickets (“That became a problem”) and rethink his career goal. Instead of acting, he would concentrate on comedy.
“I’m where I am now,” he says, “because one night I’m watching this big-time comedian, notice I’m not using any names here. I’m thinking, This guy has it made, and he’s not a naturally funny guy. I’m thinking, I’ve been training for this my entire life.”
Maybe in some underground comics’ academy, because it seems computers, not comedy, run in his family (his dad, Bill, owns his own software company, Basis USA, and his sister, April, trains corporate clients how to use computers). In addition, Bailey, born in Bowling Green, Ky., grew up mostly in Chatham, N.J., an American Dreamy training ground for future lawyers, doctors and business executives, not comedians.
But nowadays, his enthusiastic ya-gotta-hear-this-story style infects his audience with his personal strain of comedy contagion. Merely by crooking his head or lowering his baritone voice until it nearly scrapes the floor, Bailey can tilt the routine to meet his cockeyed view of the world. He converts the mundane — filling out a job application, trudging from a subway door to the stairs — into smart, sidesplitting adventures.
“I like writing a joke as much as I enjoy performing it,” he says. The cabbie in Bailey takes listeners on long road trips through his meandering mind, and the really fun part of the ride is the detour. His comic principle: You may have heard the joke’s premise before, “but, uh, did you ever think about this part of it?”
A CABBIE COMIC
Pressing the fast-forward button, we skip ahead 12 years and resume this tale in LA. In this pivotal scene, it’s 2005 and Bailey decides to return home to New Jersey rather than remain in California to relax with a childhood buddy from Chatham, Bill Mutchler, a drummer with the band The Samples, whom Bailey guesses he had not seen in 15 years and whom he had “totally surprised” at a concert earlier that week.
The reason: an early audition for Cash Cab, then just a potential new quiz show on the Discovery Channel. (Picture him “pretending to drive with two empty chairs behind me,” Bailey says, laughing.) The series, now in its seventh cycle, takes the TV staple from the studio to the streets. Bailey, a licensed cabbie, picks up unassuming passengers in Manhattan, drives them to their destination and along the way gives them the chance to answer questions for cash prizes. (Watch for the game’s home version later this year.)
Besides being funny, Bailey figures he had an advantage over his competition for the hosting gig because he had once made a living driving a limo, though executives may have been wondering whether Bailey had been merely a student limo driver after he drove the minivan being used for the test run of the show onto the curb “two seconds” into the taping.
Now from the driver’s seat, Bailey is steering his career — and the traditional quiz-show format — in funny new directions. The Cash Cab is his cash cow.
“In the past three years,” he says, his mischievous face, as pliable as Play-Doh, abruptly turning serious, “my life has changed 100 percent. I’ve quit drinking — I had to quit; I could see that it was going to affect my health, my career, my marriage — I’ve gotten a TV show, had a baby, bought a house.”
Cramming his long Lincoln build into a taxi and posing trivia questions to strangers is making him financially comfortable. It’s a good paycheck, after all, and because of the national exposure, he can increase his, well, fare, when performing onstage.
“It’s weird, I’ll tell ya. It’s kind of like walking into a cartoon. I’ve been running after this all my life, and now I don’t know which way to run. It’s hard to stay grounded sometimes, but I am.”
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