Beyond the splintered sub genres of comedians (alternative, cringe, insult et al) there still lies straight-up stand-up comedians, those who stand onstage for one reason– to make you laugh and perhaps forget about the real world around you. Owen Benjamin is a proud part of that team. And that will become clear this Friday night when his first hour-long special High Five Til It Hurts premieres at midnight ET on Comedy Central.
While it’s the 33-year-old Upstate New York native’s first full-length special, there has been no shortage of Benjamin on screen the last few years. He’s a castmember on popular comedy series Sullivan & Son — currently in its second season on TBS — and has appeared in comedy flicks like The House Bunny, Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star and All’s Fair in Love, on which he would meet Christina Ricci, to whom he was once engaged.
We caught up with Benjamin recently to chat about the new special, what success means to him and so much more. Check it out below!
In your hour, and in your standup in general, you tend to shy away from divulging the deep dark secrets of Owen Benjamin. Did you consciously decide to keep your neurosis out of your comedy?
I don’t have any. I mean I’ve had dark times in my life, but I didn’t get into comedy to deal with anything. My dad’s a public speech professor and my mom’s a writer so I have a good family, they love me. They’re dysfunctional enough to make me funny, but very loving . I think I have a few things, but I don’t really have a lot of neurosis or paranoia. I think I gave the audience a pretty real view into my mind.
So you don’t use comedy as a form of therapy?
Not really. It’s a business for me, it’s an art form and a business. I’m not trying to get anyone to tell me everything’s gonna be okay. I know it will or it won’t, but the audience has no power. I think a lot of comics go up there to seek approval or to be able to talk their problems out and it works for some people, don’t get me wrong. For me it wouldn’t work. It would seem forced. If I went up and complained about my life that would be absurd to me because I have such a blessed life.
You make a joke in your special about the infamous Sarah McLachlan animal cruelty ASPCA commercial. Were you at all influenced by Jim Gaffigan’s bit from Mr. Universe where he also uses the commercial as a base for a bit?
I knew when writing the joke that there would be hundreds of comedians with that joke because, that really is the most manipulative, over the top thing I’ve ever seen. When I saw that I was like alright a lot of people are about to use this as a premise because, it stands out. It’s like nothing else on television and I mean who doesn’t relate to dogs? I did adopt a dog and dogs are a major part of my life so I didn’t feel hacky doing a similar premise to other people because, it is so real to my life so I felt okay with it. And I love Gaffigan. I just did Bob & Tom with him in Indianapolis and he’s such a nice and funny human being. He’s everything you want him to be.
Before taping the show, did you eat some sort of breakfast of champions like you’re supposed to before taking the SATs?
I went on an eight mile run. I eat well to begin with. I don’t really eat junk food, but I definitely was in good health form that day.
On a recent You Made it Weird with Pete Holmes, you discussed laughing at primal things and writing for the masses. Do you think that was something you were going for in your special?
I’m broad. I’m a broad guy. I’m from a small working class town and I like very simple things in life. I think a lot of comedians over think their lives and end up excluding a lot of people. I think that broad is good. I don’t know why it become synonymous with dumb.
I mean Gandhi was broad. Martin Luther King Jr was broad. Like I have a dream. Who doesn’t have dreams? I want to see hipster alt comics bring down Martin Luther King Jr for being too broad. I do get a backlash from the alt scene for being too broad, talking about men and women and traffic and dogs and stuff but that’s what matters to me. I don’t need to talk about my bad relationship with my mom cause A) I have a good relationship with my mom and B) why would anyone give a shit? Everyone works all week and tries to escape that through comedy.
You’re at the point in your career where you’re gaining success and still making it as a working comic. If you could have the career trajectory of anyone, who would it be?
Honestly, Steve Byrne. He’s like one of my best friends and I’m on a sitcom with him, but that’s who I want to be. I want to be where he is and where I am. I don’t need to sell out stadiums or be mobbed. To me that sounds like a nightmare. I would do it if it happens and I would be okay with it, but to be on a national sitcom on TBS, have a couple specials, tour the country, have some funny roles in movies and have a family is my goal in life. Like I don’t need to explode all over the world. It doesn’t really appeal to me.
I think Steve Byrne has one of the best careers I’ve ever seen to a certain extent. People like Nick Swardson. I mean Nick Swardson is a nationally recognized, working comedian that’s done everything he wants to do and is still doing it, but at the same time he can go on a plane. Anonymity is a major factor. I’ve been around Adam Sandler when he’s been mobbed and it’s kind of scary. I don’t really envy that. You know Adam Sandler’s one of the reasons I became a comedian and he’s been one of my biggest supporters and is such a great human being. But one thing that I don’t envy about Adam is the extent of his fame is just mind blowing. There’s nowhere in the world where they don’t know him. That would probably give me a panic attack.
Who are your major comedy influences and comedic heroes?
To be completely honest if you could have asked me ten years ago, before I started getting more successful, I would have given you the exact same answer. Adam Sandler and Vince Vaughn without question are still idols. Vince Vaughn put me in my current TV show and everything just clicked. Vince Vaughn made me laugh since I first saw him in Swingers and Sandler since he was on SNL. My father and I would watch him every Saturday, so these guys are just icons.
The fact that they find me funny enough to put me in stuff I mean that’s why when you ask me what career I want, I’ve already, I mean my goal is to own a car, like my heroes are telling me I’m funny, it’s crazy, at this point life is just a bonus. Keep your goals simple and you’ll find you’re a much happier person. I’ve been around A-List movie stars who keep bitching about how they weren’t in Avatar. It’s like everyone can find something wrong. It’s an active choice to make: you find something wrong or you don’t and enjoy living who you are.
If you were hosting a fantasy dinner party and invited any guest of your choosing, who would be sitting on the left and on the right of you?
My girlfriend and Byrne. That’s my honest answer. I mean Christopher Walken would be there. I think Christopher Walken’s awesome. But sitting on my left and my right, I’d have to know the person really well cause it could take a wrong turn quick. That’s the problem with meeting your heroes. Some of them are complete psychopaths and I’ve been in those situations where it’s like I can’t believe I’m having dinner with so and so and it’s just a nightmare. So if I’m being completely honest, cause I like “what would you do” or “would you rather questions,” like I live for them, me and brother that’s all we did our whole childhood. The rest of the dinner table would be, I don’t know. Bill Clinton would be there cause I have a lot of questions for Bill, Teddy Roosevelt, probably Genghis Kahn cause I’d just need to know like why he needed to fuck so much and Moses. That’s my lineup.
Billy Crystal has talked about how growing up around jazz has influenced his comedy. Do you find that having a classic background has impacted your comedic abilities?
Oh yeah I see a huge similarity. I played classical music when I was a child. It’s all timing. I think just by understanding the ebb and flow of music, you understand writing a story and doing a show. It’s also about connecting. Beethoven’s the most broad musician of his time. Like he was almost like the Nickleback of his time. Those guys are broad, they appealed to a huge amount of people and I think that’s kind of what I want to do with comedy. The fact that I can use the piano makes it easier for me.
There are a lot of other comedians who use instruments, and with many of them, the instrument itself is funny. Like Demetri Martin plays harmonica and Eugene Mirman uses the theremin in a bit and that in itself is funny. But piano is so neutral that it’s you who’s being funny not the instrument and I read that one of your concerns as a piano playing comedian is that the piano will become a crutch.
Opening for Nick Swardson for five years, I think I learned that it’s really really important to be a really good standup. A funny piano player is not as cool as a standup who can play music. I wouldn’t have grown if I had just relied on the fact that I could play piano. I had to go out in the world as just a standup without my blanket, you know. It’s almost like the piano is a child’s blanket. If I used that, I wouldn’t have grown as much. So I made the decision to just do standup without a piano for ten years and then I started bringing it in. Especially with an hour special, I’m gonna do everything I can to do the best job.
How did you decide what to put in your special and how did you determine the order of jokes?
It had to have a flow and it’s also just my favorite jokes. I like to open as broad as possible, maybe do more personal things in the middle then close as broad as possible. When someone comes to the door I want to give them a cupcake. Invite as many people in as possible. Dogs, who doesn’t like dogs? If someone doesn’t like dogs, I don’t care if they don’t like me cause that’s just crazy. I open with dogs and then I start to alleviate stuff from people’s lives. Traffic, anger. Let’s make that funny. And then I can get into personal stories and more stuff and then piano. I open broad, I get more specific, and I close with something a little unexpected but it’s gonna make people leave feeling happy. I think it took me a while to figure out the order of what I was gonna do and say and I’m happy with what I did.
If the audience watching High Five Til it Hurts leaves the show (or turns the TV off) and only remembers one bit, which one would you like it to be?
The music playing in the men versus women arguments I think. I’ve done that joke for about seven years now and couples will write to me and say “that joke makes us laugh when we argue now” and that to me is a really good feeling, that I can make arguing funny.
You should make a CD of men and women argument soundtracks and sell them as a package set.
I’ve sold that. I’ve literally given people stuff to play during fights.
Finally, have you made any big mistakes career-wise that you learned from? What was the take away?
I didn’t take care of myself physically and it made me pessimistic. The take away was blend kale and get off my fat ass.
Watch Owen Benjamin: High Five Til It Hurts this Friday, June 28 at midnight ET on Comedy Central. You can also follow Owen on Twitter at @OwenBenjamin.