Meet Your Funny People: Adam Ruben


Photo by Dan Foster. Interview conducted by Shrake.

>> Watch ADAM RUBEN’s STORY on our YouTube channel!

Have you done both stand-up and story before?

I’ve been doing stand-up since 2001 and storytelling since 2010. Hey, those years are both titles of Stanley Kubrick films!

What is the most interesting similarity or difference between the two genres?

The difference between the genres, at least for me, is that stand-up seems to require more frequent punchlines, and comedic storytelling allows you to go for a relatively long time—even half a minute or a minute, which is an eternity without laughs in stand-up—to build to a richer punchline. Perhaps more importantly, however, stand-up is quasi-nonfiction mixed with fiction, and storytelling is true nonfiction, which immediately raises the stakes for storytelling.

Are there any rules for the use of fiction in stand-up? I’ve noticed slip-ups, like a joke up top about “my girlfriend said X last night” but by the end of the set it’s “so, my girlfriend broke up with me recently”—I feel penalized for paying attention! And how do you feel about the limits of embellishment in “nonfiction” storytelling?

People may answer this differently, but I’ve always felt that stand-up is based on nonfiction, though fiction and outright lies are 100% acceptable. I used to tell a joke about my Russian grandparents.  Actually, my grandparents are from the Midwest. But I wanted to do a joke that involved a Russian accent, and it was more “immediate” to pretend it was my grandfather talking, not just some random Russian guy. Fiction is so well-accepted in stand-up that if a comic says “my girlfriend just dumped me” or “I got pulled over on my way here tonight,” half the audience groans because they know it’s not true. In stand-up, fiction posing as authenticity is perfectly fine—think of Richard Pryor’s routine in which he has conversations with his pets.

In storytelling, no. You’re pre-declaring that it’s nonfiction, so you’d better keep it true. That said, there’s such a thing as “truth” and such a thing as “emotional truth.” For example, if I’m telling a story about something that happened in fifth grade, and I’m telling you what my teacher said, of course I don’t remember exactly what my teacher said. And the audience accepts that. So we’ve all tacitly agreed that it’s okay to remain emotionally true in that moment—to say, “Then my teacher said, ‘Adam, you left your pants in the cafeteria,'” even if she actually said “Adam, are these your pants?” Both convey the same action and emotion. I could even stretch it and say, in a silly way, “I was so embarrassed! Then my teacher paraded the pants all around the the classroom, pulled out a bullhorn and announced that she had found my pants…”.  In this instance, I’m still truthfully conveying “I was embarrassed about the pants,” even though I’m deliberately going overboard with what happened. No one really thinks she had a bullhorn.

What I can’t do in storytelling, however—or at least what I really shouldn’t do—is to say, “Then my teacher said, ‘Adam, you left your underpants in the cafeteria.'” Even though the story might be funnier if it’s underpants, it wasn’t underpants, so that’s a lie, and that’s not okay. In stand-up, you can make them underpants.

Is it possible to teach someone to be funny, or is it just inborn (or not)?

For 10 years, I’ve taught an undergraduate stand-up comedy course at Johns Hopkins University, and this is the most common question I get. I think the answer is that, no, I don’t think that just anyone can make a career out of stand-up comedy. But I do think that anyone, anyone, can do good 5-minute set. That’s the premise of the class.

You mean anyone can do a good 5 minutes if you write the jokes for them and they memorize them? JK. But seriously: Let’s talk about repetition. Beyond the safety of nailing down a “tight 5” and using it to guard against bombing, how long can someone rely on that same 5 minutes of jokes? 

Five minutes—a truly good, tight 5 minutes—takes a long time to perfect. You’ll churn through hours of terrible and mediocre jokes to get those 5 minutes. Once you have them, dammit, you want to use them. And since 98% to 100% of your audience has never seen you before, why not do the same jokes over and over again? You worked hard to write those jokes. I sometimes feel bad for the friends who’ve seen me tell certain jokes several times, but at most shows, it’s just me and a bunch of strangers who’ve never seen me. Why not give them what I know to be the best I can do? So yes, some comics can do the same jokes multiple times a night for years—in fact, most comics do that.  If you ever want to see a comic laugh in your face, tell him or her that you’ll hire them for a 45-minute set, but it all has to be new material. Nope. Doesn’t work like that.

A good routine is like building your own airplane from scratch.  It takes a while, but once you’ve built it, what do you do? You fly it, and you fly it often. Does it get old for you that you’re just flying the same plane over and over again? Maybe a little, but the very point of building the plane was to fly it over and over again. Then you take passengers in your plane. Do you need to build a new plane for every trip?  Not at all; the old one works fine—even if a passenger is a repeat customer. Now, after a while flying the same plane, you may start to dream about your next plane and start building it, and that’s fine. Then you’ll have two planes. Maybe some day you’ll have 40. But each plane is top-quality, and each plane can get your passengers from Point A to Point B and do it reliably well.

I think we agree that it behooves storyteller people to repeat their material, maybe not as much as stand-ups, but certainly they can reap the same type of benefits of knowing what lines work and what don’t… Thoughts?

Storytelling requires a little less repetition, because many shows have themes. So even if you have an awesome story about climbing Mount Everest, if you want to perform in a show whose theme is “Raining Cats and Dogs: True Tales About Our Animal Friends,” you can’t. Stand-up comics can pretty much perform any material anywhere (except performing dirty material in a clean room). So stories are less versatile than stand-up routines. Not only that, but in my experience, that 98%-100% audience turnover for stand-up is more like 70%-80% in storytelling, at least when you keep telling stories in the same city—so there’s more impetus to come up with new stories. I keep an Excel spreadsheet of all of my stories (there are about 30 now) and which ones I’ve told where/when.

What’s the best advice you ever received from a more experienced performer?

Bob Marley (the comedian, not the singer) once told me that comedy isn’t about saying funny things, it’s about saying things funny. In other words, you can write a great punchline for a joke, and that’s the “saying funny things” part—but to get to that punchline, you’ll probably need to give a much longer setup. “Saying things funny” allows you to turn the not-necessarily-the-clever-part lines into laughs as well.

I think that’s the “inborn” thing we’re talking about. I always say, you can actually teach “timing” (to wit: musical instruction) but you can’t teach instincts. Do you think Marley’s adage about “saying things funny” translates to storytelling too? 

Absolutely.  Once you have the plot points and story arc down, there are still a million ways you can tell your story, and some of those ways are funny. The funniest stories turn the most ordinary parts into jokes as well.

How much “crowd work” is too much? I get disappointed when comedians do too much (like, just give me your jokes, please? Don’t spend the night making new friends in the audience when I paid to watch?).

First, you should note that some crowd work is a routine disguised as crowd work. Some comics have jokes as ready-made responses to banter. I once saw a comic who, on the surface, did nothing but crowd work, asking a NYC audience about their ethnic backgrounds, then “riffing” on that. In reality, that guy had a thousand ethnic jokes, so he was well-equipped to pretend to be conversing with the crowd, when all he was doing was saying, “Oh, this table is Dominican?  Well… [insert pre-written joke]”.

I’m also thinking of a local comic with whom I performed many years ago. When someone would get up to go to the bathroom, he’d say a couple of things to that audience member, then launch into a whole thing about how he can tell when someone doesn’t wash their hands afterwards. When the person returned, he’d pretend to know that they hadn’t washed their hands and do a bunch of jokes about that. Again, crowd work, but not crowd work.

To a comedian, the crowd work is the interesting part of the night. We’ve told our jokes dozens or hundreds of times, so we’re not going back to the hotel room, saying, “Man, that flat tire joke I’ve been doing for eight years really killed!” No, we’re congratulating ourselves on being able to think of a clever response to an audience question, or shutting down a heckler. Thinking of funny things on the spot requires a different comedic muscle from pre-written jokes, and audiences, in general, enjoy seeing both things.

I get equally frustrated when storytellers do not acknowledge the crowd at all — not even saying “thank you” when stepping up to the mic. Come on.

As for storytellers, whether they say “thank you” or “hi” depends on whether they think of themselves more as being in a club setting or in a theater. Willy Loman doesn’t start Death of a Salesman by coming out and saying “hi,” and that’s okay. Storytellers straddle that weird line between clubs and theaters, the line between bar sounds in the background and seats sold by Ticketmaster. That’s partly what makes storytelling so appealing—performers get to inhabit both worlds, in a way, and try to engage with the most useful qualities of each.

What would you most like to see change about the stand-up or story scenes?

I’d like to see weeknight stand-up shows enjoy the huge and friendly audiences of storytelling, and I’d like to see more storytellers appear in some of the places stand-ups can aspire to—big festivals, late-night talk shows, half-hour specials.

If you could meet your personal comedy hero, what would you say to him/her?

“Hi, George Carlin! This is going to be an awkward conversation, because you’re dead.”

Star Prog
ADAM RUBEN is a writer, comedian, storyteller, and molecular biologist.  He is the author of the book Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School and writes the humor column “Experimental Error” in the otherwise respectable journal Science.  Adam has been seen and heard on the Food Network’s Food Detectives, the Science Channel’s Head Rush, the Travel Channel’s Mysteries at the Kremlin, and NPR’s All Things Considered; he currently co-hosts Outrageous Acts of Science on the Science Channel, Superhuman Science on Discovery International, and soon, the Weather Channel’s new show Weather Gone Viral.  He is a Story League Legend and a storytelling teacher with SpeakeasyDC (now Story District). He’ll be telling stories about misadventures in stand-up comedy this summer when his new one-man show, “I Feel Funny,” premieres at the Capital Fringe Festival.