7 Questions

7 Questions with Harrison Greenbaum

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By Ryan Meehan

Harrison began performing stand-up comedy while studying psychology and English at Harvard. Asumma cum laude graduate, Harrison was the co-founder of the Harvard College Stand-Up Comic Society (or “Harvard College SUCS,” as the group’s name is cheekily acronymized), the first organization at Harvard dedicated to the performance and appreciation of stand-up comedy and one still popular on campus today. Now living in Manhattan, Harrison has quickly become one of the most in-demand comedians in New York, performing in more than 600 shows a year and thus leading both Time Out New York and the NY Daily News to call him “the hardest-working man in comedy.” One of Comedy Central’s “Comics to Watch,” Harrison has also received many awards and honors for his comedy, including the Andy Kaufman Award (2010) for creativity and originality in comedy, the Shorty Award in collaboration with Comedy Central and the New York Comedy Festival for “Best Emerging Comic” (2011), and the Magners Comic Stand-Off (2011).  On television, Harrison was featured on AXS.TV’s Gotham Comedy Live and National Geographic Channel’s Brain Games, was a regular panelist on CurrentTV’s Viewpoint, and has appeared on MTV, SPIKE TV, the Discovery Channel, and the Science Channel. Behind the scenes, Harrison wasa producer for Primetime: Would You Fall for That? on ABC (which premiered in 2013 to over 3.5 million viewers) and a story producer for VH1’s This is HOT 97, and was the warm-up comic forKatie, Katie Couric’s daytime talk show on ABC.  Internationally recognized for his talent, Harrison was the head writer for Tu Nite con Lorenzo Parro, the first-ever late night show on NBCU/Telemundo; was a featured correspondent on the Japanese television show, Scooper, which was broadcast nationally on Nippon TV; and was a featured act in the Magners Glasgow International Comedy Festival in Scotland. Harrison was also the co-host and featured performer of the official Times Square New Year’s Eve World Wide Webcast in 2010 and 2011, broadcasting live to over 250 million viewers around the globe.  Harrison also headlines comedy clubs around the country, including sold-out shows at TBS Just for Laughs Chicago and the legendary Carolines on Broadway (leading Punchline Magazine to name Harrison one of the “Breakout Artists” of the year). Harrison has also been featured in a wide variety of national and international publications, including being highlighted for the “Joke of the Week” in TimeOut NY and being featured in theNew York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and CNBC.com.  Harrison is a talented comedy writer as well. He is a nationally published author (with selections printed in the books, 50 Successful Harvard Essays, 2nd ed., and How They Got Into Harvard) and has been a writer forMAD Magazine since 2005.  From colleges to comedy clubs, from talk shows to theaters, Harrison is bringing his unique style of comedy to audiences across the country and around the world, proving each night why publications such as Newsday have named him one of “today’s best.”  Harrison Greenbaum is our guest today in 7 questions.  

RM:  Are you able to use anything that you learned studying psychology in college while you’re on stage at a comedy club interacting with audience members?

HG:  In many ways, performing stand-up is like running a psychology experiment: you have a hypothesis (this joke is funny and will make people laugh), you test the hypothesis (I perform the joke in front of an audience), and you draw conclusions (depending on if, when, and how much they laughed, I will either keep, get rid of, or change the joke).  The feedback loop and use of direct feedback/data is really addicting and something that draws me to the art form.  I also wrote a thesis on race-related humor and its impact on prejudice.  In brief, I wanted to determine scientifically if listening to stand-up comedy about race affects someone’s actual attitudes about race.  Although my study was a small one and would necessitate further testing for a truly definitive result, it seemed to indicate that it could have a significant impact.  So that’s something that’s also important for me on stage: that study, as well as a huge amount of other psychological literature, all demonstrate the power of comedy to alter people’s opinions, perceptions, and attitudes, so it’s important that we comedians take our job seriously as our comedy has a serious impact on our audience!

RM:  You have a very impressive bio… What’s highest number of shows you’ve done in one 24 hour period?

HG:  Thanks!  I don’t know if you would count head writer of a show on Telemundo as “impressive,” but cada loco con su tema.  The most shows I’ve ever done in 24 hours is 10.  I had a show at 4 or 5 PM and then 9 shows at night, stretching into 2 or 3 AM.  It was so so so much fun.  (Too many “so”s?)  I thought I’d be exhausted by the end, but each set just kept re-energizing me.  On a night with that many shows, keeping track of which jokes you’ve already done in a particular set can be tricky, so I’m happy I didn’t repeat anything within any specific show!

One of the reasons I love performing stand-up in New York is because you can do at least 2-3 shows a night on weekdays and at least 4-5 shows a night on weekends.  I don’t know any other place in the country where you can do that.

RM:  What was the focus of your one man show “What Just Happened?”, and how long did it run at UCB?

HG:  Harrison Greenbaum: What Just Happened? is a passion project that combines my stand-up with my magic.  I started out as a magician, shifted over to stand-up, and then spent more than five years trying to figure out if I could write and do a show that combined the two in a way that felt fresh and stayed true to the way I create things.  A lot of magicians are just doing recycled material – they’ve purchased a trick, learned the script that came with it, and are now performing something they had very little to no hand in actually creating.  Some modify the trick a little to fit their personas better, but I liken it to buying a different case for your iPhone – sure, it looks and feels a little different, but it’s still an iPhone.  That’s not how stand-up comics do it – they write and refine their own material over time, so everything is truly their own.  They don’t memorize things out of books.  It’s why I left magic for a period and did stand-up exclusively.  But then I realized that the fault was with magicians, not magic.*  Everything in What Just Happened? is something I’ve either invented or modified to the point that it’s not really recognizable.  The solo show is my love letter to magic as an art form.  (I hope that didn’t sound too highfalutin.)  (And why does “highfalutin” sound like the least highfalutin word imaginable?)  * I don’t want to give the false impression that all magicians are like that, however.  There are a ton of incredible and original magicians all over the world creating and performing amazing, unique magic every night, and they deserve as much recognition and admiration as we can give them!

RM:  How would you best describe the comedy scene in New York City?  Do you feel like it is one big scene; or a combination of several scenes throughout the five boroughs?

HG:  Definitely the latter.  The New York scene is way too big to be just one single scene and that’s probably for the better.  It lets people find their niche.  However, I believe that staying too long in any specific scene can result in the development of bad habits – you want to have an act that works just as well at a big comedy club in Manhattan as it does at a trendy bar show in Brooklyn.  But then that’s the beauty of New York, too: you can work all different kinds of rooms and develop material with (hopefully) widespread appeal.

RM:  Who are your favorite comics to work with and why?  What is it about their particular approach to the art form that seems to work best on a bill which includes yourself?

HG:  That’s tough – there are so many great comics out there right now I feel like it’s a disservice to just name a few.  I tend to really admire comics with a prolific output – guys (or gals) who are always coming up with and working on new stuff.  Dave Attell and Jim Gaffigan probably throw out more jokes than most comics write total.  I have such huge respect for those kind of comics.  In terms of fitting on a bill that includes myself, I prefer comics that write tight, smart jokes.  Jokes that make a point without being preachy.  Jokes that really make you look at the world differently.  Jokes that when you hear them make you mad you didn’t write them first.  Mike Vecchione, Kurt Metzger, Nate Bargatze, Keith Alberstadt, Sheng Wang… these are all guys who are just extraordinary joke-writers with well-honed voices that are always an honor to work with (but there are so many guys and gals I haven’t named that are amazing, too!)

RM:  Why do you think that you and your colleagues at MAD Magazine have continued to thrive while so many other print media outlets are struggling?  Does the focus of needing to have an increased online presence change the way you approach writing jokes for that publication?

HG:  MAD has a really distinct, defined voice.  It’s satirical, biting, sophomoric when it needs (or wants!) to be, anarchic – it’s, well, MAD.  As an intern, the MAD staff was really generous in teaching me how to write in that voice, which in turn allowed me to write pieces that they could actually publish.  My internship was basically comedy writing boot camp and I could never thank them enough for the incredible comedy education they gave me.  People can instinctively hear the MAD voice, so I think when they crave it – or are reminded of it when they see a copy of it on the newsstand – they continue to buy issues or subscriptions and remain loyal readers, which is how they continue to thrive.  (Plus, much less fun to do a MAD fold-in without actually physically folding in the back cover.)

The Internet definitely changed the game for magazines like MAD.  MAD is only published bimonthly, so it generally can’t “beat” the Internet to any particular topic.  How do you compete if you don’t have timeliness on your side?  You can do it with quality, for one — MAD still employs some of the most gifted writers and artists out there.  You can anticipate what will be a topic of conversation when you publish, which MAD is really good at, too.  Finally, you can craft “evergreen” pieces that are less time-sensitive (which have the added benefit of aging better than more topical pieces).  MAD’s web presence (which includes a great blog, The Idiotical) has also gotten a whole lot bigger and better in the last couple of years and is definitely worth checking out (madmagazine.com and, on Twitter, @MADMagazine).

RM:  What’s the biggest mistake younger comedy writers make; and what is the best way that you would recommend avoiding such a mishap?

HG: The biggest mistake younger comedy writers make is that they don’t make enough of them.  You can’t make a script better if it doesn’t exist, so just write it, even if it’s not perfect.  It’s not supposed to be.  And once it’s written, remember that very little – if anything – you write should be considered so precious that it’s beyond revision or improvement.  Also, assume that the first few of anything you do will be crap – jokes, screenplays, teleplays, submission packets, anything.  Once in a very long while, there’s a lone genius who is able to “get it” right away, but that’s almost definitely not you (or me for that matter) because it takes time and practice to get good at something.  That shouldn’t be a deterrent by the way – that should be a relief!  Yes, your first few scripts might suck, but you have to get all the crappy scripts out of the way (what I call “clearing the pipes”) to get to the place where you have the ability and knowledge to write kick-ass stuff.  To paraphrase Ira Glass, you have to get to a place where the quality of your skill matches the quality of your taste.

RM:  What’s up next for you in 2015 and beyond?  Anything big in the works that we should know about?

HG: I wish I knew!  I submit and audition for a lot of things and perform for a lot of people, but the only thing I have control over is how much new material I write and how often I get on stage.  So you can definitely expect to see me on stage around 15 times a week (when I’m in New York), to continue developing new material/my next hour, and to pursue any opportunities that allow me to get up in front of more people.  If people are interested in staying up to date, they can check me out on Twitter (@harrisoncomedy) and on my website to find out the latest news.

Official Website:  http://www.harrisongreenbaum.com/

Harrison on Facebook:  http://www.facebook.com/harrisongreenbaum

Harrison on Twitter:  http://www.twitter.com/harrisoncomedy

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