On a rainy night in February, I met Ben Ellis at the Urban Farmhouse in Scott’s Addition.
Though Richmond has gotten plenty of attention for its arts and music scene, Ellis, a 27-year-old graduate of VCU, has a different kind of side gig. An insurance salesman by day, he is a stand-up comedian by night.
He started his career in Athens, Georgia, and took what he learned there back home to Richmond. He now performs around town, most often at McCormick’s. But being funny, says Ellis, is not always easy.
DHR: How did you get into stand-up comedy?
BE: I always liked making people laugh. I like being on people’s good side, and telling jokes was always a good way to do that. I’ve always had more of a showman’s flair than an ability to actually solve problems. [Laughs].
DHR: Do you enjoy that showman role?
BE: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes it’s hard for me to be in the direct spotlight.
A major misconception about stand-up comedians is that if you’re funny on stage, you’re funny all the time. I sort of feel that “tell me a joke, funny man” pressure.
But I’m not always funny. A large portion of my day is answering phones and looking at screens.
DHR: “I’m having a bad day, Ben. Make me feel better.”
Your attitude can change day-to-day, too. If you sign up for an open-mic night, by the time it comes around, your confidence might be completely shot, but you still have to go up there, and that’s going to affect your performance.
But it’s always fun to bring joy into people’s life if you can.
DHR: Is it difficult to get started in comedy?
BE: Comedy is a weird medium. When you first start playing music, you play covers, and that’s how you get your audience warmed up, like, “Hey, that’s stuff we know.”
You can’t do covers in stand-up. Rule #1 is that you have to do your own stuff. You can’t take someone else’s joke and just change the name. People will know that you are being inauthentic and will pounce on that and immediately write you off.
That’s one of the scarier things about starting out. I think I’m funny, my friends think I’m funny— but then, you have to tell those same stories in front of people who are not your friends.
For example, the other day I was doing stand-up at Garden Grove. There were people who were there to watch comedy, but there were also people who were just there to be at Garden Grove.
DHR: So one major difference is that, as a comic, you have to engage people to entertain them. You can always have music going on in the background, and it’s like, “Oh, the band’s good,” and we can have our conversation. But for you, the focus is on the storyteller.
BE: Right. And the stories I tell are completely without context.
A major pitfall can be telling a story your friends think is funny, and if it falls flat, you’re sort of left saying, “I guess you had to be there.” And it’s like, “Yeah, we weren’t. None of us were. Why are you talking about this?” So one of the tricks is taking funny situations and turning them into stories that you can tell to strangers.
DHR: Is it difficult to engage people at a place like Garden Grove, where stand-up comedy is not the main event?
BE: It depends on how you go about it. If you’re just there to work on your material, you have really got to hope that your stuff is sticking with people who are carrying on their own business.
Of course, you can work those non-receptive people into your act. But that can be scary. It’s a weird kind of door you open when you start involving the audience, because it’s also an invitation for them to say stuff back to you, and that’s a slippery slope. Once your audience feels comfortable saying stuff to you, that can derail everything.
You might get hecklers. You might get people that think they’re adding to the joke but are really just killing the mood.
DHR: Has that happened to you before?
BE: Yeah, definitely.
The times that it’s happened, I’ve kind of just acknowledged it and kept on. If I just ignored what they were saying, it wouldn’t feel like it was in the moment.
Stand-up comedy is ideally a dialogue where the other person is only supposed to laugh.
DHR: That sounds extremely difficult.
BE: It takes confidence, for sure. A really quick way to start spiraling at a set is to not have any confidence in what you’re talking about. Other comedians that are there— and that’s a large part of the audience at an open mic— other comedians and people in the general audience will see that lack of confidence and latch onto that.
Silences start getting longer and more awkward. It gets harder to get back on the right side of momentum.
DHR: Have you ever faced a hostile audience?
BE: There’s been times when it hasn’t gone well, but never hostile. I have seen it happen to others, though.
Comedy, like any other art form, has a lot of different genres and types of performers. Richmond, as an overall venue, is a little bit more monolithic, in terms of audience.
I remember seeing one comedian who was very against abortion, and had more conservative ideals. I don’t subscribe to it, but there is, technically, a place for that in comedy.
But Richmond is a liberal place. You would think that would lead to more open conversation, but when people come in with ideas that might not fall in line, the audience can get a little hostile.
DHR: How do you draw the line for yourself, as far as what’s too far?
BE: I consider the audience to be a group of strangers, and I’m not the kind of person that would tell a super off-color joke to a stranger. I want to make them feel comfortable. I’m not going to start attacking some random dude’s mom, for example, unless, like, there’s something really funny about that random dude’s mom, and everyone else happens to know her.
Roasting has its place, as long as you know that that’s what’s going to be happening. You have comedians like Daniel Tosh and Anthony Jeselnik who are masters at talking about horrible stuff. But that’s the show you sign up for, and those guys have been working on that persona for years.
If you’re just starting out and you get away from social niceties, you start seeing people in a different light. It can make people uncomfortable, and can immediately lead into, “I don’t like what he’s talking about, and I’m going to say something.”
That’s what happened at the show I mentioned earlier. It was weird— really weird. The entire vibe changed. And this guy just kept going. More power to him, but it’s like, “Dude, read the room.”
DHR: What genre of comedy to you perform?
BE: Observational to alternative…yeah. It’s not like music, though, where genres are a lot more hard and fast. It kind of comes down to, “What kind of voices do you like listening to?”
Different audiences deserve different approaches. If you go to the Funny Bone, you’re going to have more people, so you can’t tell super specific jokes. If you go to the Camel or McCormick’s, you can make more local references.
DHR: What’s it like to tell a joke that completely brings the house down?
BE: I’ll let you know when it happens. [Laughs].
There’s a process to writing a joke. It starts out like, “Hey, this is funny. Why?” And then you start parsing it out and working on it and getting it down to the bare bones of, “What is it about this combination of words that makes other people laugh?”
When you see that hard work pay off and people respond positively, you feel validated.
Then, when you feel validated, you feel closer to people, and the atmosphere gets more communal. I remember seeing one guy at McCormick’s who had come up from Virginia Beach, and he didn’t know anybody. He was doing material in front of relative strangers, and he had us in stitches. After the show, people were coming up to him and saying, “Hey, are you ever going to be back in Richmond?” And he was like, “Maybe,” and he kind of just flew away into the night.
DHR: What’s it like to tell a joke that falls completely flat?
BE: The exact opposite. You feel alone.
Everywhere you perform has a spotlight specifically on you, which also makes it really hard to see the audience. That light gets a lot brighter, and the darkness gets a whole lot darker.
DHR: What is it that makes things funny?
BE: There are a couple different theories. Absurdity. Misdirection is the main thing, where there’s set-up, and assumptions that go with that set-up, and then you have your punch.
The way that a punch-line works is if it’s a known unknown—a connection that your brain didn’t make before, but it seems obvious when you hear it.
Jerry Seinfeld talked about that, and how the punch has to be the perfect distance away from the set-up. If it’s one step away, nobody’s going to care, because that’s just what the answer is. If the step is too far away, nobody’s going to understand it, because it doesn’t mean anything anymore. So you have to find that sweet spot of something your brain didn’t think of before. Every laugh is an “Aha!” moment.
DHR: Are humans the only known beings that can laugh?
BE: Well, hyenas can, but not on purpose.
DHR: [Laughs]. What about monkeys?
BE: Monkeys absolutely can laugh. Like, if a chimpanzee throws its poop, and sees you very upset, that monkey will laugh at you.
Now, I’m not sure monkeys can understand humor, but they definitely have a good grasp on schadenfreude, laughing at someone else’s expense, like that basic caveman, “Ha, ha, fatty fall down.” It’s funny, but I think human intelligence has moved past that.
We still have it in us, for sure. Watch any of your friends trip over a sidewalk and you will laugh your ass off, or at least you should.
DHR: Changing gears a little— I’ve got a question about political humor.
What do you think about this idea that the Left can’t meme?
BE: I think it’s a weird kind of projection. I think the Left is just not laughing about the same thing over and over again. Our memes have proliferation.
For me, when I hear that kind of stuff from the Right, it reminds me of someone talking about that one time that they won something over and over again. It’s kind of like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite talking about how he could throw a football over the mountain. What we’re supposed to take away from that is that Uncle Rico is a pathetic character because he can’t stop talking about that one thing that he did.
Yeah, you won the election. Laugh about that forever. Go for it. You got it. We want to talk about other stuff.
DHR: Where have you performed in Richmond?
BE: The main places have been McCormick’s, Mojo’s, and Garden Grove. McCormick’s is the place I feel most comfortable. That’s the McCormick’s in Shockoe, not in the Fan.
DHR: Do you do open mics regularly?
BE: I try to. Recently, I’ve taken a step back. Usually, I try to make it a once-a-week kind of thing. The more that I do it, the more I feel comfortable doing it. But I don’t personally have the time to make every open mic night every week.
DHR: How would you describe your comedy aspirations?
BE: I would say that it’s a passion. Writing, performing, maybe a TV show down the line.
DHR: Do you typically memorize your jokes beforehand?
BE: Yes, but when you do things on stage, you want it to feel natural, not dictated. So there is a certain amount of riffing you have to do. Really talented comedians have the ability to feign improv.
You have to trick your brain into writing how you talk, which isn’t how you were taught to write.
If you sound stilted, people aren’t going to connect to you.
DHR: Who would you consider your major influences?
BE: My favorites right now are John Mulaney, Pete Holmes, and Tom Segura.
The first one that really got me interested was Ron White. The Blue Collar Comedy Tour was an amazing thing for comedy at the time, at least for white people. The original kings of comedy had already come and gone by then. But Ron White was always the natural gravitation that I had.
Stand-up comedy was always kind of a New York, L.A. thing. And then you had these guys come out and say, “Hey, the whole South has a whole bunch of funny stuff we’ve been talkin’ ’bout for years.”
Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy, and Bill Ingvall were all catchphrase comedians. “You might be a redneck” was Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy had “Get ‘er done,” Bill Ingvall’s thing was, “Here’s your sign.” What made Ron White different was that he had running gags, but he didn’t repeat himself over and over. So that was my first kind of introduction into comedy, and it was when I first figured out, “Ok, I like this more than I like that.”
That carried me into a whole bunch of different stuff, where I was watching Patton Oswalt and Dave Chapelle, these more alternative comedians who were talking about alcohol, drug use, politics, all this kind of stuff that’s against the mainstream of what’s going on.
DHR: How do you prepare for a performance?
BE: Freak out a lot, tell myself that I’m not funny, then tell myself that I’ve got this.
DHR: So you go down to square zero and build from there.
BE: Right. Then, I kind of get a little angry at the audience. Like, “How dare you not find me funny?”
It gets adrenaline pumping. It’s harder to be intimidated by somebody you’re a little angry at. It’s like the audience is a competitor.
DHR: Do comedians repeat their jokes from show to show?
BE: Yes. Especially when you’re starting out, you want to. You have to nail down your cadences.
DHR: Where are you going to be performing next?
BE: I will probably be at McCormick’s next, which has open mics every other Wednesday.
If people read this and want to come see me, that’s great, and I’m excited for that, but more importantly, they should go to more open mics. There’s a list of open mics available at comedyrva.com.
I know Richmond has a great music scene, but we also have a great comedy scene, and more people should support that.
Comedians are people that, by their nature, thrive on positive affection. The best way to get that is a bigger audience.