Ben Kronberg is a Brooklyn-based comedian and musician originally from Colorado. In 2013, he had his own Comedy Central Half Hour special, and has appeared on late-night network shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live and Last Call with Carson Daly while also regularly touring across the country. His habit of referencing a small jokebook during sets inspired filmmaker Scott Moran to interview Kronberg for the web series Modern Comedian, for which Kronberg also composed the music using his iPhone and guitar. Kronberg later used his iPhone to create a music album titled Just Songs, which he recently played live at American Beauty Bar NYC as part of a weekly open-mic showcase organized by friend and musician Tim Pourbaix.
Kronberg has worked with Nomadic Press to curate several Jokebooks Live! comedy showcases in Brooklyn, where comedians read their sets from notes jotted on paper and typed on smartphone screens. Kronberg regularly performs at several other Brooklyn performance showcases, including the weekly comedy mic Live From Outer Space at The Cobra Club, which is co-hosted by John F. O'Donnell, Amber Nelson, and Erik Bergstrom; and the monthly music/comedy series Folk Night at Dun-Well Donuts, organized by musician Emily Frembgen. Kronberg has also performed several sets in the apartments at 475 Kent Avenue in South Williamsburg (home to the ongoing Nomadic Press interview series), which were visually chronicled by N.P. contributing photographer Randall Bellows III and myself.
I recently interviewed Kronberg at Dun-Well Donuts where he discussed his musical side, the influence of his film school education, the friends that form his creative community, and (of course) his comedy.
On musical influences
"I think the primal part of music is the beats, so I think that was the initial impact [on me]."
I was not forced to but heavy-handedly presented with taking piano lessons when I was younger. Probably first and second grade—maybe third grade—I was taking piano lessons. So very rudimentary scales and simple songs, like Hot Cross Buns and Chopsticks, and all those racially charged yet playful songs that you learn. I think that kind of planted the seed with music. My sister was really good at the piano and could really read music well. I can kind of sound out music by looking at sheet music, but I'm not good at really reading and playing it.
What I do now is more by ear. I know notes and chords, but it's just by the instrument, be it guitar or piano. Then in junior high—seventh through ninth grades—I was in choir. Both my brother and sister were in choir, and you kind of just followed in the footsteps of family members. Like, "Oh, they did piano? I'm gonna do piano." Or "They did choir? I'm gonna do choir." It was just an extracurricular activity that I'd always go to my sister's choir concerts. She was in the kind of varsity choir, where they had fewer people singing in the choir but they had fancier clothes. This is the mid-'80s-style choir shows.
But in my choir, the notable musicals that we would sing would be like West Side Story or Phantom of the Opera. Then we would do just random songs. Occasionally, it would be like, "All right, you're in the ninth grade, you conduct the choir for this song." So I got to do a little conducting. That was the experience of singing music, but in the background it was the music that my brother and sister were listening to that I think informed the types of music that I would be into making or mimicking. So my brother was really into Mötley Crüe, Metallica, Pantera, and more heavy metal things like that. My sister was more into New Order, Erasure, The Cure, C & C Music Factory, things like that. So I liked the music that my sister listened to, but I felt more akin to my brother, just being a guy, and wanting to be like him and his friends, and skateboarders, and listening to what they listened to. Even though my brother became a mechanical engineer, and he's the guy with the family and the kids and the job and stuff, he still has this thing about listening to heavy metal while he mountain bikes.
I think the primal part of music is the beats, so I think that was the initial impact [on me]. I remember The Beastie Boys, and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Run-D.M.C. and their collaboration with Aerosmith—definitely lyrics were important. Rap probably got me into listening to lyrics more than any other music because they're more specific. There was a comedy show that I was on the other night and someone was talking about, "I always thought in this song that they were saying this, but I just found out that they were saying this." I think that happens a lot in popular music or rock music. But rap and hip hop definitely are more distinct. Those are the words.
The first time taking the stage was choir in junior high. But then it wasn't until my last semester of college that I picked up the guitar that my mom had bought me, because I had always resented her for making me play the piano. My buddy Jason had an electric guitar. He was in the rich neighborhood in the really nice house, and he had the go cart, and the pool table that would turn into a pingpong table, and he had the first Nintendo that I ever played. He had the electric guitar and I was just like, "I want to play the electric guitar." Then that just sort of was dormant for a long time. Then my mom eventually bought me a guitar. The last semester of college, I took a class that got me like a quarter of a credit. I would meet this guy once a week, and he kind of would teach me. I just wanted to play fun, cool songs, but he was just teaching me the scales and the chords and notes. So I just kind of picked up enough of it to be like, "OK, I know I can do this one, and I can do this one." Then after college, I would just start making up songs and playing around with songs. Then I got a four-track, and I also had a sampling keyboard that my dad had bought after my parents had got divorced, for when I came over. It was this sampling keyboard called the SK-1, and you could speak into it. Then it would sample your voice, and the different keys would do different octaves of that sample. So you could have the high, or the low, or just the normal. I would just always play around with that. Then, when I picked up the guitar, I would just be messing around with it, fooling around, and not really trying to play anything too serious.
I picked up guitar and weed my last semester of college. I didn't really do a lot of partying in college. I wasn't that academic either. I watched a lot of movies and hung out and wrote poetry and things. But it was an incubating type of time. I did most of my partying after college—until yesterday.
"I made a love song called "I Wanna Go Poop with You." That was probably one of my first comedy-driven songs, but it's a sweet song about going poop."
Then, eventually, I think when I started actually performing it was in 2002, post-9/11. I was working at a bar then, and they had an open mic on Tuesdays. My impetus for doing the open mic was making these songs up. One was called "Go to War," and it was kind of like a protest song because of us going to war in Iraq. Another one was called "Ballad of a Jihad." So those two songs are kind of my first two political response songs. They weren't necessarily comedy, but they definitely had some comedy elements in them. Then on top of those, I would make songs about going poop. I made a love song called "I Wanna Go Poop with You." That was probably one of my first comedy-driven songs, but it's a sweet song about going poop.
On film influences
I went to film school because it was just sort of expected that you're going to go to college in my family. Not forced, but it's what my brother did, and my sister went to college. My sister just went to community college and got her sign language certificate, so she became an interpreter for the deaf and hearing impaired. Then my brother went and did the major mechanical engineering route. I was like, "What do I do?" I had made a couple films in high school on Super 8, so I started investigating film schools and there happened to be a film school at CU Boulder. I thought I was going to get into the narrative Hollywood-style moviemaking world. The program at CU is actually very experimental and avant-garde, and documentary-based, more than story films. So then I got exposed to all these different crazy films from the '30s and '40s and '50s that were a part of the avant-garde that were real art films—like Maya Deren, Ernie Gehr, and Stan Brakhage.
"There's diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Diegetic is sound that comes from the world you're seeing. Non-diegetic is sound coming from the outside, like a soundtrack. So it was the interesting thing of mixing those two, just thinking about how sound works in film."
One of the first experimental movies that I was exposed to was this one called Window Water Baby Moving, which was Stan Brakhage, who was a professor at the film school. He had basically made films of all his children being born, and this was the first one in like 1958. It was a silent film in Kodachrome color—really bright, rich reds—of his wife and himself. He would turn the camera on himself, and then film the birth of his first child. They gave birth at home, and some of it was just very beautiful with shapes and light coming through the window and reflections on the bathtub. But then some of it was very intense and graphic with the actual baby coming out, and then the afterbirth. It wasn't just linear either, like, "OK, here's a pregnant woman, and now she's going into labor, and now she's giving birth, and she has a baby." Rather, it would be like, "Here's a pregnant woman. Now here's her face screaming. Now it's back to the water when she's still pregnant. Now it's on his face, and he's crying. Now the water is moving around. Now the baby is almost all the way out. Now she is screaming again." But this is all silent, so you're just seeing the experience. Then it would go back to just the calm. It's just this whole thing, and it's only like a 12-minute film. But it was one of the most impactful films I'd ever seen because I'd seen clinical representations and documentations of childbirth and just scenes in movies of people giving birth, and this was just such a powerful moment.
"One of the things that we were taught was that film is more like music than it is like photography. Even though film uses photographic elements in capturing images, both movies and music work through time."
So making films early on—a lot of them were silent because we were shooting on film without sound equipment, and we were shooting experimental film. So the idea was to tap into the roots of when they first made films—they were all silent films. Sound only came along with The Jazz Singer, the first talkie. So then we started thinking about sound somewhere along the line with there being two different types of sound in movies. There's diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Diegetic is sound that comes from the world you're seeing. Non-diegetic is sound coming from the outside, like a soundtrack. So it was the interesting thing of mixing those two, just thinking about how sound works in film.
One of the things that we were taught was that film is more like music than it is like photography. Even though film uses photographic elements in capturing images, both movies and music work through time. They're both what are considered temporal arts. Actually, there's the analogy of cuts being rhythm from one scene to the next, or one shot to the next. Cutting from here to here creates a rhythm and movement within the frame, or within a scene, like a melody. It sort of has a beginning, middle and an end like a song might have a beginning, middle and an end. So I learned a lot about music just through film, just like the Miyagi-Do karate way where you're waxing a car, you're painting a fence, and you're sweeping the floor. But you're really gaining this other knowledge that you can now apply these movements to whatever your karate or kung fu is.
On Modern Comedian
Mine was the first episode shot, but the second episode released. The second episode that Scott Moran shot was a more well-known comedian and he wanted to release bigger out of the gate, which I was fine with because I was happy just being the guinea pig. I was Scott's guinea pig for a number of projects that he was working on and trying to put out there. With his Modern Comedian series, the angle was doing little mini-documentaries about comedians, but about something different than just their stand-up. Something they do in addition to stand-up that isn't typical. Somebody had stickers that he made, so it was about him making stickers, but he's a comedian. My joke book just kind of fit, especially since it was closer with the theme of Modern Comedian. It was about the process and me being willing to engage in my process on stage. Not just keeping my process for the open mics, and then when I'm doing shows have it be the polished thing—which happened back then when we shot the thing, and still happens. But more and more now, I'm using my phone more than I'm using my notebook just because it's a little bit more handy. I always have my phone. I don't always have a pen. My handwriting has actually gotten way worse. It's always been horrible, as if I'm a doctor—but not. I have the handwriting of a doctor, but the income of a blue-collar stand-up.
Doing the music was probably my favorite part of being a part of that project. He just asked me if I'd want to make some music or send him some things. I just had a whole bunch of tracks that I had made already, and I would send him a number of tracks. Then he would be like, "Oh, I like this one and this one," and then, "Hey, can you send me more like this?" Sometimes I would be actually in the process, and when he was making more episodes I would make some new songs but with the same sort of sound or vibe. Which is just really something that I stumbled upon. That probably happens with any musician, where you make the things that you know or are familiar with. Did classical musicians want to make classical music, or was that just the only music happening around where that's what they would do? You know, "I've been listening to the harpsichord a lot. I think I want to write something with the harpsichord."
So with the resource of this particular app that I make the music with, it just sort of had those sounds. Then just in experimenting and playing around with those sounds, it was kind of like, "Oh, I've made that." I would make hip hop beats because I do hip hop songs, which are the ones without drums in them so much or the ones that are maybe more ambient. There's a virtual keyboard on the phone. It's a four-track. But that was another thing that kind of kept it easy to create because I wasn't opening up this computer program and trying to bring in all these different elements and external instruments. It's just all this self-contained thing that allowed me to kind of quickly do it on the go. The name of the app is iMaschine, and their thing is "make music anywhere," which is kind of what I was doing, and it helped me when I'm on the train, or I'm on a bus, or on a plane, or in the airport, or just at the donut shop. I can make music as opposed to just always being stuck in my studio trying to conjure out of this one space. To me, that one space is probably the most limiting thing that people can do. Just being out in the world and writing down ideas—it's kind of how ideas come to you. I'm rarely like, "Oh, I'm going to sit down at my desk and write a joke." I can sit down at my desk, or kitchen table, and look at my jokes, and go over them to maybe find something new by reviewing them. But really, the process of coming up with ideas—there's so much idea collection out in the world. It works similarly with the music.
On Just Songs
"The idea of Just Songs is when they're just songs, but 'just' as in justice. The things that I'm singing about are of a just nature. They're not always nice things."
It was kind of like what happened with Modern Comedian where, whenever there was an idea to put something out, I was going back through the things that I had made, seeing what themes were there, and extracting a theme from it. Then, also, things that I was presently making that fit into that theme. So it's kind of a mixture of songs that were maybe a year or more old, or had been already made, and then songs that I was currently working on. That sort of spectrum. But the theme of the thing was a breakup of my last relationship. The idea of Just Songs is when they're just songs, but "just" as in justice. The things that I'm singing about are of a just nature. They're not always nice things. It's all the things that would happen in any sort of breakup song or album. Maybe some complaining, anger, sadness, lamenting, whatever. Those things, and trying to figure out the tone of it. Initially, I wanted the first song to be a different song because of how things get listened to on the Internet when I post and say, "Here's a link to the SoundCloud playlist." It's not even an album anymore. It's a playlist. But because I've made it all on my phone, I figured I'd just keep it Internet-app iPhone-friendly. So I thought, "What song do I think will keep people listening?" and my initial desire for the first song wasn't the first song that's on there now ["Everyday"]. The first song is maybe a more listenable song that is a little bit more upbeat, but I don't know if it worked. Because if you look at the number of plays, it goes by whatever the first song is, and then the second song there's half as many listens, and then the third song half as many of that. So it gets exponentially lower. There's only twelve songs, and it's 30 minutes in length, Some songs don't correlate with that reduction of listens. Some are at 100, then 50, then 80. So it could be names, too. I didn't do too much market research with what I should name songs, or what are the best things to name songs. But I was doing it because I've been making songs, so I should just put something out that could be a thing to kind of build off of or have that kind of commemorates the music that I've been doing alongside or in tandem with comedy that isn't necessarily comedy. I definitely started out doing comedy songs, and a lot of my music was comedy joke-based. But then just when I'm traveling, most of it isn't joke-based. Most of the things I'm working on are just beats or melodies or vibes.
So iMaschine has the Groove Sketchpad, and one of the cool functions of this app is it has a microphone pass-through and a place for you to record voice. So I can record one little idea or sketch as a file, and then I can erase the lyrics, record new ones, and save that as a new file so I have different versions. Then I compile them and finally decide, "OK, I like these lyrics, and I like these lyrics." So a lot of them are just recorded, remembered, and re-recorded lyrics. Then, when I'm recording the final version, I transcribe to kind of get my ducks in a row.
On his jokebook
I still have one, but I tend to do more stuff on the phone. Once I started using the phone, I think I was writing down ideas a lot more. The notebook kind of gave me the practice of having something dedicated to just my ideas. That was nice to just have. I'd open up this book and it's just my ideas, and some of them will become jokes. But I would usually write maybe one idea per page to not have to scour pages too much, and I would keep them small so they could fit in my pocket. But now my phone allows me to categorize my ideas a lot more. So if I come up with a pun or wordplay, I put it in the file that's about puns and wordplay. Then if it's just an observation, I put it there. Now I have a file that's old jokes to try, another file that's new jokes to try where it's like, "I'm gonna pull from here, and put them on there" or "These are all my food jokes." It's allowed me to organize and categorize the stuff, and it's definitely been helpful in building my act. Because otherwise, it was just sort of randomly going through things like, "This is a set list that I wrote, and it has some jokes from everything." A lot of my jokebooks just ended up being initial ideas jotted down, and then set lists of those ideas. So a lot of my jokebooks have the same set lists, but the set list kind of evolves from book to book. I've also washed books. Left them in my pants, put them in the washer, then was like, "Where's my jokebook? Fuck!" Then it would be wet. A couple of them I've actually salvaged. Some of them completely disintegrated. But I do have a couple that kind of look like old maps because of how they were washed and then dried out, and I was like an archaeologist peeling the pages apart, trying to preserve it.
On social media
"Sometimes I'm tweeting something and I'm like, 'Wait, am I just remembering that through osmosis of going through Twitter right before bed?'"
Sometimes you'll get more of an interactive response on Facebook because you get people making comments. Whereas Twitter, now there's analytics that can be viewed by everybody. So even though you've gotten one like, or two likes and one retweet, you can see how many impressions it made. Which kind of has a bit of consolation to it. You can realize, "Oh, it's not just three people that interacted with this. I can see here that six people clicked the link that I posted" or "This is how many people saw a thing." You know, the importance of impressions. But usually, if I put a joke or an idea out on Twitter and it gets five or more retweets, maybe ten, and over 30-40 likes, then I'll be like, "Oh, this might be a good joke." My Bill Cosby joke started out on Twitter. My Guy Fieri joke started out as just a tweet. Different things like that, where I was like, "OK, I'm gonna pull this to the stage." Sometimes I do the opposite, like, "It's Mother's Day, and I have this Mother's Day joke. Let me put it out on Twitter for that." So it goes in both directions. But one in particular that I've seen that kind of exposes the danger of the sort of collective contribution that is Twitter is when I tweeted part of a song, the lyric "7/11 is an inside job." So it was retweeted and liked back when I tweeted it first. But I've seen people just tweet it as if it's their own. And it could be. It's not the biggest leap to come up with, and I'm perhaps not the first person to think of it. The simpler ideas, especially having to do with something in our collective conscious experience—chances are greater. Sometimes I'm tweeting something and I'm like, "Wait, am I just remembering that through osmosis of going through Twitter right before bed?" But generally, also, the more unique an idea, the more chances it is yours, an original. But there is still that gamble until somebody calls you out on it. I'm just kind of like, "Well, even if I have a hunch or a feeling, I'm gonna put it out there." Because I have to keep my presence known, for better or for worse, and it's an easy way to do it.
On Live From Outer Space
I used to be part of the Live From Outer Space show. Me and John F. O'Donnell had done this show at a place called Zirzamin together, and that was kind of the first incarnation of Live From Outer Space. It was in Greenwich Village in this downstairs sweet spot, a really great little tucked away Austin bar in the city. Then that place ended up closing and we needed a new location. John really was the proactive one in the relationship. He hustled and found a location. Seeing John F. O'Donnell perform, I loved what he did, and it was so different. The energy, and just his whole take on thoughts, ideas, and words was just refreshing. I always wanted to watch him, and that wasn't always the case. I'd seen so much comedy that it's like when somebody inspires you in the thing that you're kind of sick of. When somebody's like, "Here's this new thing!" You've been eating peanut butter and jelly and you're sick of peanut butter and jelly, and somebody gives you a grilled cheese and you're like, "Oh my god!"
"The format is still very unique, especially as an independent purveyor of ideas. It's unique but essential, and I think it's catching on to where it's influencing people."
Then Erik Bergstrom got involved. Then I started to travel a lot, and I felt kind of like the deadbeat dad of the thing, so I ended up leaving. But they wanted to keep it going. Comedians do travel a lot, and so you need a number of people to produce a show. If you're just one person, it kind of sticks you there. Then you need to find a guest person. It's just better to have people. I think Amber Nelson was the natural choice because all three of them have kind of unique voices. They're not your typical stand-ups. Erik is really creative with one-liners, and he also has this whole other section. You've gotta check out his notebooks. They're like serial-killer detailed, and he's got drawings. Sometimes he'll bring these huge notebooks. I always consolidate, but he really celebrates the writing and the art, incorporating his doodling, and his drawings can be jokes. He's super clever. Then Amber has her super unique voice and persona that when you watch her it's like, "What am I watching here? Is this who she really is? Is this some sort of character?" I think not being able to tell is good because it is kind of her. It is very much her. Not unlike how Maria Bamford is Maria Bamford even though she does a lot of different voices. Some of Bamford's voices sound more normal than her real voice, which is a weird paradox of performers.
The format is still very unique, especially as an independent purveyor of ideas. It's unique but essential, and I think it's catching on to where it's influencing people. When it was just comedy clubs, it was influencing other people to open up comedy clubs. But then the supply/demand ratio came to be where there were way more comedians than could fit in any of these comedy clubs. So then they had to create their own places and find a bar, find a bookstore, find a whatever. The more people that would explore these spaces, the more dialed in they got and realized, "Oh, we don't just want to do a show that's in a bar in front of people who may or may not know what's going on. We want to find a bar that has a little performance space in the back and kind of do a pop-up."
"I want to be a facilitator and help people, because I need help. I'm butting heads with enough gatekeepers and I'm frustrated enough with those things to where I don't want to be the frustration for somebody else."
It's also connections. I think John found Cobra Club because he knew somebody or had met one of the managers there. Same with how Emily Frembgen knew the main chef at The Federal Bar and Tim Pourbaix knew the music director at American Beauty Bar. So a lot of it is fortunate spaces and getting into the right place and the right scenario. But it's always who you know. I'm constantly realizing that I'm usually getting shows from people that I know or people that I've done shows with, and a lot fewer with complete strangers or sight unseen, or sending somebody my link and saying, "Here." Even if it's a good link, like my Comedy Central Half Hour, it's not the guaranteed pheromone to make them want to always dance with me. You just realize that, "Oh, there's other people that have that" or "Maybe they don't like my jokes." But spaces like the Cobra Club are perfect because you have to be vetted by one of the comedians who books it.
Even then, my booking style was a lot more giving anybody an opportunity because I don't want to be a gatekeeper in comedy. I want to be a facilitator and help people, because I need help. I'm butting heads with enough gatekeepers and I'm frustrated enough with those things to where I don't want to be the frustration for somebody else. There are other people who are a bit more curated and selective with who they put up. But me—I think the process of being around people that are at all levels is actually great. Because if you're only doing stuff around people that are really good, you can definitely help each other get better, but then you kind of lose touch with your roots. It's why the training scenes with Rocky are so cool when he's going back to the old gym. Or even better, he's doing the Russian wilderness while Ivan Drago has all the best equipment, treadmills, breathing apparatuses, and steroids, and Rocky's just pulling a rope or running through the snow or dragging Paulie on a sledge. I think part of open mics are having younger, newer comedians come in there because they're also the ones that we're helping grow and foster to be the future comedy-show runners. People that are getting really good—they're gonna stop running shows, and they're just gonna be off on the road doing shows. But these people that are new—they're gonna come up and be like, "Hey, I wanna do this show." Kind of apprenticeships. Even though this graphic designer might not know as much as that graphic designer, they're gonna be very helpful with keeping the whole system intact and not just, "Sorry, you're too wet behind the ears, kid," or whatever.
On Tim Pourbaix and American Beauty Bar
I met Tim a while ago, but I didn't really start hanging out with him until running into him in New York on the subway. Probably one of the first times I ran into Tim, he was in a blue hoodie, which is uncharacteristic of him these days because he's now mostly dressed in black. But back then, when he first moved here—we kind of moved here around the same time—I ran into him, and he was going to an art opening for Jenny Morgan who's a really talented, prolific, high-end-quality artist. Then we'd just run into each other occasionally here and there. Then I ran into another buddy whom I went to film school with who is now playing music, and one night at Bar Matchless they had a Sunday night open mic, and I went to this open mic to do some comedy. I saw this guy on stage, and he was really good, and talking to him at the bar afterward we exchanged names and met. Then we realized that we had gone to film school together. But we'd lived since film school, graduating in like, '98-'99, to now in like, 2011-12. He had a whole life in London, working for the BBC as an editor, but kind of got sick of it and burnt out on it. So then he had always played music, and he got back into music and made these amazing songs. We started hanging out and doing open mics, and then he had somehow met up with Tim at an open mic, and then we all started coalescing at some different open mics. The main open mic was Spike Hill, which is now Equinox Fitness Recruitment Center right next to a Dunkin Donuts. So then we just started playing, and I think with me and Tim it was a slow courtship. We were familiar with each other, but only seeing each other in these contexts of open mics and things like that. It took a while, but I think that was a nice way to do it because then we got to appreciate each other for each other's art and then kind of become friends from that.
"It's a good two-hour open stage where everybody does two songs, and then there's a featured performer for a half hour that's a number of genres."
I've had a lot of friends that I was friends with before starting to do comedy or music or anything, and now maintaining relationships with those people is a little bit more difficult because you're in a different context now. So when I'm back in Denver, getting people to come see shows—some of them are up for it because they were a part of the transition. But others are like, "Man, I just knew you in high school. Now you do this?" Tim just started playing more music, recording, doing shows, and playing with a band, and I had always contextualized him as a solo artist. Just a guy with a guitar. Then, hearing his same exact songs but played in a band, at first I was like, "I don't know, I think I like the solo stuff." But then as I heard his band play live and then heard his album, I was like, "Oh man, this is really evolving nicely." He's been doing a number of jobs while recording his music and making albums. But the music that he's been churning out and putting out there—he's definitely one of my favorite performers/songwriters in the city, if not the United States.
His night at American Beauty Bar, he's hosting the open stage, which is open to music and comedy. It's a really good soundstage. It was pretty much the first time that I played Just Songs live. I didn't do all the songs from the playlist, but I did a number of them. Some new stuff, some older stuff, but still kind of keeping within the vibe of it. Because it turns out that more songs than are just on Just Songs are about what Just Songs is about. So Tim has been rocking that every Monday night and doing shows. Coincidentally enough, it kind of started up around the same time that Emily was starting to do shows at Federal Bar every Monday night. But that show is just focused on Americana, folk, and country music. So I'm going to support that show a lot and see a lot of people that I've never seen before, and some people like The Lowliest One, Jack Adams, and occasionally Ben Schapiro perform there. But that's not a space where I'm performing. I perform next door at The Knitting Factory for their comedy. But the show gave Emily the focus to have a more specific, curated thing. Tim is definitely curating a thing, but he has the open stage for kind of everybody. It's a good two-hour open stage where everybody does two songs, and then there's a featured performer for a half hour that's a number of genres.
On Emily Frembgen and Folk Night
Emily and I met at Folk Night at Dun-Well Donuts some two years ago. Our mutual friend, Ian Cooke, was playing. He plays the cello and is a very wonderful guy. I was just coming to see him that night because he was in town, and then it happened that Emily was putting on the show. I didn't know who was putting on the show before I got there. Then we ended up kind of meeting, talking, going for coffee the next day. Ian was staying in his windowless white Dodge Sprinter van, which we'd all toured in through the Southwest.
"Any comedian that's played it, and any musician that's ever played Folk Night, has always been like, 'Oh, I didn't think that music and comedy would work this well together.'"
So I started hanging out with Emily, and she kept doing the folk nights at the donut shop as kind of the speakeasy after-hours combination of music and comedy, but more low-fi. There's maybe been some drum sets that have happened. But generally, it's one or two singer/performer/guitar players and then a number of comedians throughout the night. It seems to be a really good thing and was kind of on hiatus because she was putting a lot of energy into Americana Mondays. But now there seems to be a revived desire (even a request from the owners of Dun-Well) to do more Folk Nights there. It might be adjusted. Because of the free nature of Folk Night, it might weigh heavier on the BYOB part with us providing snacks and then people just bringing whatever they want to drink. It's hard when you're having a fun party—you want to provide a little bit of something. It would be nice to have a liquor sponsor. I definitely need a beer or liquor sponsor for my life, just so I can subsidize it. But that's one of my favorite nights. Any comedian that's played it, and any musician that's ever played Folk Night, has always been like, "Oh, I didn't think that music and comedy would work this well together." When we did a couple slight incarnations of it when we were in Denver, there was definitely a skepticism with a lot of the comedians who had performed at music festivals or music shows where they had never felt appreciated. So there was a stigma on mixing music with comedy with them. And we're like, "No, we actually do it all the time in New York, and it works. It just has to be the right context." I think a lot of people have these experiences, and because they're not in the right context they write off the experience as a whole. It's not just the content of what it is but it's the context of what it is. All you have to do is shift the context a little bit and the way that you present the thing, and then it all of a sudden becomes something that's unique and magical, and something like, "Oh, I never saw a show in a vegan donut shop that had comedians and musicians."
"When you take away the pressure of having to buy stuff and give people some leftover donuts, some wine, some beer, some snacks—I think that's a key part of Folk Night. Just the hospitality part of it and the reward of something free and fun."
So it's a pretty cool thing to do, and other people wanted her to do Folk Night and were trying to pull Folk Night away from Dun-Well. But I think Folk Night almost has to happen there because of the nature of folk music and people gathering and sharing ideas and songs. A space like Dun-Well is kind of essential and outside the politics of a bar. Because at a bar, it feels a little bit stiffer—more like just a show that is going on in the context. It is still a good show, but it doesn't have the warmth and the looseness and people there sitting down enjoying themselves without the cocktail waitress who keeps coming by and being like, "Do you guys want something?" When you take away the pressure of having to buy stuff and give people some leftover donuts, some wine, some beer, some snacks—I think that's a key part of Folk Night. Just the hospitality part of it and the reward of something free and fun. They donate, but I think that's fun too—sort of a hybrid of socialism and capitalism that is the donation show. BYOB or give some money for the things that are provided, but you don't have to. It's not a forced thing like comedy clubs. I mean, the worst part about comedy clubs is the two-drink minimum.
On politics and philosophy
"It's interesting being a comedian because I say I care who becomes President, but I'm also very skeptical on how effective the Presidency is because it's not just this insular person of power. It's somebody who has to collaborate."
I was happy to see John F. O'Donnell get Redacted Tonight. It has kept him out of Live From Outer Space and Cobra Club a lot, but he's traveling all over going to the different conventions and being part of a lot of unrepresented voices that are out there that aren't necessarily buying into or consuming just the mainstream of politics and what we're getting. I'm very much in line with that, too, because as a comedian you're constantly thinking about everything, and you've seen enough stuff to know that what you see isn't always what you get, and not everything is as it seems.
It's interesting being a comedian because I say I care who becomes President, but I'm also very skeptical on how effective the Presidency is because it's not just this insular person of power. It's somebody who has to collaborate. To me, it's like who's gonna be your manager at Starbucks. It doesn't matter who comes in to be the manager—it's still kind of Starbucks. They might switch up how the pastry case looks, or who does what job, but how effective can it be? Will Starbucks become a MacDonald's? I have opinions either way.
Then I'm really into some French philosophers, especially this one, Jean Baudrillard, who's a really great postmodern philosopher. He's written about many things, from catastrophes to tragedies to terrorism, and his take on these things is not the cut-and-dried one that you get just within our mainstream politics. The way he analyzes them and talks about their existence, it's almost as if they're more natural phenomena. Things we can't control. Like we know we can't control hurricanes, tornadoes, or thunderstorms. We can only react to them. He basically speaks of terrorism as such an occurrence. There are these things that politically we say, "We're gonna beat ISIS" or "We're gonna fight the war on terror." But it's almost as futile as saying, "We're gonna beat these hurricanes" or "We're gonna stop these earthquakes in their tracks." These things are inevitable things just because of the population that we have, the number of people who are on the planet, and also the natural order of things that is birth and death. There's not just one way to die. There are many ways, and they don't become less and less. It becomes more and more. The more people that are on the planet, the more ways there are to die. The more chances there are that somebody could hit you with a car. The more cars that are on the road, the more chances that you can get hit by a car. The more people that are there, the more chances you might get a disease from something.