New York-based alternative comedian Ben Wasserman wants to make you laugh, even when he’s talking about death.
Ben Wasserman really just wants you to laugh. He wants you to laugh, and leave his show believing that he is the best comedy act that you have ever seen. These are high accolades to assign to one’s self, but the New York City-based comedian is confident enough for the task.
Wasserman fell into comedy about five years ago after walking into an open mic and deciding to give it a go. Between seeing some not-so-great material and realizing that he really enjoyed what he was doing, regardless of whether or not anyone else did, he decided to keep working on finding what made him laugh (and what, he hoped, would make others laugh, too).
“A few weeks later I went up, and was probably equally unfunny as anyone else,” said Wasserman. “But it was funny enough for me, and I kept doing it.”
His comedy style has been described as high energy and all over the place. While that is certainly true, he will tell you that he also depends on participation to drive his set. If you happen to find yourself in the audience of one of Wasserman’s sets, be prepared to help him out.
“It’s sort of high concept, character driven, participatory… something, ” said Wasserman. “What I really try to do, I think, is create a sense of community where people can sort of let loose and have fun. Particularly, have fun yelling, and be yelled at, and being wacky, and just whatever happens next is okay. That is kind of the vibe I try to create.”
If you were at Wasserman’s show this past weekend at Intermission Beer Company in Glen Allen, you got to see that firsthand. Every audience member in the room helped craft his unique set. From scripted polite heckling, to helping him find the wrong card in his magic set, to singing the word “Saturday” to the theme of YMCA off-beat, Wasserman made sure that everyone felt included and part of the show.
Many of his peers might describe their specialties as stand-up, sketch, or improv, but Wasserman subscribes to the genre of “alternative comedy.”
“It’s definitely not stand-up comedy, and very few actual structured jokes,” said Wasserman. “I think a lot of the laughs come from the fun that’s been created. As long as the vibe is pretty good. I’ve never had the same set twice, because it really does depend on how the room is feeling, and the energy, and how that incorporates into the set I had planned.”
In Brooklyn, Wasserman helps host a show called Side Ponytail, which he has also co-produced for the past five years. Side Ponytail generally focuses on stand-up, showcasing five or six of their favorite comedians from the city, or out of town guests they enjoy.
“It’s not easy to keep a show running in Brooklyn,” said Wasserman. “Let alone over two venues over the course of five years.”
One of the most interesting things that Wasserman has done in his career thus far was performing at a grief retreat. It’s not the place you’d expect to find humorous entertainment, but it’s certainly true to Wasserman’s alternative-comedy approach.
Originally he was talked into doing it by one of his closest friends, fellow Comedian Alyssa Limperis, who was doing a one-woman show about the death of her father entitled No Bad Days. She, Wasserman, and their friend Matt DeCaro had all lost a parent within a few years of each other, and became close friends through doing their shows together.
The hospice care who cared for Limperis’ father had put together a retreat for grieving survivors of patients they had helped. The three comedians brought their shows to the retreat.
“We hosted this show for all of these widowers and widows and newly orphaned children,” said Wasserman. “It was like this really powerful, amazing, cool experience. The three of us got to bond a whole lot together on the trip, and the only comedy I was doing was about the loss of my father and grandfather, and a couple friends who had killed themselves. It was really cool to be in a site-specific environment, where that stuff was immediately grasped on a different level.”
Comedy has always had a strange, intertwined relationship with trauma and the grieving process. While it’s easy to acknowledge that reality, Wasserman was at a loss to explain why.
“Death and loss and grief are so unimaginable, and almost inevitable in a way, in how disconnected from reality [they feel],” said Wasserman. “The moment you remember to laugh, you remember joy. You know you will be able to do that again.”
There are many things performers hope audiences take away from their shows, but Wasserman hopes you will leave thinking that he is one of the best. If he can make death itself seem less daunting, then he just might not be wrong.
Top photo by Jenni Walkowiak