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Ben Comedy Main Headshot 2019 Lego Tshirt Hi Res_May 2019 Profile Piece

Filed Under , on May 4th, 2019

An Interview with Ben Rosenfeld (feature)

By Seth Kabala

Acceptance and Current Events

Listening to Ben Rosenfeld’s comedy, I didn’t come away with the impression that he was a big fan of The Donald. “My Mom’s Russian accent is so heavy that she could get a job at the White House, with top secret security clearance,” Ben said on his latest album, The United States of Russia, which we reviewed here. Then I chatted with him over the phone last January. (Why did you take so long to publish this piece, Seth? Short answer: I’m a civil servant with a day job, so I … Whoa, whoa, whoa, Seth. Stop. Never been that close to dying of boredom.)

(Ben was kind enough to update us on a few things in his life that have changed since early 2018. You’ll find those sprinkled throughout this piece.)

During our chat last year, I asked Ben what he had been up to since we had last chatted (three years earlier when The Family Farce reviewed Ben’s book, Russian Optimism). “Well, as you may or may not have heard, an election happened last year,” Ben said. If memory serves, I was trying to get home from working in downtown PDX when the nationwide Not My President rallies were in full swing. It’s all fun and games until human walls block freeway traffic and flash bang grenades make you apt to soil your pants and fearful that you forgot it was Independence Day. “Some people think it was important,” Ben went on, talking, with a heavy dose of sarcasm, about the election and the aftermath. “Some think it was not a big deal. Ever since then, apparently Russians are more in the news. … Before any of that stuff happened, I feel like some people thought I was making up some of the craziness of my Russian upbringing.”

To give you some context, on his latest album, The United States of Russia, Ben describes a scene where his dad, who mostly raised Ben on his own, sat him down to have a talk. Here’s what we had to say about this bit in our January 27, 2018 review of The United States of Russia:

When [his dad] learned Ben liked some non-hard alcohol, [Ben] said (in a voice that sounds like part covert operative, part very tired postal worker), “‘You’re failing beer. Because you like taste of Bud Light. I taught you: the best beer is vodka.’”

The juxtaposition of his comedy with current events has brought acceptance to Ben’s source material. “[N]ow they’re like, ‘Oh, that seems normal.’”

Recent History

As much as The Donald might have disliked it, we moved away from the election and discussed some of the supplementary comedy activities with which Ben’s gotten involved. “I’ve been doing more and more comedy writing and comedy punch-ups for people,” Ben said. “And one of the places I freelance for is called ComedyWire.com, where it’s like advertising people, people giving speeches, all sorts of different people that need to make their writing funnier submit things.” I can think of many people who need to use this site, like all the best men and maids of honor from every wedding I’ve ever attended. Drunk does not equal funny, people. “[S]tand-up comedians put their jokes on there,” Ben said. “It’s like a writer’s room of— Internet writer’s room giving them ideas.”

ComedyWire is more than a place for would-be funny speech-givers. “In addition to all the client stuff, they just have headline news there that you can write jokes for just to work your writing muscles, so on days that I do my morning writing … part of that routine is going to ComedyWire[.com] and just cranking out 10 or 20 jokes based off of the headlines. Sadly, that’s probably how I get 90% of my news … is from the ComedyWire headlines that they’ve decided are newsworthy enough to make fun of.”

Ben update: “Since Seth took so long to write this piece, my wife has managed to grow and birth a baby who’s about to celebrate her first birthday. So I’ve had much less time to do morning headline news jokes writing. If I get an hour a day to focus on just my stand up, it’s a miracle. I have had enough time to develop a new hour that I’ll be recording later this year – working title is “Baby Poison” :) It’s about the baby and Russia. (I have a new five minute joke about Russia and state-sanctioned poisonings, hence the combo for the title.)

Fatherly Influence

I circled back to his dad’s influence on his comedy and asked if Ben ever found himself channeling his father, particularly his dad’s thick Russian accent. “[M]y dad’s definitely influenced me a lot. He pretty much raised me on his own from, like, age 10 on,” Ben said. “I definitely get my practical and business side and sense from him. … [H]e definitely influences me outside of comedy, for sure. I don’t know if I channel him directly in the, you know— [talking to a booker] ‘I want to perform here.’ [And the booker says] ‘No you can’t perform here.’ [And Ben responds, in his dad’s Russian accent] ‘Oh, you, is that what you think?’”

This tiny quip of Russian vocal threat made me laugh, and look over my shoulder. “I don’t think I go to acting like I’m in the mob or anything like that,” Ben said. I suggested to Ben that this impression might be an effective technique for booking shows, so show-bookers beware. There’s a Russian mobster in there somewhere just waiting to pop out—and make you laugh.

Geographically Challenged

We talked about where he does most of his performing as well as where he has traveled. He mentioned staying close to the NYC area, but he’s also spent time in the LA and San Francisco areas. I mentioned that Portland was only about 10 hours from San Francisco, which surprised Ben. “I have this American public school geography where if I haven’t been to a place, I don’t really imagine where it is.” Yes, whether the public schools want us here or not, Portland, unlike the UK, will remain.

Ben update: “Rereading this, I was still surprised that Portland is 10 hours north of SF. I guess I can’t blame public schools on my not remembering things I learned two years ago :)”

International Reception

I was curious about how international travelers reacted to Ben’s work, so I asked him about it. “[W]hen you perform in Times Square clubs, which I do often, you get people from all over the world. … Australians and British people are the most common.” Most insects here won’t kill you? Check. Dental plans? Check. “And a lot of Swedish people, too. Generally, it’s fine. The most interesting reactions are from other Russian speakers,” Ben said. “Where it’s very, either they love it and they’re like, ‘Oh, my god. That’s my family.’ And I’d say that’s like 90%. And then like 10% are like,” Ben did his Russian accent again. “‘Hmm. That’s not funny. You shouldn’t talk about your mother that way.’”

Sketch Building

Not content to just stand behind the microphone or throw shade on current news headlines, Ben also spends time producing comedy sketches. “I’ve gotten the process down more and more where now it’s not as bad, especially now I’ve figured out this— I usually set up, like, three cameras at once.” Less is not more when it comes to sketch production, particularly in the editing department. “I’ve run multi-camera editing, so that makes it much simpler,” Ben said. “You know if you shoot one camera, you’re doing, like, cutaways to both people and then an establishing shot. You have to— When you’re editing, you have to, like, find the best take of each of those things. … Whereas if you set up three cameras, you just need one good take, and then you can cut between the cameras. It just makes editing much faster.” The craft of sketch making is a slow burn. On his skill set: “That’s evolved over time, but when I started, I would say each sketch feels like it takes a year off my life.”

Ben update: “I had a sketch go viral on Facebook video – 1.5 million views / 20k shares  https://www.facebook.com/BenRosenfeld/videos/10109505179635699/

Collaboration

Ben believes in working with others to overcome inertia, so he partnered with his comic buddy, Mike Vecchione (whose album, The Worst Kind of Thoughtful we reviewed here), to produce a recent sketch, Extreme Ballroom Dance Instructor, in response to a quick-turnaround production call from a local bar. They subjected themselves to this short timeline because the comedian stereotype is true, Ben admitted. We are lazy. Overcoming laziness, however, is only part of the story. “[D]eadlines make you accomplish things,” Ben said.

Painting a picture of the sketch: “The scenario is: it’s this couple, trying to just learn their first dance for their wedding, you know, and [the instructor’s] just, like, riding them like they’re competing in the world championships of dancing.” I remarked on the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating a professional Dancing with the Stars routine, suggesting that Ben’s sketch could be a window into the prep world of that show. “Maybe,” Ben said. “Although, I would think if it was, the show would be even more popular … because of the insanity and the screaming.”

Producers of Dancing with the Stars take note. I know you already control, like, 90% of the prime-time television universe, but if you incorporate behind-the-scenes work a la Ben and Mike’s sketch, maybe throwing in a fuck or two with a dick shoved up a dead guy’s ass, you could own the world.

Open Mic Caution

Starting out as a wide-eyed comic, cocaine-induced or not, it’s important to get stage time. You have to put in your reps to build your chops and prove yourself in the scene. What’s the obvious choice for getting stage time? Open mics. But Ben advises budding comics to be cautious with open mics. “[O]ne, it’s hard to get laughs, two, and more importantly, you can get laughs for the wrong reasons.”

What could be wrong with getting laughs? If people are laughing, isn’t that the goal? Haven’t you won? Time for ice-cream for little Sethy boy, right? Not so fast. “I think of it as a Venn diagram of what comedians find funny and what the audience finds funny,” Ben said. “And there’s some overlap, but not— There’s certain jokes you can make that will always get a laugh at an open mic, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually a good joke or that a real audience will laugh at it.”

Going for the venereal disease angle doesn’t work so well with paying customers. “So you want to be careful with that,” Ben said, circling back with a final tag on his caution note. “You know like, ‘And then I gave her AIDS,’ or something like that will get comedians to laugh, but … [a] real audience will just stare at you.”

Ben update: “Still true. Use open mics to get comfortable on stage, especially in silence, and to make friends, but don’t solely rely on open mics to gauge what jokes are actually funny, especially when you’re new and don’t understand the difference between funny jokes and shock jokes that make only comedians laugh.”

Delivery and Cadence

I find it awesome to watch a skilled comic at work. Political theater scripts have the fate of the world balancing on every word. Emotionally speaking, comedy can feel like that, with the fate of the room breathing or flat-lining based on the comic’s timing. I think Ben’s delivery is polished, but he’s humble about his skills. “I’ve improved over time,” Ben said. “But, learning how to perform so it doesn’t sound like you wrote it is not— If your brain is writing-focused anyway, it’s definitely not an easy adjustment to make. Sometimes you even want to add stutters and pauses and things like that to make it sound less smooth.” On the state of his delivery skills: “I like to think of that as a work in progress.”

Ben update: “I’m still working on it. I think this next album that I’m gonna be recording, you’ll hear some differences in my delivery.”

Switching Careers

After college, Ben worked as a consultant for Accenture, performed well, was promoted and making some decent money, but this held as much catharsis for him as being an Aspirin engraver would if you couldn’t cut it as a sculptor.

Ben update: “[I]t was just meaningless for me.”

Lucky for the comedy world, he didn’t become a defenestration statistic. But is he still as passionate about comedy today as he was when he started 10 years ago? “[T]here’s nothing that I’d rather be doing. That’s still [as] true today as it was when I started. Probably more so.” Being confident in what you’re doing, however, doesn’t wash away all anxieties. “I still feel, like, if I have three bad months of no work, then I gotta go back to getting a day job, so it doesn’t feel like secure or comfortable yet.”

Continuing on with his thoughts on security and comfort, Ben talked about a book that spoke to the randomness and luck that suffuses the comedy world. “I don’t even think it was a book on comedy,” Ben said, “but it was some book I read, where they were like, ‘Look, the way to think of career is like there’s a pyramid, and if you work hard, you can get to that top five or ten percent of the pyramid.’”

Don’t go beyond the top percentile unless you’re willing to embrace change. “After that, on top of the pyramid, is a lottery wheel.” Don’t want to gamble with your career? Don’t get into comedy. “[E]very few years you get a spin on the lottery wheel. … But you don’t know where it’s gonna land, and you have no control over that. … It’s been helpful to accept that in a way. … Because it’s this weird dichotomy, where you have to work really hard, right? …[B]ut luck can trump all of that, which makes you not wanna work hard, but if you work hard, your odds of getting lucky are higher.”

Ben update: “I have a new ten minute bit on success, luck, and classicism in America – hopefully it will be ready for this next album.”

The Role of Luck

The lottery wheel may spin and spin and pass you over many more times than it hits on your numbers, but every once in a while, it offers some benevolence. Ben has a story about that.“[M]y wife is more in touch with her Judaism than me,” Ben said. “[S]he likes to go to, like, Friday night dinners, Shabbat dinners.” One of Ben’s favorite pastimes is spending time with his wife. “She’ll get me to go to one every, like, four to eight months.” To stay in or go out? Based on what happened to Ben, maybe you’ll lean more toward putting on your nice threads.

“So the guy who happened to be sitting across from me at the table recognized me from a couple of comedy shows that he’d come out to watch because his friend was doing comedy. … And he was a producer for Mysteries at the Museum, which is a TV show on the Travel Channel.” Blooming comic talent meet television producer with access to industry. “And he’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask my friend for your info, because I thought you’d have a good look for the show.’ So off of that, I’ve done two episodes where I’m a talking head on Mysteries at the Museum. … But that had nothing to do with anything in my control, right?”

The easy thing to do here would be to insert a cliché, so instead we’ll say that making plans and expecting them to execute as planned is like planning for a nice, sunny day on Kepler 22b. It might happen, but probably not, and any possibility comes with the need to control space and time, which is a tall order these days, unless you work for Marvel. “Staying focused on the things you can control. I guess that’s the short answer,” Ben said. “Compared to the long answer, [which] is after ten years [of doing comedy], the main difference is: now I know to focus on what I can control and ignore the rest as much as possible.”

Likability

All performers struggle with anxieties. Some are debilitating, such as those that made a college professor of mine hide under a piano until the students started acting nicer. True story. Others, although less likely to remain in one’s memory 20 years later, are simply annoying. “I’m taking an acting class to improve at that part of entertainment,” Ben said. “My acting teacher mentioned likability.”

A white, male comic with Russian roots telling jokes that skirt the edges of slamming The Donald? Surely all crowds of red, blue, and green stripes (Green Party joke. Bet it’s the first time they’ve been mentioned since the last election) alike love Ben unconditionally. Not so.

“Sometimes it takes me a few minutes to get the crowd to where I want them to be,” Ben said. “I think part of that’s likability, part of it’s—some of my jokes require thinking. … Depending on what the previous comic was doing and how much he was talking about only his dick. It may take them longer to get into my mindset.”

The trick is to administer an IQ test before getting into Ben’s shows. I hear he tried it, but the comedy-show-attendees-turned-interviewees thought it was a drug trial and demanded payment, so he scrapped it.

“But here’s what’s funny to me: before I started doing stand-up, if I was out in a group, I’d always need to be the center of attention. … But since I’ve been doing stand-up, I now no longer want any attention when I’m off-stage, and I’m content to either sit in the corner of a room or be at home reading a book instead. Doing stand-up gets all my attention-seeking out in a very concentrated form for, you know, 10 or 40 minutes at a time, and then the rest of the day, I don’t want it.”

Crowd adoration, like weed, is only good to a point. Eventually, we all crash.

Ben update: “I feel the same way, or even more so. If I’m not performing, I’d rather go play with my baby daughter, or do work, or nap.”

Joke Engineering

Stephen King is famous for attributing much of his early creative energy to alcoholism. Comics follow the leader in this regard and add in their own flavors of party drugs. We didn’t get into any of Ben’s illicit habits (next interview), but I did ask him about his act development and joke writing processes. Does his stuff develop through sweat and consternation, or is it more natural? “It develops naturally in the sense of, whatever ideas come into my head, I write them down, and then I have my process of looking over jokes and then trying them out and then trying to add things or remove things until each joke is the length that it is. … Because sometimes I’ll have, like, a nugget of an idea of a one-liner, and it turns into, like, a three-minute joke, and sometimes I have a three-minute story that ends up getting cut down ‘cause it’s not working and becomes a one-liner, so I kind of view it as an accordion.”

Business consultant to comic to polka musician? I thought I truly had found something unique in this interview until Ben went all metaphorical on me. “I view writing jokes like an accordion,” Ben said. “You know, you start, compact it, then you add a bunch of stuff. You try it. Some of it works, some doesn’t, so it compresses, not to the original size, but … somewhere in-between the expanded and contracted, and it kind of goes through a few iterations of that ‘til you find the right length of it. But once I have jokes, the order I put them in is definitely— It’s on purpose, where I like to put in a bunch of short jokes in a row in the first couple of minutes.”

What I heard was finding “the right length of it,” which is a Michael Scott joke that I just need to leave alone, or this article is leaving the tracks and heading into the river in a cloud of steam, smoke, and charred groans.

But before we get to the burning flesh, let’s remember that the right length to a piece only applies to stand-up sets, not to feature profile pieces. Writers’ egos need keystrokes.

Trying New Things

Like wives for the mid-life-crisis man and platform positions for politicians, it’s important to try new things. Ben feels the same way—but about comedy. “I think a new thing on this album that I didn’t— I don’t think I did on my previous album, is there’s two or three tracks where I go into a rant/scream-type punchline situation, where it’s just funny because it keeps going and going in the buildup, where I think I haven’t done that before. It might just be I’m, you know, growing as a performer.”

I’ve got an idea here for Ben, but I’m going to wait until the end of the quote to see if it holds weight.

“And that track 28,” The Universe Has a Plan, in which Ben discusses the randomness, or supreme order, depending on your point of view, of the universe, “is one of them where I get worked up to a thing. So, yeah, I’d say I’m definitely a mix of short jokes and longer form, and then, you know, I have the characters and the voices, and now I think I’ve added a little bit of the getting-worked-up and calming-it-back-down situation.”

Yep, my idea holds. Here it is: if you’ve never seen the Amazon show Sneaky Pete, check it out. I’m thinking years of training as a comic could be the perfect proving grounds for a career as a con-man. Characters, emotions on cue, the Russian voice mob—Ben is set!

Ben update: “You’re probably on to something, as my favorite characters to play in acting are con-men and bad guys.”

True Style

The news cycle constantly spins, so it’s tempting to cram yourself into a mold that’s incongruous with your character, particularly concerning your on-stage energy level. “I feel I’m not as low-energy as the most low-energy comedians. But I’m also not a high-energy comedian. So it’s this weird middle ground.” Subtle cues from a comic direct the audience toward a comic’s style and feed into their acceptance or rejection of a comic, which means that having a more understated style, at times, works against Ben, he feels.

“[W]hen it’s someone who’s just completely deadpan, you get that right away, right? And when it’s just someone that’s running around the stage and humping stools or whatever … you get that right away. You get the two extremes. It’s just how my constitution is. I’m neither of those. It’s just been about finding what I can do. I guess I could just go more deadpan, but then as soon as I would talk to an audience member, it would— I don’t think I could crowd work in a deadpan way.” In comedy, as in the world of con-men, no one wants to be revealed as a fraud.

“So it’s just kind of finding … who I am, figuring out the best way to execute that for comedy audiences.”

And potential marks.

Controllable Goals

Do comics live in the moment, screwing everything that moves, drinking anything that flows, or do they take a business approach to their craft? Much to the chagrin of a writer who loves the inflammatory gem quote, Ben is of the studious variety. However, he does have some good advice, some of which I have personally adopted.

“[O]n my website, [I] put/post yearly goals,” Ben said, “and then a yearly goals in review section. And I’ve been doing that for the past nine or 10 years. It’s definitely something I do and I’m aware of. This year for the first time when I wrote 2018 goals, I actually separated goals I can control and goals I can’t control.”

Making goals and sub-categorizing them? Sounds like crazy talk. Or could it be the mind of a future star and business scion at work? “[S]omething I can control is writing every day, right? I can do that no matter what else is going on. I can find 20 minutes or two hours or whatever to work on the jokes, and that’s always a goal. … [One of] my goals is to turn over, like, 30-to-40 minutes of material a year.”

Regular writing practice is important. You need Ass in Seat (AIS) time to produce enough material that can be winnowed to the good stuff. Also, don’t forget to strategically plan the timing of album recording. “I recorded this album and the last album exactly two years apart, because I usually record my album on my birthday, because it’s the only time I can get people to show up.” Ben sounded a little bitter when he said this. Joke or Freudian slip? We’re going to stick with the comedy and leave the psychoanalysis to more highly-paid specialists.

On the winnowing process of refining jokes to form the finished act, “This album’s 74 minutes and probably, without crowd-work, 70, so, like, not that I have 35 minutes a year of new jokes, which really means, I probably wrote 60 minutes of new jokes, and then half of them were not strong enough or, just from the … accordion method became 35 good minutes.”

I tried to get Ben to talk about the big picture, but, being the shrewd comic mind that he is, he dodged the bait, preferring instead to talk about stuff he could control. “A goal I can control is writing every day and performing every day, somewhere, whether it’s a college, a club, or even an open mic. I can control getting on stage every day. Those are the two things, and [I] actually have a daily board with process goals of things that I can do every day that, over the long run, should help me get to where I want to be.”

The construction of a comic is, then, similar to the construction of a cathedral. Day after day, one puts in the work, hones skill, and discovers things about oneself that were impossible to see or attain before construction reached a certain level.

Development Tracking

It’s not, however, just doing the work. Not just your AIS quotient. Record-keeping is important. Don’t get excited and think we’re saying you need to take an accounting course (although it’s advisable if you want to keep your money out of your business manager’s Cayman Islands account). Personal accountability record-keeping is what you need.

Referring to the board with his process goals, “That board is just the date and check-marks, whether you did it or not,” Ben said. “I’m looking at it now. It’s a big white-board.” Reading from the board, “’[W]rite, perform, exercise, eat well, make money, meditate, and hang out,’ meaning go be somewhere where I’m not scheduled to perform that’s comedy-related. … I don’t succeed often at doing all seven every day. But it keeps me tracking it day-to-day.”

Ben is Jewish. I’ve mentioned accounting.

Ben update: “I also put my daily morning weight on it, to shame myself from getting too fat.”

Uncontrollable Goals

Swinging the dial around to the randomness of the universe, Ben recognized his lack of power over the big picture. “Things I can’t control that I would like to happen is I’d like to get this album to #1 on the iTunes Comedy Charts,” Ben said. “I’m hoping it will occur, because unlike the last album, this album is being released by a comedy label, a record label.” Ben thought leveraging the cache of a record label would impact his album’s success. “[Comedy Dynamics has] an existing relationship with Apple, so there’s at least a chance that it’ll get, you know, the cover will get put into the front page of if people click over to comedy or getting [in] the banner section. … That’s definitely a goal for this year that I can’t control at all.”

We can control where we are and our reaction to showing up in a situation. That’s it. Ben’s showing up and reacting earned him the #1 spot on iTunes when his album was released last year. By refusing to be bound by the uncontrollable, then, do we control it? We have more power than it first appears. Comedy may seem like the elusive beast; comedic success, even more so. I believe the influencers are the controllers. Influencers track the career beasts and wrangle success until it behaves.

Ben is an influencer.

Even if he does talk shit about his mother.

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Seth Kabala

About: Seth Kabala
Seth is an entrepreneur, writer, musician, family man, and juggler of balls--big ones. He lives with his wife and three children in Portland, OR.

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Set, collection of colorful socks icons with different ornaments isolated on white background.

Waiting for Sock

Think about stuff you need to get you through your day. Does coffee come to mind? Of course it does. For millions of Americans and billions of people around the world, coffee, in its various forms, is a daily ritual. Not just a daily ritual--an hourly fix, as in you need to grab more black sludge...

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Shuffler's Luck

I never knew a card game could change my life. I'm not talking about a high-stakes poker game, where international gangsters vie for dominance in a world of chance, and if chance doesn't go their way, bullets will do as a nice substitute. I'm talking about a simple card game with suggestions for the...

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Bully man

Meter Mensch

A co-worker of mine dropped her bus pass in the hall. Someone picked it up and handed it to her. She thanked the person, saying she was sure glad she hadn't lost it for good. I poked my head out of my office and said, "You just ruined a fare inspector's day." Got a good laugh, and it got me...

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Chess board made of white and brown sugar with King

Sweetness and Dark

The street is dark. Cars line both sides, hugging the curbs. Streetlamps reflect off of glossy paint jobs and squeegeed windshields, creating alternative perspective art pieces from flipped aspect ratios of bent light. A breeze blows the evening fog up from the water. It lowers the ambient...

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Holy Cow - handgezeichnete Illustration mit Pastellkreide in türkis

Couch Etymology

From where you sit, do you understand seated origin? The reason for said sitting? If not, you soon will. ...

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Pop-art style poster with hipster deer dressed in yellow glasses and scarf, telling I am cool.

Toxic Bambi

Yesterday while I was writing, Ella, our seven-year-old, came up to me and said she had thought of a joke. "My first joke," she announced, pride streaming from her voice and face. I asked her what it was. Here's what she said, "What does [we'll say Bob] want to do for school? Me U. Get it? Me U...

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World Map in Typography word cloud concept, names of countries

Plan for the Journey

Toastmasters is moving away from its physical manuals and static speech-making program into a dynamic program called Pathways. On January 10, 2019, I delivered my first speech in Pathways: a re-imagination of my ice-breaker speech. If you don't know me, know this: if you give me a rubric, I will...

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Battle of the Sarcasticons

I’m raising a band of Little Sarcasticons. Defined term? Yes, yes it is. You can find it in the Kabala Book of Sarcasticisms. New chapters available daily. No longer must we be constrained in our sarcastic witticism production. Oh, no, folks. Netflix has joined the charge with their resurrection...

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