Comic Ben Rosenfeld is swigging bottled water and swiping the sleep from his eyes, which he confesses aren’t quite ready to open.
Whose bright idea was it to do this interview at such an awful hour?
Busted! It was Ben who set the time.
He was joking. Well sort of. He also suggested noon, so he didn’t really think 8 would be the chosen option.
“I’m not a morning person,” he says. “I used to sleep in school. When the teachers called on me, I gave the right answer then put my head back down on the desk.”
He swears he’s serious.
Jokes, he insists, don’t just spring from his brain fully formed. They have to be house trained like puppies to get their giggles and guffaws on.
“Some jokes take five different versions to work,” he says. “Some are written the day before a show. With some, it takes months before I say them on stage.”
Ben, who writes his routines in the spare bedroom in his apartment, does stand-up on the Manhattan circuit — Carolines, the Broadway Comedy Club, Comic Strip Live and Stand Up NY.
“When I find something that’s interesting, I try to think of a way to make it funny,” he says.
That usually means rummaging through his own life for material. There’s lots of it.
Ben, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia when it was called Leningrad, came to America when he was 4. His family settled in Stamford, Connecticut, where his parents had friends.
He doesn’t remember much about his life there or his transition here.
“My dad says that I stopped speaking for six months then started speaking English,” he says.
He also started telling jokes.
“Someone once said about me that most people make jokes to show they are funny, but Ben makes jokes to show he’s smart,” he says.
When his parents divorced, 10-year-old Ben lived with his father. He’s not quite sure why – his mother and father tell different versions of the story.
“It’s unusual that my dad got custody,” he says. “But at the time it seemed normal. And his parents lived close by, so it wasn’t like I was at home alone.”
Ben continued to find the funny side of things while studying at Rutgers University, where he ran a school parody website and earned a degree in economics and philosophy.
“My freshman roommate was doing stand-up,” he says. “I used to follow him and give him advice.”
When Ben graduated, he took a serious job. For three years, he was a management consultant for Accenture.
During his second year, he transferred from the Hartford to the Manhattan office and moved to Astoria.
A project required him to travel to Philadelphia, so he decided to check out stand-up shows for his ex-Rutgers roommate.
“I thought, ‘I can write this stuff,’ so I did and told my friend that he could use some of the jokes,” Ben says. “And he said, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ I thought, ‘Why not? I don’t know anybody in Philly.’”
Everybody laughed when Ben took the stage.
Thus encouraged, he continued his routines when, a year later, he attended grad school at Caltech, where he was majoring in a decidedly unfunny subject, neuroeconomics.
After four months, at the end of 2009, he quit.
“School was getting in the way of my comedy,” he says.
He moved back to Astoria and returned to the club circuit.
“I lived on my savings,” he says. “And I took a four-day-a-week job for nine months. I told them I could not do five days a week because I needed to catch up on my sleep.”
Since 2012, he’s been making his living one joke at a time.
“I’m a full-time comedian,” he says. “By that, I mean that I have about eight different ways of making money – I do stand-up, acting, video work and radio voice-over work, and I write books and direct and edit sketches. So I’m always working.”
Generally, he gets up between 9 and 10:30 a.m. OK, 9 is wishful thinking; it’s nearly always closer to 10.
His wife, Michelle Slonim, is a comedian with an at-home day job. She works at a desk in a corner of the living room.
Ben stretches, meditates, does some stream-of-consciousness writing and warms up his funny bone by writing headline jokes for comedywire.com.
“I can’t control when I get ideas, but when I do, I mine and squeeze them for all they’re worth,” he says. “Sometimes I get no ideas; other times, I get three or four a week.”
When Ben’s not refining his own routines, he’s punching up keynote speeches and talks for pay.
By 1 or 2 p.m., he’s scheduling his appearances.
“I do stand-up every night,” he says. “I end up doing 600 to 750 spots a year. A spot generally is 10 to 20 minutes.”
If this sounds tiring, it is.
And so is Ben. Eight o’clock is far too early.
Astoria Characters Day: The 2nd Family Reunion is Sept. 23, 2018.
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Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling on Twitter; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2018 by Nancy A. Ruhling