Maybe you’ve stumbled onto one of Ari Shaffir’s Amazing Racist videos, a series in which Shaffir shocks and offends through his insane pranks. One sketch has Shaffir walking into a convenience store dressed as a KKK member with a wooden cross. He asks the black cashier, “Do any of your people have a front lawn?”
Despite these pranks, he hasn’t been murdered yet, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. “I used to get a lot of death threats,” says Shafir, “After a while I realized that no one’s gonna do anything or they would’ve.” Recently, the 41-year-old comedian went to delete his Myspace account and looked at an arsenal of verbal assaults. He responded to them by saying, “Hey, you said you were gonna kill me. Just wondering how that’s going?”
Asking Jewish people to sign a petition saying they’re sorry they killed Jesus is a
ridiculous thing to do, but Shaffir doesn’t care. “Laughs, just laughs. It’s the only
motivation of a comic”, he says. “So when people ask if I’m sorry I did those things, I say, no. I’ll probably never do anything that makes that many people laugh.”
Much of Shaffir’s humor has been shaped by his Orthodox Jewish upbringing.
“The school I went to had some of the funniest people I knew. I wasn’t even the funniest one there.” Shaffir had a crisis of faith during his time in Israel at seminary. “I just stopped doing everything. I stopped keeping Kosher, not hooking up with girls, all of it.” He wanted to drop out junior year to be a cab driver in New York, thinking “it would be romantic. Driving around in a cab, talking to people.” But he gave up his taxi dreams after his father convinced him to finish college. Shortly after graduating, he moved to LA to pursue comedy.
Sam Kinison is one of Shaffir’s biggest comedic influences, but his peers inspire him more than anyone else. “Bill Burr, Freddy Soto, Joe Rogan, Tom Segura…those people influenced me a lot more than any of the older guys like Richard Pryor. I like their stuff. I understand historically where it falls, but it’s not what drove me,” Shaffir says.
He learned a lot working at The Comedy Store, watching people perform every night. “There’s even technical aspects of stand-up that I learned from watching my contemporaries. Crowd work, letting people dig their own holes…things like that.”
The club that employed him for so long is where he decided to film his special, Paid Regular. “This is more like a full circle. I worked for the Comedy Store as an employee trying to become a paid regular. I had this dream of achieving a half hour special on TV. I thought, man, they should do something here in one of these really dark, small rooms, like the original room.”
In addition to his special, This Is Not Happening, Shaffir’s digital storytelling series where comedians tell raucous true stories, is making its television debut on Comedy Central on January 22. Shaffir believes the base of all comedy is storytelling. “I have a writer friend that wants to try stand-up and you know, just tell a story. Tell it at a party. It’ll at least get you comfortable onstage. That’s just one part of the game. One-liners are another part of it. Just bring all those parts together.” However, Shaffir sees a difference between his kind of storytelling and a show like The Moth. “I think those stories are different. They’re a lot more emotional on purpose. I love The Moth, don’t get me wrong, but it becomes the same. Stories became this thing where every story ended with, ‘And that’s when I lost my innocence. I realized I would never be the same person.’ Shut up. That’s not part of the story. You didn’t realize it then. You’re just trying to be important right now. I like the kind of stories where it’s just fun. It’s what I would tell people at a party like, ‘Here’s the time I shit myself.’ The Moth is great, it’s just a little heavy.”
Season 2 of This Is Not Happening was filmed at Cheetah’s, a strip club in LA. Someone suggested the famous nudie club for season 2 and it was a no brainer for Shaffir. “Being in a room like that. You just gotta let go…we did it in Montreal at a strip club and it was great. It was really intimate. You’d go upstairs and pass by old, worn out photos of these strippers. It’s like dingy and you can’t help but let go of some of your hang-ups. Where else are you going to tell a story about cheating on your wife or robbing someone? You’re not in a sterile environment when you’re being judged. I just liked the feel of that.”
In between doing stand-up and This is Not Happening, Shaffir has a podcast called, Skeptic Tank where he interviews friends and strangers in all sorts of places. “I did an episode once next to the Great Wall of China,” he says. “We did one just on a rock at Joshua Tree. Then we did a bunch of mushrooms the next morning.” There are a number of people he would still like to interview, including a child molester. “On To Catch a Predator they’re like, ‘I have a sickness’ and everyone’s like ‘fuck you, you’re sick.’ Ok, well, listen to them. They are sick. You have an urge, it’s like being an alcoholic. Take the bias away from it. I want to know what they’re going through. They’re not just like evil people that want to fuck children in front of their parents for power. They’ve got some kind of sickness. I’ve interviewed heroin addicts too, which is less reprehensible. I feel like they go through the same sort of thing. There’s a pull on you, but you can’t help it. It’s just less reprehensible than being a child molester.”
Shaffir also wants to interview Carlos Mencia so he can ask about “joke stealing and how he got started in that.” Shaffir wants to test his biases. “If I can do some of these things without getting angry and saying ‘fuck you.’ I just want to know what it’s about and report on the issue.”
Before letting Shaffir go, I had to ask, how would The Amazing Racist prank white people? “Say all white people are racist. That’s the only way to really get them.”
Anita Flores is the two time raffle-winning recipient of an iPod mini and a 25% off coupon to Bertucci’s. She has also written for Paste Magazine, Nerve, and Portable TV. Follow her on Twitter for the latest updates on pizza and Kelsey Grammer’s career: @anitajewtina.