Ben Roy is here to electrify the audience in hopes of saving himself.
The Boston born Denver native is a member of the Grawlix comedy trio, alongside Adam Cayton-Holland and Andrew Orvedahl. After years spent establishing themselves as regional comedic heroes, they graduated to the TruTV sitcom Those Who Can’t, which is about to enter its third season.
Ahead of this premiere, Ben Roy has unleashed his third stand-up album, Ooze Your Delusions. The Guns N’ Roses parody art isn’t out of place here. Not only is Roy a rock’n’roll style performer, but he splits his time between comedy and an actual punk band. The enthusiasm of a performer with nothing to lose allows him to deftly maneuver between framing his wife for transit alchemy, antagonizing those who might challenge him with Danger Facts, and planning to drag anyone at the time of his death directly with him to Hell, on the command of the Dark Lord.
You know: normal dad stuff.
The slender performer with gleeful antagonism oozing from his pores is also a big softy under all of that punchable skin and kinetic, brutal joy. I spoke to Ben Roy about overcoming a public meltdown, taking care of a broken brain, and what to do when you accidentally say “Yes” to everything.
Paste: Let’s open by talking about your punk-ish band SPELLS. You’re maybe the only comedian where I own more physical media of your non-comedy work. Especially on vinyl. Tell me about where SPELLS came from and what it means to you as a creative outlet that is similar to, but different from, your comedy work.
Ben Roy: I’ve been playing in bands since age 15. I was in a band with the drummer from SPELLS previously, and there were some members of a different band I was obsessed with and we all came together. We agreed to call it “vacation rock” because it’s something we do for fun and only when we can. No one can take it too seriously.
Paste: So, we don’t have to get into this if you don’t want, but you share a lot of videos of your teenage kid playing guitar, and he just shreds. I’m so jealous. I can see that you’re a bit upset about how quickly he progresses.
Roy: He’ll be thrilled to hear that. My thing from the get-go was that I just wanted him to be passionate about something. My wife and I are very passionate.
Paste: Some of the most pure content on my timeline these days is you just singing with your son. But some of the videos are also just being angry that your kid had a free hour and taught himself the entire solo from “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”
Roy: There’s sometimes a shock with parents over the incredible stuff kids can do. You always kind of think of them as little numbskulls—things you need to teach the whole world to. Then they do something like this and you’re upset because they weren’t supposed to be better at something than you. And then they play it down like, whoops I just learned this, as if by accident. They’re sponges and that’s cool. Music has always been there for me and has always been good to me. I’d give up comedy and our show in a split second if I had to choose between them and music.
Paste: With music as your forever influence, how has rock and roll influenced your comedy performance and does that ratio fluctuate over time? Does it change how aware you are of an audience?
Roy: I didn’t know how to be on stage. I was in drama and music in high school but otherwise I was a terrible student. I stumbled into comedy though my wife, who got a job at ComedyWorks in Denver. I didn’t know how to behave in a… stand-up manner? So I just did what I would have done onstage in music. I’m loud and usually standing on chairs or in someone’s face or climbing on things. That’s just the frame of reference I had for stage presence and performance.
Paste: Anyone who has been at a terrible open mic knows that someone jumping on a stool is either a master of their domain or an absolutely terrible comic who needs to do something to keep the audience’s attention.
Roy: I’m a little bit of both. It’s the same with music for me. Most of the bands I’ve been in have a tongue-in-cheek quality that mixes jokes with the dark and the heavy. I’ll get bored with being funny in the middle of a set, and I’ll start to meander into something that is occasionally labeled as spoken word. I find that frustrating, because I think this makes for a better ride; filling a room with tension. Oh, I’m doing the same thing here.
Paste: Look, comedians like you can probably suffer the occasional genre label of post-comedy if you’ve spent two decades as a musician being labeled post-punk.
Roy: Yeah! Comedy struggles when it relies on only one reaction. Music can be a lot of different things. I’m wrong about so many ideas but I think bringing competing ideas into a space is a good plan. I follow a concept to see where it unravels, and when it does it can be big laughs or it can be dark, but I can still make dark into a form of funny. And there’s a lot of that on this album…
Paste: Before we get into the contents of the new album, I just want to tell you that I made such a weird noise when I saw the cover art. Because, for people that don’t know, a few years back you posted this mostly nude/tucked photo of yourself shouting in a bed. It was to celebrate your birthday and it was a weird, silly joke. But then people started Photoshopping you into all sorts of ridiculous situations. I wrote it up as an article at a pop-culture website. Now it’s the background image on your cover art. What a weird call-back, man.
Roy: It’s the longest Photoshop call-back of all time. I did it because everybody else won in this contest and I wanted to win. Some of them were seamless and gorgeous. They were so good. So I waited. I waited. It was extra good, because I shared the photo and said “I feel beautiful” and someone flagged it for nudity. And that’s when everyone started making their own versions and it filled up my timeline for weeks. There were Reddits on it. That was weird, but it was a good middle finger to anyone mad about nudity.
Paste: Speaking of what people can learn from your social media feeds, your album brings up your very public breakdown after moving to Los Angeles. How do you handle an event like that from a comedic place but also how did you cope and also, you know, just promise us all that you’re okay?
Roy: I am. I have an anxiety disorder. I had my first panic attack at 15. They’ve plagued me my entire life. In 2015, when we sold the show to TruTV, I hit a perfect storm. I wasn’t prepared for the stress of absolutely everything in my life changing at the same time. I feel like a little bit of a dip-shit. In my head, I pictured what having a TV show would be. It’s actually more stress and work and difficult social dynamics and money management. There’s a lot of people tugging at the creative stuff. We also went from season one to season two immediately. We were doing press and I was also doing stand-up and there was also the band. I burned out hard. My unhealthy habits came back. I isolated myself. I couldn’t drive because I was afraid of panic attacks. Then I couldn’t be in public or on airplanes. I neglected doing the self-care I needed to do because I thought I needed to sacrifice to get us another season. By the end of that season, I had a terrible panic attack and wound up in the hospital. The ER nurse really wanted me to stay because I was rambling and off and they really wanted to medicate me. We had three days of shooting left. So I showed up to set the next morning on no sleep. We did the final three days and then I bottomed out real low.
Paste: Are those episodes when you’re on the brink of implosion your best performances of the season, or should artists learn that this isn’t the case?
Roy: After that happened, there was a—not intervention. A sit down. Adam and some of the other people from the show. To express concern about my behavior on the season. But, unfortunately, it did translate very well to screen for the character. The character’s arc is about losing it and he’s just barely holding on. So there was plenty of cream to scrape off the surface on that one. But then I cancelled everything for three months. And I got a therapist and I got on medication. Which I’ve avoided since I was a teen…
Paste: Oh, so you didn’t take care of yourself because when you were too young to know better you fucked up and now as an adult you couldn’t commit to what you knew you needed to be a healthy person? No. No one does that. No.
Roy: Exactly. Yes. And I’m not drinking anymore. I was drinking back then. So this is all working for me now. I have to be hyper-regimented. I need that. I need routines. I need jujutsu. That’s my yoga. I need rest and routine and order for balance.
Paste: Jujutsu rewarded you by giving you the children’s skin disease impetigo, for which you are now the poster child.
Roy: I didn’t expect that one. I’ve been doing martial arts for years. I never got any kind of ringworm, but I was stressed and my immune system was low and I caught… impetigo. As I bring up on the album. It’s something I learned a lot about.
Paste: What have you learned about making TV by carrying a show into its third season?
Roy: We learned how to make the process smooth. We learned how to work together and share the workload and trust each other? This third season was about fifty days of production and at the end I know I could have kept going. Because of how different this was. I felt good. Taking your hands off the wheel is important. That’s what I would tell other people. Create healthy space between the show and yourself.
Paste: I know this is you explaining how healthy you are but you’re also talking about wanting to keep going and taking your hands off the wheel. You know how this sounds, don’t you, Ben? Oh buddy, no!
Roy: I’m just saying I know I could’ve done this. I don’t mean that I should have done this. I say plenty of things and then run myself ragged. Which you know, too. We’re both touring comedians who have put the work in and you become a workhorse. But then, you know, there’s a limit.
Paste: You were being real honest with me there but then at the end you hit your version of vocal fry: which is that when you’re trying to be real exaggerated you revert to your Massachusetts bar-fight voice.
Roy: You think you’re better than me?? But no, I do miss being a stand-up and I’m glad to be done with the show so I can get back to it?
Paste: I guess I want to know what you expected this to be. You made a show with your comedian friends. Did you expect it would be like the comedy you’d made together before or was it so different that it changed things for you? Is that division good for you as a creator? Are you your own island versus the project you make with your best friends?
Roy: Collectively we make one thing and then we’re thrilled to break and go do our own things. I’m so close with them. But Adam and Andrew do very different things from me. I do music but Adam has an incredible book and Andrew is working on all these scripts. We come together and then we immediately break and find our individual identities again. But the translation from stand-up to comedy writing and TV acting? It’s wild. And I want to credit our co-star Maria Thayer. She’s an actual actor. She’s legit. I watch her and learn from her. She delivers a line that we wrote and she’s so much funnier. We write a lot of this as comics, but then she delivers it like an actor; like it’s a real thing and not a punchline. Playing it that way is a technique that I’m trying to learn.
Paste: The three of you that make up the Grawlix are so different, but also I’ve always wondered if situations arise where you try to one-up each other. For example, Adam Cayton-Holland is absolutely The Bird Guy. Did he ever push you to become The ____ Guy?
Roy: We’re all so different. You’d see it if you visited our places. Andrew’s place is full of, like, toys and games. And my place is a mess. And Adam’s place is exquisite. My place looks like what trashy people probably think class looks like. I’m probably describing myself the way Adam or Andrew would describe me. We’re very much individuals but we have such different leanings.
Paste: I’ll forever miss the Grawlix show in Denver. When I first came out to Denver for a run of stand-up shows, I wanted to ask if I could be on your show. And a local told me how critical and mean you guys were, and that if I even submitted my tape at this point in my career it would get me blacklisted. So the three of you inhabit this fear-respect in my life.
Roy: Didn’t we put you on the show?
Paste: Oh yeah. That doesn’t change anything. I’m still afraid, today, that you won’t think I’m good enough and then I’ll have to retire forever.
Roy: Huh. Well. We achieved this mythical status and I’m sorry about that.
Paste: So, there’s a few points on this album where… perhaps this is the current comedy climate, but you build a stress point around something that sounds regressive, and then you build to a point where it sounds like you’re going to apologize. And then you double down. Is that tricky to commit to?
Roy: My wife goes to a lot of marches. She’s a proud rally protestor who knows what she’s doing. She’s in social work. I write jokes and some of these jokes were cultivated over the last four years. What people are comfortable hearing changes so quickly these days. That can be the hard part. You’ll never find me writing a Facebook post railing against “kids and their pronouns these days” or whatever. But people are making really valid points about things and it isn’t my place to weigh in on those things. Here’s a thing that might explain a few of the jokes and how they feel dated, even from a year or two ago: I recorded this album two years ago. I recorded it and the files got lost. So this is me finally re-recording so many of those jokes. I’m here to antagonize but I’m never here to antagonize people who are receptive to the struggles of other people. I’m trying to be funny but I’m never trying to be the Jordan Peterson of comedy. (Roy makes some grumbling sounds approximating Peterson’s voice.) Everyone’s freedom of speech is fine, buddy.
Paste: How many years does it take to recover from losing an album recording? I know that so much work goes into preparing for that kind of night, I can’t imagine that recovery period you must of needed.
Roy: Shit happens. But I’m glad now. I polished these bits on the road and I did it better on this album. Maybe it’s fortuitous. I’ll do a sequel sooner rather than later.
Paste: Final question here. I run a self-care podcast now and it seems like I should be asking you about this. What’s your trick? What’s your process that you turn to when things get dark? How do you get out of the deep dark spots?
Roy: I wish I had a grandiose, esoteric answer. But it’s family. Family and jujutsu. It’s yoga but with consequences. The type that I do is based on grips and minutiae. I step out of it for two hours of training which is meditative. And getting your ass kicked is just a good way to bring you back to earth. If I’m feeling like I’m King Shit but then a 140 pound mousey dude tears my arm off for an hour and a half, it reminds you that you’re not the biggest, baddest thing. If I’m sad, it does the inverse for me.
Ben Roy’s Ooze Your Delusions is out now on 800 Pound Gorilla Records.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.