Comedian Ben Wasserman Talks Timing, Touring, and Trash Bags

Comedy Features Ben Wasserman
Comedian Ben Wasserman Talks Timing, Touring, and Trash Bags

In October 2019, I saw comedian Ben Wasserman perform in the dingy basement venue Vital Joint (now sadly shut down) in Brooklyn as part of a live podcast taping I was hosting with a friend. The show was death-themed, and Wasserman conducted a seance to attempt to communicate with his late father. Another pal of mine was brought up to channel Wasserman’s dad, and the comedian hilariously berated him as my friend failed to properly embody Wasserman senior. That sort of push-and-pull—Wasserman antagonizing the audience while also somehow always keeping them on his side—is a key element of his comedy. 

Wasserman began doing bits about death not long after his father died of lung cancer in 2017. He took a month off hosting a show in Brooklyn in the wake of his dad passing, then returned, unsure if he was going to address what happened. 

“I came back to host, and I wasn’t planning on bringing it up in any way, and I didn’t for the whole show,” Wasserman recalls to me over Zoom, “I was just energy boy and bringing people on; it was a good show. And then at the very end, I had a shirt on that said ‘My dad died three weeks ago’ or something like that, and I unbuttoned my shirt, and I was like, ‘By the way, thanks for all being here. My dad died three weeks ago. You guys are not him, but you’re really cool and you made me feel good.’”

By early 2020, Wasserman had a full hour ready to workshop, which he had to put on ice because of the pandemic. Live shows returned in 2021, and while Wasserman was in a better place with the losses he had experienced, the whole world had just communally grieved for months on end, isolated and unable to properly exorcize that emotion.

“Everyone else went through so much, and when I finally decided to do the show again, I was like, what if I do it in a way—because I’m good with my grief now, for the most part—that lets other people explore theirs, and talk about their journeys, and loss and death and fears and all that,” Wasserman explains, “Because this is more interesting to me than my own story. It seemed like people were already relating to what I was doing, so why not let them relate even further by making it about them?”

And thus Live After Death, Wasserman’s memorable and uproarious show about loss, found its final form. What sets Wasserman’s hour apart is the combined chaos and magic of ample audience interaction. No two performances are alike; the alchemy of the particular audience drastically changes the end result. I watched a video of his show set in a funeral home in Vermont, which was thrown off course at one point by disruptive crowd members in masks, then also made space for a moment of stark candor. Wasserman called up a woman for the seance so she could talk to her late father. She started crying and, addressing her dad, admitted she wished her mom died first. Wasserman navigates these moments of vulnerability expertly, recalling times when he wanted people to leave space for him to grieve. 

“Comedy’s about timing. The timing is incredibly important, and when someone’s saying that they’d rather their mom die than their dad, there is no value to making a joke there,” Wasserman says. “And as a comedian, even though I want to be the funniest motherfucker you’ve seen, I also want people to say I did a good job at entertaining them. I want the show to do something that leaves people with a lump in their throat or a bug in their head, so they’re still thinking about it or they’re still like, ‘That was wild.’”

Wasserman tells me about a recent show in North Carolina when one man spoke for a full five minutes to his late father during the seance; he detailed how he had bought a house and wanted his dad’s advice on upkeep and potentially having kids. Wasserman found himself tearing up along with the rest of the audience. 

“When I’m tearing up and when I’m personally affected, my go-to isn’t ‘How do I make this funny?’ It’s, ‘How do I hold space for someone in the way that I’ve needed people to hold it for me and that they did?’ I think especially with grief and loss and death, we’re so not used to talking about it or holding space for other people while they’re going through it,” Wasserman shares. 

The reason these meaningful moments land so well is because Wasserman allows them to breathe. He’s confident enough in the planned parts of his set (“I think I’m really funny, and so I’m not worried about the times that I’m not”) that he’s not rushing through to the next punchline. 

Because of the nature of his show and how it has affected audiences, Wasserman’s been dubbed an honorary death worker and accidental death positivity advocate. However, he’s quick to assure me that he doesn’t want to be known as the “death comedian.” Now, he’s on what he’s proclaimed “The Last Tour” of Live After Death, with his final few dates taking him to Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver, Bloomington, and back to his home base of Brooklyn.

“I’ve been holding onto the material, as a comedian, for six years now, and like, I’m done. I don’t want to be one of those road dogs that has the same hour for the rest of their life going from the Go Bananas to the Funny Bone, just struggling. I don’t want that; that seems miserable as an artist,” Wasserman says. He’s talking to me from outside a coffee shop, mid-tour. 

“There is this way in which the project is incredibly tied to my own journey with these losses and grief,” he continues. “I’m in a good place, but because the project feels like the capstone to that period of my life, the idea of ending it feels important for healing personally, and it’s just exhausting.”

There are a few exceptions, of course—if an agent came by, or someone else from the industry wanted to put it on. However, producing the entire show by himself—props, booking, driving, promotion, performing—is an exhausting endeavor.

When Wasserman has time, he’s been trying out material on breakups and relationships, tying back to his own life, as well as jokes that are much more nonsensical.

“I’ve been doing this bit where I try and get people to put me in a trash bag and it’s just stupid and it means nothing,” he tells me, and the relief in his voice is palpable. “There isn’t an expectation that I’m gonna move people or something, in the way with [Live After Death].” 

Whatever Wasserman does next, whether emotionally gripping or silly or somewhere in between, one thing’s for sure: it’s going to be killer. 

Ben Wasserman’s Live After Death tour is coming to Phoenix, Albuquerque, Denver, Bloomington, and Brooklyn through October 26. Find details at his website here.

Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.

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