Some Charming Weirdo
Ben Rodgers talks about improv, comic books, and shitty jobs.
September 26, 2014 | The Coffee Table Book | Fall 2014
I meet Ben Rodgers at a coffee shop in Los Feliz, the kind of place where everybody knows your name. The first thing Ben does is tell me about a parking ticket he paid right before. “I was going to contest it,” he says, bummed out. But he’s immediately apologetic. “I’m afraid I’ll be horribly boring.”
I asked Ben for an interview after seeing him in Shitty Jobs at the UCB theater in Los Angeles. Shitty Jobs is comprised of a rotating cast that includes names like Donald Glover and Ben Schwartz, but Rodgers stuck out to me as particularly talented in the handful of times I saw the show. The format is simple: the improvisers ask the audience to describe in detail the worst jobs they’ve ever had, and then they do longform improv based on someone’s shitty, shitty job. Every time I’ve seen the show, I’ve been amazed not only by the group’s chemistry (most of the members have known each other for years) but particularly by Rodger’s consistent ability to make bold and surprising choices.
In a class of weirdos, Rodgers manages to make things a little bit weirder. But that’s his M.O.
What would be a dream role for you?
Some charming weirdo.
Unfortunately, well. One thing that’s great about improv is that you get to play whatever kind of character you want. Almost like being in a cartoon or an animated show. It doesn’t matter – there are no limitations. But usually when I audition for something, it’s like the most boring character in a show. Or that’s what I feel, so I try to bring something to it. But it’s often, like, the straight guy, the voice of reason in some show, and that’s not my style.
I love comedy, but the type of comedy I like is like the funny moments in the things that are classified dramas. I think the Sopranos is one of the funniest shows, and I love it, and – like the comedy in Paul Thomas Anderson movies. Like Boogie Nights. But those aren’t considered comedies. Those would be the dream jobs to get. Or something like a Coen Brothers movie. They build such interesting characters to me.
What compelled you to get into comedy?
I guess it’s just what I was into when I was a kid.
Any influences in particular?
Like, the Simpsons. Pretty much the main ones that everyone talks about. Simpsons, SNL. Monty Python. You know, those were playing in my house pretty much non-stop, and at the time I had a good memory. I had sort of an encyclopedic knowledge of all these comedy things. And all the people who I was interested in – I looked at their trajectories, you know where they started. Most of them started doing improv and sketch, so that’s how I kind of stumbled into UCB.
What did UCB look like when you got involved?
It was small. I went to school at Fordham in New York, and I happened to go to a show when I was in school, probably 2001-ish. I had just moved there. I thought it was great and funny and amazing. And then I went and saw another one and it was terrible. This is after I dragged all my friends there and they were like, “this place sucks,” but that’s when I realized that it was just a venue, just a crapshoot. That got me into it. So I stopped being so involved in college and started getting involved with UCB.
At the time it was really hard to take classes because one guy was running everything. This guy [Kevin] Mullaney was running everything. You had to sign up in person or on the phone, and they were almost always sold out. Or by mail – like snail mail. So after I took a class with a bunch of people, we slept in front of UCB once just to get our first pick of classes for some crazy reason. Eric Appel [of Shitty Jobs] did that, he was in classes with me at the time.
So it was just small. And pretty quickly after that it got shut down. I don’t know when it got shut down. I would say around 2003 maybe. The theater closed for some fire code violation or something, so then they had to bounce around to all these different places around New York. Until it found its current spot.
So, why come out to LA?
I think I moved here just because I was out of friends. I’m bad at making friends. All my friends had moved here, and I didn’t feel like making new ones. I was feeling just kind of lost, so I moved. If anything, I always feel like maybe I should have moved here a long time ago. All my friends moved here three, four years ago. But you get caught up in a bunch of weird bullshit wherever you live.
There seems to be a network of inside jokes at Shitty Jobs. I’ve never not laughed hysterically.
I’m glad. I think it’s also that there aren’t that many groups around that are people who are all friends doing a show together. A lot of them are formed by other people, or there’s a certain amount of people getting too busy…they leave, they get replaced, and the energy always changes. Which is inevitable with anything that lasts a while. But I’m friends with everybody in the group, and I would be friends with them even if we weren’t doing an improv show. And I’ve known them all for over 10 years and that makes it more fun. There are some shows where I’m worried that the audience doesn’t know what I’m talking about.
It seems to play. The energy is just so good.
You know, I teach classes at UCB and I always get freaked out when my students go, because it’s technically not the greatest show, and I don’t worry about all the rules. But you do get to a certain point where you don’t have to worry about those shows, and you just want to have fun. And hopefully that will translate to everybody watching. Sometimes it does.
With teaching classes – how did you get involved with that? Was it nerve-wracking?
I think it’s taken me a long time to get good at teaching, and I’m a different speed, I have a different style than a lot of other teachers. I got into it just because I needed a job and I spent so much time doing it and felt like I had a pretty good handle on it. I think at first it was pretty nerve-wracking because so many of my students were older than me. That’s not the case anymore, but I started teaching about 7 years ago and I looked younger at the time than I actually was. So some kid shows up with a notebook and you think he’s gonna be in your class, and then he starts taking attendance. Some people get turned off by that.
I also think I’m very blunt and some people hate that. I don’t think I’m mean, and I try not to be, because I don’t want anybody to think that I hate them or think that I don’t like them. It’s taken me a long time to find the balance between that.
What are some of the best experiences you’ve had in class?
In class, I’ve had a bunch of great moments where…the first couple times you get a really good scene and it seems like magic, and that can keep you going for a long time. What you’re always trying to get after are those tiny little moments. It’s like a drug, like chasing a dragon.
Practice, too. I’m not in any groups that practice anymore, but when you first start out, you practice probably once a week with your group. And I probably had more fun in some of those practices than doing any shows. The people I was in those groups with, we still joke about the weird shit that happened in those practices or whatever weird thing happened.
It’s like band rehearsal.
Kind of. But band rehearsal goes somewhere. Like, “this sounded pretty good, we should turn this into a song.” With improv rehearsal – I guess, if you have a really proactive group and you’re making sketches from things you like, that’s one thing. But a lot of groups don’t do this – I was never in one. A lot of people talk about it, but it’s hard when it’s like 8 people and you’re trying to get some sketch group together. Usually, it’s like you have this really great thing and then it’s gone. And that’s part of the fun with improv.
[At this point, Ben gets caught in the middle of a pretty aggressive ray of sunlight and slides down the booth to shield his eyes.]
I don’t want to, like, put my sunglasses on.
You can just impersonate Julian Casablancas.
There is something – I don’t know what age you have to hit where you can wear sunglasses all the time, but I’m looking forward to it.
60, I think. Like Bono. [Bono was 54 at the time of the interview.]
Yeah, because a lot of – I’m thinking more like Roy Orbison. Jeff Lynne. All those guys who wind up looking exactly the same for 30 years, you look at all the pictures of them and realize they just wore tinted glasses for so long. And have a lot of hair.
Although, I don’t know. Yeah, if you’re too young you’d look like a fuckin’ creep. But I think if you had the right look, it’s just like, “this guy just has weird tinted glasses.”
It’s like fedoras. At a certain age you’re just a douchebag, but over a certain age–
You’re a class act.
ON SHITTY JOBS
So, what is the shittiest job you’ve ever had? I feel like you’ve probably gotten this question…
No, I don’t get interviewed, or asked questions about things.
The shittiest job I had was at a hotel. It was the Grand Hyatt New York, and I kind of bounced around and did a lot of jobs there, but at the front desk, I would work until like 1 in the morning and that’s when they would run out of rooms. You know, these places are all bureaucracies that are run by assholes. Their strategy was, “a certain amount of people will cancel their reservations, so we’re going to overbook the hotel so we can maximize our profit.” So you’re some poor, little old lady who just got off a flight from Ireland or some place, and you get into New York City at midnight and you’re exhausted, you just want to get up to your hotel room. And you come up to me, and I have to be like, “sorry, we don’t have a room for you anymore.” And then you’re heartbroken. And the way they make up for it is they get you another hotel room in New Jersey or something. So you’ve got to get in a cab and drive like 40 fucking minutes to go to New Jersey.
Do they at least pay for the cab?
Yeah, but still. Basically, my job was just to get beat up all day. It was a terrible customer service job, more or less.
Any weird or interesting people stick out to you?
A million. This is what always shocks me about Shitty Jobs – the show – is how much people don’t remember things. Not just that job – I could tell you things about jobs I had for a week where I remember all the people that I worked with. I’m always shocked when people don’t remember anything. I can understand forgetting somebody’s name or something, but still, I remember the essence of the person.
But yeah, at that job, there were a bunch of weird people that I worked with…There was this guy named Caz, and Caz was a guy from Las Vegas. He referred to himself as my “gay uncle.” I think he slept at the hotel most nights, because all these dudes were picking him up. And so he would like, fuck these guys, stay there and shower there and then just go to work. So he basically lived in the hotel.
Then there was this Georgian girl – like from the country Georgia. And I kind of had a crush on her, because she was like the closest girl. In retrospect she probably wasn’t that pretty.
A crush of convenience.
A crush of convenience. One of her Georgian girlfriends needed a green card and she offered me, like, $3000 to get married to her, and at the time I was like, you know, super poor. I was like, “maybe I should do that.” And now I’m like, thank god I didn’t get married to some random Georgian girl.
There were some jerks, though. There was this guy James who was the manager, and he was a real piece of shit dude from Long Island who would just spend all day on Myspace. And he was in charge of everybody, but he was a real wimp. So he would – how it’s supposed to work is you would get beat up until the customer couldn’t take talking to you anymore, and then you were supposed to get the manager. Like all these shitty jobs. But he would hide because he was too afraid to talk to anybody. And also he would give me shit about my hair and stuff, because my hair is crazy, and back then it was shaggier than it is now. So everybody was like, “uh, Ben, could you comb your hair?” Which – it’s not like it’s out of control. There’s just nothing I can do about it. I put a comb in it and it’s gonna look like this still.
Anyway, that job fuckin’ sucked. I worked there for a good year.
I just think it’s really shitty that good people can’t get good work all the time.
Yeah, it’s a certain attitude thing. I think I’m modest and self-deprecating at the same time. I think some of my friends who are very successful have a very healthy ego, good or bad, but they have a very positive attitude, and everything that they do is great, and that starts to become a self-fulfilling thing. And I don’t have that.
You should read the Secret.
I saw an interview with the dude behind the Secret, on like 20-20 or something, and he seemed like such a fucking, like, a cartoon bad guy.
A successful cartoon bad guy.
Yeah, I don’t know. I guess I’m too skeptical for things like that. I reference the Secret a lot for jokes and stuff.
Me too! But I think you’re so talented. You should just put it out there, into the universe.
Yeah, no, it sucks. There’s not a ton of work in New York. Well, there is now, in the past couple of years since I’ve moved, I feel like there’s more out there. But I got a couple of jobs here or there when I first got [to Los Angeles]. When you’re new, you make a big push and go out for a bunch of things.
I came close on a couple things and didn’t get any. I’ve had a couple terrible experiences…I went out for The Flash last year.
Like the new TV show?
The new TV show that’s just now coming out. I had just gotten back, I had just not gotten SNL and I came here, and I was in a shitty mood. And the next day my manager sent me stuff about the The Flash and I got all excited because it’s, like, a superhero. And so I go in, and it’s all these extremely like – two dudes were talking about their, not Abercrombie & Fitch, but some store–
Something like that, and they knew each other from some shoot for that.
From their bag modeling days.
And so it was a bunch of model dudes. And I’m hearing their auditions through the door, and I’m getting really cocky. Because I had worked on it and I was like, “I’m gonna do better than this.” I went in, and I did great. And the casting director is in there, and he’s like, “maybe a little less funny,” which is a note you don’t always get. But I did it again, and he thought it was great. As I’m leaving, I’m walking to my car, and my agent calls me and he’s like, “hey, they want you to come back later this afternoon.”
So I’m feeling pretty good. And then I taught an improv class, which I probably should not have done. I watched improv scenes instead of, like, going over my lines. And I went back and I don’t know what happened, but I full-blown choked. I broke down.
My eyes started watering, I was tearing up, and I could tell. I walked into the room and it was sort of the same thing where I could hear the people before me, and I was like, “these guys are terrible.” And I’m getting cocky again. I’m like, I can’t wait to do my audition again and do my take on it because I liked it so much. And when I got into the room, the casting director had seen me before, and I could see him getting excited. Like, “this guy will cheer everybody up after this other person sucked.” But then I go in there, and fucking suck so bad. My body just gave out on me. And my eyes are tearing up. And I’m crying. All the lines are like [whimpering], “I’m so fast. My body moves so fast.” I made it seem so melodramatic. It seemed like it was a choice I made, to make it this serious, sad, emo Flash.
[Mocking] “My body moves so fast.”
[Whimpering again.] “My heart rate, it’s like a billion beats per minute.” So, yeah. Didn’t get the Flash obviously.
Yeah, stuff like that happens.
What’s your story beyond comedy?
One weird thing about improv is that it attracts people who are kind of lost, who don’t know exactly what medium is right for them. And that’s sometimes what I tell people if they’re not good at it. That doesn’t mean you’re not funny. Some of the funniest people I know are terrible at improv. It just means you haven’t found the right thing for you yet.
And I don’t know if I have either. For a long time I thought I was gonna be a comic book artist, until I went to school and then I stopped.
Do you still draw a lot?
No, not really.
Who are your favorite artists?
I have a big Dan Clowes obsession. He’s definitely very formative to me. I’m obsessed with that dude. Crumb, I copied Crumb for a long time.
I love Ghost World.
Yeah. It actually really bummed me out when, whatshisname, Shia LaBeouf ripped him off for that movie he made.
Did that movie actually get made?
Yeah, it’s made. It’s done. It’s a short film he made that’s just a rip off that story about that movie reviewer that Clowes did a while back. That sucks for him to get his shit ripped off obviously, but the real bummer to me, selfishly, was that, like, wait…do I have the same taste as that dude who everybody thinks is a fucking douchebag? Because I related to him. I was like, “I like this guy’s work too. He’s great.” And that sucked.
I love all his stuff. And just movies, too. I have an obsession with movies and genres. The look of some movies. That bums me out sometimes because I like so many movies and I see so few good ones the older I get, I feel like. John Pierre Melville movies I’m kind of obsessed with – I like the color of them.
You’re definitely very visual, it seems. Which I think works for improv. So much of it is knowing where your body is in relation to other people and knowing how things look.
For some people it’s that way. I’m more physical than some people, but some people are super funny who don’t do shit. They just sit down for every scene. And some of the funniest people can’t do voices, you know? It’s just how you plug into it.
ON BEING A WEIRDO
The comic book stuff is actually really interesting to me. You thought you would be a comic book artist. Were you just a quiet kid? Or were you more of a class clown?
Yeah, I was kind of like, I’m a person of extremes I guess. In some environments I’ll be absolutely quiet and not talk to anybody, and then it will be the flipside of that where I’ll be the loudest person around.
That’s how I was at school. In some classes, I would get sent home, not because I was doing anything wrong, but because teachers were freaked out, like there was something wrong with me. I had a teacher that made me take all these tests and thought I had some sort of mental retardation, or thought I couldn’t see. So I had to take all these fucking tests, including physical tests, because I would put my head down. I didn’t want to be there.
But in other classes, I was like a typical class clown. Even then, there were certain things I would hate. I hated other class clowns sometimes who would do stupid shit. The kids who would just slap themselves – that really bothered me.
Like, making robot sounds.
Well, that sounds a little cool. But yeah. I guess that’s when I first started drifting toward comedy. Making people laugh in class. I was a weirdo. I was a weird dude in school. I would have, like, cool friends I guess, but I was their weird buddy who all the girls were weirded out by. I would have loved to have a girlfriend in 8th grade, but they were all terrified of me.
What’s a really weird thing that you did?
I can’t think of any off the top of my head. I do remember, this is like a terrible memory, and this doesn’t answer your question at all but I was just telling this story to somebody else.
There was this girl named Jackie in my class who thought I was really funny. And we were kind of flirting, and playing this weird like, tag game – this is in 6th grade – and my hand slipped off her arm and hit part of her boob. And she played it off like it was nothing. In my head, it was like, “I just touched part of her boob,” and neither of us talked about it. But when recess was over, we went back into class, and throughout the day, I realized all these people were being weird around me. It was a true telephone game. I could hear whispers behind me, and by the end of the day, I had molested Jackie.
“Weirdo touched Jackie’s boob.”
That really sucked. I would just get thrown out of class for saying shit. And sometimes not saying things. My Spanish teacher threw me out because she didn’t like how I looked. I’m still mad about that.
Any words of wisdom for new improvisors? What’s your philosophy?
Maybe to have fun?
No, that’s a big one. There are a lot of really rules-y teams, I think. What’s the process like for you? Do you just show up and go, or–?
Yeah, I show up and go. I try to make choices that are fun for me. I try to make my scene partners laugh. I try not to be repetitive. I guess I’m just trying to have fun. I try to make myself laugh, too, and follow things I think are fun, and just try to communicate that.
Illustrations by Ilenia Madelaire
Taylor is a Los Angeles-based idiot with a degree in English from the University of Chicago. She wants to write your favorite TV show.