What do they say about New York City: There are eight million stories, and sometimes it seems as though eight million of the people telling them think they’re comedians? No, that’s not it. It is a fact, though, that America’s biggest city is also its biggest comedy mecca. Hollywood may be Hollywood, but New York City is where comedians are born funny, become funny or arrive to thrust their funny upon us. I think we should meet some of these people. This is a recurring feature, a mini-profile of newcomers, up-and-comers and overcomers of New York’s vibrant comedy scene. It’s called Meet Me In New York.
I found out about Ophira Eisenberg even before I officially moved to New York City myself — back in the day, Eisenberg co-hosted a comedy variety showcase called Sweet Paprika at The D-Lounge with Allison Castillo just off of Union Square.
I didn’t find out until later just how great her storytelling prowess was, or even that she came here from the wilds of Alberta, Canada. Well, maybe not that wild. Alberta, that is. Eisenberg published her first memoir last year, “Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy,” and it has been optioned for a feature film. She also has been hosting the quiz show Ask Me Another on NPR for the past few years. They usually tape in front of live studio audiences at The Bell House in Brooklyn. Tonight, however, they’re visiting Durham, N.C., for a special show on the road with guest John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. Tomorrow night, Eisenberg is scheduled to be back in NYC to host the regular monthly edition of The Moth StorySLAM at Housing Works Bookstore.
You also may have seen Eisenberg on Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, Comedy Central, VH1, TV Guide Channel, Oxygen, and AXS. Let’s hear some of her own story now.
Name: Ophira Eisenberg
Arrival date: July 2001
Arrived from: Toronto, ON, Canada
When and where did you start performing comedy? My first set was technically in Vancouver, I think the year was 1857 – or something like. It was a while ago.
What was your best credit before moving here? I actually did okay in Canada – I even had my own ½ hour special on the Comedy Channel there. When I told that to a New York club booker, he said – that’s great! If you can bring 20 friends to the club next Tuesday at 6 p.m., I can give you 5 minutes on our New Talent night.
Why did you pick NYC over LA or anywhere else? For me it was for all esthetic reasons and had nothing to do with business or career. I always wanted to live in New York. Even as a kid, I didn’t want to be Cinderella, I wanted to be one of the mice. I just loved their hole in-the-wall home with a matchbox bed, cotton balls for pillows, an empty thread spool for a table. So cute! Little did I know I was preparing myself for living in a New York apartment.
How long did it take to get your first paid gig in NYC after moving here?
Well – it depends on what you consider a “paid gig.” I remember getting a crumbled $10 handed to me at New York Comedy Club about a year in, but it would be a long time until that happened again. But I did start self-producing shows pretty soon after I moved here, and occasionally we would have money given to us from the door that we’d split. Most of it went right back into the bar though.
How is this scene better/same/worse than the scene you moved from?
It’s better for me because now I’m part of it! It When I moved here there was still that delineation between the “downtown alternative scene” and the “club scene.” Now the downtown scene is also the Brooklyn scene, and the Queens scene, the UCB scene and The PIT scene. What was considered “alternative” is now mainstream, popular, and chalk full of big name comics. The model of having to work at a comedy club to get on TV is long gone. Hell, you can get on TV if you’re a good tweeter! I love working at some of the clubs in town, but I consider venues like The Bell House and Union Hall my comedy homes. Also, I’ve witnessed the storytelling scene grow over the last few years, and I absolutely love it. I think right now is a very good time in history to be a comedian.
Can you describe an “only in New York City” moment from your experience here?
I was living here all of one week, staying in a windowless basement apartment in the East Village. One morning, when I stepped out to get a coffee, I almost tripped over this man who was splayed on the sidewalk, face down, and from what I could tell, dead. I stared at him in shock, not sure what to do. A woman passed by, stopped, and bent down, placing her face right near his face. After a few seconds she turned to me and yelled, “He’s breathing!” and then got up and walked away.
What tip would you give to any comedian who moves here?
Don’t do it! It’s too hard! Save yourself the agony! Find happiness in some other way for the love of God!!!
No seriously, just save up about $50,000 so you can make it through those first few months here, and get ready work your ass off.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
A head in a jar of formaldehyde hooked up to an iPhone, performing in front of 1000 other heads in jars, hopefully mostly in theaters.
If you don’t catch Eisenberg tonight in Carolina or tomorrow at Housing Works in Soho, then be sure to catch her at a club or alt room around New York City. On Dec. 3, 2014, Eisenberg and NPR’s Ask Me Another will present their holiday spectacular at The Bell House in Brooklyn.
Here are a couple of clips from the past year. For Canada Day, she shared thoughts of being Canadian in NYC, live at Joe’s Pub:
And here was her appearance on Gotham Comedy Live for AXS:
Eisenberg just released a new stand-up comedy CD, “Bangs!” this month via Comedy Dynamics. It’s available wherever you buy your stand-up comedy these days.
Above: Ophira Eisenberg photographed by Mindy Tucker, July 2013.
Which NYC comedian would you like to see me style and profile next for Meet Me In New York? Send your nominations to: thecomicscomic AT gmail DOT com