[Editor's note: This interview previews Ben Roy's comedy show at O'Leaver's with OK Party Comedy on Tuesday, Feb. 4. Cover is $5. RSVP here.]
interview by Ian Douglas Terry | photos by Ben Semisch
The first time I saw Ben Roy perform stand-up comedy was in a basement in Omaha roughly two years ago.
I knew very little about him except that he was from Denver, had a bunch of tattoos and seemed like a cool guy (he was doing the show with my group, OK Party Comedy, as an excuse to go on a road trip with his wife and son). I wound up meeting one of the most genuine and sincere guys I would ever have the chance to meet, and making a good friend in the wild and wacky world of comedy (come see Ben destroy O’Leaver’s on Tuesday, Feb. 4, my rad-ass birthday show).
This warm and friendly dude, however, turns into a dynamo on stage. I compare it to one of those Southern tent revivals with a fiery-eyed preacher raining down brimstone and driving a crowd into a frenzy. I’ve had the pleasure to watch him on different stages in different places, and it always feels exciting and inspiring (I was even lucky enough to catch one of his album recording shows at Comedy Works, which was incredible). It is seriously the closest I’ve ever seen a comedian get to the energy of a punk rock/hardcore show. Ben channels anger and rage into a pure form of comedy, and it flat out rules. People often compare him to Henry Rollins, I could agree with that up to a point. I wouldn’t compare what he does to what Rollins has been doing with his spoken word/storytelling live shows, but more to the earlier/hungrier dude who still had something to prove.
I find myself being drawn to comedians who used to be involved in punk rock, luckily there are a lot of those these days within the “alternative comedy boom." There’s a correlation between the DIY mindset that punk rock bands have in putting on their own shows and tours and that of the new wave of DIY comedians that is impossible to ignore. Be it the dudes in Power Violence in L.A. or the Grawlix (which Ben is a member of) in Denver… there are comics all across the U.S. who are doing great things on their own terms while working abreast of (and arguably changing) the status quo of more mainstream comedy. It is exactly like the DIY scene days I recall from my youth… just a little less silly.
I got a chance to talk with Ben Roy about punk rock, comedy, and getting old (a big theme within the music of his band SPELLS). If you want more Ben, come see him Tuesday, Feb. 4 at O’Leaver’s or May 23-25 at the Crom Comedy Festival.
Ian Douglas Terry: We both come from “cool punk rock guy in a band” backgrounds, mine started in eighth grade in a band called the “Neutered Chickens." What was your first band? How terrible was it? Can I get pictures or a demo tape?
Ben Roy: I don't know that I was, or am, considered a "cool punk rock guy in a band." But the first band I was ever in was sometime around my freshman or sophomore year. I don't quite recall exactly, but it was just a cover band. My buddy Dann Rich and I started it as a way to play parties and get free beer. I don't think we ever gave it a formal name.
However, at a party one night, some drunk hick wing-nut called us Sun Chicken so it stuck. Look at that, IDT. We both had "Chicken" in our band names. Except ours had balls.
My first "real" band was a band called The Mendicants. That started sometime around my junior year with the same buddy and a terrific drummer named Andy Bonsant. We had a few lineup changes at bass, this guy Matt Howe and another amazing bassist named Nayte Wilson. That band did real well. We had momentum and a big following, but we were young, and it fell apart as a lot of them do.
IDT: What bands are/were you influenced by? If you say U2, the interview is over.
BR: You have to remember that I grew up in real rural Maine. When I was in middle school, my cousin gave me Motley Crue's Shout at the Devil. And I would buy all kinds of Iron Maiden, Slayer, Pantera and shitty hair metal albums at the mall record store.
Then around the time we started that cover band in early high school, it was a lot of radio stuff like the Violent Femmes, Smashing Pumpkins, Weezer, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Nirvana. But I always liked the more aggressive stuff and radio was lacking in that department. Then in '94, Columbia House put out the first Punk-O-Rama CD. I immediately scammed that by taking the 10 CDs for a penny deal and never finishing out the contract as most of us did. But that was my first taste of it.
It had that Rancid song "Hyena" on it. It had "Riot City" by Total Chaos. It had NOFX, Offspring, Gas Huffer and Ten Foot Pole. That was the gateway. Then my buddy Dann starting ordering all kinds of crazy shit through zines and catalogs, and like junkies, we sunk deeper. He got me listening to Propagandhi, Aus Rotten, The Pist, The Boils, Fleas and Lice, Blanks 77, Swinging Utters, Hyatis, Fleas and Lice, Fifteen, Green Day, Pinhead Circus, Avail. Oh, that I-Spy album, Perversity is Spreading. Fuck, I loved I-Spy. That influenced me a lot.
That mixed with my love of metal and bands like Helmet and Orange 9mm, created this weird, eclectic taste. The Mendicants formed and started playing right as New England music was really exploding, and we played with Doc Hopper (members of deadguy), Sinkhole, The Pinkerton Thugs, Holy Caust and several incarnations of bands that eventually fed into bigger bands like A Global Threat, The Unseen or the Dropkick Murphys.
IDT: At what point did you decide to make the leap into comedy? How did you do it?
BR: I didn't really decide. It just sort of happened. In '99 I had moved to Colorado to play in a new band with some friends. That fell apart and I came home to Maine to visit and met my wife at a party. We stayed there in Maine for six months before packing up and leaving to move back to Denver.
When we got here, she got a part-time job at the Comedy Works downtown. I tried to talk her out of it because I thought comedy was cheesy. One night, a few months after she started, we were hanging with the staff and I was just joking around a bunch and a manager convinced me to try it. I figured, "Why not? Worst thing that will happen is I flip out and get to kick some drinks over."
I did pretty well and was hooked. But I didn't have those great years of comic appreciation as a child. I had heard one Bill Cosby album in my youth. Oh, and my dad had a Tom Lehrer album. But that was it. I wanted to make music. Still do.
IDT: A lot of comedians talk about “finding their voice." When did you lock in on yours? Where did your “style” come from? Is that a pompous question?
BR: First off, I don't think you find your voice. I hate that term. To me, it denotes that you discovered something new within yourself. And if that were true, you would have never started in the first place if you hadn't already discovered it previously. You know you're funny, that's why you got into it.
Here's what I think: I think you remember your voice. When you get on stage, for several months, or maybe years, you do your impression of what you think comedy is. And impressions, unless you're a professional, suck most of the time. So over time, you get beaten by bad show after bad show till slowly, you let your guard down. You start to say, "Fuck it! I'm just gonna be me." And that's when you start to get it. When you go back to being as natural as you can be on stage.
A lot of people say that my persona on stage is not who I am in real life, and that may be true. But who I am on stage is what made me funny in conversation and in real life. When I get fired about things. There is more of the "real me" on stage than there ever has been.
But all that aside, I think I locked in on it after I quit drinking in 2010. I was so tired and terrified and nervous and vulnerable. I just didn't have it in me to hide any longer. And "my style" totally came from music. Watch any band I've been in, and watch me on stage, and the same amount of people get touched, or spit-fleck drenched, or hugged. My comedy is just a cappella pop punk.
IDT: As someone who perfectly straddles the line between DIY comedy and club comedy, what do you think the benefits and disadvantages of each are?
BR: I don't know, it's all just people. I can find something that I like and identify with in almost all people. God, did I just write that. Sixteen-year-old me would have done everything his fat little face could have to kick my ass. But I like most people, so I like doing both because they touch the most varied cross-sections of people.
I've never wanted to walk on people. I don't like saying things just to shock and offend. I want to figure out a way to make the most uncomfortable of ideas palatable. We can all preach to a choir, the real challenge is getting people to think about something that is intrinsically opposed to their beliefs. Comedy can do that, and clubs allow me that audience that is the most mainstream.
I like DIY shows because I love that ethos. I like the venus. I've spent my last 19 years in them with bands, it feels like home. The disadvantages of clubs, if there are any, are the schedules. That many shows can get old sometimes. But even then, I don't mind.
The problem with DIY shows is that I get in my head. I worry I'm not hip enough. Only my wife and Adam and Andrew, my Grawlix buddies, know how low my self-esteem is. I get in my head that I'm not hip enough for some rooms. Just part of being picked on when I was a kid.
IDT: I do a lot of comparisons between comedy and punk rock. What do you think? What are the similarities and differences?
BR: That's hard. To me, that's like asking, how is music like punk. I see punk as a subset of music. Same, I think you can carry a "punk" (whatever the fuck that is) ideology into comedy. You can put on your own shows, say whatever you want, book whoever you want wherever you want, do it for absolutely money, have sex with hideous people. It's all there.
IDT: What do you think about Omaha? Four years ago we didn’t have much, now we get big shots like you flying in on the regular. How does it compare to other growing scenes you have experienced?
BR: I'm not pandering to the locals when I say this: I fucking hate Omaha! Just kidding. I love the city. One of the most overlooked spots in the country. You know I feel that way. That's why we come out so often.
I think you all are doing the right things. If you all can continue to trust each other, and support each other, it has nowhere to go but up. That is, until the bubble bursts again. I think it compares very well. So many funny people there. Truly, I love you, steak town.
IDT: I’ve had comedians and people (including my parents) from every part of the country tell me how amazing Those Who Can’t was, and most people know of how things wound up with Amazon missing out on something special… there are a lot of disappointments in comedy. What’s been your mentality while dealing with them?
BR: It was hard. I'm not gonna lie. We were given very little to work with, and we felt we met the challenge. I'd be a liar if I said it didn't put me in a funk for a week or two. But that's how it goes. I've noticed, in my very little and nascent experience in this industry, that if you try to find reason in why things get picked up or don't, you'll go fucking crazy. There is no reason. It's all about which spore gets caught in the perfect breeze at the right time.
So we get back on the horse and keep moving along. We're working hard to try and find a new place for Those Who Can't. If someone would give us a chance, it'll be great. The six new episodes we wrote for Amazon are ridiculous. If it doesn't, we've got a lot of other ideas. We're real hungry now.
IDT: You returned to punk rock with your band SPELLS, which lyrically deals with a lot of themes old punk dudes like me can connect with: getting older and not being able to relate to the things we once held dear (perfectly illustrated in the song “All Hail Getting Old”).
What are your plans for this new band? What is the difference between performing comedy live and singing songs in a band live? When will SPELLS play in Omaha?
BR: There are no longterm plans with SPELLS, and that's what makes it beautiful. Well, no other longterm plans other than writing hits and making butts shake. That and maybe playing a few places near some rad beaches and taco carts.
Thanks for the words about "All Hail Getting Old." I'm pretty proud of that tune. I was writing it and thinking, I don't miss my teen years. I don't long for the days of awkward, angry, wayward wandering. I like where I'm at now. Getting old is comforting.
As I said before, I don't see a ton of difference other than I get to do it alone. I love being able to make decisions without having to consult anyone. If I want to do a certain set, great. If I say something that pisses people off, my fault. Too bad. I choose.
IDT: Where do you see yourself and The Grawlix in the next few years? What kind of cool shit are you working on?
BR: I think we see it as an ever-expanding thing. We're writing and brainstorming a lot. And we're back making more and more videos. I know that we want to try for another shot at a TV show or perhaps even a feature. That's been our biggest focus. Plus doing more festivals and touring. Lots in the works. Keep an eye out.
BR: Neither. Andy Sell pisses me off. Swinging that precious ass and righteous 'stache wherever he pleases. Someday, Boondie, someday, hell will foreclose on all the shady loans you took out using beauty as collateral.
Ian Douglas Terry is a Hear Nebraska contributor. Find more info on OK Party Comedy at okpartycomedy.com.