An Interview With Comedian Harrison Greenbaum – The Comedy Cellar
Written by Joseph Santiago
We met up with the Harvard Graduate turned professional stand up comedian Harrison Greenbaum neighborhood of Greenwich Village. He was getting ready to perform at the Mecca of comedy The Comedy Cellar.
What other jobs did you do before starting stand up comedy?
I’ve been doing magic since I was a kid, so I was making money as a magician at birthdays and bar mitzvahs since I was around 12. (Always weird when the bar mitzvah magician is the same age as the kids he’s entertaining!) In high school, I even spent a summer as a restaurant magician, doing magic every Saturday at a Mexican restaurant in Long Island called Pancho’s (which is still there!).
I was also a lifeguard at a day camp, so I taught kids how to swim every summer for quite a while. I was really good with the younger kids, so ended up with the nursery classes a lot, which meant a lot of feet kicking along the edge of the pool and blowing bubbles. (The closest I ever got to having to make a save was picking a kid up by the arm after she accidentally fell down in the kiddie pool.)
How did you know you wanted to be a comedian?
I’ve been doing magic since I was a little kid, about 5 years old. But when I got to college, freshman year, a friend asked me to perform on his annual stand-up comedy show. He said I could do magic, but I asked if was cool to try some stand-up. To his credit, he let me — and I was bitten by the bug instantly.
(Fun fact: after I spent that summer doing open mics, barking for stage time, and interning for MAD Magazine, I realized that one show a year on campus wasn’t going to be enough for me, so that became the inspiration for me creating and co-founding the Harvard College Stand-Up Comic Society, or Harvard College SUCS, for short, which is still going strong on campus to this day!)
If you weren’t doing comedy, what would you be doing?
That’s a trick question! When I was just getting into it, someone asked me if there was anything else I could imagine doing. I didn’t realize until after I answered “no” that it was a test. Turns out if I had said anything else, he would have said, “Then do that.” Comedy is really hard and requires tremendous sacrifice: if there’s anything else you can see yourself happy doing, then why wouldn’t you do that instead? Whatever the that is, it’s almost guaranteed to be an easier, nicer, better way to make a living. Do comedy only if it’s the only way you can be fulfilled and be happy. And, in my case, it is, which is why I can’t think of doing anything else.
Where are some of your favorite places to perform?
Anywhere with a microphone and a great audience! I try to perform as much as possible for as varied an audience as possible, so I love how NYC offers so many incredible opportunities to perform, from pizzerias to hair salons to city cruises to the best comedy clubs in the country, if not the world.
Who are some of your favorite up-and-comers in the comedy world?
How do you define up-and-comers? I love performing in New York because I’m constantly surrounded by so many incredible comedians of all stripes. I’m glad people like Emma Willman, Subhah Agarwal, and Corinne Fisher are breaking through — they all work their asses off and deserve every bit of the success they’re getting. I also love all the people on the scene taking big risks – Tyler Fischer and Marcus Monroe, for example – who I really love watching mess with the form of comedy itself. And there are so many other people who deserve a big break – comics like Neko White, Katie Hannigan, Greg Stone – it’s so hard coming up with a list because I know I’m leaving so many really great people out.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
When I was just starting out, I asked a famous comic (who shall remain nameless) for his best advice and he told me point blank, “Don’t suck.” That’s hard to argue with right there. Don’t suck. Work your ass off to be consistently good and you’re most of the way there.
If someone was looking for more specific advice, I’d say get on stage as much as possible and make sure you’re getting as much out of that stage time as possible — that means making changes and adjustments (whether they’re really big or really small) to find out what works, trying new stuff, and always writing.
When did you feel like you were a pro comedian?
I remember my first paid spot in the city — it was $75 or $85 for a 20-minute weekend spot at Times Square Arts Center (which had previously been the Laugh Factory and which, after becoming a haunted house called Times Scare, is now completely defunct). I don’t think I had done too many sets that were that long before that point (especially in the city, where most sets are 8-12 minutes, 15 minutes max, in the alt rooms and bar shows I was performing in), so I remember being apprehensive. And then the set went really well, and they handed me an actual check, and I felt like I had really made it.
How often do you perform comedy per week?
I’m a comedy addict, so I generally do 600-700 shows a year, which works out to at least 12-13 shows a week, although I’ve definitely done 15, 20 shows in a particularly crazy NYC week.
How do you deal with hecklers?
I wrote a whole guide to dealing with hecklers on my blog something like five years ago. (It’s available here: http://harrisoncomedy-blog.
One of the most important things in dealing with a heckler is remembering that, as the comic, all the factors in the room are in my favor against the heckler. Hecklers don’t throw me off generally because I realize what they evidently haven’t: that I’m sober (they’re usually not), I’ve done this thousands of times (this is usually their first), I’m louder (I have a microphone), and I have the audience on my side (the heckler is interrupting everyone’s good time). That, in turn, gives me confidence and getting a heckler to realize that he or she has no chance of winning is a really good way to get him or her to back down.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Oooh, that’s a tough one. Buy shares of Facebook? Warn people that Trump is going to win so we have a chance to change the outcome?
But in terms of giving comedy advice, I would tell him to focus on enjoying the journey rather than worrying about the destination. Good things will come, but the fun comes from savoring each new joke and a new set.
Who would you say are your influences in the comedy world?
So so many! I strongly believe that you need to be a student of the art form that you practice, which means knowing the history and evolution of the art form, past practitioners — all that stuff. There’s the obvious sort of “benchmark” comedians like George Carlin and Richard Pryor that I love, comics like Joan Rivers whose fearlessness continually inspires me, and current legends like Dave Attell, who might be the best living comedian in New York at the moment.
What is your favorite place to hang out in NYC?
I’m a huge escape room nerd, so any new escape room that opens up (and there are a lot of them), me and my team are so there! Hopefully, we’re not hanging there more than an hour though, because that’s how long you have to get out.
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Official Harrison Greenbaum Website
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