The comedian discusses his fears and his influences ahead of several shows at this weekend's Just For Laughs 42.
Ari Shaffir thinks it’s high time he unleashed Revenge For The Holocaust. The comic’s new album is scheduled for release on September 25. It represents the culmination of many hours spent working and reworking his material on stages around the world. Having established himself as a successful stand-up, it now seems like ages since he was best known for confronting stereotypes (and narrowly avoiding violence) as the cleverly named Amazing Racist.
“(The producers) just wanted a Jew-y looking guy,” Shaffir explained of the character’s origins, during a phone interview. “So they called The Comedy Store (in L.A.) and I’m the one they call when they’re looking for a Jew-y looking person.”
The video series entailed performing stunts like trying to get a Ku Klux Klan uniform detailed at a dry cleaners in an African-American neighborhood. Shaffir confessed to some trepidation when it came time for cameras to roll.
“I was so nervous, man. Every time, my heart was beating so fast. We’d brainstorm, go over stuff, figure out what we were going to do. And then when it came time to actually do it, we’d be sitting in the car and I’d be like, ‘I can’t do this.’ But I can’t get out of it. We’ve all talked about it for days and days.”
Though it was inevitable that people would be offended, Shaffir discovered a simple tactic that seemed to placate people, or, at the very least, deter them from killing him. As he explained it: “My friends told me that I always say—and for some reason it works—’Settle down. Just settle down.’”
In early 2011, Shaffir began recording his podcast, Ari Shaffir’s Skeptic Tank. The medium has been a particularly effective tool for comedians, compared to what they were working with before.
“The way to start was you would make a VHS tape of yourself and send it to an agent or a manager,” Shaffir recalled. “That was the only tool you really had. That would get you TV stuff and then TV would get you a better tape to send to people.”
As an admittedly dirty comedian with a storytelling approach, traditional avenues like this didn’t work well for Shaffir. The online format presented an alternative. “There’s no production value,” he said. “I mean it doesn’t really cost much of anything. You just do it on your own. And then people can just find you and become fans of you because their aesthetic matches yours.”
His aesthetic has expanded to include starting his own festival, Shroomfest. It’s an annual celebration of magic mushrooms, unique in that it doesn’t necessarily require everyone participating to be in the same location.
“We just started this thing online [last year] to get the word out and people got really into it,” Shaffir said. “Every year during the weekend with the longest amount of moonlight in the summer, it’s Shroomfest. This year’s was great. I was in Canada for all of it, actually. Me and [comedian] Duncan Trussell took some mushrooms and went to UFC.”
As for what he’ll do during Just For Laughs in Toronto, he said he plans to follow some advice imparted to him by another comedian, Joey Diaz. “He told me, ‘Hey, when you go up there—nothing but closers. That’s all you should do.’ And I was like, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because there are people there watching.’ And it was good advice.” He also was affected by a recent Flaming Lips performance in Montreal—especially the on-stage demeanor of frontman Wayne Coyne.
“That show that he did, I was crying at the time,” Shaffir said. “And then afterwards, he takes five or 10 minutes with each person. He seemed so genuinely interested in what they had to say. It was really cool to see as a performer.”