When you are a Jewish son of Russian immigrant parents who divorce when you’re young, you probably are destined to be a comedian. If nothing else, you’re born with a wealth of material. Rutgers alumnus Ben Rosenfeld blends his family’s experience as Russian Jewish immigrants in America with his philosophical beliefs, political observations, and unique characters. The result is something he calls “smarter comedy for smarter people.”
Ben graduated with a double major in Philosophy and Economics, so you can tell he’s an intelligent person. His biography explains that he knows how to make money, he just doesn’t see the point.
After college, he worked as a Fortune 500 management consultant while moonlighting as a stand up comic. A few years later, he entered the PhD program in Neuroeconomics at California Technical Institute (CalTech), but ultimately quit grad school to pursue comedy full-time.
At the beginning of 2016, Rosenfeld released The Russian Optimist, his second comedy album. Recorded live last September at New York Comedy Club, the album captures Rosenfeld’s set offering social commentary on everything from dark Russian nursery rhymes to sharing scientific findings about whether monogamy is natural to explaining why America runs on fear.
Those of a certain age may remember Yakov Smirnoff who became famous in the eighties for his comparison of life in communist Russia versus America. Known for the tag line, “What a country!” his jokes took a different path than Rosenfeld’s.
“I think the main difference is that he was saying Russia is horrible, while I say Russia is horrible and so is America,” explained Rosenfeld who says his own comedic influences growing up were Chris Titus, Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, and George Carlin. Yakov was not someone he followed as a kid, but his name has often come up ever since he began performing stand-up.
The album title The Russian Optimist comes from Rosenfeld finding the upside in all sorts of horrible situations like, “It’s scary how more terrorists are homegrown in America, but on the bright side, we’re back in the manufacturing game.”
He had just started speaking Russian when they moved to America. He was about four years old at the time and his father said he simply stopped speaking for about six months. When he eventually began talking again, he did so in English. He returned to Russia after graduating high school and again sometime around 2008 or 2009. Since his parents both do business with Russia they go back several times a year and often tell him stories about how it was before and how it is now. Despite what some people may think when they hear his set, he’s quite happy being here.
“I love America, I just think it’s falling short of its potential,” he explained. “I use Russia to get people to see that. First I talk about Russia and how it’s bad and then I always bring it back to America and how it could be better.”
His own personal tag line (“smart comedy for smarter people”) came from getting backhanded compliments from audience members for years. “People would come up to me and say, ‘we really enjoyed you but we think you went over the heads of some of the other people.’ Others would say my set was very intellectual. Once enough people started telling me that, I figured I might as well use it as a positive and try to find my own audience based on it.”
His background in consulting is not only apparent from analysis like this, but is seen throughout his website. There are numerous tips for comedians, interviews with comics on how they use technology to further their careers, and an area where he has posted goals for each year since 2009. At the end of each year, he revisits how he did and creates a new year’s list.
His comedy career accidentally began at Rutgers where he co-founded slutgers.com, a parody of the university’s website. It was created one drunken night during his Freshmen year. “As with most things at Rutgers, alcohol was involved,” he explained. The website featured college humor that was targeted at the Rutgers community. It might have something on the drink of the week or sexual position of the week along with funny images and captions sent in from students.
Every time Rutgers changed the front page of the website, slutgers.com would change theirs to look the same way. Rosenfeld’s co-founder and roommate had a brother-in-law who was a lawyer and they would always check with him to make sure they weren’t crossing the line.
“I think the administration never acknowledged our existence in any sort of official manner, which was fine with us,” he said.
Rosenfeld still remembers the first live stand-up show he ever saw. It was Chris Titus performing at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick. He and his friend bribed the guy at the door $20 to put them in the front row, not knowing that most people hate sitting there and they could have simply asked for the spot. His roommate used to perform at open mic nights at the club, but Rosenfeld didn’t start with stand-up until a few years after college. When he eventually decided that his passion wasn’t in the corporate world, but resided in comedy he realized he had been doing comedy and humorous things ever since the days of slutgers.com.
With so much anti-intellectualism in the world, Rosenfeld doesn’t worry about others trying to infringe on his market as a smart comedian. He hopes to get laughs while raising the consciousness of his audience, but recognizes that it won’t appeal to everyone.
“I’m nobody’s choice to talk to when it’s 2 in the morning or in Alabama and that’s ok,” he says. “I’d say about half of comedians are doing comedy because that’s what they would prefer doing, but they could pretty much do whatever they want. And for the other half it’s either comedy or drive a truck.”
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.