Rutgers alum, Ben Rosenfeld released his third comedy album in January. Entitled, The United States of Russia, the album was released by Comedy Dynamics and continues the Russia born, American raised comedian’s style of mixing tales of his immigrant parents and outsider childhood with topics ranging from millennials, terrorism, politics, and adjusting to life as a newlywed.
New Jersey Stage caught up with Ben to talk about the album.
Congrats on the new album and getting married!
Thanks for the congrats! Lorne Michaels has been quoted as saying, “The longer you’re on, the longer you’re on.” Meaning longevity begets more longevity. Or work gets you work. So I think every piece helps every other piece and eventually you have enough pieces for a full fledged career.
Your comedy has always been about more than just the Russia connection. How has comedy changed for you since getting married?
Now that I’m married, I’m doing more material about being a newlywed, and less material about never wanting to get married :)
It’s one thing to poke fun of your parents, but can you do that with your wife? Is that sort of implied with a comedian?
Yes, I can poke fun at my wife. I wouldn’t have married her if that was an issue. Of course, if she really hates a joke, she’ll tell me, and I’ll consider not doing it. But it depends on the joke. In the rare times that’s happened, I’ve responded with either, “I’ll stop doing the joke if you stop doing the behavior I talk about in the joke” or “Sorry, that joke is doing too well now, you should’ve said something sooner.” But this is rarely an issue. Especially because my wife is also a comedian, so if she really doesn’t like something I’m saying, she can always write and perform her perspective of the same issue.
How do your parents feel about being the subject of jokes?
My dad loves when he’s in my jokes. He’s been in the crowd and I can hear him laughing his ass off as I’m doing an impression of him. It’s fun and makes me almost break character. My mom does not like to hear herself in my act. So for this album, I had to tell her which tracks to skip over.
Your main region is the New York City area. In other words, performing in front of audiences that likely are not fans of Donald Trump. Do you have to watch yourself when performing elsewhere?
One of my favorite comedians was Patrice O’Neil, and when he passed away, there was this profile in the New Yorker about him. And I remember someone was quoted as saying about Patrice, “I’ve never laughed harder at someone I’ve disagreed with more.” That’s how I feel about political jokes. They have to be undeniably funny so that even audience members who disagree can’t help but laugh. In fact, I feel that’s the only shot anyone has of changing someone’s mind - when they’re laughing. So while it’s definitely fair to make certain assumptions about New York City audiences, when I touch on political subjects I try to write my jokes to 1) be funny even if you believe the opposite and 2) make an underlying point that you can agree with even if you don’t like the example - or at least see that I make fun of both sides.
Whether it’s in NYC or elsewhere, I make midcourse subject adjustments if a set isn’t going how I want it to be. But the only times I “watch myself” in advance is if I know the entire audience is one specific type of group or where there are language restrictions.
Some comedians lean heavily on politics while others avoid it. You mix it in with other topics. Do you consider yourself a political comic?
I’d agree with your description that “I mix in politics” so I guess that makes me a Cold Stone Creamery comedian. But seriously, I’ve been told I’m “an intellectual comedian” way more often than I’ve been told I’m a political comedian. In shorter 7-10 minute sets, I barely do political jokes. But when it’s a longer 45-60 minute set, and the audience first understands my (Russian family) background and where I’m at personally (married) then I let them know what I think about politics and the world. Although I’d say most of my political jokes are more “political philosophy” jokes than “one side is great, the other side is horrible” type jokes. As in, instead of focusing on specific politicians whose names nobody will remember in a year or two, I try to focus on the underlying concept about America and the world. That said, I still have a few Trump jokes.
Comparisons to Russia is still a big part of your set. With the way the last 2 years have gone, do you find audiences are more interested in these jokes?
Yes, I’ve found audiences are way more interested in my Russian stories now. Before they thought I was just making this all up. But now that Russians are in the news, my stories don’t seem so crazy.
You dig into some rather personal aspects in your set. What’s the most embarrassing topic you’ve ever included? Are there ever aspects of your life that you won’t include even if they’re kind of funny?
The most embarrassing topic was probably five or six years back, I had a bit about a Sexually Transmitted Disease (STD) scare. (It turned out I did not have a STD). The bit didn’t end up in any of my albums though, not because it was embarrassing, but because the jokes weren’t funny enough.
I like to think that no matter how embarrassing, if something is funny enough, I’ll talk about it. Although I try not to do poop jokes.
A few years ago I thought I remembered hearing that you were working on a reality tv show? Did anything ever happen with that?
I’ve been working with a production company and have a few TV projects in different stages of development. Nothing official to report yet, but you’ll be the first to know - okay, maybe the third, after Variety and Deadline Hollywood.
Finally, be honest… how many times in your life has someone asked if you were a spy?
I’ve lost count. But each person who’s asked me that question is now chained to my water heater. Which reminds me, I should probably go feed them. While I’m there, I’ll do a head count and get back to you. And that four sentence answer is also the secret password to accessing the Russian Embassy’s VIP lounge.
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.