Comedian Ben Roy on motorcycles, politics and how he's like Bill Cosby
Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Comedian and Westword cover boy Ben Roy is about as widely known as a comedian can get in Denver. In addition to performing at this weekend's High Plains Comedy Festival, Roy will be headlining a show at the downtown Comedy Works at 7 p.m. on August 25. We recently caught up with Ben to discuss his politics, being a comedy outsider, his motorcycle, his non-fictional reading habits and how he's like Bill Cosby.
Westword: Thanks for contacting me about doing an interview. It's always nice to know someone is reading these. Sometimes I feel like I'm just taking up bandwidth.
Ben Roy: When I hit you up about doing an interview it was because I think this is a really radical idea. I found myself reading them, and I think they're funny and lighthearted. I really like hearing about what people read. A lot of comics are really voracious readers. People like the things that they like, and they want to talk about it. So people read the Westword. Especially the comedy community. See, comics love to fancy themselves as these '"beneath-it-all" intellectuals -- present company included -- and any press that could perhaps flaunt that sense of themselves is an ego aphrodisiac. That's why the French make such great clowns.
Anytime you reflect something back to somebody about themselves, they take interest, even if that interest isn't sustained. Most page views last less than thirty seconds. But if you flatter people's narcissistic impulses, especially if they feel like you don't have to, you'll have their attention.
Yeah, but narcissism has its place. If you dig down deep enough...I've found lately that more I read and the more I do standup, and the more honest I am with myself about who I am, the less mad I get. I don't have that well of indignation to draw from because I realize that most people are just reacting. Everybody is reacting a certain way to the events that shaped them. People put a lot of time into themselves, especially comics. If I'm out and people say, "Let's talk about your motorcycle," I say, "Yes! Let's talk about it!" I enjoy that motorcycle.
A motorcycle is like an identity you can hop on and whip around town.
It's the most frivolous thing I own, it's not expensive, but because I never really buy anything for myself, and this bike is all for me. It's a Moto Guzzi. I tell you, the Italians can't run an economy, but fuck, can they design a vehicle. The engine is dogshit, but it's beautiful. It's terrifying to ride sometimes because while most people have a human instinct to protect life and not harm others, but when people are in their cars, they could give two shits about my safety. So there's a lot of me honking and pointing at people to get the fuck out of my way. When people are driving reasonably, though, I love it, and it's a better way to see everything. It's horse-like, it's the closest I'll get to ever owning livestock. It feels nimble, and there's something oddly sinister about me in my helmet. My wife hates the motorcycle. She never rides it, except once in a grocery-store parking lot, and I don't want her to. I'm fine with endangering my life on this thing, but I couldn't live with myself if something happened to her. Anyway: books. I read a lot, but I didn't use to. I didn't grow up reading a lot.
When did your current reading habits kick off?
I've always written, and I've always been in bands. So I was always writing lyrics and I started to get interested in poetry. I heard about Donald Hall, who's a poet laureate, and I read some of his poetry. His writing is very honest and straightforward, and I enjoyed it because it didn't feel as inaccessible as most poetry had. As an angst-y punk kid, I did all the required reading at the time. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Nobody really reads that book, though; they choke it down. A lot of it is so dense and so troubling. Not everybody wants to read a hundred pages about Sacco and Vanzetti. But I did it, and then I read more Zinn. I read Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology after that. I liked that one more, actually, it was less like a disillusioning text book and more like his views expressed through a memoir. There is a positivity to Zinn's outlook, though, if you look for it. Anyway, those books really started to mold my perception of things when I was like sixteen or seventeen.
Do you remember having any mentor-like figures who showed you cool books?
There was this girl I liked a lot -- we're still friends on Facebook -- she was a couple years younger than me, but she gave me Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. That book was one of those that fucking changed me. Every so often, there's a book that you read that you wish you could go back and unread. I don't know what it clicked in my head at that point, but from then on I became more critical. Maybe it was because I hadn't read much up until that point, but that was one of the first books that let me know we were doing it all wrong. After that, I read all the Quinn I could get my hands on. I really respond to that anthropological perspective.
I noticed that there was an element of that militant leftism to your character in Those Who Can't.
Oh yeah, totally. I think if I'd had the money back then, I'd have a huge anarchy tattoo that I'd be trying to cover up now. I was one of those anarcho-punks. That leftist background, the Zinn, and Noam Chomsky, I got way into their writing about the class system. I don't read a lot of fiction, I largely read non-fiction. But Ishmael was definitely the book that changed everything for me in my mid-teens.
Are there any books you associate with the time you started comedy? Do you have any favorite books written by comedians?
I think like a lot of comics, I read Steve Martin's Born Standing Up and How to Talk Dirty and Influence People by Lenny Bruce. I remember when I started comedy I was reading Rashid Khalidi's Sowing Crisis, which was about how the Cold War influenced Middle Eastern politics. I never really enjoyed comedy. I've always kind of attacked comedy the same way I attacked music. Kind of in-your-face.
Like deconstructionist in the same way that punk used to be?
Yeah. People would hand me comedy books to read, recommend them like, "You have to read this, this about what it's like to do standup," and I'd read them and I just couldn't relate. But then I'd read books about the hardcore scene in the '70s and '80s, or about Lou Reed, or the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, and was able to apply that kind of music ethos to comedy. The first comedy book that I related to was Born Standing Up. I related to Steve Martin's views, and especially how he describes the loneliness of being a standup.
He had sort of a deconstructionist approach,too. There are people who come at comedy from a background of deep reverence for the medium, its traditions and history. There's a romanticized image of the lonesome road dog with a bad liver. Then, sometimes, people come at it sideways and their perspective can be really illuminating because they haven't absorbed those borscht-belt rhythms.
In every interview with a comic that I read, they always talk about how they watched comedy for months before trying it. They'd sneak in when they were too young, or hung out to work up courage to perform. They have comedy albums they've memorized because they've loved them since they were kids. When I was growing up, I think my dad had Bill Cosby's Himself and he had a Tom Lehrer album. I think I can recite every word of Tom Lehrer's Table of Elements song. "There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium, nnd nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium, and iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium..." I memorized that when I was like six or seven but never really listened to comedy again until my wife started working at Comedy Works.
Bill Cosby is the only comedian that everyone has listened to with their entire family. Everybody likes Bill Cosby.
He was our generation's comedy mega-star. I've told people a thousand times that I'm doing my impression of Bill Cosby. That's why I sit on a stool. It's skewed, though, because how I feel onstage is informed by performing music, like touching people and getting in their face. That's how music was.
Do you have books that you like reading to your son? Any favorite kid's books, or childhood favorites you've passed along?
I'm like the worst dad on the planet. If I like a book, it's almost never anything that will enrich him. I'm like, "Look Milo, it's a whole book about turds and how to identify different types of animal turds in the woods. It's called Who Pooped in the Park? As he's getting older, we've bought him a bunch of Choose Your Own Adventure fantasy books. We want him to develop an imagination. They don't necessarily have any philosophical view or social idea behind them, they're more about nurturing his creativity and letting him have fun and be silly. He's eight, you know? He's reading, I think it's called The Prince and the Magic Quest. Roald Dahl is great. We've been reading the BFG. Reading the BFG aloud to him is so fun because the way that the Big, Friendly Giant speaks is pretty funny. Dahl's use of language -- I hate to say this because it sounds so pretentious--
Sounding pretentious is what this series is all about.
Dahl's word choice is almost Mark Twain-esque. Bringing that authentic Southern dialect to life in literature is what Twain was known for. That Southern folksy way of talking. It's that way with Dahl, too, where you can sort of hear it and I can act it out for him. He enjoys that. He's a typical eight-year-old, though. When we read to him, he loves it, but when he has to read for school, it's like pulling teeth. He's a lot like I am; he doesn't like to sit still a lot. He'd rather go climb trees. When he was real young it was Where the Wild Things Are. We love all those classic childhood books. They're classics for a reason.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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