Ophira Eisenberg on Career Diversity, Childhood Storytelling and the Benefits of Being Frank
Ophira Eisenberg likes life on the edge.
Ophira Eisenberg is one of the most prolific comedians on the current scene — doing stand-up gigs and television appearances, hosting the NPR trivia show Ask Me Another and performing with storytelling show The Moth in both its New York residency and on tour. Her sharp and quick wit and refreshingly frank storytelling has made her a standout performer, and her 2014 comedy album, Bangs!, captures her expert comedic timing, intelligence and charisma. Eisenberg also wrote a critically acclaimed 2013 autobiography, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy, that was recently optioned by filmmaker Jerry Zucker.
Eisenberg will be at the Aspen Laff Fest at the Wheeler Opera House, 320 East Hyman Avenue in Aspen, at 7:15 p.m. on Friday, February 20. In advance of this appearance, we spoke with the personable and thoughtful Eisenberg about her creative career, an early childhood foray into storytelling and the efficiency of being open in your comedy and communication generally.
Westword: Do you think staying involved is why you've done so many different things in your career?
Ophira Eisenberg: I dream of being someone who just does one thing. I think it would be really gratifying to just soak all your energy in one thing. But in the same way I've battled my entire life thinking, "No, no, no, I'm going to get up tomorrow at 7 a.m. and I'm totally going to work," and it's never happened. I'm accepting that I'm not a morning person and I'm accepting that I'm a person who does a lot of different things and will never be satisfied with working on the one thing.
So I think it's just kind of who you are. Plus, I was doing stand-up and then I did The Moth and the storytelling world. That's how I got involved with the Aspen comedy festival. I did The Moth show there and they said you should come back for the comedy festival. The Moth is a different animal, too, because it's storytelling and it has a different rhythm. It can be funny but it doesn't have to be purely for the sake of jokes. So that started off a different train that led to the book. I feel that, too, in this climate you have to wear a lot of different hats.
How young were you when you started coming up with your own stories?
One of my few pleasant school memories was in the fifth grade. We all had to write holiday stories. I grew up in Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and I went to a public school and for whatever reason it wasn't that ethnically diverse and I was the only Jewish kid in my class. I think they were expecting a nice little Santa Claus story but I wrote a story about the Chipmunk Hanukkah and I gave all the chipmunks all these Israeli names from my cousins, so it was Madar, Noah and Eliahu. When I think about it now, these poor teachers. It was probably the most exotic thing they'd ever seen their entire lives. It was about the chipmunks making their first Hanukkah bush. It got published in a citywide publication for elementary schools.
[The people in my] family are big storytellers, and I'm the youngest of six and I wanted to be a part of that and have them listen to me and all that really stereotypical stuff you hear about the youngest. Because I host this trivia show, people ask if I was a big game player growing up. But honestly, I didn't know it was possible to win a game until I became an adult — because that's how these families go.
Your storytelling style is distinctive for its frankness. Is that how you've been your whole life in talking about what some may consider delicate subjects, or did you have to work toward being able to share those sorts of things with strangers?
I think I've definitely gone more in that direction. I also think that's the influence of the storytelling. It's pretty hard to shock people in our current culture, and people have experienced a lot of things in their lives and it's better not to hold back. Still, I find myself thinking about writing a joke in a certain way and I think, "Wow, I'm dancing around what actually happened. Why don't I talk about what actually happened? Because that's when you get people to totally connect with you. They might not have had the same experience, but they are engaged because they have had that thought or emotion.
I think one of the highest compliments in comedy is when someone says to you, "You say the things I think about but I'm afraid to say." So I'm definitely moving more in that direction. But I do remember, about five years ago, someone was reviewing one of my shows somewhere and they said, "And the painfully candid Ophira Eisenberg" — and I thought that was a high compliment. It's interesting because it doesn't occur to me that I shouldn't be saying it. I figure out in hindsight when people come up to me later and say, "Wow, that was brave of you to say it that way" or "Wow, I can't believe you laid it all out like that." I guess that is different.
I think I am a wear-it-all-on-my-sleeve type of person. It is very efficient, too. I've met some people who I don't particularly like but they laid it out so clearly who they were and it's so nice to not have to deal with anything else. You know what you're going to get and that's the end of the story.
Ophira Eisenberg performs at 7:15 p.m. this Friday, February 20, at Aspen Laff Fest at the Wheeler Opera House with Robert Dubac. Tickets are $22.50; to purchase them, go to www.wheeleroperahouse.com or call the box office at 970-920-5770 or toll free at 866-449-0464.
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