On Tuesday, April 18 Harrison Greenbaum, named “the hardest-working man in comedy” by Time Out New York, will appear at the legendary Cutting Room to star in his hit show, Harrison Greenbaum: What Just Happened? A smash success at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, the evening features Harrison’s award-winning comedy and original magic.
Harrison Greenbaum embraced stand-up comedy while he was studying psychology and English at Harvard. Currently living and working in Manhattan, Harrison has the distinction of being one of the most in-demand comedians in New York and was one of Comedy Central’s “Comics to Watch.” Harrison’s comedy has earned him numerous accolades, including the Andy Kaufman Award. He has also appeared on numerous television shows, such as NBC’s Last Comic Standing, as well as been seen on ABC, FOX, MTV, AXS TV, SPIKE, the Science Channel, and the Discovery Channel.
A skilled magician as well as a comedian, Harrison was one of the most-requested headliners at Monday Night Magic, New York’s longest-running magic show, and is a regular at Hollywood’s famed Magic Castle. He’s also a regular columnist for Genii: A Conjurer’s Magazine, the largest selling magic magazine in the world. Recently, he was happy to discuss his career and experiences as an entertainer.
Meagan Meehan (MM): What interested you first, magic or comedy?
Harrison Greenbaum (HG): “I started doing magic when I was five years old and attended Tannen’s Magic Camp ten years after that – I still volunteer as a counselor there every year – so I have loved doing magic since I was a little kid. I’ve also always loved comedy – I have such distinct memories of being a kid and listening with my grandma to the cassette of The 2,000 Year Old Man while driving around in her white 1991 Volvo, laughing the entire time – so I guess the seeds for that were there from an early age, too.”
MM: Do you think your childhood impacted your will to perform?
HG: “I’ve always loved performing. I was in the Drama Club all throughout elementary, middle, and high school – in fact, my Jewish grandmother still thinks my 8th grade performance as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof is my crowning achievement in the entertainment industry – so there was always a love for getting on stage since I was a kid.”
MM: You started doing stand-up while you were enrolled in Harvard. What prompted you to embrace this style of entertaining?
HG: “It was a whole confluence of events. Towards the end of my freshman year, my frat brother asked me to participate in a stand-up show he was helping put together. He told me I could just do magic if I wanted, but I really wanted to see if I could do comedy, so I furiously went to work on an act. When I finally got to go up on the show and just do jokes, I experienced a rush I never wanted to give up. That summer, I interned for MAD Magazine, which thanks to the kindness and generousness of the ‘Usual Gang of Idiots’ was a full comedy education in and of itself, and began barking for stage time (that is, handing out flyers on street corners trying to get people to come to the show), doing five-minute spots at the end of late shows in exchange for two hours of barking and working on my act that way. By the time I came back to Harvard sophomore year, I was a bit comedy obsessed. I had been working at the Comedy Studio in Harvard Square, which has a magic show on Tuesday nights called the Mystery Lounge, since I had gotten to campus, so by my second year at school, I was hanging out at the stand-up nights a lot, too. I’m sure my parents were thrilled that I was spending my evenings in what was literally the third-floor attic of a Chinese restaurant, learning stand-up comedy, but I considered it part of my education. By my junior year, I had founded the Harvard College Stand-Up Comic Society (Harvard College SUCS, for shorts) with my buddy, Dave Ingber, and began doing stand-up all over campus. So, to sum, a whole bunch of comedy-related things were happening in my life at that time, all of which allowed me to realize how much I loved getting on stage and making people laugh.”
MM: How would you describe your comedic style?
HG: “That’s so hard! Funny? Can I just say, ‘funny’? I guess if I had to describe it, I’d say ‘smart but accessible.’ Is there a way to say that and not sound snobby? I honestly just talk about whatever I find funniest and hope the audience finds it equally hilarious. I would say that my hope is ‘honest’ or ‘open’ is one of the descriptors, too.”
MM: You’re also a magician. What were some of the most challenging tricks to learn?
HG: “Every trick presents its own challenges. I’d say it takes hundreds, if not thousands, of performances to master any given trick. Even the easiest tricks go wrong. I always feel like you have to ‘earn’ a trick by having it go wrong every possible way first. Once that’s happened, you at least know how to either avoid those mistakes reoccurring or how to deal with them if they happen again – it’s only at that point that I think you’ve mastered the trick. That’s a long and difficult process, with a lot of learning and trial and error along the way to get there, for every trick I add to the act.”
MM: Do you think that studying psychology has aided your entertainment career in any way?
HG: “I do think that, as a comedian, there’s a scientific component to what I do. Every night I get up in front of an audience, tell them jokes, and then hope they laugh or applaud. That laughter or applause is real-time data that I can use to improve my stand-up; I keep changing a joke until the feedback is consistently what I want it to be (i.e. it gets really big laughs most of the time). Sometimes a really, really tiny change in a joke can have a huge effect on how an audience reacts to it, so I have a lot of fun changing things about a joke – a word, a phrasing choice, a pause, an emphasis – each night until it gets the reaction that I want. You’re basically performing scientific experiments on your jokes each night (if I change this, will the laugh get bigger? what about this?), so I guess that’s a major way my psychology background comes into play.”
MM: What’s the major difference between performing comedy and magic? Was it difficult to combine both?
HG: “Comedy is about generating laughter and magic is about generating astonishment, but I think they go really well together, especially since both laughter and astonishment are, at their cores, both based around surprise. The difficulty was adding the magic in such a way that I still could maintain my comic persona/voice. I wanted my magic to be just as original as my comedy. As a result, I think I’ve developed a unique style that really blends the stand-up and comedy – there are sections of the show that are just straight stand-up and those lead directly and thematically into the magic sections which also have tons of jokes in them.”
MM: Was it ever intimidating to get up and perform in front of audiences?
HG: “I love doing comedy so much, so I’m not really focused on the intimidation so much as how fun it is when it goes well. Stand-up is such a huge drug, a huge high. Obviously, when the stakes are high, it’s possible to get a little nervous, but I’ve learned how to turn that anxiety into excitement and energy. And, besides, the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward!”
MM: Have you ever had a difficult viewer, such as a heckler? If so, how do you handle them?
HG: “Ideally, you’d hope that everyone is enjoying your show so much that no one would even consider heckling, but it happens sometimes no matter what. I’d like to think that most hecklers believe that they’re helping, so I always start by politely but firmly letting them know that generally they aren’t. If that doesn’t shut them down, then I have to escalate my response. I’m always sober and they’re usually drunk, plus I’ve been doing this professionally for a while, so handling a heckler is generally a lopsided fight in my favor. You want to be as respectful as possible (at least at first) and minimize it detracting from the show – really, I just want to make sure everybody else in the audience can continue having a great show without one idiot ruining it for the rest of them.”
MM: You have produced your own shows, including What Just Happened? What’s it like to be a producer and how do you select the names of your shows?
HG: “I think you always start out producing your own shows out of necessity. I think it’s pretty hard to find someone who believes in your show more than you do, so you become the producer. I just love doing my show and wanted to get it up in front of as many people as possible, so started handling that side (i.e. the business side) of the show, too. But, trust me, I’m sure it would be easier with a team! In terms of the names of my show, I can tell you that, in the case of the particular show, I thought ‘What Just Happened?’ was fitting because it was the reaction I hoped the audience would have to the magic in the show. As in, ‘Wait, what the heck just happened? That was impossible!’ But that full phrase probably would have taken up too much room on the poster.”
MM: You often call on members of the audience to help you during your routines. What have been some of the most memorable reactions ever?
HG: “There have been so many. The show has a lot of built-in moments for audience interaction so the responses I’ve gotten have really run the whole gamut. I do one trick where I ask audience members to name items for me to guess the price of. I’ve gotten everything from a human heart to a whale. In fact, the human heart response was from an innocent-looking 15-year-old, who also claimed to know the market price. I referred to him as ‘Dexter, Jr.’ for the rest of the show.”
MM: How do you envision your career evolving over the coming decade?
HG: “That’s a really difficult question! I definitely hope it continues to evolve, although I guess in certain states I would have to say I hope my career continues to be ‘intelligently designed.’ But, seriously, my focus has always been on just creating as much stuff as possible and making it as funny as possible and trying to build up an audience to perform all that stuff for. Everything else is just gravy. Kosher gravy. I’m sure my grandmother would feel better if I specified that.”
MM: Are you currently working on anything that you would like to mention?
HG: “Yes! I’ll be performing Harrison Greenbaum: What Just Happened? at the Cutting Room on Tuesday, April 18th, at 7:30pm!”
Tickets to Harrison Greenbuam: What Just Happened? are $15 in advance or $20 at the door. To learn more about the show, visit its official website. To learn more about Harrison Greenbaum, visit his official website.
[Featured Image by Dan Dion]