Benjie Wright is a comedian and radio personality on “Brickwall Comedy Show” on KLZS. He resides in Eugene, OR; here is a link to his website:
Q: What made you interested in a career in radio?
A: I always had a love for radio but it was kind of by accident that I got into the business. I remember when I was in college I was taking a prerequisites class, English Journalism, and we had the GM of the sports station in to talk about radio. I was more concerned why our local sports team was run by idiots and a week later I was interning for the morning show. Walt Shaw was the news director and a fascinating guy. He did news and sports for the station and worked as a review writer for a couple different magazines, writing features on automotive and vacation resorts. He showed me how to get to the meat of the story and for morning radio you have about a minute and a half to do so. I was never the smartest person in class but I was quick witted and by writing and preparing the shows I quickly climbed the ranks from morning show producer to cohost and eventually my own show. The greatest joy was being in touch with pop culture and addressing stories and subjects before anyone else. Eventually advertising took a crash in 2009 and I was let go from the station in a sweep to cut salaries. Being funny was natural, and on more than on occasion when we would had comedians in to promote the comedy club, I was told I should give it a try. So I climbed the steps to the comedy stage and mad a marriage of the two writing styles.
Q: What made you decided to move from Alabama to Oregon?
A: Marrying a woman not from Alabama, I met my wife in California where I attended college and convinced her to move to Alabama where I was from. She gave it a great try but really the pace of life was to slow and rural for her. When my comedy career took off and I started touring nationally there really was no reason for us to be based in Alabama anymore. She had family in Oregon and so for as much as she had sacrificed for me in my entertainment career, it was only fitting that I do the same and west we went.
Q: What is the biggest difference between audiences in Alabama and audiences in Oregon?
A: When I first started doing comedy I was really worried about how I would be received outside of the south but to be honest, there really is no difference in that every audience wants you to make them laugh. You have to find your voice and writing what you know. I try to orchestrate a sense of shared values and prospective with the audience. I like to expose the universal truth that the audience is just now realizing in laughter and connect with them intimately as a performer. I think comedy is no different than any other trade in that you have to learn it. Treat your early years like an apprenticeship, studying the masters, listening not just to their jokes but to how they deliver them. From the way they word it to any physical nuances that add to the delivery. If your smart, crafty, and have a well-structured joke, it doesn’t matter where you are.
Q: How do you deal with an annoying heckler?
Joe Rogan nailed it in the 2007 documentary Heckler, “the number one thing about hecklers is 100% of them are douchebags.” My first reaction is to try to figure out why this douchebag is trying to derail the show. You have to address it immediately and shut them down. Nobody is on the hecklers side but it is very intense for the audience. As a performer it is easier to turn the room against you by attacking. You don’t know who this person is or their relationship to the room, especially in bars. They maybe friends of the owner or booker so by launching right into them, you just guaranteed you’re not coming back. And lot of times in bars, they don’t know the etiquette of comedy. 99% of the time they are drunk and the stupidity of their statement is enough fuel to take ownership and turn a joke out of it. Be prepared, a good comedian is always thinking three steps ahead of the moment. The better you are at improve the easier it is to handle this person. You have to keep the room on your side the whole time, keeping the incident entertaining but embarrassing enough to shut the heckler up. I have a little thing where I lead the room in kicking the heckler out. It’s hard to argue who’s the jerk when the room told you to leave. I find in most cases the comedy venues that have hecklers have a history of not managing their audiences. Still, I find the better you are at stand up, the lease likely you are to be heckled.
Q: What’s funny about Eugene?
It has to be the old hippie culture. I have never seen a greater group of people who have successfully let themselves go. And good for them, they’ve found themselves which I think more people should take the risk and do. The idea of peace, love and freedom, sounds good till you turn on the news. Eugene has strived to be different fighting the “Establishment” at the same time creating their own established order.
Q: What sort of day jobs have you had and how have they influenced your work?
Even from high school, I didn’t really have conventional jobs. While other kids were bagging groceries or working fast food, I pulped wood, roofed houses, and worked on a worm farm. Even after my days in radio while I was trying to get my comedy off the ground, I drove cab. Not the most glamorous of jobs and most of these folks were on the fringe of society. Odd balls that helped shape how I would look at the world. It also taught me to be self-motivated. There were no sick days or vacation time. You showed up, you got paid. The dark side of comedy you don’t see is the endless amount of hours spent self-promoting and seeking out gigs. 90% of comedians don’t have agents, they have bookers that manage regions and it’s a juggling act trying to plot out a tour.
Q: What do you look for in a radio guest?
Somebody that has something to say. The art of interviewing, I think, is the most fascinating of all journalistic feats. It is a three way conversation between two people and the listening audience. The thing that makes a great guest is a prepared host. Do some research and have a general course of the interview and then listening and creating punctuated moments. Subtly coaching your quest to keep the segment on track and interesting to the audience. As with comedy, you have to create a relatability from the start. First between you and your guest and then between your guest and your audience. By creating this intimacy you can ask more pressing or personal questions that otherwise would have guarded responses. The more comfortable you make it by being professional, respectful, and educated the more interesting the interview.
Q: What are some of the challenges of doing a radio comedy show?
A: The pace, it’s more forgiving then the stage in that the audience doesn’t have to be laughing like at a comedy club but it does have to be entertaining. Doing the Brickwall Comedy Show with Chris Warren and Alex Elkin, we each go through the daily headlines and trending topics like any news talk show host would do but we go for what makes the story funny or ridiculous. It’s a dance of judgment because you have to push the envelope with comic observations at the same time not chasing off listeners and advertisers. Both are very similar but with radio you really have to keep in mind the community standards.
Q: How realistic is Portlandia? (Why or why not).
A: It’s a satire of Portland, anyone from anywhere can point out the good and the bad of their town, this time someone made a show about it. Being a southerner I’m used to the world views the south so I take the show for what it is, a comedy. I moved to Portland six months before IFC debuted “Portlandia” and my first exposure to the show was the sketch bit, “Dream of the 90’s.” As an outsider new to Portland, I thought it was hilarious because I saw these people everywhere I went. Not saying that everyone is that way but you notice that person everywhere you go. Oregonlive.com had a great interview with Portlandia co-stars and co-creators Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein. Brownstein, who was part of a Portland based band Sleater-Kinney said in the article,
“Portland does take itself seriously. It’s a very sensitive city. Very self-reflective and it nurtures sensitivity.”
Every one of us has a person in our lives that is exactly that way and how many times have you chuckled to yourself how overboard at times that person reacts. The show poke fun at such contemporary rituals of obsessing over TV shows, being overly read, dog parks, and self-righteous. I can’t help but think that if you are offended by the show than you are the target of the show. To quote Bill Murray from Strips, “Lighten up Francis.”
Q: If you could interview the ghost of Richard Pryor or the ghost of Lenny Bruce on your show, who would you pick?
A: That’s a hard one because if it wasn’t for Lenny Bruce there wouldn’t have been a Rickard Pryor. Both comedians were renowned for their uncompromising and critical form of comedy addressing politics, religion, sex, race, and vulgarity. Lenny Bruce paved the way for free speech in his landmark trial for obscenity, but to listen to both comedians sets today, Richard Pryor’s comedy still strikes a chord with all audiences. Jerry Seinfeld called Pryor “The Picasso of our profession,” Bob Newhart has called Pryor “the seminal comedian of the last 50 years,” and to this day Pryor is listed at Number 1 on Comedy Central‘s list of all-time greatest stand-up comedians. You forget Richard Pryor’s body of work as a stand-up comedian, actor, film director, and writer. He won an Emmy in 73, and five Grammy Awards from 74 to 82. In 1974, he also won two American Academy of Humor awards and the Writers Guild of America Award. The first ever Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor was presented to him in 1998. Of course, I would start the interview listing these accolades and the ghost of Richard Pryor would interject, stating that he owes his success to the underground stand-up hero Lenny Bruce. Pryor identified Bruce’s influence as the catalyst for his work. In an interview with WENN in 2004, Pryor gave credit saying, “Lenny changed my life. I never heard anything like him before and I remember thinking, ‘If this is comedy, then what the f*** am I doing?’ It was Lenny Bruce who said comedy wasn’t about telling jokes – it was about telling the truth.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)