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    Benjamin Walker has at least three excellent reasons to look on the bright side of life: (1) He scored a personal triumph and was acclaimed as a new Broadway sex symbol for his title-role performance in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson; (2) he's now poised to become a movie star, having been selected to play yet another bizarro version of a U.S. president in the upcoming film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer; and (3) he's engaged to Mamie Gummer, a talented young actress who happens to be Meryl Streep's daughter.

    So it makes sense that Ben is in a mood to preside over mirth-inducing festivities as the host and creator of the monthly comedy showcase Find the Funny. Joe's Pub at The Public Theater is where you'll find him and his friends on Tuesday evening, March 1 at 9:3pm, all of them doing their best to chase away whatever blues you may have and get you groaning with laughter. I recently grabbed a few minutes with Ben to discuss this project, about which he is very passionate.


    BROADWAYSTARS: I'm all jazzed-up for my first experience of Find the Funny! Joe's Pub sounds like a great venue for the show, but you didn't start out there.

    BENJAMIN WALKER: That's right, we started at a little bar in the East Village called Jimmy's Number 43. We hopped around to a number of different places; we were at The Tank. And then we had an opportunity to move to the Pub.

    STARS: What exactly is your role in the proceedings, aside from hosting?

    BEN: I do a little stand-up and some videos with collaborators, and I book the show. It's really just a community of young, funny people. I've been doing comedy since I was in college at Juilliard.

    STARS: Before your acting career took off, did you ever consider going into comedy full-time?

    BEN: Not really, but I've always been interested in actors who do comedy. At Juilliard, they don't allow you to perform for the public for the first two years, and that really started to wear on me. So I started doing open-mic nights and I started getting booked in comedy clubs over a period of time. I found that there's no real community for funny people and comics in New York, so I've been trying to build one for myself and the comics I admire.

    STARS: Can you describe the content of a typical show, for those who haven't seen it?

    BEN: We do a lot of multimedia. We also have clowns, stand-up, sketch artists, musicians. It's important to us to keep the ticket prices low. Comedy shows in New York are so expensive that it's hard to work material, because if you're at a club that charges a lot of money, you need the material to be really polished. Find the Funny is meant to be a place where people can try different things. And because we keep the price of admission so cheap, it can be a little more on-the-edge and a little more progressive than what you find at most comedy clubs.

    STARS: Your tickets are $10. That's not funny -- it's fantastic.

    BEN: It's not bad for Joe's Pub, and certainly not bad for comedy in New York.

    STARS: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was hilarious, but some of the other shows you've done had precious few laughs in them: Inherit the Wind, an early workshop of Spring Awakening...

    BEN: That's a very good point! A real comic goes on the road or finds his way through comedy in a very different way than I have done. I definitely think I'm an actor masquerading among comics, doing my best impression of a comedian.

    STARS: I imagine that when you're in a heavily dramatic show like Inherit the Wind, there's probably a lot of joking and fooling around offstage to break the tension.

    BEN: Oh, sure -- but that happens with the funny shows, too. There's a lot of shenanigans offstage in a show like Jackson. And in that show in particular, the shenanigans usually found their way onstage.

    STARS: I'm guessing that even serious actors like Christopher Plummer and Brian Dennehy can be silly and funny offstage.

    BEN: Absolutely. The great thing about Find the Funny is that it lends itself to new people trying standup comedy and sketch comedy as a forum. There's a cross-pollination that goes on: What you learn in doing plays like Inherit the Wind can be applied to comedy, and what you learn doing stand-up can be applied to stage work. It's a honing of skills and an expansion of self-expression.

    STARS: Who are some of the up-and-coming comics on your radar at the moment?

    BEN: There's a young guy named Reggie Watts who really pushes the envelope in a very exciting way. He's done our show several times. I also like Barron Vaughn, Nick Kroll, Carmen Lynch, Pat Dixon, Stevie Robinson. I could go on and on. The thing is, it's hard for younger comics to find a younger audience. If you charge more than ten bucks, and you tack a two-drink minimum onto that, most people under 30 can't afford it. We think it's important to keep our show inexpensive, so it's accessible to as many people as possible.


    STARS: By the way, do you subscribe to the famous opinion that "Dying is easy; comedy is hard?"

    BEN: No, I guess I don't. I rather subscribe to the opinion that if you separate the death from the comedy, you're not funny. There has to be a healthy marriage between the bitter and the sweet.

    STARS: Even before I heard about Find the Funny, I was struck by how amusing you were in some interviews you did to promote BBAJ. I remember one interviewer asked a question along the lines of, "What do you hate most in the world?" and your answer was, "Banana flavoring."

    BEN: [laughs] Well, that's just truth as comedy.

    STARS: What current things in the zeitgeist strike you as funny?

    BEN: I'm really interested in advertising. TV commercials seem to be the way that big corporations tell American consumers what they think of us -- and, apparently, they don't think very much of us. I'm working on a bit about Pizza Hut's new campaign: "People love pizza, they don't love math." The campaign is all about how they've simplified their menu by rounding off the numbers, as if to say it's the complication of the math that's been keeping people from ordering their pizzas. I mean, it makes me laugh, but it's mildly insulting.

    STARS: Are you a big fan of political humor?

    BEN: I am, and the comics I like have very strong points of view, whether I agree with them or not. I think Jon Stewart is on a wonderful path. So many people look to him for their news, not to news organizations anymore. He had Donald Rumsfeld on his show the other night...

    STARS: I saw that. Wasn't it amazing? Stewart still managed to be funny while making all of his points in such an intelligent way.

    BEN: It was astounding. But that's what he does, intelligent comedy. It's comedy that comes from an awareness of self and American society. That's more important now than ever before.

    STARS: Before I let you go, I have to ask about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer. It sounds like a hoot. Do you think the movie will be at all similar in tone to BBAJ?

    BEN: Frankly, we're in the early stages of it, so I'm not sure. It's definitely a stretch for me in the sense that it's going to be a large motion picture with a lot of action scenes. But ultimately, it is a movie about Abe Lincoln killing vampires. If there isn't comedy in that, I don't know where you'd find it.


    [For more information on Find the Funny at Joe's Pub, click here.]

    Published on Monday, February 28, 2011

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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