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Ben Bailey is a performer millions of people are familiar with through his hosting of Discovery Channel's "Cash Cab," but surprisingly most people don't realize what a talented stand-up comic he is.
He just recorded a one-hour special for Comedy Central, which will air this spring. "I think that will go a long way toward bringing my comedy to the forefront. I love doing 'Cash Cab' and it's fun to be recognized for it, but I would like to get back to my roots and be known as a comic."
Ben has been performing professionally for over ten years now, sort of falling into it by happenstance. "I moved to Los Angeles from New York to become a movie star," he laughs. "It wasn't immediately working out and I had a series of odd jobs in the interim." One of these sundry occupations was as a limo driver, which on later reflection was a great primer for his "Cash Cab" role.
The occupation that would eventually land him on stage however wasn't much more illustrious. "I got hired to answer the phones at a comedy club and just happened to be hanging out backstage with a few comics one night. I was telling a story or something and had all of them in stitches when the club owner came up and asked me how long I had been doing comedy. 'I just started!' I said. He began putting me up on stage and I developed an act from there."
Ben put in tons of hard work before he really got somewhere, landing the "Cash Cab" gig and becoming a national name. "It really has been amazing," he says. "Despite not being an entirely creatively flexible scenario like stand-up, it has provided me a great opportunity to raise my profile and meet some incredible people. I've learned a lot too."
The premise of "Cash Cab" is that the host, Ben the cabbie, drives around New York City (just like any other cabbie) trolling for fairs. When someone is lucky enough to hail the "Cash Cab" they get to play a trivia style game show on the way to their destination. Some of the questions are easy, some are hard, but Ben has picked up on a ton of random info in the process to be sure. "I am amazed every time at the things some people know, as well as the things some people don't. I try not to be biased against people who don't know the seemingly obvious questions, I have learned a lot myself. I study all the answers before the show because I obviously can't read from a card while I'm driving the cab, so the question for me is one of retention, not outright ignorance (laughs)."
Something must have leaked into his memory banks and if there really were a "Celebrity Jeopardy", it seems Ben would have a shot. "I was watching 'Jeopardy' for the first time in several years the other day. I used to feel pretty dumb when I watched it, but the other night I answered 15 questions correctly in a row, so maybe there's something there. The funny thing is, I'm actually friends with Alex Trebec now," he jokes.
Joke or not, Ben is rightfully rubbing elbows with some of the other great TV hosts and he has the Emmys to prove it. "It's still kind of a surreal shock. I don't know if I'll be announced as "Emmy Award winning Ben Bailey" before every comedy show (laughs), but it is a feather in my cap and I'm sure it will open doors." Being nominated in 2008 and 2009 as well, Ben was clearly excited to receive the nod this year for "Outstanding Game Show Host" in the Daytime Emmys, solidifying his position as one of television's top hosts.
Ben's ability to read audiences and cater to their differing demographics is what makes him such a great choice for campuses, as evidenced by his long track record of college dates. Even in the comedy clubs, Ben has a fairly clean show, but his ability to clean things up to satisfy even a G-rating make him an obvious choice for a family audience. "My take on comedy isn't really a dirty one. I sometimes swear superfluously for comedy club crowds because they want to hear it. Surprisingly some college audiences are the same.
"One of the most appealing aspects of the college market in my mind is the variety of shows I play within it. Sometimes, I get requests to be as dirty as possible for tough and rowdy audiences. Sometimes I get requests to keep the show as clean as possible for more conservative venues. It doesn't really affect the show that much one way or the other. Everyone still has a good time, but it keeps things interesting for me."
It's hard to be a comic and not offend some people at least some of the time, that's kind of what the whole business is about. Now, while most comics don't intend to offend, bringing awkward subjects to light and having the maturity and insight to laugh at them with good nature is a way for our society to deal with delicate issues that have few other means of coming out.
For example, one of Ben's routines you can find on YouTube has a bit about a lazy eye. The routine is funny and not in bad taste, but would he hold it back in a room full of people who had lazy eyes? "I don't think so," he says. "Because they are the people who would probably appreciate the joke the most. I once did a show where the entire audience was either physically or mentally disabled. Now, there were a few comics performing there that night, but none of us were told anything about the gig or audience before hand. So, by the time everyone saw what was going on, they were all kind of nervous and afraid of the elephant in the room. I was the last act and not one person made mention about the special nature of this audience. I thought that was silly. These people may be different in one way or another, but they don't want to be patronized either. Addressing their situation with good humor is a way to let them know their problem is being addressed and related to. It doesn't show them any respect to simply act like everything is completely normal. They have to deal with a different set of challenges than other people do, and I think shedding some light on that is appreciated. The same theory goes for my lazy eye routine."
Ben walked on stage in that particular show and commented "Boy, I'd really feel bad if this audience walked out on me!" The room absolutely exploded. "That turned into an incredible show. Everyone in that room was with me and had a great time. I think they respected the fact that I recognized them for who they were. I didn't talk down to them, but I also didn't act like I was completely oblivious to their situations either."
Ben's humor is widely acceptable because his wit is intelligent and insightful. He's not the kind of guy that sits down to write something funny. The ideas come more organically driven by real-world experiences that Ben sifts through his quirky filter. "I am just struck by ideas at random times and have to get them down whenever I can. I don't constantly write new material, it just sort of comes when it comes."
Having just recorded his one-hour special for Comedy Central, Ben now faces the proposition of having to build a new set. "Once you use something for TV, it's pretty much done as far as usable material goes. Sure, you still use the audience favorites in a set on campus, but you have to keep things fresh as well. Comedy club audiences especially don't want to see you go word for word through a routine they've already seen on television."
Ben's new special will be released on DVD as well, so if you host one of his shows, the members of the audience who want to stick around and meet Ben will have the chance to get them signed. "The past few nights, I have been dealing with some back pain, so I haven't been up to staying after the shows, but on every other occasion I almost always stay until the last person leaves. I really like to meet the fans, and I understand it's a very unique and special feeling for them to meet someone they've seen on TV. I know I'm no Jay Leno, but I can see the light in the eyes of the folks who really enjoy meeting face to face and, it feels good for me to do my best to leave a lasting impression."
Some of you may have the chance to bump into Ben this year in St. Louis, where he will be meeting folks in the booth of KP Comedy at NACA's national convention.
Ben is an interesting guy with many things to talk about. He's a somewhat imposing figure at six and a half feet tall and as an ironman competitor, stays in excellent shape. He's also a guitarist, one relaxation technique he does use to help spring forth new ideas. "I like to play guitar and sometimes it does help me relax and clear my mind. Usually clearing the mental clutter is all it takes to see something as funny."
Keep an eye on Comedy Central in the spring for Ben's special, and tune in to the Discovery Channel for new episodes of "Cash Cab." It's a fun show to watch and has left Ben with some memorable experiences. "I have had all kinds of people in the cab and yes, most of them ask me if I am a real cabbie. I studied the book, took the test and am a licensed cab operator, thank you."
Sometimes, Ben gets the "Cash Cab" fanatics. "I have had people tell me they knew the show was filming in a particular city at a certain time and they literally would roam the street for hours hailing every mini-van style cab they could find looking for me. I would imagine there are many bona fide cabbies out there who would've cursed me on those nights (laughs)."
Ben is a very personable guy and a true pro. He's been at the comedy game a long time, much of which has been spent performing for and entertaining students just like yours. Consider bringing him in for the show you want your students to remember.
BOOK IT! For more information on bringing Ben Bailey to your campus, contact KP Comedy at 866-769-9037 (kpcomedy.com). For virtual links, including video of Ben's comedy and access to his personal website, check out this story at www.campusactivitiesmagazine.com