Interview: Neil Rubenstein

Neil Rubenstein

Recently I was able to connect with comedian Neil Rubenstein to discuss his recent performance at Adjacent Festival. Additionally, I asked Neil about the best way to deal with hecklers, his favorite bands in the music scene, as well as a preview of his comedy special Have Some Dignity. The special will go live on YouTube today at 7pm Eastern.

So thank you so much for your time today, Neil. Can you first tell me about your recent performance at the Adjacent Music Festival, and how the reception was to that?

Oh, it was wild. I mean, it probably went better than I expected to be honest. That’s always a nightmare, opening for bands is hard enough, but then Japanese Breakfast is playing across the beach. You’re on a beach. You’re getting heckled by the ocean. So it’s not the ideal circumstances. And when I got asked to do it, it was more about the look than the actual… Oh, this is a sick talking point. It gets this <interview>, AP, and it gets all these things involved. And then it’s not even about the performance. I can just get out whatever terrible performance situation it is, or like all the other things that come along with it…but it actually went super well. The kids were receptive. A lot of these folks know who I am. I mean, a lot is a strong word. But enough that when I come out, there’s a few that know me. And so yeah, it was definitely better than I could have expected for sure.

Nice! How long was the set for that?

I did three, five-minute sets. So I just did this changeover bit before I Am The Avalanche, the changeover before The Happy Fits, and the changeover before Motion City Soundtrack.

Oh, nice. Yeah, I’ve written about each of those bands! So I understand you recently filmed the new special called Have Some Dignity. How will people, first of all, be able to watch this special? And what are some of the topics you’ve covered in it?

Well, it’s gonna be up on YouTube. There’ll be like an extended version, with a little extra stuff for the Patreon. People who’ve been paying for Patreon, or subscribing to Patreon. And hoping to get it out on vinyl, too.

Oh cool, I love vinyl.

Yeah, I don’t know. I feel like that…I know that other comedians are doing vinyl, but they’re doing vinyl because it’s what they think people want. But that’s where my introduction to vinyl was, with this genre of music and what I grew up with. It’s more about the punk rock ethos of it. Its about my scene and my culture.

I think you’ve done a few of those in the past, right? You’ve done a couple of seven inches from what I understand?

Well, yeah, I’ve put out a comedy seven inch. And before that, I’ve been in bands doing seven inches and 12 inches, and then we, FadeAway Records, the label. We put out a bunch of vinyl, we put out that FRIENDS comp on, double vinyl, maybe triple? So yeah, that’s just part of my culture. And as far as topics go <on the comedy special> everything’s personal. I’m talking about moving to Oklahoma City because of my breakup. I talk about the breakup. I talk about the pandemic, what we all went through. And I touched on my distrust of the government. And, I don’t know if it’s gonna make it in but I do talk about my sexual life. And growing up with toxic friends and being open-minded around people that aren’t open minded.

I also got through reading Chris Payne’s new book <Where Are Your Boys Tonight?> that you can see over my shoulder over here. You’re quoted in several different sections of that…

I am? 

Yeah, you made the cut! <Laughter>

Do I say stupid stuff?

No! It all made sense in the flow of the book.

I guess I’ll check it out! I have a really hard time reading. My attention is really gone. My memory is so shot that I’ve forgotten – the last scene documentary that they’re working on. I saw the cut of that, and I have no recollection whatsoever of it…

Ah, okay. So here’s a fun question. What’s the best way to deal with a comedy heckler during a comedic performance?

I mean, there’s a few different versions of that. If someone’s just being enthusiastic, it is just trying to quiet them down without being a shithead. If someone isn’t, it sounds like a rock show, and people are just like hooting and hollering. You just got to go through it. Especially on those Motion City dates. I learned a lot about opening for events. I opened for bands before, but for that tour, doing it every day was a really great learning experience. And it’s just, this is not my place. These people came to a rock show. So I need to be a gracious guest. So they’re hooting and hollering or getting drunk or whatever it is. That’s their space that I just have to push through. I’m amplified enough that the people who want to pay attention can still hear what I’m saying. Maybe you have to articulate better. And then if you’re just being a shithead in a club, you just gotta be like, listen guy, whatever you’re doing, it’s not cool. It’s like, oh, you need attention? Alright, well, you should have worked really hard for 10 years to get booked here.

<Laughter> Exactly! What are some of your favorite bands from this music scene? 

I mean, I don’t want to leave anyone out. But I will say that Motion City Soundtrack, I love them as people. They’re just my favorite people. And then also, I’ve seen them hundreds and hundreds of times, and each time I’m just in love with it. Every time I’m equally as impressed as that first time. And Mike Kennerty from The Rejects is one of my favorite people on the planet. He played with them at Adjacent. So that was just like another level of excitement. Obviously they’re one of my favorites. TBS. I Am The Avalanche. I just recently got into an artist called Your Smith.

Okay, I actually interviewed her not too long ago. She put out a cool EP called Wild Wild Woman.

Yeah, she’s phenomenal. Also, Lucy Dacus. I have a close friend, Debbie, and we have a shared playlist. And I’ll put stuff on it for her and then she’ll add to it, and like she’s batting a thousand…She got me into Lucy Dacus she got me into Your Smith, Mannequin Pussy. Also, Koyo has been doing cool things in the hardcore scene.

I just saw them open up for I Am The Avalanche, and they were impressive.

I’m on a show with them, Avalanche, and Bayside. Super stoked for that. Yeah, tons of metal, tons of pop, Charlie Puth gets a tremendous amount of play. Jacob Collier.

It’s good to have a lot of different flavors of music. I’m kind of the same way. I grew up with alternative rock, then moved into punk, and then kind of back into pop, and everything else in between.

Yeah, someone will mention Method Man, then it’s like four straight days of Wu-Tang. Or someone will mention the Pointer Sisters and then it’s just 80s Pop for two days. My musicality is as scattered as all the others.

And it’s fun to go down those rabbit holes. So, you’ve opened for bands like Taking Back Sunday, Motion City Soundtrack among many others. Why do you think this type of music lends itself well to comedy?

Ah, I don’t know. I will say that the word “emo” seemed like a bad word sometimes. I’m not allowed to say it? Fuck them. Oh, the thing that built your career? The fans that support you? Yeah, I don’t know. I think the elder emo kid is open-minded enough to have gotten into this music when it wasn’t mainstream. And cynical enough, like just old enough to be cynical. So I think that that’s where I resonate, in that space. If you’re like very pro pronouns, but also can  joke about it. Like, whatever your sexuality is…but have jokes about it. And I think people recognize when things are from a good place and not a bad one. I’m not shitting on any of these things, but they can see peculiar. We didn’t grow up knowing about it. And so now we have to adjust. And it might take us a second. We want to do the right thing. But there’s a struggle, and I’m just shining a light on that stuff. The social aspects and the cultural aspects of that.

How do you build up your comedy sets? What’s your approach to that?

So if I’m in a comedy club, people are more focused & paying attention. I can buy equity. I’ll lead with a bunch of short, punchy things. So you’re like, Oh, this guy’s funny. I’ll listen. And then I can start spreading out…Like, it moves exponentially with the first few jokes. If there’s only six seconds between laughs,  later I can spend 60 seconds before a laugh, and you’re gonna trust that there’s a payoff, right? In those five minute sets, or when I’m opening for Motion City, and the crowds are raucous and loud…It’s just gonna be pop pop pop. I can never buy equity. Because at any point, they’re like, ok time to get a beer…I’m not going to tell a long, three minute story if I have five minutes. So that’s the only thing. And then anything like with Adjacent, especially when it was five minutes, and it was raucous. Like nothing with crazy buzzwords. Because in a comedy club setting, or even opening for Motion City, where you have the opportunity to say the word & get back on the right side of things, but at a festival, you say a word & that’s when someone decides to pay attention…You don’t have the time to get to the right side with the audience.

So the last question I have for you is, what would be your best advice for somebody who’s thinking about getting into a career of comedy?

Don’t. If there’s anything else that makes you happy, do that. I mean, nothing else will make me happy. I have to do this. So all the pain, anguish and misery…I mean, essentially, I’m broke and homeless. I’m basically living out of my car. I can’t form relationships, because I’m never in one place too long. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. But fortunately, nothing else would make me happy. Yes, the only time I’m happy is telling jokes to strangers, even how I was making you laugh earlier. That makes me happier than you can imagine. I couldn’t work at Xerox. I just couldn’t…

Yeah, it wouldn’t be very good material, if you’re just working with Xerox…

Paper material!

<Laughter> Well, any last pitch for people to check out Have Some Dignity?

Yeah, it’ll be out at some point in July. It’s produced and directed by Steve Pedula from Thursday & Mike Dubin from Fadeaway Records. It’ll have tons of tons of little cameos from some of your favorite bands and my favorite comedians and I’m excited for it. I’m excited for people to see it!

Cool! I can’t wait to watch it.

It was great connecting with you, Adam. 

You too! Alright, take care.