Adam Ruben – molecular biologist, stand up comedian, and author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision To Go To Grad School – speaks with Gather the Jews about getting into comedy and his upcoming one-man show at the Capital Fringe Festival.
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Remind me, did you do stand up back in college?
I did a little bit of stand up in undergrad. My freshman year, the minority affairs advisers were having a stand up contest. It was the first time I’d ever tried stand up and it was a lot of fun. Next year, a different group hosted it and I participated again. So I basically did stand up at Princeton at a contest once a year, every year, and a few more times at small shows senior year. I got a little bit spoiled performing at Princeton. It was a large audience, a smart audience, and it was primarily comprised of all my friends. So it’s a supportive environment. Then you go out and try it in the real world and it’s completely different.
So what was your grad school stand up experience?
Grad school was the first time I tried to do stand up in the ‘real world’. The summer before I started grad school, I performed in a club in New York called the ‘Comic Strip’ that had an open mic night. It’s a great club and I thought I’d be able to get to NYC and perform at open mic nights during grad school. But the show was on a weeknight, so I planned to leave at four in the afternoon, perform, and drive back at four in the morning. I did that once and was so tired driving back that I decided I needed to find some place closer to Baltimore to perform. There were a few fairly crappy open mic nights at Baltimore. I tried to expand to DC but, at the time, it was not that easy to find places to perform.
And you also worked on your book at that time?
I really didn’t work on the book until the end of my grad school career, in my fifth or sixth year. I was writing little articles for the National Lampoon website. At a certain point, the Lampoon wanted to write some humorous books and asked if anyone had a pitch. I pitched my idea for a book on grad school and it was rejected right away because they said it wasn’t appropriate for their target demographic (frat boys). Shortly afterward, the book division of National Lampoon went under so it wasn’t relevant anyway. But I still had this completed book proposal so I tried to see if I could get someone else to accept it.
What was one of your favorite things about writing the book?
One of my favorite things about this book experience is hearing someone say, “I was on the subway and someone sitting across from me was reading your book.” I love that people are reading it who don’t have to (i.e. not my friends who feel obligated to read it). It’s very flattering. I’ll go into bookstore sometimes and offer to sign some books, because apparently that’s something that authors do. Then, when I go back a few months later, all the books on display are not signed, which means that the original stock of books was sold. It’s very gratifying.
Where do you get most of your material?
I use all kinds of different themes. I have some stuff about grad school, some stuff about Judaism. I use topics lots of comedians do: driving, living in Baltimore, living in DC. My upcoming show is not quite stand up. In recent years, I started getting into story-telling, which is a step beyond stand up. For some reason, this type of thing has started getting very popular lately. People get up and tell stories on a particular theme. For example, there’s a group called Speakeasy DC that put up a show called ‘My So-Called Jewish Life.’ They found people to tell ten minute stories with Judaism in the theme. As I was developing my stand up routines, I discovered that a lot of horrible social things that had happened to me – for example, getting picked on or not having a lot of friends in school – really resonated with people when I framed them in an amusing way, so I ended up turning that stuff into a one hour show.
I also perform with a group called ‘Mortified’. The idea is that you look through old diaries or journals from your youth or adolescence and then you get on stage and read from it and you turn it into a performance piece. I have a lot of relevant stuff for that, such as a fifth grade diary, an audio diary from seventh grade, and some poems from high school, so I’ve done a lot of things using those experiences. And I put some of that into the longer show, which I’m excited to perform at the Capital Fringe Festival in July.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Capital Fringe Festival?
This is actually my first time doing anything with it and I’ve never actually seen it before. As far as I can tell, it’s like the Fringe Festivals in a lot of different cities. NYC has a Fringe Festival. Edinburgh also has a big one, for some reason. The way it works it that you send in an application to perform and you actually have to pay them to participate. You have to buy insurance and then produce your show entirely yourself, so there’s some fear that you won’t recoup your costs from this type of thing. You’re performing more for performance’s sake than for profit.
The festival is spread out around ten or eleven different venues around the city, from July 7 to 24. There are different shows and performers of all types: musicals, dance, some performance with social media that I don’t really understand, a lot of experimental low budget stuff, a lot of one person shows. Each show is performed about five times throughout the festival, all in the same location but at different times of day. My venue is the Wonderbox at 629 New York Ave, NW. I will be there at 5 specific times and the place seats around 80 people. I don’t really know what I’m getting myself into but I’m excited. The next step, if this is successful, is another Fringe Festival.
- Thu. 7/7 @ 8:00 PM
- Sat. 7/9 @ 3:15 PM
- Sun. 7/17 @ 6:30 PM
- Tue. 7/19 @ 9:45 PM
- Thu. 7/21 @ 6:00 PM
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