Ben Bailey from the hit TV series Cash Cab. Cash Cab won Daytime Emmy Awards for "Outstanding Game Show" in 2008, 2009, and 2010 and Bailey himself won Daytime Emmy awards for "Outstanding Game Show Host" in 2010, 2011, & 2013, and was still nominated in 2007, 2008, & 2009. But what many do not know is that Ben Bailey began as a comedian - and he’s a really good one at that. A New York stand-up comedy favorite and an around-the-world performer, Bailey’s specials are on Comedy Central Presents along with Comedy Central’s Premium Blend. Bailey will perform this Saturday (Sept 27th) as part of a one night only live filming for his latest special right here in Chicago, at the Up Comedy Club!
Ben was nice enough to take some time out of his schedule to sit down to talks shop and give us this great in-depth interview about, stand-up comedy, his eight seasons with Cash Cab, shit day jobs, the creative process and why he loves crowd work. Enjoy!
BEN BAILEY: No, but almost! [laughs] One day we were drivin’ along with the contestants in the cab, and we got stuck at an intersection—traffic in all directions. We were stuck behind these two buses. The first bus moves, but the next bus isn’t moving—the driver’s sitting in ‘park’ and not paying attention. So I’m thinkin, “I’ll just go around this bus…” And the guy behind me starts honkin’, like, “Go! Go! Go!” So I start to go around, but then I hear ANOTHER horn from farther away—like, “Beeeeep Beeeep!” And then it becomes a quicker honk like, “B-b-b-b-beep!” So I stop. A second—A SPLIT SECOND after I stop, another bus comes FLYYYING passed us. It woulda killed all of us! If I hadn’t have heard that horn from far away and put my foot on the break, it definitely—DEFINITELY would have killed the contestants. No doubt. I MIGHT have been okay…
COC: WTF! Did the contestants freak out?!
BB: Everybody laughed! [I laugh, Ben doesn’t] I got mad and I said, “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU LAUGHING AT?!? WE WOULD HAVE FUCKIN’ DIED!!!” And everyone got really quiet. [laughs] They were smiling ‘n lookin’ at me like, “Heyyy take it easy…we’re okay!” But I’m still like, “IT’S NOT FUCKIN’ FUNNY!!!” And then I was like, “I need to park and get out for a minute. I’ve had a really long day…” [laughs]
COC: Daaaamn...So what happened after that?
COC: That would be awful...
BB: Not to mention, the Cash Cab in Canada DID hit and KILL a pedestrian! And ALL the U.S. newspapers didn’t mention the CANADA part, so they just wrote the headline as, ‘Cash Cab Kills Pedestrian’. So I got ALL these phone calls and e-mails…it was NOT good…
COC: Ahh that’s terrible! Do people out in public recognize you as “The Cash Cab Guy”?
BB: I get recognized—and people are cool! It’s really strange at first, REALLY strange to have people that you don’t even know come up to you like they know you. It’s really, really weird—throws you off. It’s a little scary, but it’s fun. You get used to it.
COC: Did you ever write any of the Cash Cab questions?
BB: No, but I had veto power. I suggested ideas to the guys who wrote the questions. But there was a whole staff of writers who wrote the questions. It’s actually VERY hard to write trivia questions. It’s VERY difficult. You don’t know what people know. [laughs] And you don’t even know who you’re going to be asking! [laughs] Those guys did a great job with it.
COC: You were the host of Cash Cab. And you’re also a stand up comedian. How long had you been doing comedy before you did Cash Cab?
BB: I had been in at 12 years. I had a half hour Comedy Central special, I had acted in a handful of shows, and done a fair amount of stand up on TV. I was making my living doing it. But my act was a whole different thing than what it is now. I had this sort of announcer / commentator style voice—slow, deliberate cadence—and always had one eyebrow up. [laughs] But it worked great! It killed! It evolved, it was organic, it was real. It wasn’t some shit that I decided to do. Even though, some of my friends in New York would be like, “Dude could you just NOT do the voice?”
[moment of laughter]
COC: It was the inner game show host in you!
BB: [laughs] But Cash Cab changed all of that. When audiences would come out to see me, they’d know me from Cash Cab, so they’d be like, “Uhh why is he talking like that?!” It would just be weird to them. Which, at first, was very upsetting. That was a tough period.
COC: Did you have to start all over with a new act?
BB: Kinda. But then I was like, “Ya know what, I can do more than that. I can do that voice as one of my bits—and I can do other voices!” I also wrote stuff about Cash Cab—which I really didn’t wanna do. But, if I didn’t talk about it, the crowd would just be like, “Why isn’t he talking about it?! That’s WHY we’re here!”
COC: Was there ever pressure that your comedy may affect the Cash Cab fans and ratings?
BB: At first, I thought the Cash Cab fans would be taken aback if I swore a lot. Like, if I did really dirty shit, I thought I would scare off my potential audience. But the audiences weren’t even listening. They didn’t even care what I had to say—they just wanted to look at me. [laughs] Like, “There’s the guy from the show!” So the show changed alotta things, but in the end it made me a stronger performer.
COC: What jobs did you work to support your comedy dreams?
BB: I have had more than 70 jobs in my life. A BUNCH of ODD jobs! [laughs] The joke from the town that I grew up in was that I worked every job in the entire town—and I kinda did. I worked in the sandwich shop, the pizzeria, the flower shop, the ice cream parlor, I life guarded at TWO different pools, the library, the bike store, the hardware store, the grocery store, the pharmacy…I worked everywhere! [laughs]
COC: Damn! So it was nice to catch that break working in TV?
BB: Eh ya know…out of the 70-something jobs I’ve had in my life—and I also did manual labor—I did roofing, I poured concrete, I did carpentry, I dug ditches… [laughs] But doing Cash Cab was THE MOST DIFFICULT and physically exhausting job I’ve ever had to do. Blows everything outta the water! Working in TV is NOT easy. [lets out a deep breath]
BEN BAILEY WISDOM
COC: What does it take to be successful in comedy?
BB: I’d say talent...perseverance...luck—not in that order. I dunno...perseverance might be the most important part. No...it’s probably luck—sadly enough, it’s probably luck. [laughs] Like, I can sell tickets because of Cash Cab, but before that I couldn’t—not anywhere NEAR what I can now. I dunno...without the luck of getting a TV show—I mean I auditioned for it ‘n everything, and I DID it. But, there’s still alotta luck to it. Although I dunno, I’m second guessing myself, because alotta the guys that I started with that were GOOD, are now doing things, and they are successful. Whereas, back 5-10 years ago, it felt like NO ONE was gonna make it. It just seemed impossible! But the guys that were good and stuck around and stayed, and most those guys are, at the least, they’re working comics.
COC: How do you measure your own success in comedy? Is there a way to measure it?
BB: I don’t think there is a way. There’s only one path to follow in comedy, and that’s your own progress as a performer. That’s it. Nothing else is a given. THAT is the one thing you can work on and control. Then, you at least have a line to go down. Otherwise, you’re just floatin’ outta the breeze. There’s no structure. There’s not any kind of heirarchy other than that. You never know who’s gonna blow up. You might meet some kid who’s BRAND NEW, and then a year later, it’s like, “That kid’s hosting Saturday Night Live already?!” Not that they don’t deserve it... You just never know.
WRITING & CREATIVE PROCESS
COC: How do you respond when a joke works WELL one night…and then that same joke bombs horribly the next night?
BB: It definitely makes you question it. Most guys who have been at it a long time will probably tell you that your enthusiasm is selling it the first time—you’re so excited, you’re believing it, you’re like a kid. And so you’ve checked it off—you tell yourself, “This one works!” And so the second time, you don’t sell it as much as you did the first time—and then it BOMBS. But that’s what most people would probably say. Me, I don’t know, I dunno man... [laughs] Sometimes a joke works ONCE and then it never fuckin works again! Sometimes a joke bombs A HUNDRED times in a row, and then you change ONE LITTLE THING, and then it’s BRILLIANT.
BB: Some comics sit ‘n write a certain number of hours per day. I could never do that. For me, jokes fall outta the sky and I hafta remember them. And then work on them.
COC: Your crowd work is AWESOME! Where did that come from?
BB: Ah thank you! I used to do whole shows of JUST crowd work. I wouldn’t do any written material at all. Just do the entire thing and make up bits. And that’s always fun for me. And I was doin a TON of shows. I was doin like, 30 sets a week in New York. Now, I still had a tight set. If I was gonna do a set for something, I would do my set. But I would do my writing on the stage. I would engage the crowd by pokin’ at ‘em and drawin’ off of their energy—and that’s when I really start havin’ fun. ‘Cause then I get to write the bit AND perform the bit all at the same time. And those are the two greatest things in the world. I get as excited writing the bit as I do performing it.
COC: What does being on stage feel like for you?
BB: That stage up there is my home. When I’m on stage, it feels like I’m at home. If it gets awkward ‘n silent, I LOVE it. I revel in it. ‘Cause maybe we’re all uncomfortable, but we’re in MY living room. As uncomfortable as we are...I LIVE here. [laughs] And I don’t mean it like, “THIS IS MY FUCKIN HOUSE!” [laughs] I simply mean, like, “Hey, this is my house, this is where I live, this is where I’m MOST at home.” Sometimes I feel more comfortable up there than I do in my literal house! [laughs] Weird, right? [laughs]
COC: Well, that’s what makes you great up there!
BB: Definitely! ...Wait sorry I didn’t mean to agree like that. I mean the comfort level being great. Not like, “Yeah definitely! That’s what’s so great about ME!”
[moment of laughter]
COC: Appreciate ya Ben Bailey, it’s been fun!
BB: Sure, no problem!
Contributing Writer: David Gavri
David Gavri is a stand-up comedian, writer and founder of the online comedy sites Gonzo Fame and Comedy Scene in Houston.