Comedian gets start by growing up called Ophira in Calgary
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Comedian gets start by growing up called Ophira in Calgary

NPR's Ophira Eisenberg uses her insider-outsider status to get perspective -- and laughs

NPR's funny lady Ophira Eisenberg (Vanessa Lenz)
NPR's funny lady Ophira Eisenberg (Vanessa Lenz)

NEW YORK — If a sense of “otherness” means a primed pump for comedic inspiration, then Ophira Eisenberg’s outsider status cup overfloweth. The stand-up comedian, author, storyteller, and host of NPR’s weekly “Ask Me Another” is both Jewish, and Canadian: a comedy double-whammy.

“People always used to joke about this, like, ‘Why are Canadians so funny?’” says Eisenberg, 41. “In my mind it’s because we get all the American television and culture, but we’re just outside of it, which gives you the ability to look at it from a slightly different perspective.”

The art of mastering an idiosyncratic point of view is something Eisenberg knows intimately.

Eisenberg grew up in Calgary, Alberta, the youngest of six kids, and feeling like one of the only Jews in her town. Her parents were World War II survivors, her mother a teenager in Holland during Nazi occupation, and her father — raised in what would soon become Israel — a soldier in the British Army who fought in Holland’s liberation movement. Eisenberg strongly identified by those roots as a kid, both by way of her parents’ incredible story and rich heritage, and because of her uniqueness in Calgary, which in the latest census in 2011 had only 8,340 Jews.

“My name stood out so much,” says Eisenberg. “Nobody could get it right.”

Ophira Eisenberg isn't afraid to get serious, and seriously funny. (Luke Fontana)
Ophira Eisenberg isn’t afraid to get serious, and seriously funny. (Luke Fontana)

In her memoir, “Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy,” Eisenberg recalls that teachers didn’t know how to react to her as a cultural anomaly: “They’d nod, and put a little red x beside my name. I was definitely a kid that needed to be watched.” Eisenberg embraced the attention, and sought to make good on her specialness.

“When you are in any subtle way identified or treated by people as different,” Eisenberg tells me, “Even if you don’t feel that you are different, you will either fight against it, or you will play into it.”

The Eisenberg household was a boisterous and funny one, where “the currency of our love,” as the stand-up puts it, “was not so much saying, ‘I love you,’ but in joking around.” Her first memory of onstage success, as it were, occurred when she brought a photocopied joke to the dinner table, and read it aloud. She got laughs — big ones.

‘I remember this feeling of, “Oh, this is how you fit in. This is how you become one of them”‘

“I really wanted to get my voice in there… and I felt like I really won the space to speak at the table. I remember this feeling of, ‘Oh, this is how you fit in. This is how you become one of them.’”

That mantra of standing out to fit in carried Eisenberg through college at McGill University — “The Harvard of the North,” she jokes to the audience at a recent “Ask Me Another” taping, adding, “Though, no one calls Harvard, ‘The McGill of the South’” — and to Vancouver. There, she volunteered as an usher at a comedy festival, unsure how to wrestle her “deep burning desire” to make people laugh onstage with reality.

It wasn’t until her impulsive enrollment in a stand-up comedy workshop — one she paid for by running to an ATM, and near depleting her checking account — that Eisenberg found clarity on her gift and goal.

During her live 'Ask Me Another' quiz show tapings at The Bell House in Brooklyn, Ophira Eisenberg is at her most delightful when she sears an unassuming audience member. (Dan Dion)
During her live ‘Ask Me Another’ quiz show tapings at The Bell House in Brooklyn, Ophira Eisenberg is at her most delightful when she sears an unassuming audience member. (Dan Dion)

“The guy running the class [Comedy Gym’s Sam Cox] said, ‘You have this thing where people want to hear what you have to say. Now you have to learn how to say something they actually want to hear.’”

Eisenberg honed her craft in Toronto, working the stand-up circuit and landing gigs on Canadian television, before moving to New York in 2001, where she burned through odd day jobs — including IT assistance — to pay the bills, and performed nightly at whatever clubs and comedy rooms would have her. Surviving in New York, says Eisenberg, was a struggle.

‘I started at not even rock bottom’

“I started at not even rock bottom,” she says with a laugh, listing the saturation of the New York comedy market, and her “illegal” citizenship status as huge hurdles. “I started at negative ten.”

Eisenberg calls herself a lifelong risk-taker. Her willingness to leap into the unknown yielded small, incremental successes that snowballed over time — chief among them, her discovery of storytelling at a time when jokes and one-liners reigned. The Moth, a non-profit storytelling group, provided a performance home for Eisenberg, and a medium. She continues to host The Moth Story Slam every third Thursday of the month, while maintaining a robust national tour schedule.

It’s true what stand-up instructor Sam Cox told her back in Vancouver: when Ophira Eisenberg takes the stage, you can’t look away. She smiles with great frequency, an authentic smile that makes you smile, too, even if you don’t know entirely why you’re smiling yet. She’s thrilled to be there, with you — and as a result, you’re thrilled, too.

Ophira Eisenberg's stories of dating misadventures and woeful one-night-stand are beyond bawdy. (Vanessa Lenz)
Ophira Eisenberg’s stories of dating misadventures and woeful one-night-stand are beyond bawdy. (Vanessa Lenz)

During her “Ask Me Another” quiz show tapings at The Bell House in Brooklyn, Eisenberg is at her most delightful when she sears an unassuming audience member, or ribs one of the trivia contestants, or takes her partners on stage down a peg.

But Eisenberg instills each jab with an effervescence that exudes pure joy, evoking not the superiority complex common of many comedians’ crowd work, but love. The targets of her jokes are lucky for the special attention — they’ve proved worthy of her time, and affection.

“I like you, but you’re the shittiest meditator,” she tells a guy in the crowd who confessed to meditating ten minutes a week for three years.

“You ask for permission?” she asks a rabbi and Hillel leader who hosted a Sukkot version of “Ask Me Another” at his synagogue.

“You are not the co-host,” she tells her sidekick for the night, John Flansburgh of the band They Might Be Giants, who had the gall to declare himself such.

Clearly, Eisenberg took the advice of figuring out what audiences want to heart, too. Her stories of dating misadventures and woeful one-night-stand are beyond bawdy — they’re brave in their rawness, effortless in their comedic build, and wholly satisfying in their payoff.

Her revelations never feel gratuitous. You feel gratitude for membership to her exclusive club of hysterical secrets, and you yearn to know more: about Eisenberg’s losing her virginity in a hotel bathroom to an Air Force pilot, about sleeping with a legally blind, albino DJ, about bad sex with a Garfield collecting comic. And soon, we’ll see more: “Screw Everyone” has been optioned by Zucker Productions, and is in development for a screen adaptation.

Few comedians venture to go into places so dark, and those that do often seek to pull comedy out of tragedy

One of Eisenberg’s more affecting stories is not funny at all. She performed “The Accident” at The Moth this past October, a true story about surviving a devastating car accident at age eight. Few comedians venture to go into places so dark, and those that do often seek to pull comedy out of tragedy.

Eisenberg, however, is not only an outsider as a Jew from Calgary, and as the youngest of six, and as a Canadian in America, but also as a humorist unafraid of sacrificing what’s funny for what’s true.

In all she does — live performance, memoir writing, radio — Eisenberg remains unabashedly herself, someone who has both more than earned her place at the proverbial dinner table, and who makes her audience feel welcome there, while still demanding that they earn it, too.

“I’ve heard over the years, ‘Ophira, you’ve got to dumb it down, you’re not supposed to be the hippest person in the room,’” she says. “And I’m like: No. I refuse. This is what I do, and I cannot change me anymore. So you will just have to come to me.”

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