Like a high-school student who hangs out with the stoners but gets good grades, comedian Doug Benson makes his living as a stoner comedian onstage, but secretly works hard when he steps off it. At any given moment, he has enough irons in the fire to lose the respect of his lethargic fellow pot enthusiasts: a new CD, Unbalanced Load; an upcoming CD based on his regular live-comedy-commentary shows in L.A., The Benson Interruption; his weekly movie podcast, I Love Movies; an intense stand-up touring schedule; and regular appearances on everything from Best Week Ever to Comedy Central’s Live At Gotham series. In short, Benson keeps the kind of schedule that may surprise people who know him as the guy behind the Morgan Spurlock-on-cannabis documentary Super High Me. The film’s conceit—Benson abstained from pot for 30 days, then smoked it frequently every day for another 30—proved slightly anticlimactic, as he went through both phases without incident. It also proved that the duality of Doug Benson is possible: He can be a goofball pothead on stage and a driven comedian off it. Continuing his ambitious undertakings is Benson’s current Medical Marijuana Tour, where he will perform every night in the states that have legalized medical marijuana. The tour began Thursday in Rhode Island and ends Oct. 13 in Honolulu. Before he left, Benson spoke to The A.V. Club about his work ethic, the websites he visits, and Twitter sex.
The A.V. Club: You released a CD last year, Professional Humoredian, so why do another so quickly?
Doug Benson: Because when George Carlin passed away, I saw the tremendous output he had. While I’m not going to be writing books or doing a new HBO special every year, I still think the least I could do is start making CDs. Just to catch up on lost time, I’m trying to make them at the rate of one a year. We’ll see how long that lasts, but that’s the plan. Right now, I’m doing a lot of touring, so it gives me a lot of opportunity to work on stuff for the next one. My intention’s to record a new one every year on 4/20, because that’s the night when I have the most captive crowd that I’m going to have all year. It’s a very exciting day for me and my fans, so I figure that’s a good day to record a new album each year.
AVC: In your act, you have a bit about how you’re lazy with writing jokes, but anybody who follows you closely knows you’re always working. Is the secret shame of Doug Benson that you’re a workaholic?
DB: [Laughs.] No, because that’s the thing—I devise these things where there doesn’t have to be too much effort put into them, if that makes sense. I mean, there’s definitely effort, but I think I’ve found a way to entertain people without having to… Certainly in the case of the podcast and the Benson Interruption shows I do, it’s just more like, show up and try to be funny. I just spent a weekend at the Del Close marathon at UCB in New York, and it was 52 hours straight of improvised comedy, and the audience has a blast. I wouldn’t want to always improvise everything, because I do like to write, and I do come up with things ahead of time, but the freedom that UCB gives you to just get up there and see what happens, you can’t get away with as much in a comedy club or concert setting. You kind of have to deliver, so I try to keep things going in both worlds. I like to make stuff up as I go, but I also like to bring my prepared stuff. Then in the act itself, if someone hears the same joke I told a year ago, I would like to hope that there’s something different about it that has helped to keep it in the act, like something fresh that sends me off on a different angle, or a new tag, or something different about it, instead of just trotting out the same joke performed the same way every time.
AVC: Some of the material on the new CD was in Super High Me as well. Do you like to live with it for a while before recording?
DB: Yeah, I’m just trying to figure it out, because now especially when I do a show, it’s like, how many people in this audience have already purchased and listened to Unbalanced Load, and how many people have heard Professional Humoredian, and how many people have seen Super High Me? Everybody’s got that different point of view that they’re coming in with. I would love to just do 45 minutes of topical material every show, but it’s too hard to generate that much material and also make it of [good] quality. That’s why I do a lot of shows where screwing around is a big part of it, like The Benson Interruption, and my I Love Movies podcast, because I like just being in front of an audience, and trying to come up with stuff on the spot. When you’re doing solo stand-up, there’s only so much improvisation the audience will take before it gets to a point where they just want to hear some of the classics.
AVC: It seems odd that people request bits, like they would favorite songs.
DB: Well, that’s sort of the ongoing argument with comedians: Is it best to present your best stuff, or your newest stuff, or a combination of the two? Pleasing everyone is difficult. It’s like, on Twitter, I get a combination of messages that say, “You don’t write enough on Twitter,” and then messages that say, “You write too much.” It’s like, “Well, who do you respond to?”
AVC: You tweet a lot. Has the instant feedback affected how you write?
DB: Well, in the case of Twitter, that’s part of the joy of it, just getting immediate feedback on whether a joke works. But the thing is, you can’t build an entire act just on tweets, because they’re all so short. I don’t have that kind of an act; I don’t just do a bunch of one-liners, you know? That’s why I put a track on the new album called “Twitter,” so I could read off some of the best tweets I’ve written, instead of just making the show a series of short non-sequitur jokes.
AVC: If only Mitch Hedberg had survived to the age of Twitter.
DB: Yeah. I wonder if Steven Wright’s on Twitter, because his jokes are always pretty short—and Zach Galifianakis keeps them pretty short as well, but I don’t know if he’s on Twitter. I think there’s constantly new accounts under his name, but it’s all phonies.
AVC: Right, that’s another odd phenomenon. Supposedly someone was doing that with Patton Oswalt, too.
DB: Yeah, it’s a weird concept, because there’s no end game. What is that leading toward? One guy imitating somebody on Twitter, when I confronted him about it, was like, “Hey, I’m just trying to get laid.” It was just like, “Yeah, but they’re going to see you’re not Zach eventually.” [Laughs.] Are you going to try to have Twitter sex or something?
AVC: Do you usually get a lot of replies to tweets?
DB: Yeah, that’s the thing—you can tell if a joke’s decent, or at least if people like it, based on how often people retweet it. Because you can just hit your “@ replies” thing, and then sit there and look at all the reactions. But there’s always somebody that’s a fly in the ointment and has to essentially be the heckler. There’s always somebody who’ll tell me I spelled something wrong. My favorite is that someone will answer you sincerely if you write a sarcastic or rhetorical comment. You’ll get a response from somebody. Somebody will take what you’ve written at face value. They’ll either have just started following you, so they don’t get where you’re coming from, or someone else told them to follow, and they don’t know who it is they’re following, they’re just doing it based on a recommendation, I don’t know. Maybe they might even be a long-time fan of mine. If I wrote “My head is up my ass,” somebody would write back to say, “That’s physically impossible.”
AVC: How much do you read about yourself online?
DB: I just have two or three sites that I visit with regularity. I don’t even mess with Facebook at all. I’ve never gone on there at all. The other ones are either comedy sites, or Twitter, or MySpace. All that stuff, you have to be really careful with, because it’s so strange that comedians tend to be the most sensitive people. Even though we’re throwing out there, “Hey, we make fun of everything and everybody,” it’s still hard to get over when somebody burns you, especially if it’s a good burn. I mean, if it’s just somebody being stupid, that’s easy to get over. If you have any doubts at all about your career or what you’re doing, and then somebody picks at that particular scab, that can be very frustrating. But I just stay away for the most part from message-board kinds of things, where anybody can show up and write anything they want, because it just gets so vicious sometimes.
AVC: It gets vicious all the time. There’s something weird about the Internet bringing out the worst in people.
DB: Yeah, it’s brought out the worst in me in the past. I’ve always used the Internet to write really scathing movie reviews and mean comments about people, and at some point, you have to stop and ask yourself, “When people start doing that to you, how are you going to handle it?”
AVC: Has anything in particular gotten to you?
DB: Well, fortunately, between smoking a lot of pot and just trying to be a positive person in general, I get over this stuff pretty quickly. But there’ll be an intense period of time where it’s all I can think about. I can’t even cite any good examples for you right now—I can’t think of any—but they definitely happen. That’s part of why you’ve got to just take it all. I don’t get too caught up in the compliments, either. You start believing all the compliments, then when the insults come along, they hurt even more. It’s like, “Wait a minute, I thought everybody loved me.”
AVC: Super High Me has been out for a year now. How did the experience match up with your preconceptions?
DB: Well, in retrospect—I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was, by the fact that quitting for 30 days wasn’t particularly difficult, and smoking constantly for 30 days wasn’t that difficult either. I went into it expecting it to… kind of scared a little bit that I would freak out at not being able to smoke, and then I would also freak out at having too much. Because I hadn’t experienced either of those things in a long time. For a long time, I was pretty much a daily user, but not a constant user. So going into the movie, I was worried that it would really not do what I was hoping the movie would do, which is just show, “Hey, look, a guy can just lead a pretty normal life even though he smokes a lot of pot, and he can quit whenever he wants.” So I was really pleased that in both cases, it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it was going to be.
AVC: What about the reception the film got?
DB: Well, again, I expected people to like it. I expected people to be interested in it, but I didn’t expect it to be as popular as it is. The thing is, it’s extremely popular, but there’s still plenty of people that it hasn’t even hit their radar. People are just getting around to it, and will continue to get around to it, because not unlike a joint, it’s just sort of passed around. People discover it in their own time. That’s why I’m excited to do as much stand-up on TV and CDs and everything as I can, because each thing leads people to another thing you’ve done, and I want as many people to see the movie as possible, just for the sheer opening of minds. I get plenty of messages from people saying things like, “I watched it with my mom so she’d understand that I’m not just a stupid hippie pothead.” I’m like, “Did it work?” [Laughs.] Some parents might still walk away going, “Well, that guy’s an idiot.” But I get a lot of messages from people that are very encouraging to me, because there is a part of me that’s a little scared of promoting something that could potentially hurt some lives. I don’t sit around saying that smoking pot is great for you and will motivate you and turn you into an awesome person. A lot of people probably get slowed down quite a bit by it. I just wanted to show that you can still be a productive member of society and a pleasant person, even if you’re on this so-called drug.
AVC: Do you know anything about Best Week Ever coming back, or is it done?
DB: I think it’ll show up again, but in what form remains to be seen. They haven’t asked me to do anything specific yet. They have this thing called Best Day Ever that they do for, like, six weeks every few months, and I’ve hosted a bunch of those, and they’re talking about doing some of those in the fall. If they do, and the scheduling works out, I’d be happy to go back there and do that, but as far as Best Week Ever, the series, if it picks up again, I just don’t know what—I think Paul [F. Tompkins, host] has pretty much washed his hands of it.