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To most people, comedian Doug Benson is one of the many talking heads panning the never-ending shit creek of celebrity scandal for comedy gold on VH1's Best Week Ever. But to a certain bleary-eyed cult, he's best known for The Marijuana-Logues, the hit Off-Broadway show (later collected in a book and CD of the same name) he created with partners Arj Barker and Tony Camin. High Times liked it so much that they christened Benson "Stoner Of The Year" in 2006, prompting Benson to keep the buzz going with the new Super High Me, a Morgan Spurlock-aping documentary that Benson matter-of-factly describes as "like Super Size Me with weed instead of McDonald's." Just before the film's première at the SXSW Film Festival, The A.V. Club spoke with Benson about what it's like being one of America's most visible stoners, why talking dogs make poor drug counselors, and whether there's anything funny left to say about getting stoned.
The A.V. Club: Were you always into doing stoner comedy?
Doug Benson: No, it just sort of happened. I tried smoking pot in high school, but similar to Willie Nelson's life story, I didn't think much of it because I didn't inhale properly. I never ran with the kind of crowd that smoked pot until I started doing stand-up on the road. One time I was working in San Francisco and the other acts were Brian Posehn and Greg Proops—who are both huge pot smokers—and they turned me on to it. I've been smoking ever since. And since my act is a goofy reflection of what's going on in my life, I started doing pot jokes, and I noticed that audiences invariably love pot jokes. Even people who don't smoke pot think it's a funny subject. So when I started getting laughs, I started doing more material about it. Then we came up with The Marijuana-Logues, so we had to generate a lot of material about pot, so it's sort of evolved over time. When people come to see my shows, there are a lot of stoners in the audience, but there are also a lot of people who just like me from Best Week Ever or Last Comic Standing, where pot rarely comes into it. So I try to give a healthy mix, where people aren't going "There are too many jokes about pot!" or "There's not enough jokes about pot!"
AVC: Do you think that there are still new pot jokes to be told?
DB: That's the tricky part. I either have to talk about my own personal experiences with marijuana, or things that are happening in the world of weed—legalization, the occasional pot movie. But you're right, there's really only so much you can do about pot: "Memory loss. Munchies. Thanks for coming!" [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you ever worry that by being such a visible pot smoker, you'll get red-flagged by the DEA?
DB: If the DEA's going to bust down the door to get their hands on me holding an eighth or less of marijuana [Laughs.] I'm not Tommy Chong. I'm not selling any pot-related products, other than things that contain spoken words about marijuana. People say, "Don't you worry you're going to end up on some list, or audited by the IRS?" I don't smoke enough pot to get that paranoid about it. People always say, "Don't you worry that when this movie comes out, you're going to get arrested?" If somebody really wants to arrest me for smoking marijuana—not selling it to anyone, barely giving it anyone—I guess they could come after me, but it seems ridiculous. And it would certainly bring some attention to how ridiculous the drug war is.
AVC: You're a card-carrying medical-marijuana patient. Did you get that specifically for the film?
DB: Yeah. I had always gone through the regular route of calling up my dealer and he'd come to my home—and he wouldn't stay to chat, so it was a pretty good deal. Over the years, I'd had people talk up medical marijuana to me, but it sounded like such a hassle. You know, going to a doctor and whatever. It seemed like the system was already working for me. But when we made Super High Me, we figured we'd show that whole part of the process and make it legal for the movie. We actually film in a couple of dispensaries, so you get to see me buying pot after I get my license. We went to a couple of different doctors. There are doctors who, all they do is hand out medical-marijuana evaluations—it's kind of a scam—so they weren't too crazy about being on camera. But we did find a couple of stores who let us in and showed us how everything works. We also got a donated Volcano Vaporizer, which I used quite a bit. I go to see a doctor—a regular one, not a medical-marijuana guy—and get check-ups throughout the movie, and of course his recommendation is that you shouldn't smoke anything. He said it was a good idea to use a vaporizer, and the perk was, I got to keep it.
AVC: Do you worry that by showing how medical marijuana is "kind of a scam," you're giving critics fodder to question it?
DB: I'm giving them fodder for questioning it, but I'm also hopefully increasing the number of people who will go out and cast their vote for medical marijuana by getting a card. Pot advocates actually try to convince people who don't need or want medical marijuana to go get a card, because as those numbers go up, it's like voting for an initiative. It's saying "There are this many people who want to use this who are not getting in trouble, who are not turning around and selling it or giving it to minors." No matter what they have—cancer, HIV, depression—anybody who says they feel better after smoking marijuana, I feel they should be able to do so, especially if it's in the privacy of their own home while watching a Project Runway marathon. While conservatives can say that medical marijuana has its flaws, it at least legitimizes the pot trade.
AVC: Do you consider Super High Me a political film?
DB: The movie is political just by its existence, but I'm the comical center. You see me doing stand-up and making jokes—it's a funny movie. But we also got footage of some of these dispensaries getting busted, and people standing around watching DEA agents unload all of the money and weed, and it's sad. It's so much manpower being put into stopping something that may not be absolutely harmless, but it's considerably less harmless than alcohol, or every abused prescription drug. But that's as political as I get. I'm a comedian. Just talking about it is my way of effecting change.
AVC: What do you think of the way marijuana smoking is portrayed in popular culture? Are you a fan of the Cheech And Chong school of pot comedy?
DB: I liked Cheech and Chong when I was kid, just because they used silly voices and talked about things that seemed taboo. Looking back on most of their work, I don't particularly appreciate it. But it's hard for something about pot to slip through the system. It'll be interesting to see that Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen movie Pineapple Express, because it might be a real, full-blown pot movie. Even Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, I don't think a lot of stoners even saw that in the theaters, because just saying that two guys are going to White Castle is not enough to sell the notion that it's because they're high. [Laughs.] Plenty of people eat junk food without smoking marijuana first. I think the reaction to The Marijuana-Logues and hopefully Super High Me has been so positive because there's so little decent pot humor out there for stoners to smoke a bowl and watch. I mean, any comedic entertainment is better when you get high. People probably get high and watch The Daily Show or The Office. But like The Marijuana-Logues, I imagine people will say, "Thank you for doing [Super High Me], because it's not a topic that's spoken of that freely in this country."
AVC: Why do you think we don't, especially considering that nearly everyone has at least tried marijuana?
DB: It's just how it's been for so long. The View is on my TV right now, and all those old broads—even Whoopi Goldberg—will sit there and say, "Marijuana is bad, and you shouldn't do it because it's illegal." It permeates the entire society, this notion that because something's illegal, it's bad and will always be bad, like there are no gray areas that need to be investigated. It's an old-fashioned notion that won't go away. That's one thing I talk about quite a bit in my act, the ridiculousness of anti-pot ads. Now, I like these commercials that show kids who get into their parents' medicine cabinet. That's very practical to me. Parents should be aware that there are some awesome drugs for their kids to try right there in their house, and that's a good place to start in keeping your kids off drugs. But the commercials where the dog talks to the little girl about how she's changed because she smokes pot A talking dog is not the answer. [Laughs.] That's not a way to convince people not to smoke pot. If animals started talking to me, I would up my pot consumption just to make that happen.
AVC: Do you think the general lameness of "pot culture" has hurt its chances of becoming as widely accepted as alcohol?
DB: [Laughs.] Yeah, because beer commercials are so cool. But that's certainly an area that I have fun with in all of my pot projects, that there is a great deal of silliness behind the pot movement. Smoking pot makes people talk for long periods of time, for instance, so people who advocate pot won't shut the hell up about it. On the other hand, no one really needs to defend drinking. That's something that frustrates me as a comic: I have to play clubs where selling booze runs the business, so crowds get drunk and yell out a bunch of stupid stuff at me. Pot doesn't cause people to do that. I did a show in Amsterdam a few months ago, and people weren't yelling stuff out at all. They also weren't laughing very much, but I think they were still having a good time. [Laughs.] The whole pot-to-alcohol thing is a huge issue with me, because I've grown to hate drunks so much, and like potheads. But some potheads are, like you suggested, just ridiculous. So with The Marijuana-Logues and Super High Me, I've tried to be your Average Joe pot-smoker. Someone who doesn't have an agenda beyond just wanting to be able to smoke it.
AVC: Given the stigma associated with stoner culture, was it difficult to convince your comedian friends to "out" themselves in your movie?
DB: Fortunately, most of my friends in comedy that smoke pot are almost as open about it as I am, and in some cases more so. But most that appear, it's more about friendship with me than making some statement about pot. I'm sure those of my friends who are onscreen smoking might have a little regret, but there's not too much of it. And two of my friends in the movie—Paul F. Tompkins and Graham Elwood—don't smoke pot at all, so there's certainly that angle: showing that even with people who don't smoke it, we can still all hang out together. It's not like there are battle lines drawn. Brian Posehn and Sarah Silverman are both seen smoking in the movie; I appreciated that they were willing to do that. It's certainly putting themselves out there in a way that, if they had thought about it a little harder, they might have decided not to. Or if some stranger had filmed them smoking pot, they might have said, "Please don't ever use that footage." But in my case, they were willing to let me exploit them.
AVC: For half the film, you smoke pot for 30 days, and for the other half, you stop smoking for 30 days. Which was harder?
DB: Going into it, I thought smoking for 30 days would be harder. It turns out it was much easier. Not smoking for 30 days wasn't hard, in the sense that I didn't experience much withdrawal. I missed smoking pot, but I didn't mind it. Having the cameras there helped me to not think about it that much, because it was sort of my job to not smoke. That month where I was smoking constantly, I thought it would be like when you catch a little kid smoking cigarettes, and you make him smoke a whole pack. I wake-and-bake on occasion, and I smoke almost every evening, but smoking day in and day out for 30 days, I thought by the end, I was going to be sick of it and that would be it. I'd either smoke pot rarely, or not at all. But Day 31, partway through the day, I lit up a joint. [Laughs.] You know, I never had to drive a car, because my crew drove me everywhere. So we tried not to break any laws, but at the same time, that was a strong enabling system I had. There was a camera filming me, and I had to smoke, and I didn't have to drive, and all I had to do was do stand-up comedy and hang out. It was pretty darn easy to be high for 30 days.
AVC: As for all the supposed risks of marijuana—loss of short-term memory, lung problems—what did you find out?
DB: The long-term effects, I obviously won't be able to determine for some time, but short-term memory I'm getting old enough now where I forget stuff all the time anyway. My friends forget stuff too. They do a memory test on me and Graham Elwood in the movie, and he does worse than I do. In terms of my lungs, pot smoking is not like cigarette smoking. It doesn't affect the lungs as quickly, or as much over time. If I stopped pot smoking today, my lungs could heal probably 100 percent in a few years. According to the doctor in the movie, right now I have 90 percent lung capacity, which is pretty good for my age and how much pot I've smoked over the years. And wanting to eat all the time—in the movie, I gain about eight pounds, so that's obviously a problem for some people. But in terms of short-term effects, I haven't experienced anything worth worrying about.
AVC: Do you think Super High Me will change anyone's mind about marijuana?
DB: I know The Marijuana-Logues changed a couple of minds. I had people tell me they tried smoking pot again afterward—like they hadn't done it since college, and then they got back into it. [Laughs.] Which I'm not necessarily proud of. I'm not trying to recruit anyone. I think minds can be changed, but I also think they don't have to be changed. If someone doesn't want to smoke pot and doesn't think it should be legal, then that's fine, but the numbers that do are going to continue to grow to the point where change will eventually occur. How soon it will occur, I don't know, but I'm perfectly happy with the current system. I renew my doctor's note once a year, and go to a neighborhood dispensary where I buy an eighth at a time. It lasts me a week or two, and I mostly just smoke it at home. I don't really need to change minds with this movie. I'm just preaching to the choir.
AVC: Let's talk about some of your projects not related to marijuana. How did your show The Benson Interruption come about?
DB: One night at the M Bar in L.A., a friend of mine, Suli McCullough, was playing a character who would talk to comics while they were onstage. He asked me if it would be okay if he interrupted me with stupid shit, and I said, "I'd love it." That night, it dawned on me that it would make a great format for a show: Somebody would be doing their act, and I would be interfering—hopefully in a humorous way—to make it funnier. Two comics working at once, rather than one comic trying to tear down another one. Audiences liked it, and when we moved it over to the UCB Theater, it got even better. We do it the last Thursday of every month in Los Angeles, and it sells out every time. That was way too long an answer. The short version is, I like talking shit while comedians are on stage, so why not do it into a microphone?
AVC: It seems like we've become a culture of commentators—that there's no wall between performer and audience anymore. Is The Benson Interruption your way of commenting on the commentators?
DB: [Laughs.] Well, it's certainly my way of getting my two cents in there. In my case, the comics mostly like it. Every now and then, I'll say something that steps over the line or that's too insulting, or they'll say something mean to me. Obviously, you take that risk any time you do something where comedians interact with each other. Like a roast, somebody's always going to cross over the line. As far as the public goes, I like feedback, I like to hear laughter, and I like the occasional pointed heckle, but it's true: Everybody thinks that they need to express their opinion now. There's been this sea change—specifically with the Internet and MySpace—where people are constantly writing to me directly about stuff, where in the past you'd never hear about it, because nobody would go to the trouble of writing you a letter or trying to find you to make one of their stupid comments.
On my MySpace blog, I had to disable the comments, because I just want to say my joke and move on. People can read it and enjoy it or not, that's up to them. But when you leave the comments open, then there's this flood of stupid remarks from people who don't add anything. They'll start getting into debates with each other about stuff. The thing is—because I'm a total narcissist—of course I'm going to read every word of it, and then I'm just sitting there all day reading this shit. Society has definitely gotten to the point where everybody has to comment on anything, and if you want to stay sane as a performer, you're better off not reading that stuff.
AVC: Of course, you do a lot of commenting of your own on Best Week Ever.
DB: [Laughs.] Well, in the case of Best Week Ever, I know there's a lot of nasty humor directed at celebrities, but my feeling is, in most cases, they deserve it. The cases where they don't, it's just too good of a joke to walk away from. If someone wants to make a joke about me smoking too much pot, I'm not going to get mad at them, because I've put it out there that that's what I do. If I'm on Best Week Ever making a joke about Snoop Dogg being high, I can only hope that Snoop Dogg isn't going to turn around and say, "What did that bitch say about me?" But I've yet to run into a famous person that cares about what I've said about them. Most of them don't watch, and the ones that do must have a sense of humor, otherwise they wouldn't be watching.
AVC: With that show, do you always have, like, a store of Britney Spears riffs ready to go?
DB: Basically, they fill you in on that particular week's events with regard to Britney, Lindsay, Paris, whoever. Like, they'll say, "This week, a video of Tom Cruise talking about how awesome Scientology is made it to the Internet." Then they'll show us that clip and tell us to do whatever jokes we want. I don't have to keep up, because the show itself does most of the heavy lifting. And if you don't have a joke, you can always say "Pass," and move on to something else. Like, within weeks of Anna Nicole Smith dying, I didn't personally think that was the most hilarious topic. Most of the commentary was about how crazy the coverage surrounding her death was, so it was mostly making fun of the press, but I still thought, "She just died! Can't we not treat her like a piece of shit for just a little while?" Or when Dave Chappelle went to Africa because he supposedly went crazy. I was like, "I don't have anything to say about that. I like Dave Chappelle, and he went to Africa. So what?" Sometimes those comments actually make it on the show. They just let us be ourselves, and then they edit it severely.
I know that Best Week Ever gets kind of a bad rap—like, for instance, whenever I travel to a city that has The Onion, there's always a blurb about me saying I'm in town, and it usually says that Best Week Ever is the most horrible thing to happen to television, "but Doug Benson is funny." Like, "He's funny in person because he's not doing four-second jokes about Dancing With The Stars." I don't know how I can get people to come back to Best Week Ever, but I think the show right now is considerably better than it was a few years ago. With some people, it's got a reputation for being too many comedians that don't have anything clever to say, which brought it down in the minds of some hipsters. But how can you not watch that show just to see Paul F. Tompkins? Or [John] Mulaney? I mean, it is what it is. It's certainly slapped-together. You're going to have some substandard comedy jammed in there, just because it's such a giant jigsaw puzzle that has to be put together every week. I feel the same way about The Soup, even though it's just one guy. I think Joel McHale is hilarious, but the show lives or dies by each joke. That's my favorite thing I see on the Internet, by the way. People saying, "They covered the same topics on The Soup that they did on Best Week Ever!" Yeah, no shit! They're two shows that talk about what happened in entertainment in the last week! What else are they going to talk about?
AVC: Do you ever feel worn down by the constant stream of tabloid scandals and bad reality TV, to the point where it stops being funny?
DB: You have moments where you go, "I'm tired of talking about this." That's the beauty of it: You can just walk away from something. One time they used a clip of me saying—I think it was about Hilary Duff's sister Haylie—"Haylie Duff? Now you're just making shit up." You can comment on how ridiculous it's getting. About a year or two ago, Patton Oswalt quit the show because he was getting angry having to talk about Paris Hilton every week. He just doesn't feel like that's his sensibility, having to come up with material about this one worthless celebrity. But I will continue to be on it as long as it's on the air and as long as I have the time in my schedule. I'm probably never going to get my own talk show, but on Best Week Ever, I get to say my own monologue jokes every week. I get to do jokes about stuff that's happening right now, and it's on TV right away. That to me is one of the biggest appeals of having your own show, and as long as I have the forum to do it, I will.