Exclusive Q&A With Harrison Greenbaum AB '08

Harrison Greenbaum AB '08 is a comedian and writer in NYC. He was the co-founder of the Harvard College Stand-Up Comic Society, and can be seen on America's Got Talent, Last Comic Standing, Conan, Comedy Central, ABC, and much more. 

Q. You’re a popular stand-up comic, so I imagine before the pandemic, you were touring a lot. So let me get right to it: how did you adjust after the pandemic shut everything down?

A. Before the pandemic, I was averaging about 600 shows a year, touring all over the world, so as soon as the lockdown started back in March, I immediately pivoted everything to virtual and livestreaming so I could keep performing.  By the 2nd or 3rd week in March, I was hosting three different shows, five days a week: National Lampoon Live! with Harrison Greenbaum (raising money for the COVID Foundation), Who Books That? (an interview series presented by the International Brotherhood of Magicians), and SCAM Online (the first weekly magic livestream show from NYC).  I learned A LOT very quickly and – between these three shows and all the private events I’ve been doing – I’ve been able to perform for more than a million people in the last 10 months.  It’s been insane.  At this point, my living room is a TV studio capable of a TV-broadcast quality, three-camera shoot, so I’m just grateful I can still connect with a wide audience.  I’m having a blast doing virtual shows, especially since it combines the benefits of being on TV (being able to reach a large, global audience directly in their homes) with the benefits of performing live (being able to directly interact with the audience and to have their reactions immediately impact the show) – all of that, and I don’t have to be more than 20 steps from my couch.  

[Editor’s note: for more info on Harrison’s virtual shows and/or for booking information, visit harrisongreenbaum.com/virtual.]

Q. Alright, take me back to the beginning: how did you know you wanted to get into comedy? Can you explain the journey from the first light bulbs, to light pursuit, to now?

A. I started out doing magic when I was about five years old.  It just stuck.  I loved every aspect of it and, as I got older, I realized I especially liked the parts of the tricks that made people laugh.  I went to Magic Camp when I was 14 years old, because obviously I was very dedicated to not ever getting laid.  In all seriousness though, Tannen’s Magic Camp changed my life and exposed me to so many different kinds of performers, including the funny ones, who became my heroes.  When I got to Harvard, I was invited to do a stand-up show and, even though I’d never done stand-up before, I figured, “Why not?”  As soon as I did that first show, I was immediately hooked.  Harvard was such an important part of me becoming a comedian.  (Don’t tell my parents.)

Q. How did your time at Harvard play into that story? Can you give any (hilarious) anecdotes about your time there on your journey?

A. I’m so glad you qualified “anecdote” with “hilarious” – as a professional comedian, so many of my stories are real tear-jerkers… The summer of my freshman year at Harvard, I interned for MAD Magazine and started doing stand-up around the city (mostly getting on stage by “barking,” which means I stood on the corner, handing out flyers to try to get people to buy tickets to the show in exchange for stage time); when I got back, I realized that the only way to really get up on stage as much as possible while on campus was to start a club, so by my junior year, I was handing in the paperwork to make the Harvard Stand-Up Comic Society an official student organization.  I made sure to write out the full name every time on all the forms with the hope that the administration wouldn’t figure out that the name of the club was actually “Harvard SUCS.”  A few days later, I got an e-mail from the Dean’s Office about the application, asking me to come to the office, so I was worried we’d been caught; at the meeting, the dean started off by telling me that the name wasn’t acceptable, so I was sure we’d been caught.  But then he explained that, since the group was undergraduate-focused, I’d have to change the name to the Harvard College Stand-Up Comic Society… and I realized they hadn’t worked out what we’d done at all!  I don’t think I ever turned around paperwork faster in my life.  In fact, the university didn’t realize they had approved a student group called “Harvard College SUCS” until we wanted to get sweatshirts and applied to the Trademark Office, which was when I finally received another e-mail from the Dean’s Office chiding us (but letting us keep the name).  Years later, at my 5 Year Reunion, the dean who called me in pulled me to the side and told me that – while officially they had to be upset with us – internally they had actually thought it was one of the funniest stunts that had ever been successfully pulled on them.  I’m proud of that, and also really, really proud of the fact that HCSUCS is still going strong and still ruining the lives of students who decide to throw away all the advantages of a Harvard degree and become comedians.

Oh, and Harvardwood.  I did the Harvardwood winter break trip.  I should probably mention that, huh?

Q. Now that you’ve brought it up… tell me how Harvardwood influenced your career.

A. I had such a blast going to Los Angeles with Harvardwood my senior year.  Legitimately life-changing.  I remember Dan O’Keefe met me for coffee and still – to this day – I can’t believe how insane that a writer like that (he’s the guy behind the Festivus episode of Seinfeld, for God’s sake!) to listen to a college senior blab on and on about his dreams at a Coffee Bean.  (Of course it was a Coffee Bean.)

Q. What are the best ways for any young creatives hoping to get into comedy, or write in comedy, to break into the business?

A. Oh god, quit?  But seriously, the best piece of advice I ever got in stand-up was in my first year or two in New York and it was only two words.  I was on the same show as Jim Gaffigan and I just asked him point blank what his advice was for making it in this industry, to which he immediately replied, “Don’t suck.”  That’s honestly the best advice I could give, too: work your ass off as much as possible and be as far from sucking as you humanly can.  This business requires at least a little luck, which you have no control over, so just focus on what you can control: being the best you can possibly be and the funniest you possibly can, so that if a door does open, you’ll be able to walk right through it.

Q. Any other advice, or is it just “Don’t suck”?

A. Oh man, I hope it’s clear that Jim Gaffigan is a total sweetheart, because he is, and that when he gave me that advice it was as hilarious as it was effective.

But I would also say that saying “yes” to everything, at least in the beginning, was really helpful.  I never stopped doing two or three shows a night, but I also did a lot of stuff during the day: I was a senior producer on a show for ABC, I was the warm-up comic for Katie Couric’s talk show on ABC, I was even the head writer for a late night show on Telemundo (it’s una larga historia)… all of the stuff I learned doing each job keeps coming in handy.  I love writing for TV, I love hosting… basically, if anybody reading this wants to give me a job, I am very easy to get a hold of.  Oh god, stop me before this gets shameless…

Q. No, no, it’s fine, I love it!  Did TV come to you, i.e. did they find you in the clubs, or did you seek out TV?

A. My parents’ friends would always be like, “You know what you should do?  You should be on The Tonight Show!  Have you thought about doing The Tonight Show?”  Which is so weird to me.  Like they think my response would be, “Oooh!  That’s a great idea!  I never thought of being on TV.  Thanks to your insight, I’ll call my pal, Jimmy, and set it up for tomorrow!"

I was doing my 600-700 shows a year for about 7-8 years before I got any television, which means I’d already done thousands and thousands of shows before any big opportunities presented themselves.  In hindsight, that was probably for the best because I knew what I was doing.  My first big TV spot was on Last Comic Standing and then two years later, I got America’s Got Talent, so at this point I’m very good at getting eliminated from reality competition shows. 

Conan was truly a dream because it’s so obvious how much they want you to succeed.  Plus, I had been doing stand-up long enough that all these people from the show kept stopping by my dressing room before my set to wish me luck: one of the writers I knew from doing stand-up, the warm-up for the show I knew from doing warm-up for Katie, the piano player in the band I knew from teaching his son at magic camp, the actor being interviewed right before me I knew because of Jewish geography… it really put me at ease and I was just so grateful to be there.  It all goes back to the advice I already gave: work your ass off, say yes to everything you can, and be ready if and when the door finally opens.

Q. Where has magic played into your comedy career? How much time to you devote to it and how is the love cultivated?

A. For a while, I kept my stand-up and my magic very separate.  In order to get good at stand-up, you have to live and die by your jokes, and having magic in the act would’ve given me too much of a safety net.  Later on, I realized how much I still loved magic, so I have worked really hard to build a show that combines them in a way that does justice to both art forms.  I describe myself as a stand-up comedian with magic, as opposed to a magician with comedy, which is 99.9% of what most comedy magicians are.  It’s because if you took all my magic away, I could still do a full hour of straight comedy, and I don’t know if there are really any other comedy magicians currently working who can do that.  It also means that I write all of my own material and create my own tricks, which is also something that most magicians aren’t doing (and is why I have a book coming out this year with Vanishing Inc., the biggest magic publisher out there, called You Are All Terrible: The Book, which focuses on moving magic closer to other art forms, where people are coming up with their own ideas and not just copying or adapting others’).  I love magic and I love stand-up and I want the audience of my solo show to hopefully come away from it feeling like they’ve seen the best of both.  It’s why that show is the only magic show to ever be featured by comedy venues like the Comedy Cellar, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and the National Comedy Center.  (And if Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu ever want to give me a special, I’ve already registered IWantANetflixSpecialButAmazonorHuluIsGoodToo.com.)

Q. Anything else?

A. Oh my god, is anybody really going to read this much?  I don’t know, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @harrisoncomedy?  I post on there sometimes?  Reach out and get in touch if you want to work on something?  Or just talk?  It’s a pandemic, so honestly happy to just talk.

For more info on Harrison, visit his website at harrisongreenbaum.com.

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