Chutzpah! Festival: Storytelling comedian Ophira Eisenberg gets her kicks being a jack of all trades

Whether it's standup, radio, TV, or books, the former Vancouver resident manages to reach for the top

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      It’s a long way from Vancouver to New York. Or so it must seem for anyone hoping to make it big in what’s considered to be the media capital of the world.

      But one former Vancouver resident, Ophira Eisenberg, managed to cross this great distance, now making her home in Brooklyn as a successful standup comedian, author, actor, NPR radio host, and professional storyteller.

      New York Magazine even included her on its list of the “Top 10 comics that funny people find funny”.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Eisenberg recalled living for a brief time with a boyfriend near English Bay in the mid 1990s. She also had a place for a while on the East Side, “which was somewhat undesirable at the time”. In those days, she wasn’t even being invited to the local comedy festival.

      Eisenberg was no trust-fund kid, so how did a child born in Calgary and educated in Montreal manage to settle in New York and get her own comedy and trivia radio show in 2012 that airs on more than 400 stations?

      “I guess practise, practise, practise,” Eisenberg replied. “You know, just by a lot of work. It’s a lot of work.”

      She said that she was living in Toronto 21 years ago when she travelled to 92nd Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to do a standup-comedy show. Following her performance and shows by two other comedians, there was a panel discussion with four Canadians who’ve enjoyed monumental success in American comedy. Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, and Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels had gathered there to answer this question: why are Canadians so funny?

      “They were talking about Timbits: ‘That’s what makes Canadians so funny—the fact that they made a donut hole into a desirable product that people want to buy,’ ” Eisenberg recalled with amusement.

      Not long afterward, she moved to New York, not knowing if she could afford to stay in the country. She now believes that what helped her as a Canadian in those days was having an “outsider perspective”. She was familiar with U.S. pop culture and much of its media but she could still view it through a “critically objective lens”.

      This enabled her “to make fun of it to a certain degree because you’re not inside of it”.

      This month, Eisenberg will share stories from her life in her first appearance at Vancouver’s Chutzpah! Festival: The Lisa Nemetz Festival of International Jewish Performing Arts. “I feel like, in a weird way, it’s a homecoming, yet it’s also going to be new,” she said.

      In this video, Ophira Eisenberg explains why she sure that she ever wanted children until she had breast cancer.

      Finding humour in stories

      Storytelling comes very naturally to Eisenberg, whose autobiographical account of her life is called Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy. Sure, she sometimes had rotten taste in men, but with enough work, she overcame that to become a married mother “at an advanced age, as they say so eloquently in the medical industry”.

      She’s also been a storyteller on The Moth Radio Hour. It’s a division of a New York–based organization called The Moth, which has been promoting storytelling since the late 1990s.

      Eisenberg said that although there is sometimes an anecdotal story within a standup-comedy routine, what The Moth does is very different. She has gravitated to telling stories with literary arcs in which a person is up against something, either small or large.

      “You are changed as a person, to some extent, by the end of the story,” Eisenberg explained.

      She added that in true storytelling events, like the ones supported by The Moth, the audience has different expectations. They don’t come looking for comedians to offer up bite-sized items that elicit a big reaction and then move on to the next observation. The storyteller takes audience members on a journey, sometimes challenging them to be “the best version of themselves”.

      “It’s fun,” Eisenberg stated. “I also like playing with audience tone and dynamics.”

      Her stories draw from her personal experiences, which include two battles with cancer and incorporate the harrowing and, in hindsight, sometimes hilarious aspects of her journey.

      “I say ‘hilarious’ because I can stand in front of you and tell these stories,” she noted, “so you know by that virtue that it’s kind of worked out with a happy ending.”

      Eisenberg also enjoys sharing stories of some of her wild experiences as a kind of naive and innocent Canadian moving to New York. Sometimes she offers up lessons she’s learned from past heartbreaks, like when she tried to have “the best New Year’s Eve ever and having it fall apart so magnificently”.

      “It’s like a TED talk but without that lecture feeling,” Eisenberg quipped. “This is a true personal story. There’s no specific call to action or takeaway.”

      Ophira Eisenberg is on this week's cover of the Georgia Straight.

      A very eclectic career

      Over the years, Eisenberg has appeared on Comedy Central, The Late Late Show, The Today Show, and on HBO’s Girls. She has also been invited to the New Yorker Festival and created a comedy special, Inside Joke, when she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant.

      So has there been any guest on Eisenberg’s radio show who has changed her life in any way? Without hesitating, she mentioned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

      The musician was on her program a few months ago to talk about a project that he was working on when the conversation turned to professional success. Ma told her that the key is to overcome the lack of curiosity that can sink in over time.

      “He was calling it a ‘beginner’s mind’—getting to a certain point in your life where maybe you have some professional success or you feel like at a certain age you have experience and expertise at a whole bunch of things,” Eisenberg said, “and what it is to try to get yourself back to that initial place of curiosity and wanting to learn and feeling the newness. To basically invigorate your next passion. Or the next thing that you are going to pursue.”

      In discussing her own eclectic career path, Eisenberg brought up an old phrase once used by a critic of William Shakespeare when the Bard switched from being an actor to a playwright: “jack of all trades, master of none”.

      “We usually don’t add the real, true end of that quote, which is ‘jack of all trades, master of none, which is better than being a master of one’,” Eisenberg said.

      The Chutzpah Festival: The Lisa Nemetz Festival of International Jewish Performing Arts presents Ophira Eisenberg at 7 p.m. on November 10 at the Norman & Annette Rothstein Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the website.