Confrontational Comedy: Talking political correctness, sobriety, and reinventing yourself with Ben Roy

Ben Roy never wanted to be a comedian. Instead, his first times on stage were spent fronting various punk rock bands like the Mendicants and Thousand Year Suffering, which he did as a way to shield himself from the dark forces of addiction present in his life at the time.

For Roy, music was what kept him from "losing his mind" while growing up in Augusta in the '90s. 

“In Maine, I was getting into a lot of trouble,” says Roy. “There was a lot of gnarly shit going on in the capitol. I had to get away from the violence and recklessness.”

Struggling with a drug and alcohol addiction, and debilitating mental issues stemming from past trauma, then 19-year old Roy decided to leave his "shit-hole apartment” for good, crawl into his 1993 Geo Storm, and drive to Denver in a last ditch effort at crafting a new life, and possibly a music career.

Fast forward to 2017, and Roy's a far cry away from both chemically-aided stagnation and full-fledged rock stardom. But still, he's doing quite well, actually. 

Although Roy still performs occasionally in his hard-rock band SPELLS, today he's making a big splash in a totally different scene: stand up comedy. Roy basically stumbled into comedy back in 2004 and since then has managed to evoke memories of the late great Bill Hicks. Known for his confrontational punk-rock attitude, "spittle-flecked rants," and deeply personal, introspective bits about depression, Roy’s a rising star in both the Denver and Los Angeles comedy scenes. Over the years, he’s dropped two comedy albums and currently produces and stars in a sketch comedy series on TruTV with his buddies called Those Who Can’t, which has been greenlit for a third season.

Roy managed to accomplish all this while getting clean (he's eight years sober now) and raising a family (he married his sweetheart from Maine, and fathered a son with her, who's now 12).  

But as I found out from chatting with Roy over the phone last week, his fame, success, sobriety, and loving family, didn't greet him instantly when he arrived in Denver. Like most attempts at reinvention, Roy’s transition wasn't easy.

Here’s an edited transcript of my conversation with Roy — who returns to Maine for two shows this week — where we talked about recovery, political correctness, TJ Miller, his strange origins in the Denver comedy scene, and what it takes to make something out of your life.

comedy benroy

I like to ask every ex-Mainer this: why did you decide to leave Maine?

I was drinking and doing a lot of drugs and just being stupid. Central Maine was so insular, so even if I wanted to change, I felt like I couldn’t because everyone knew me. Running away can’t change whatever problems you have either but it does help to reinvent yourself.

I wanted to get out so bad, but it wasn’t anything specific about Maine, it was just my own personal issues.

So things didn’t get better for you once you got to Denver?

Not right away. I was thrown in jail, I was still drinking, getting into trouble. Still seeking out toxic relationships. But eventually, I finally started to deal with my demons.

I know that the recovering from alcoholism technically never ends. What helped you stay sober these past eight years?

Truthfully, my family. The last day that I drank I knew that if I didn’t stop, my wife was going to leave. I remember screaming and losing my shit, and seeing my son, 5 at the time, standing in the doorway and watching me.

My parents grew up in an alcoholic household and I saw the damage it did to them. I didn’t want to do the same to my wife and son.

I’m aware that you’re vocal about this journey to recovery in your stand-up. How did you even get into comedy?

I moved back to Maine briefly to visit my folks in Fairfield, and I met my wife at a party at a friend’s house. We both moved back to Colorado where she took a part-time at the Comedy Works club. Over time through me drinking and hanging out with the staff, someone convinced me to sign up for the open mic.

[Since then Roy’s been invited back to numerous comedy festivals and competitions around the country, which helped him earn spots on Comedy Central, HBO, and MTV.]

But you never wanted to be a stand up comic right?

Yeah, music was what I always wanted to do. I never had an urge to become a comedian. It was kind of random. I had an impression of comics as these like late night hacks. But then I started seeing comics like David Cross, Daniel Tosh, and Brian Posehn perform and I realized that comedy can be really different.

I got bit by the bug. I realized you can make comedy into whatever you want.

Which you turned into something personal?

Yeah, I’m just a hyper-emotional person, so a lot of my stuff is introspective. Both my albums I Got Demons, and No Enlightenment In Sobriety, were about my alcoholism and how getting sober didn’t solve all my problems.

What else do you talk about on stage?

My topics are always changing. When I started, I joked about pop culture and ranted about things that frustrated me. Sometimes I get stuck on an idea or a contradiction.

I have a bit about running into this racist guy in North Carolina, and I break down the speed and efficiency of how racist he was. He didn’t even bat an eye with his racism, it was just a part of his lexicon.

Comedy that touches on racism or other sociopolitical issues seems to be particularly popular nowadays.

You know what’s funny is that I grew up in the punk and hardcore scene, and the world’s always been shitty. We were railing against things that are now in the common dialogue: fascist ideologies, racial divisions, the fear of a diverse and self-reliant community.

So honestly, the world doesn’t seem shittier than it already did.

What do you make of comedians like Tim Allen, Bill Maher, and Mel Brooks saying things like “political correctness is killing comedy”?

I challenge you to find a younger comic that says that. There are very few. It’s a lot like hairstyles. You’re allowed to get on stage with a mullet, but the younger generation is going to point out how old and antiquated it makes you look.

Could I say the word “retard” on stage 10 years ago? Yeah. Are people less comfortable with the word today? Yeah. Does one word change the ability to make comedy? No, it doesn’t.

If pronouns change your comedy, then you’re a shitty comic and you’ve never been funny to begin with.

And there’s a difference between being needlessly offensive and making a good joke that might offend someone, do you agree?

Exactly. You’re allowed to be crass for no reason. But don’t expect a crowd to show up to your next show.

I still say things that are controversial. I just have to figure out the new and different ways to shock people. I like saying things in a manner that’s like throwing cold water in someone’s face.

But if you’re not creative enough to adapt, then maybe it’s time to bow out of comedy. Part of getting older in stand up is realizing that the stage time belongs to the younger people coming in. You have to play by their rules. You have to learn to understand where they are coming from.

People have been calling out bad material for ages. One of the most offensive comedians is Sean Rouse, he’s almost unbookable, but lot of comedians respect him. He says a lot of dark and awful shit, but he does it smartly, with a point.

Bill Burr has said a lot of stupid shit that pissed a lot of people off, but he’s maintained a good status because he’s fucking funny when he does it. There’s a craftsmanship and a point to it.

OK, I know you’re friends with TJ Miller, so I can’t let you go without asking; what did you think of his Emoji Movie?

*Laughter* You know, I did not see The Emoji Movie. My son loved it, and that’s who the movie was designed for, was for children. I saw all the terrible reviews, but to TJ’s credit, he has put out so much good shit with comedic integrity like Silicon Valley and the Gorburger Show, that if I saw the Emoji Movie and hated it, I’d give him a pass.

Ben Roy | Fri, Oct 13, 8pm | Rising Tide Brewing Company, 103 Fox Street, Portland | $15


Last modified onWednesday, 11 October 2017 13:38