“I’ve never seen him bomb,” is the first sentence you’ll hear from comedians in New York City when asked about Aaron Berg. Getting high praise from peers in the New York City comedy scene is tough, but ask anyone about Berg and you’ll invariably hear, “I’ve always seen him kill. He’s never had a bad set.”
Originally from Canada, Berg has been doing comedy for nearly two decades and it shows. Anyone who’s seen him perform knows his combination of raunchy and spontaneous crowd work that eviscerates audiences into uproarious laughter. Think Don Rickles if Rickles took steroids. This style has earned him a solid reputation in the scene as he regularly closes shows, all while being perched from a stool weaving in and out of riffs like a conductor with the crowd as his orchestra.
Currently, Berg is the co-host of Frantic! a free stand-up comedy showcase which can be seen every Monday night at The Stand Restaurant and Comedy Club. He’s appeared on Ari Shaffir’s This is Not Happening (where he tells a story of his adventures as a male stripper) and is co-host of the podcast In Hot Water on Compound Media.
But arguably his most accomplished feat to date has been performing twenty-five sets in one night, breaking the record in New York previously held by Steve Byrne who performed thirteen sets in one night. Achieving such a task is so incredible that Berg decided to document the night. The result is a film called 25 Sets, scheduled to premiere on Amazon Prime on October 15th.The film follows Berg as he bounces from club to club, pursuing what may seem impossible to many.
After his set at Greenwich Village Comedy Club on Saturday, I talked to Berg about the film, crowd work, and “the beautiful thing about New York comedy.”
So your new special’s premiering…
It’s not a special it’s more of a documentary. The difference is that this film follows my background, as well as me breaking the record of having the most sets in a night. I know specials are getting more innovative, like Gary Gulman has a whole “here’s interviews with my family” section, but I don’t consider this a special because I don’t wanna take away from specials. I’m happy to call it a film or a documentary… Does that take away from the story now that it’s not a special?
Yeah this interview is over now.
I’m only writing about specials.
So the film is about you doing twenty-five shows in a night. How is that humanly possible?
It’s insane to think about it now in retrospect. I was sitting one night in Greenwich Village and I think I did eight or nine shows one night. I had just gotten sober, so I had all this free time in between. I kept thinking “I wonder how many shows I could do? So, I went home and scheduled it out and thought “I can probably do eighteen in a night.” I looked up the record and Steve Byrne had thirteen. I was like “I could beat that.”
How’d the film come about?
I talked to a few people and I told my friend Erin Glass who was a producer for Morgan Spurlock. She said, “Wow you should totally document that.” I got together a great team and we organized it for a goal of twenty-six sets in one night. Once I realized we were gonna shoot it, I put the blinders on and thought “Okay go big or go home.”
What was the most stressful part?
The most stressful part about it was getting around. Trying to get from Greenwich Village Comedy Club to old Eastville isn’t too far of a walk but with traffic it could be a twenty-minute drive. Over the course of the night, I started running to spots from The Stand to New York Comedy Club because that seemed quicker than driving.
What time was the earliest show?
We started with the Creek and the Cave at 4pm. Then I went to the city and stayed there all night. We started at 4:05 PM exactly and ended at 2:40 AM. Eleven hours of nothing but stand-up.
That’s absurd. Were there any close calls of missing sets?
We were supposed to do the Village Lantern, but they were temporarily closed for a health infraction or something like that. But there were a lot of times we had to call audibles because it was getting so hectic. At one point it was raining so hard that the windshield wipers of our van broke so I had to run to my next gig on foot.
Would the club owners work with you?
They were great. The clubs would really work with me if I was late. I did a spot at Greenwich and had to get all the way up to LOL in Time Square. So Sisco, the comic who hosted, held the show and kept putting comics up so I could get there in time.
It seems like everything lined up perfectly.
We had no idea what would happen. We just had the sets planned out and knew we had to be flexible. My whole theory at the time was “The beautiful thing about New York comedy is, if you trust it, it all works out.”
In terms of you performing, were you funnier in the beginning or towards the end of the night?
As the night progressed it got really hard to be funny. My brain stopped working. I didn’t repeat a lot jokes throughout the night because it was mostly crowd work. As I neared set twenty or twenty-one my crowd work was like “Oh you’re wearing a black shirt, that’s crazy!!!!” It was just mush by the end of the night. And the first few shows took a while to pick up. But I wouldn’t make excuses. I said in the documentary “I’m not gonna blame the fact that it’s 4:40 in the afternoon. I should be funny at any time of the day.”
The middle of the night was the sweet spot?
The shows really started popping around 9 o’clock. There was one show at Eastville that was so electric I thought “Why am I doing clubs? I should be selling out theaters.” But then of course reality kicks in.
That was the best show of the night?
By far. It felt like another wave length. I started guessing stuff about the audience and everything was dead-on. I was talking about this girl banging her boyfriend and I did an impression of her “Do me harder Tyler!” Turned out her boyfriend’s name was Tyler. It was great to be so prescient and tap into an audience. When you’re doing comedy that much you kinda go to a level where you know stuff about the audience. I can’t explain it.
Was there a show where something went wrong?
One of the earlier shows at Greenwich Village Comedy Club, there was some old guy mashed up on pills drinking scotch. He had no idea where he was. I remember doing that show and thinking “that set was a brick of sh*t.” Then there were shows with only three, four people. But for the most part all the shows were great. Out of twenty-five shows, I think twenty were good sets. I can count on one hand how many didn’t go off like I wanted it to.
You do a lot of crowd work, but do you have a writing process at all?
I type an idea in my phone, and I go on stage and work it out. I used to write these long form monologues for the seven to ten years. It was very theatrical.
I feel like your jokes are very short, like just one line at most. You have that joke where if a crowd of, let’s say tourists, seems confused, you say “this crowd is thinking ‘why is Vin Diesel so angry?’” Do you write with crowd work in mind?
I don’t wanna be on stage robotically saying jokes. The art of what I do is being present in the room. Even if there’s a joke written word for word, it’s not gonna be the same every time. It’s gonna adjust constantly.
Yeah like I’ve also seen you do this bit where you start off with “I’m not gay, but I blew a dude when I was twelve.” Then you point to a dude in the audience and say “And I never thought I’d see him again today.”
(laughs) Yeah, it’s so stupid.
But did you write something like that ahead of time?
No, it was me starting with an honest thing that I didn’t know if I could talk about because it puts my sexuality in question. Stand-up for me is creating the tension, then you release the tension. So, I create the tension by talking about a personal, taboo thing. Then I release the tension by pointing out a random guy. It’s an easy thing to do and in that regard it’s lazy.
But it kills…
I addressed this in the documentary. The comedy I do isn’t what some consider good comedy. It’s good insofar that it’s funny and entertaining, but it’s not good in the sense that Burr or Chappelle are talking about what’s going on today. I’m just giving people a good time. But my stand-up has evolved since then where I’m adding more of my opinions. Of course, the goal is, at the end of the day, it’s still gotta be fun but I’m pushing more buttons now and hitting more topical stuff.
Even if people say that crowd work or subject matters you do is lazy or hack, I’ve never seen you have a bad set.
Some people would say to cover race is hack, to cover sexuality is hack. But it’s becoming hack to say to hack. I do still occasionally have bad sets, but I came up at a time that if you want to make a living, you must be consistent. Not in the sense that you have to do the same jokes, but these people paid money to laugh. You gotta make them laugh hard. You make them laugh hard they’re going to want to see you again. Therein lies doing a different set every time because if they come and see you do the same set twice, they’re not gonna want to see you a third time. So, you want to constantly be on your toes. Stylistically with crowd work the set is always changing.
It’s interesting because perfecting an act is about trial and error so with crowd work a big fear is knowing it can fail and your using the audience as a punchline. That can go very wrong. Occasionally there will be people who get really offended by it. There’s such a rich tapestry of controversy now and taboo subjects that piss people off. But the longer you do it, you attain this skill set where you can turn the worst-case scenario towards your advantage. Everything is something. I go up with nothing so whatever happens, I must make it work. You’re walking a tightrope and you have to get to the other side. You cannot fail.
You have to go for it and trust your instincts.
here was an old Busta Rhymes quote I wrote on my parents wall when I lived with them that goes “This has to work. There is no other option.” The beauty of not having something planned is you laughs.
Was there ever a time someone wanted to, let’s say fight you, or crowd work went terribly?
The other night I asked this couple “Do you have kids?” He looked at his wife and said, “Yeah two.” I asked him, “Why did you have to look at your wife. Are you unsure?” That got a big laugh. But then he goes, “our daughter died in June.” Of course, my first thought was “Jesus Christ.” So now it’s like “Ok let dig out of this.” And I know I will.
I go “well thanks for bringing the show down,” which broke the tension of this tragic moment. Then I tell them “First of all, thank you for being so brave to come out and laugh after experiencing such a tragedy. But now I have to fix the show.” So, I say it. I address it. I’m not just thinking about it. There’s no fourth wall. There’s no hiding of the craft. It’s all exposed and a constant work in progress that happens in real time.
I don’t think a lot of people can follow you. There are a lot of brilliant joke writers in the scene with original premises and ideas. But I see audiences respond to crowd work more because now they’re a part of the show. So, if they feel included in the show, their attention span is going to be way more invested.
Yeah, I never thought about it on that type of level. I used to do a word for word act for seven or eight years. After I moved to New York, I thought “I have to do something different.” Then I started doing crowd work and it just clicked. I’m not angry anymore about “how my art is going to be appreciated!”
What advice would you give comedians doing crowd work?
You have to be in the moment. There’s no other way to do it. If you have these loaded it’s gonna take you out of the moment. The best crowd work is in the moment.
Awesome. When is the film coming out?
October 15th on Amazon and it’s available for pre-sales on iTunes.