Critical and Thinking: The Ian Harris Interview

March 4, 2015

Ian Harris is a Los Angeles based comic who has performed at the Center For Inquiry-Los Angeles and at CSI conferences. Blending comedy and skepticism is nothing new–it’s been done on The Simpsons, South Park, and in Penn & Teller acts and TV shows for years–but a standup comic doing explicitly skeptical material on a regular basis as part of his act is unusual. Amid his busy schedule of touring, conference calls with Daily Show producers, training UFC fighters, and auditioning for a dwarf sidekick, Harris agreed to answer some questions.

How did you get involved in doing standup comedy, and how long have you been doing it?

I actually started doing impressions when I was five. I was a huge boxing and football fan and I would replay fights and games to my parents in the voices of Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali. I used to listen to Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Billy Crystal when I was a teenager and just wanted to be a comedian since I can remember. Of course I had other things I wanted to do like play football and box, and I started out going to school to be an anthropologist. But I tried to get on stage in San Francisco since I was seventeen and they would never let me. On my twenty-first birthday I went to the only place that had a legit open mic, a place called The Holy City Zoo. I signed up and then saw every comedian I idolized take the stage including Robin Williams and I chickened out. A few weeks later I moved to Los Angeles because I had written a screenplay and needed to give that a shot. I ended up auditioning to do a show at the Ice House in Pasadena (another iconic venue) and getting booked to close the show. I did 15 minutes my first time on stage and it went amazing. Part of that was the fact that I was nervous and looked like I was 15, so there was a major like-ability factor going on. That was October 18, 1992. I did comedy for about thirteen straight years until I had my daughter in 2005 and took a few years off. I got back into it in 2011 because I missed being on stage and wanted to go back up to talk about things I was interested in. I no longer needed stand up to make a living so it became more about doing it for the love of it, it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

How did you get involved in skepticism? What skeptical subjects are you most interested in?

I have pretty much always been a skeptic. I was a little less skeptical when I was younger as my mom is a New Ager, a self proclaimed psychic or “intuitive.” I grew up with the idea that ghosts and psychic abilities were just normal, however we never believed in gods in my house or anything like that and in fact thought of that stuff as silly and we often mocked churchgoers and such, so I always tried to rationalize these ideas with scientific ideas. I would often explain things as scientifically as I could, but of course as I got older, learned more and acquired more facts and knowledge I began to realize that science did support those ideas and they were dropped. I remember thinking when I was about twelve, “ghosts are real because everyone I know has seen them and my mom has tons of stories, but there is no such thing as a soul or afterlife, so they must be some sort of strange non-conscious energy that somehow gets left over and retains some sort of form.”

There was just this idea that there must be some logical explanation that people are overlooking, but in my world their existence was a fact, so I actually spent a lot of time trying to reconcile this in my brain. Then in my first year of college I took a class that was called “Argumentation and Persuasion” it was given by Dan Rothwell and was essentially a class in skepticism. The entire class was identifying logical fallacies and scams and looking at things like astrology, religion, etc. That was when I first realized that skepticism was a thing and began to identify as a skeptic. When I came back to comedy it was with the idea that I was going to do comedy skepticism and make fun of much of the bullshit that people believe and give these things some public ridicule they deserve and at the same time maybe make a few compelling arguments and make people think by making them laugh at the absurdity.

One of my favorite jokes of yours involves the homeopathic “cold preventer” Airborne, which, as you remind us, was “invented by a teacher who got tired of getting sick.” Can you take me through the genesis and process of developing that joke?

Funny, I wrote the germ of that joke years before I started doing comedy skepticism specifically. I never did it because I thought no one would think it was funny or that it would take too much explanation. Now I don’t care how much I have to spell it out to people. That being said, the first time I heard the commercial I thought “who gives a shit if a teacher came up with it? She was tired of getting sick? Aren’t we all? Is that all it takes? Two hundred years of medical research and all we needed was one chick who was mad as hell!” I love analogies. I used to love Dennis Miller (before he went [Bill] O’Reilly on us) because his analogies were so smart and clever. So I thought what other things could we do away with under that same formula? Cancer finally cured by a smoker who was tired of getting cancer. Then I tried to get even sillier, “perpetual motion finally invented by a hillbilly who had run out of gas.” Then I had a friend tell me that the joke was funny, but there is a cure for cancer and “Big Pharma” is keeping the cure down, so I had to address the absurdity of that and all those type of conspiracies. Now I have a five- minute bit that is one of my personal favorites.

I understand that you are shortlisted to replace Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. I don’t know if you can talk about it or not but if that happens what sort of format changes would you bring to it, and would it include a dwarf in any capacity?

Yes, that list is very short… as it is my list and I am the only one on it. I actually have had and have meetings with Comedy Central about two TV shows I created and one of them I suggested as a segment for The Daily Show. I am going back in a month to pitch again to some other folks there. I did mention taking over for Jon on the Daily Show, jokingly and believe it or not people started talking about it seriously. I assume they will go with someone famous and I know a lot of people are pushing for a female host, but who knows? I know I would certainly thrive in a position like that. It is right up my alley. Plus I was once very well-known for my characters, so I think that could be a fun thing to ad into the show… and of course I would include a dwarf. All good comedies and dream sequences involve dwarves. Though I think they prefer “little person”; or did you mean a mythological, magical dwarf like in a Tolkien novel? ‘Cause that would be sweet, but I don’t know any….

Of course all comics get hecklers, but have you gotten the sense that your skeptical viewpoint and material has been unusually targeted by believers?

So far no one has heckled too much. I get people afterward wanting to debate or as I call it, “wanting to lose a debate.” If you do it while I am on stage you will always lose that battle. I have a mic and an audience behind me. You are a drunk asshole who is interrupting their good time and my job. I have had a few believers who have come out to see what I do, but so far they have been well behaved, polite and most of them have told me they enjoyed the show and it even made them think. Though I tend to believe that if you are a believer coming to my show to see what I do, you might be doubting your beliefs to begin with.

Part of a comic’s job is to bring the audience along with you, but you’re not doing safe Jay Leno-type material, you’re doing edgier stuff that is likely to offend at
least some people. If you just look at the demographics of belief you find that between a third and half of Americans believe in ghosts or haunted houses, many believe in angels, miracles, psychics, and so on. How do you tread the fine line between making your audience think critically but not making fun of them?

I think I don’t always succeed at this because I have been called mean spirited before. I think though that many people are not as adamant about some beliefs as they are about others. Religion is certainly tough, but when I talk about ghosts or miracles or psychics or Bigfoot, I think even those who believe even do so with some skepticism or at least a self-awareness that they are believing in magic or have suspended some logic for something that feels good. I think they will laugh usually, but sometimes they will try to rationalize their belief to me after. I get a lot of that “That Bigfoot stuff was funny, but seriously I have seen Bigfoot. You should check into such and such case…” that kind of thing. I also get people that love every joke except the one about the nonsense they ascribe to, but they laughed at the other jokes, meanwhile everyone else was laughing at the jokes that they didn’t like. They make the connection that maybe everything was equally ridiculous.

What’s the most embarrassing thing that’s happened to you, either before, during, or after a show?

I am not sure I get embarrassed really, but I have repeated a joke immediately after telling it and gotten several minutes into the bit before realizing it. Then after asking the audience if I already did the joke, I completely lost my place in my act. Dead air on stage is always uncomfortable.

What are your top three films about comics or stand-up comedy, whether documentaries or narratives?

Though this isn’t a film or doc, I would say everyone should watch Richard Pryor Live in Concert. It was the one he did in Long Beach. He was wearing a red shirt and black pants. No question it is the best stand up performance and set ever done. I don’t think anyone has ever made a good movie about stand up. I tried. I made a feature mock-doc called It Burns When I Laugh which is out there. It used to be on Netflix, not sure if it still is. I would watch that because as bad as it is and as low budget as it is, I was made by a comedian with comedians, so I did my best to tell what it is like as a comedian on the road. I will say I enjoyed The Aristocrats for several reasons. It was directed and edited by skeptics Paul Provenza and Emery Emery and though it is a very simple idea and the same joke over and over… it features some of the best comedians of all time and has some amazing moments. And though it is not an accurate portrayal of stand up, I enjoyed Scorcese’s King of Comedy a lot.

Who are some of your favorite comedians?

Richard Pryor, (early) Dennis Miller, George Carlin, Bill Hicks, Johnny Steele, Robert Hawkins, Ron Morey, Doug Stanhope, Dave Attell… and surprisingly (because he is not a traditional stand up and did not start as a stand up), I really enjoyed Ricky Gervais’s journey into stand up. Being a guy who started as an impressionist, I like Billy Crystal back in the day and Dana Carvey.

What’s one of your favorite joke punchlines, either written by you or someone else?

Well some of my favorite bits are not translatable without the entire performance. Guys like Stanhope and Ron Morey that just kill me but it is the whole bit no short quips or one-liners that stand out, but from a straight literary or writing perspective here are a few (Paraphrasing as I remember them).

Favorite of Mine: I think the world would be a better place or more Christians were more Christ-like. And by that I mean “imaginary.”

Pryor: They say we civilians can save people nowadays by giving them mouth to mouth recusitaion…. I don’t know. I mean if I am walking down the street and I see a guy laid out with blood and slobber and shit all down his face… he ain’t gonna make it.

Pryor: They say if if Dracula comes up to you, you gotta show him a cross, cause vampires are allergic to bullshit.

Miller: Quite frankly if I ever do win the Publisher’s Clearinghouse I don’t think I will claim the prize. Because that becomes a public admission that you opened that envelope in the first place. I’m just not sure I want to be lumped in with the rest of these “Winners”. You ever seen a group photo of these people? You thought there were a lot of zeros in the prize. Seriously I could quote a few comedians all day…

I understand that your other interests include Mixed Martial Arts. Three quick questions: Did you ever compete professionally, what was your stage nickname, and what happened to the last guy that threw down with you?

I train fighters in MMA. I have a team of about thirty-five pros and amateurs. I never fought MMA specifically. Back when I was at the age to do it, MMA was not what it is now. There were very little rules, no gloves, no weight classes, etc. I am not a big guy. I did not want to go in a no-rules fight with a 250-pound Olympic wrestler. By the time it got to where it is now, I was coming off a pretty major neck injury and pushing my late thirties. I have competed in all the various aspects my whole life though. I boxed, did karate, Muay Thai, wrestled in school and still compete in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu tournaments. Plus I spar and train with my team and can hold my own. Funny enough though I started calling what I teach “Fight Science” back before the term Mixed Martial Arts was coined. I am very technical and I bring a very cerebral and scientific approach to my training and teaching. I have a reputation for that and I am often called “The Mad Scientist” “The Fight Scientist” and sometimes just “Scientist.” I never get in fights. I think I defuse things with humor and confidence. When a nerdy, average size guy laughs at your aggression and calmly discusses the situation, I think it is disarming and intimidating for most people. That being said, in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu being on your back is called your “guard.” I have a very good guard and specifically a triangle choke. I can pretty much catch anyone in my triangle choke.

What other projects are you working on?

I am working on three TV shows. They are all in development with different companies. One is a mock-reality show spoofing paranormal type shows like Ghost Hunters and Finding Bigfoot called Super Normal Activity. One is a reality show where I dress up in character Ali G. style and infiltrate various religious establishments and interview zealots, etc. tentatively titled either Ian Goes Looking for God or Fighting Faith. The third one is a clip show like Talk Soup but instead of talk shows paranormal shows. I am calling it Talk Soupernatural. I am also touring with my good friend Ty Barnett (runner up in Last Comic Standing) doing a show called Divided where we each tackle various topics like religion, race, politics, etc. from our different perspectives.