NPR's Rising Star Talks Woman-On-Woman Hate, Comedy, & Fearless Dating



ophira-eisenberg-npr Meet Ophira Eisenberg. Standup comic, NPR trivia-show host, author, and all-around inspiring lady. We got the chance to meet her at a live taping of her show, Ask Me Another, and chat about, well, pretty much everything that popped into our heads.

She was game for a discussion covering everything from the real-life obstacles facing women in comedy and career advice to the sometimes frightening consequences of always saying yes. (She wrote a book based on a lifetime of accepting every adventure that came her way, and ending up saying yes to monogamy — her biggest fear at the time — in the process.) Needless to say, you need to read on.

First and foremost, how strong is the temptation to interject with the answers when you’re hosting a trivia show?
"Well, the audience can barely contain themselves. But for me, I feel for the contestants — I’m sort of right there with them. Supposedly, you’re 50% dumber when you’re on the stage doing trivia or even on game shows. That's why the pre-quiz that they give people is usually so hard, like 1,000 times harder than what you end up playing on the show, because they have to make sure you can handle it when you're up there. But, some people just blank. It happens all the time, and I feel so bad for them. Like this guy couldn’t remember the name of "Penny Lane" and you know he knows it and he was just dying — and the audience, they are losing it; their faces get all red.

"But you know, it’s a phenomena. Because even when I’ve done just a small presentation of the show to some of the departments within NPR who haven’t heard it yet, we’ll be in a room with 10 people under fluorescent lights and it’s all for fun, but even those people in that circle are whispering the answers. Clearly this is just human nature — if you know the answer, you just have to say it. Maybe it's just we’ve all been scarred by school, so if we actually have an answer we want to say it."

What percentage of answers do you think you know? You know, without looking.
"I love this show, but I am not someone who would do well at these quizzes — this is not my forte at all. It requires a very particular kind of brain, and I just do not have it. I can probably do some music games; pop-culture games I could sort of stumble through; but no, I’m very grateful to have the answers."

Interesting. Has there been a celeb guest that you’ve been like, Whoa, I’m blown away by how many of these you're getting right?
"When we write the celebrity quizzes, for the most part, it’s stuff in their wheelhouse, ‘cause the purpose is really to let them to shine. What’s amazing is that a lot of our celebrity guests are so worried or nervous about the quiz. Afterward, they'll say, 'Oh, well that was easy, I was up all night studying history!' No, no, no, we’re just gonna tackle stuff you know about ‘cause that’s the fun of it."

Which celeb has come on and told the best stories? Like to the point where you want to stop the game and just make the entire show and interview?
"BJ Novak’s Scattergories with Michael Jackson story was amazing. But, we had Dr. Ruth on early in our season, and she was just such an entertainer. We had to cut this out because it's public radio, but she was just talking about how people shouldn’t be so hung up and she had the whole audience yell out the word 'clitoris.' And, she has a new wine on the market that she talked about — I think most wines are something like 10% alcohol but this one is half that so that way you could drink a whole bottle and feel good about yourself, but not really be drunk so you could still perform."

So, to switch gears a bit, you've found a lot of success as a female comedian. And, there has been a lot of talk, for as long as anyone can remember, about how women aren't as funny as men. And, every time it starts to feel like we must be past that BS by now, somebody makes another demeaning comment to reignite the discussion. It never ends, right?
"No, no, no. It never ends."

So, what's your personal reaction to that? How do you find the confidence to overlook the naysayers and put yourself out there, especially since doing standup comedy is so personal — and I imagine, terrifying — to begin with?
"Yeah it sucks, I will tell you that. I forget about it a great deal of the time because, thankfully, things have gotten so much better. And, New York can be a pretty open-minded place, but you’d be surprised at times. But you know, at a certain point, it almost becomes a little bit of a war; if you think what you say will deter me, it's won't — that is actually going to motivate me more than anything. But, people come up to you after the show and say, 'Oh I’m so happy to see a funny woman up there.' Or sometimes, the worst comment you can get is, ‘I don’t usually find women very funny, but you were okay.’ But, what always upsets me the most, it’s not actually when the guys have something to say about it, but when you have women who says that she don’t usually like female comedians. That hurts so badly."

How do you deal with that?
"It’s terrible. I even dealt with a booker once who was a woman who said she didn’t like booking female comics because she didn’t think they had a broad enough appeal. And it’s just like, there has been a lot talk around how women are really brutal to women — and I really hate that because it’s the exact opposite of what this world needs right now."

"But regardless, I just think it comes from a great place of insecurity. I mean, I’ve been on stage and sucked before and if people come up to me afterward and say, ‘Well women suck because you suck,’ I’ll be the first person to go, ‘No, no no, it’s just me. I suck!’"

Photos: Courtesy of Steve McFarland/NPR
ask-me-another-npr
Did you have to convince NPR to take a chance on giving a trivia show to a woman? Did you feel like you had to make a stronger case for yourself?
"They made that decision. I just auditioned for it. But the challenge was about the listeners, to convince them [to tune in to hear a woman], because it seems like game shows are in the male domain. Sometimes I feel like everything I do is in a male-dominated space — I should have a career in billiards."

So, what's your advice for women trying to break into industries where they don't feel entirely welcome — or where they see additional barriers to entry, based on gender?
"At a certain point you have to put your head down and go, 'I believe in what I’m doing and I’m going to work through it and I’m not going to care what all they naysayers say because they are not important and I’m just going to focus on the people out there who are supportive or who do get it.' You look out there and you can focus on, 'Well this person is standing in my way,' but there usually are a bunch of people who are good sources of support — but somehow those are more easily overlooked."

"You know just because you look out in the crowd and see the two people who are frowning doesn't mean you should ignore the 50 who are smiling. So, you really do have to find this inner self-confidence to goes 'I don’t care. I just don’t care, I have to do this for me.' Because if people focused on the obstacles or the single person who doesn't like something, no one would ever publish a book; no one would ever paint a painting; nothing would ever happen. So, really, denial is great. I’m a firm believer in denial; I think it's very underrated."

That's really great advice. Do you have any advice like that that you've been given — that lives in your heart and that you always rely on?
"I think it's mostly about not feeding on the demons in your head. Basically, I was told by a friend ‘You know what Judy Garland used to do before she went on stage?’ And I don't know if it's true, but supposedly she would be behind the velvet curtain and ready to go on stage and she would clutch part of the curtain in each hand and she would go 'Fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em!' and then she would go and open up the curtain and go “Hello everybody!'"

"You have to not care what people think. You have to stand on your own feet and look them in the eye and go, 'This is the deal.' And people will follow, because everyone responds so well to that. You learn along the way that when you work against yourself, that is the hardest thing."

Now, in your book, Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way To Monogamy, you talk about this trajectory of saying yes and accepting all these adventures that come your way, small or large. What’s the most trouble that’s gotten you into?
"Well, if you say yes to everything, you’re going to end up dealing with things — odd scenarios. For instance, I had a situation where I went home with a guy to his place in Queens, and we were in his apartment — his bachelor pad, blah, blah, blah — and the door to his bedroom was closed. And he was like, ‘Oh, want to see something special?’ And I was like ‘What? Yeah, sure.’ and he starts to open up the door, and I’m starting to freak out. What am I dealing with here; is he crazy? Is it going to be another man? And then he opens up the door and he just had this room that was just filled with 300 Garfields — ceramics, stuffed animals, it was just so weird. He was half proud of it — and he was in his 30s; it just made no sense."

"Some people would consider that very dangerous, but at the time, I was just like 'Yes, this is really weird, but I’m in Queens and I’m going to be here for a while, so uh, can you take a few out of your room?'"

So, what was it about monogamy that was so actively unappealing to you, at that time?
"I would equate it with settling down, which also equals giving up. It meant losing your edge and losing your spark and somehow agreeing to a life of sitting across from someone at a restaurant silently, because you have nothing left to say to each other, only planning your trips to Costco where you can buy Luna bars in bulk. I just thought it was buying into a world of complacency, like it was all over — end game. Like, how am I going to get my thrills and I don’t want to be that person — I don’t want to feel someone get bored with me."

In this place where you’re settled in your career and you’ve found success and have your own show, do you feel some of that sense of being trapped and itching for the next step?
"Sure, I always think about the next step, however, right now, with the book and the show and a few things coming together, less so. Trust me, after years and years of toiling away and years of being on my knees in my apartment looking up at the ceiling crying, going "How am I going to figure this out; how am I going to make rent; what if it doesn’t work out?' at this particular moment, it feels really great. At this particular moment, it is so great to be appreciated for one minute. And I know how life is — something will change, for better for worse. Things change; it’s like the joke of life. It’s dynamic, so just when you’ve braced yourself, you need to get ready for the next one...."

Photos: Courtesy of Steve McFarland/NPR