Adam Ruben, a mild mannered, fourth year biology graduate student, does not strike you as a comedian upon first meeting. But he is, performing this December at the D.C. Improv six times and organizing two comedy nights here on campus that feature some up and coming comedians, including Ruben, you might see on television some day.
Ruben got into standup comedy as a freshman at Princeton University. They had an undergraduate competition for stand-up and he decided to give it a try. He took notes from recordings of Jerry Seinfeld and George Carlin the week before.
“I had all these really bad math puns,” he says. “I thought they were great; one of them worked on three levels,” Ruben said. “I had scribbled all my jokes on my hand, but watching other people go before me I started scribbling things out and ended up just improvising about how nervous I was. I ended up winning second place.”
The next year he won first place and started taking comedy more seriously. Senior year he emceed a show for a band and had to parlay five minutes of material into 30 minutes because the band was late. “That made me realize that if I wanted to do this I had to get some more material.”
At that point Ruben had never even been to a comedy club and looked on Yahoo Yellow pages for comedy clubs near his hometown of Wilmington, Del. He ended up at a place called Race Car Caf?? and Comedy Club which he described as a “racing fan and redneck” club that didn’t really want to listen to him.
“I got up there and there were only eight or ten people in the audience,” he said. “They didn’t want to listen to me, they wanted to have background noise. It was the longest ten minutes of my life.”
He started going to legitimate comedy clubs in New York City. There, if he brought 10 or 15 people along with him to buy drinks, the owner would let him get on stage and perform without pay on Wednesday nights.
“When I got to Hopkins I tried to do comedy without telling anyone. I would leave lab, drive four hours to New York and get back at four a.m. I would only get four hours of sleep and then go to class.”
The commute from Baltimore to New York wasn’t working very well, so he started looking for comedy clubs in Baltimore. He did some shows at Wincester’s, which was the oldest comedy club in Baltimore, but after a few months Wincester’s went out of business. At some shows there would be twenty comedians and ten audience members. “The Baltimore comedy scene is interesting. I’ve seen a lot of stuff that doesn’t work,” Ruben said.
The two big comedy clubs in Baltimore are the Baltimore Improv and the Baltimore Comedy Factory. The Baltimore Comedy Factory is cheaper, but is known to have a ruthless open mics. “I’ve talked to comics who got through four sentences before getting booed off stage,” Ruben said. “I did one show there and said I’d never do it again.”
Ruben has performed at the Baltimore Improv, a gig that included one of his strangest experiences in stand up comedy. “The [Baltimore] Improv would give homeless guys unlimited alcohol for them to perform,” Ruben said with a straight face. “One time I tied for third with a drunk homeless man who mooned the audience.”
Although Baltimore has a few smaller open mic nights at local restaurants, none are professional and most don’t last very long. “The real comedy scene is in D.C.” Ruben said. “The lack of comedy in Baltimore is similar to the lack of nightlife in general.”
As a first year graduate student, Ruben made a tape of his comedy set and sent it to the Washington, D.C. Improv Club. Eight months later they called and asked him to perform at an open mic night competition. He won.
Since then he’s done most of his work in D.C., with the D.C. Improv Club being his favorite, not only because they pay him but also because it’s very professional and fun. “There hasn’t been any big landmarks,” Ruben said, “mostly just an assortment of jobs and competitions.”
He usually doesn’t get paid, but getting as many jobs as possible is the most important thing. “A job that doesn’t sound that great might lead to another job that’s worth it,” Ruben said. At Hopkins, Ruben has written twelve plays for Witness Theater including his first, Salad Shooters, and did a comedy routine to raise money for 4K for Cancer, preformed at the Fall Festival Variety show and other odd jobs. This winter, Witness accepted his full length play for production.
Ruben is also the editor of Grad News, the graduate newspaper on campus and is organizing a Comedy night for the Graduate Representative Organization (GRO), which features himself and four other stand up comedians including Keith Purnell, a comedian who has opened for Chris Rock and Bill Bellamy, Jason Lawrence and Pat Cunningham, two comedians Ruben knows through Princeton and Jared Stern, a favorite at the D.C. Improv Club.
“Organizing this comedy night allowed me to hire people who have hired me and pick people that I really like,” Ruben said.
Ruben recently won second place at the World Series of Comedy in Pittsburgh and is hoping to enter more competitions. For his long term future, Ruben isn’t sure. “It would be nice to do biology by day and comedy at night.”
He is also considering a Masters in the Fine Arts in playwriting and wants to continue writing comedy as well as performing it.
The GRO’s Comedy Night is this Tuesday in the Arellano theatre at 8 p.m. This Intersession, Ruben is also offering a two credit course on standup comedy.