Dana Jay Bein scrubs tubs to tell jokes and has zero regrets. Mostly.
When I moved here from Maryland, one of the first people I heard a lot about in the Boston comedy scene was Dana Jay Bein. He was a teacher at ImprovBoston, and for some reason I totally hated him before we even met.
Now that I know him, he’s one of my closest and most trusted friends in comedy. He’s such a positive and honest force that I can’t imagine how it would be around here today had he not moved here from West Springfield.
Me and Dana spoke about his start in Hub comedy more than 20 years ago, his beginnings before that, the early years of IB, and how he is responsible for helping people inside as well as outside of the clubs.
What brought you to Boston?
I went to Boston college. I always wanted to be in a city, and as a kid I loved Boston. In hindsight, I wouldn’t be doing everything I’m doing without BC. However, I’m not really a “BC person.” I’m not really a jock, or a Jesus guy. I don’t like sports. I do like thinking about theology, but in many ways Boston College is regressive. I cherished the social relationships that were forged there, and I really liked the campus and some of the classes.
What did you go to college for?
I like to tell people I majored in crippling debt. I was a lower middle-class kid, I wanted to be in Boston. I applied to a bunch of schools, and I was basically going to go to the one that gave me the most money. I didn’t have a plan, I was riding the wave of what my grandparents and my mother wanted me to do. They were so excited that I got into BC, but I didn’t really know why I wanted to go there.
I didn’t really become a theater major until my junior year, and it’s because I didn’t like anything else. It wasn’t because this is what I want to do. It’s the only thing I like to do. Now it looks like I did it deliberately. Maybe everything happens for a reason.
When did you start doing stand-up?
My first set was in ’97. Then when I went to BC, I did mostly improv. I’d say I’ve been doing it for 20 years, but I’ve been doing it aggressively for like 10 to 12.
Did you know what you were in store for at your first stand-up open mic?
The first time I did a mic, I didn’t realize a mic is a show in sheep’s clothing, so I invited people. I invited my mom, my sister, and my aunt. It was all comedians, and I remember leaving terrified and upset. My mom put her hand on my back and said, “Comedy might not be for you.” And I’ve been writing mom jokes since.
When did you start with ImprovBoston?
I first got cast in ImprovBoston in 2000. Most of ImprovBoston was BC people at the time. I met the artistic director at BC. I started performing in their Thursday night cast. It was called Maestro, and it was before The Great and Secret Show. The Walsh Brothers were the only stand-up at ImprovBoston back when it was in Inman Square. Now stand-up is much more appealing to me just because it’s more selfishly about control. I can control the choices I make, I can control what shows I do, and which shows I don’t do.
Do you consider yourself more a writer or performer?
Performer. I hate writing. In fact, when I have to, in order to write in a way that feels productive, I use my audio app. If I have an idea, I talk it out, or I’ll talk and write at the same time. After all this time, I don’t have a writing routine that makes me feel productive. That’s part of the reason improv will never go away because I do a lot of stage writing. I do some play onstage and some crowd work, and I love to mix my jokes up and see if it works. How the flow fells.
How is IB different now compared to when you started?
IB is such a different beast than back in the day. If you saw someone you didn’t know in the green room, it was a big deal. What cast are they in? Where are they from? Are they from New York? Oh my god, are they from Chicago? The community was like 50 people back then, and now they have their comedy schools with like five or six hundred students. They’ve got thirty-something shows a week, and it’s absurd. There’s a lot going on there.
I see you post a lot of hot tub pictures. Do you work at a spa? Or are you just there a lot?
I clean a lot of hot tubs. I work at in Oasis in Inman Square, which is a wonderful place, but it’s also like a minute and a half from my front door. I’m there five days a week during the days, and they’ve been very cool when I have shows or festivals. It’s all Japanese wooden community tubs. It’s amazing how few creeps we encounter, and because of that, when there is somebody creepy, we know right away and we manage them out.
For me, comedy represents wellness in many ways. And so this place represents wellness as well. It’s not exactly parallel, but I want all of my things that take up a lot of my time to be something I can feel good about. Like I don’t want any corporate jobs that just take time and don’t do anything for me. I can feel good about working at a spa. Everybody leaves happy.
Have you had soul-sucking corporate jobs like that?
I worked for a H&M for years. I was their district facilities manager for New England and upstate New York. I made really good money there. I had benefits. I had access to a car. I had my birthday off. I had six weeks’ paid vacation. The problem was I was on call all the time. I was responsible for electricity, HVAC, all of this important stuff in 25 stores. So my phone rang from 6 to 2 am, and it was thankless. Even though I had a nice title and I made good money and I had access to a company car, I would have to bail on classes and shows so often. I remember the last year was torture.
I feel so stupid saying it because there are days when I crave those paychecks. I barely make that much in a month now what I made in one paycheck, and I’m like, This is what you chose and you love it. But that money …
Performance arts are a curse because there isn’t money in it until you’re a somebody. Stand-up is easier for you if you have a lot of money. You can travel to whatever show you want. You can apply to whatever festival you want. You don’t have to be stuck as a regional comedian. You can afford to buy drinks at every show.
I actually love writing and performing, and I love the struggle, but it’s never gonna go away. But I’d be lying to you if I told you that when I’m down, I don’t think about, screw it back to the corporate world, let’s just do it. … Actually, I got myself a tattoo for my 40th. It’s Bozo on a crucifix. There’s so much people don’t understand, and so much people haven’t the foggiest idea about the financial sacrifice we make as comedians. You have to really love it.
What age were when you figured out working in the arts could be a career?
Thirty. My parents love that I do comedy, but it was just, Have a backup plan. You’re so smart, Dana, you could always fall back on your resume or your college degree. And it’s like, No, I hate that. I’m only here once. I don’t want to be a corporate slob. I don’t want to live for dollar signs. When I left H&M, I knew it was a financial kamikaze but, that’s what had to happen.
When did you start teaching comedy?
I started doing stand-up workshops in 2004. I wouldn’t call myself a teacher back then because I just wasn’t doing it enough to do that. I was working out of a Greg Dean’s Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy Workbook. I was doing that for about 10 or 11 years at the Boston Center for Adult Education.
I always knew what good stand-up looked like. I think the one area that I used to mess up when I was younger teaching was I wanted their first show to be the showcase. I wanted their first show to be a warm crowd, but now I’m like, Nah, go to open mics. See if this is for you. I don’t bullshit anybody now. Now in week one I tell people I can’t teach you how to be funny. I can tell you what I think some best practices are. The rest is up to you. We’re going to workshop jokes together. We’ll put together a set over the course of these two months. Then you’ll showcase it.
This past year you were teaching stand-up at MIT?
I got hired by the Computer Science Program at MIT this past semester to work with their postdocs and research fellow students to teach my stand-up workshop. These are all people heading on the professor track, so they’re going to be in front of a classroom, and many of these folks are academics who have not done any sort of public speaking, many of them are very introverted. …
They can really improve their public speaking. They loosen up, they start to allow themselves to be vulnerable. When you’re interviewing for some of the best schools in the world, it’s hard to be vulnerable when your whole life you’ve been punished for being vulnerable. The first thing I told this group that I taught was you are required to fail. That’s the sentence you probably haven’t heard in a long time, but in comedy you are required to fail. You will fail every show.
Now there are comedy life coaches. How are your one-on-one classes different?
Because here’s the thing: I’m not an asshole. If somebody tells me a goal they have, and I don’t have the tools for it, I’m not going to try to push them. I tell people when I’m out of my depth. People have told me I should be a life coach. That freaks me the fuck out. Look at my credit score, look at my bedroom, then tell me I should be a life coach. When somebody says, I want your help, and they don’t have a goal, I’m like, Well, you need to go, come back to me with a goal, and send me a clip of any public speaking or show us you’ve already done. Then I can give them an assessment. Sometimes I realize somebody wants to do improv, or somebody wants their back patted. I can pat your back, but that’s not what I want to do.
Have you had to deal with students who just didn’t get how jokes work?
What’s interesting is a lot of the people that struggle in class, they’re usually 40- to 60-year-old alpha males. People have been told their entire life, by all of their circles, that they’re the man. They’re the funniest at the bar. They’re the funniest on their intramural softball team. They’re the funniest in their family. And then they show up in my class and I tell them, Well, you got a lot of work to do. What was funny when you were a kid doesn’t work anymore.
Get Dana Jay Bein’s live special, Western Massochist, on iTunes, and see him live at at Remnant Brewing on Wednesday, Aug 1, or any other night as the comic in residence at the Comedy Studio in Bow Market. Also listen to the full, unedited podcast version of this interview at deadairdennis.com/podcast, and for a full listing of all the comedy shows in Boston visit bostoncomedyshows.com.