New York – Professional funnyman Harrison Greenbaum stunned his parents in his senior year of Harvard when he announced that he’d be pursuing a career in comedy.
“They were a little bit blindsided,” Greenbaum told The Jewish Week during an interview at a downtown Manhattan coffee shop. “There’s always that fear with Jewish parents, I think. ‘Can he take care of himself? Will he be able to put food on the table?’ Once they saw that I could, I think they were a lot more on board with my decision.”
Greenbaum made his first foray on to the small screen when he impressed the likes of Simon Cowell and Howie Mandel on “America’s Got Talent” in 2017 and since then scored his first late night TV gig opening on “Conan” in May this year. Since moving back to New York in 2009, (Greenbaum is originally from Lawrence, New York) he has done more than 6,000 stand-up shows, bringing down the house, headlining at Carolines on Broadway and the Comedy Cellar. In addition to delivering punchy jokes, he’s also showcased an uncanny ability to interact with the crowd. It’s this unique skill that made him the ideal candidate for his new man-on-the-street style, improvisational show that launched on Facebook last week.
On “What’s Your Problem?” the comedian stops New Yorkers on the street, putting them on a couch and talking to them about whatever is troubling them at the moment.
“I love what I do and getting up on stage,” Greenbaum said. “It’s a drug and I’m addicted to it. The rush of this new show is going up to strangers, hearing what their real problems are, and coming up with bits in the moment. It’s totally unscripted. It’s all improvised on the spot. We ended up getting so many interesting people. Everybody has problems, but everybody tends to bottle those up. I wanted to open those bottles.”
Was it tough to get people to participate? Not at all. “It’s a really comfortable couch,” he said. “I think it was harder to get people out of the couch than onto the couch.”
In the series produced by Atomic Entertainment, (all five episodes dropped on Aug 23) New Yorkers demonstrate their trademark honesty and frankness, opening up to Greenbaum about their relationship issues or problems with their families, jobs and the like. Though Greenbaum graduated summa cum laude from Harvard with a degree in Psychology, (during his studies he won the Gordon W. Allport Prize for his thesis on the effect of racial humor on prejudice) he is not a licensed psychologist.
Musing on his childhood listening to stars like Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks, 31-year-old Greenbaum said comedy likely became such a vital part of Jewish culture as Jews used it as a defense mechanism during tough times.
“The only way you get through that and survive is through humor,” he said. “Jews tend to have that humor. My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. He was in Auschwitz. And yet, as a kid, I just remember how funny he was. As a kid – and certainly as an adult – I think you begin to realize maybe that’s how you survive those events. You laugh instead of cry. All of that is part of who I am.”
Greenbaum is also an award-winning magician who has entertained audiences all over the world. He will perform his show, “Harrison Greenbaum: What Just Happened?” at the Village Underground at the Comedy Cellar on September 25. The show combines his original stand-up with magic tricks. Previous performances of this unique hybrid act at the Upright Citizens Brigade sold out.
Greenbaum said he was “on cloud nine” to be seen by millions of viewers on “America’s Got Talent,” and considers his “Conan” performance a big milestone in his career. Though he was nervous before these big performances, he felt relief knowing he had put in the work and preparation.
“I feel like you look at success the way you look at getting taller as a kid: every year you put your head up against the door frame and your parent marks your height,” he said. “And even though you don’t feel like you’re taller, you turn around and realize there’s a foot between the marks. So I’m always looking at the next thing and just concentrating on the work, trying to be as funny as humanly possible.”
Support the New York Jewish Week
Our nonprofit newsroom depends on readers like you. Make a donation now to support independent Jewish journalism in New York.
Attending Broadway shows with his grandmother over the course of his childhood also inspired his artistic creativity. The comical tune “Master of The House” in “Les Miserables” had a particular impact on him.
“The whole show leading up to that musical number [‘Master of the House’] is so goddamn serious and sad,” he said. “Everything is so dark and depressing. And then all of a sudden you can breathe for a second. It’s such a cathartic laughing moment. I think with comedy, it’s giving people that chance to finally take a breath.”
“I hope ‘What’s Your Problem?’ can be a breath of fresh air for people.”
To watch “What’s Your Problem?” go to www.Facebook.com/WhatsYourProblemShow
For more information, go to harrisongreenbaum.com, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.