How punk rock taught comedian Neil Rubenstein to pay it forward
Neil RubensteinThe comedy is raw and honest, seen both in his clashes with hecklers during stand-up sets and in his DIY podcasts, sometimes recorded in a car amid long drives to and from his current home in Oklahoma. City. It is not difficult to detect in his unpolished and sincere personality that he is a veteran of the punk stage. From his time in Long Island bands Sons Of Abraham and Irony Of Lightfoot to managing Motion City Soundtrack and hang out with My Chemical Romance and Thursday, Rubenstein has been in music since his early years. (He also owned a brothel, ran an illegal poker room, and was a game show pundit, which, coupled with his heavily tattooed body, belies his soft voice and amiable personality.)
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With his dates on Motion City Soundtrack Commit this to memory anniversary tour wrapped, Rubenstein talked about hitting the road again with the band, blurring the lines between comedy and punk-rock and why he never really left the stage.
What brought you to music in the first place?
The simple story is that at 12 I saw Motley Crue on the cover of [a magazine]. I was like, “This is it. I want to do this. There have been hiccups and freezes, but most of my adult life is getting tattoos and going on tour. I don’t I had no complaints.
What prompted you to get into comedy?
Someone was planning a TV show for Spike TV called Casino Cinema. They needed a gambling expert, and the guy they had made crazy requests, like, “You have to helicopter me in from Atlantic City.” [My friend] was like, “Hey, you run a poker room.” So I ended up on this TV show. I went there for three or four years, and I was on TV once a week. One of the guests was Artie Lange. At the time, I remember very well, he said: “Do you like doing TV? I was like, “Yeah, I love that.” I remember the quote. He says, “Shit ends, kid.” I was like, “All right, so how can I lengthen the career?” He was like, “You either have to start writing or do stand-up.” Yeah, I took life advice from Artie Lange…probably the only person in the world who’s done that.
[Photo by Ryan Brook]
You seem to really exemplify this idea of doing whatever you can to engage people – podcasts, Instagram, tours, etc.
You have to do all of these things. There’s a bit of Mitch Hedberg to it where it’s like, “Oh, you do comedy? Oh, you cook. Can you farm? He doesn’t get respect. People will see a meme or a video or whatever and repost it regardless of who created it, who spent time making it. If that happens with music, there’s a whole army out there that will take it off the internet or get you credit or pay. That just doesn’t happen with comedy. A guy who does ICT Tac videos and a guy who’s been busting his ass for 20 years doing late night sets, they’re both in the same business.
Music fans also have a different attitude towards supporting artists, I would say.
That’s what’s cool with music fans. They convert. I opened for Resume on Sunday once. After that show, a lot of people followed me, more than any time I opened for a big comic. I still consider myself part of the scene. It’s a cool part of the scene. They are loyal and pay attention to what is happening. People know who I am sometimes from Taking Back Sunday. This only happens in music.
One thing that I find really interesting about your career is that you feel like you’re part of the scene. You do comedy almost like a band run their career. Is this something you did intentionally?
I don’t know, man. I grew up taking the train to CB on weekends. I lived on Long Island and worked at Kim’s Underground in town, a record store. I would lose money to go to work. I skipped school to go to work in town. It’s just who I am. I’m a punk-rock kid at heart. I’ve talked about it on other people’s podcasts too. We learned some really good stuff and we learned some really toxic stuff [about the scene]. Punk taught me to be cool with people.
[Photo by Zachary Burcar]
Comedy feels like it has a community ethic. The social aspect seems important. So maybe comedians are like musicians in that regard?
They underline the blow, for sure. In most cases, the come-up is the same. In punk rock you have Motion City and the rejects become friends in ’01 or ’02. Fall out Boy is in this crew and Limbeck. The tours are all the same. These are just variations of Rejects eliminating Motion, eliminating Fall Out Boy, eliminating Limbeck. It’s the same in comedy. It’s that kind of thing to pay for. I want to be on the road with the people I love hanging out with, whether it’s Jesse and Tony from Motion City or Liz Miele.
I wanted to ask you about your seven inch EP. It’s very cool to see a comedian doing a seven. You even did it in split and with the vinyl splatter. It’s great punk rock. Did you have any idea of blurring the line with music and comedy while doing it?
I just wanted to do something that felt authentic to me. All my stickers and stuff, Man Is The Bastard scam, Conflict scam. There wasn’t a lot of thought going into it, more than it felt natural to me.
[Photo by Danya Artimisi]
Filming with Motion City Soundtrack also seems like a natural fit. What do you think of this tour?
I am very excited. We have already tried this. We tried it in January and COVID shut it down. It was a real disappointment. They’re just good guys that I’ve known forever. I just found out they didn’t have a first out of three, and I gave him all the press. I was like, “Look, I’m a better option than having another band open.” I don’t know how I convinced anyone of that. I think that makes sense. A lot of bands have done it throughout history, but I think it’s getting a bit fashionable. I guess they felt nostalgic, and they were like, ‘Well, that’s more nostalgia than having the guy we spent those years with opening the thing up.’