Comedian and Columbus area native Matt Rife may have traded the wide open spaces of Champaign County for the perpetual buzz of Sunset Boulevard a few years ago, but he’s quick to offer praise for his Buckeye roots.
“Ohio’s just such a fun place to grow up because everybody played outside, and [we lived in] an incredibly safe neighborhood,” he recounts in a phone interview from Los Angeles earlier this week. “My parents would, like, leave their car keys in the car each night with their doors unlocked. It was a very carefree – irresponsible – but carefree place to grow up. And, it was just a lot of fun. My friends and I would play outside, play sports together.
I mean, obviously, as I got older, I was, like, ‘okay, I want to go do more stuff that Ohio just doesn’t have, and go see the city life’ [laughs]. But, I just remember it being a good place to grow up.”
Twenty-three-year-old Rife, who began his stand-up career at the age of just 15 as an open-mic night hopeful at the Columbus Funny Bone, joined 40 other acts on NBC’s new comedy competition vehicle, Bring The Funny. He advanced as one of 12 semifinalists, but a decision on Tuesday night’s episode by judges Kenan Thompson, Chrissy Teigen and Jeff Foxworthy to grant contestants Ali Siddiq and The Chris and Paul Show a place in the show’s September 10 finals showcase relegated Rife and four other contestants to an online voting round to determine which will secure the other available spot.
The grand prize winner, which will be revealed on September 17, will receive $250,000.
Regardless of where Rife finishes on Bring The Funny, his future in comedy is assuredly bright. In addition to his stint as a regular at Hollywood’s iconic The Laugh Factory (he’s the youngest male comedian ever to be so), he tours regularly at clubs across the country, and counts veterans Dane Cook, Erik Griffin, and Mike Epps as close counsel.
More importantly, Rife’s material is as astute as it is disarming, and while it may be tailor-made for edgier Angeleno audiences, there’s still enough Midwestern earnestness to make it broadly accessible.
So, all of this began at the Funny Bone during an open mic night. What do you remember most about that first time you were on stage?
“Umm…I don’t know if…I don’t know what all you’re allowed to say in the interview, but [laughs] I remember I thought I was going to shit my pants, for sure.”
Sure. I think you can say that.
“’Cause there’s an unspoken kind of ‘on-deck’ circle kind of like in baseball where the comics sit right before they go up next. And, I remember kind of, like, going over my set. The comic who went on before me was doing really well, so I wasn’t nervous and was kind of excited. And, then the host goes up after him, and as soon as he announces my name I’m walking toward the stage and it kind of hits me. Mid-walk-up, I was, like, ‘I think I’m gonna shit my pants.’ I got so nervous out of nowhere. I was so scared.
I went up there and I was only doing five minutes, and the first half went really, really well. The audience was with me. I mean, looking back, as far as first times go, it wasn’t too bad. Then, about halfway through my set, I just forgot what I was going to talk about. But, mostly, the crowd was really cool, and they gave me a round of applause. I’m sure part of it was that I was just a kid – they probably felt bad a little bit [laughs]. It was a fun time, and I never stopped going back after that. I went every week.
Then, one thing led to another, and now we’re here.”
And then you made the decision to leave Ohio for L.A. to further your career, which I imagine has to be intimidating for almost anyone because, based on my own very short time living there, it can be such a polarizing place. How did you feel about that transition?
“It never really felt weird – it always felt just kind of right. Although Ohio was a great place to grow up, L.A. just sort of automatically felt like home. I love the city life out here, and I like the faster pace and lifestyle. But, I also love that you can just drive forty-five minutes in either direction of the city and be at the beach or the mountains, and stuff like that. I’m a fairly outdoorsy person, so I enjoy getting to do all that stuff, as well. L.A. just sort of has everything within its limits, so I appreciate the opportunity for fun things – and for career opportunities. There’s only a certain ceiling you can hit in Ohio.”
Right, I can see that. I’ve heard mixed reviews from other L.A. comedians about it being a supportive community in which to develop as an artist. Do you personally feel it is?
“Umm…overall, no [laughs]. It’s a very jealous, egotistical, ego-run city, for sure. I mean, everybody’s in competition with everybody for only so many jobs. And, there are people who have been doing it longer than I’ve been alive that haven’t had the opportunity that I’ve had. So, not everyone’s wanting me to succeed or to help me out.
But, I’ve been lucky enough to find a couple of sets of friends – one being more down-to-earth people that are all from the Midwest. But, I have no friends my own age – they’re all about twenty-seven to thirty. But they’re down-to-earth, and they have the same sense of humor that I do. And, they’re also up-and-coming entertainers, so we all kind of feed off of each other and motivate each other to grow, and get better and go after our dreams. But, we’re all roughly in the same situation financially and stuff like that, so we understand each other.
There are also some celebrity comedians I’ve looked up to my entire life who are now, like, good friends and mentors of mine. So, those are the people I can come to when I need solid, adult professional advice.”
What’s been the worst piece of advice you’ve received as a stand-up comedian?
“It’s pretty much anytime somebody goes ‘you should put this in your set!’ Like, almost never would it makes sense to go in my set [laughs]. And, I probably get that just about every show I do. Somebody will come up after afterward, and we’ll joke about something in the moment, and they’ll say, ‘Hey, put that in your act!’”
Would you say you’re a comedian that writes proficiently, or are you more improvisational and reactive to things you see and hear around you?
“I’m definitely way more observational and situational – things just kind of have to happen in my head in the moment where I can say, ‘oh, this is funny. I can write about this.’ The moment I try to sit down with a pen and a pad at a table, my mind is just blank. It either goes blank, or I just overthink everything and my mind wanders off so far past the point of what the joke is supposed about and nothing gets done anyway.
Which is the hardest part about [Bring The Funny], because most of my jokes that I’m doing now on the road…and none of that stuff is online, by the way. I haven’t posted anything new online as far as my touring set goes in forever. But, most of the material I’m doing now is talking about real things and serious topics – much more like storytelling and elongated five-to-seven-minute jokes. So, that’s kind of the hardest part of the TV show is that I’m having to cut those bits nearly in half and just do the punchlines, basically.”
You’ve mentioned in some of the press I’ve been reading that you feel you’ve had to dilute your jokes in the process. But, I actually think you’ve sold yourself a bit short and you’ve done incredibly well at editing your material down for such a wide audience. The impact of your jokes still translate really well on screen, and I think that’s hard to do.
“A lot of the other comics in the competition, that is their style, you know? Very ‘premise, setup, punchline.’ They squeeze eight to ten jokes into a half-minute. And, I’m just trying to get one in.”
Ultimately, is that long-form storytelling the style in which you most likely see yourself evolving as a stand-up?
“Yeah, I think inadvertently that is sort of my style. I like to go up there and just sort of pace myself on my own timing and just talk. And just be me. I don’t really do…it’s not very often I can look at my set and say, ‘that’s just a joke.’ A joke to me is like ‘knock-knock’ – it’s very easily written and you can fit it on a popsicle stick. For me, I just feel like I’m talking. And it just happens to be funny.”
I know you have aspirations of acting in your future, as well. So, if you could land your ideal role tomorrow, what would it look like?
“I think the most fun role I could play, and could fit what I believe I can do and would want to do, would be something like Deadpool from Marvel Comics. I love Ryan Reynolds, and I think he’s a fantastic actor. And I love how he brings his own sense of humor to every role he plays. That role specifically has drama, and it has action, it has comedy. That’s all stuff I want to do in one cumulative role. That would be perfect for me. And the way Hollywood works, I’m sure they’ll be doing a reboot in five years, anyway [laughs].”
Are you actively auditioning for roles now?
“Yeah, I go out on quite a few auditions. Right now, it’s kind of slow because more and more holidays are coming up, and Hollywood just shuts down during the summer and the holidays. The beginning of the year is primarily the most busy time. Labor Day is coming up next weekend, so even this week people are slow. And, then after that it’s going to be Hallowe’en, then Thanksgiving, and then Christmas. It’s definitely a tricky process, and nothing is on your schedule at all.”
Some actors seem to thrive on the auditioning process, while others find it completely defeating. Do you find yourself getting used to it now, or is it still a frightening prospect?
“I don’t know if I’m used to it, but it doesn’t really frighten me. I think the audition process is flawed, for sure, because a lot of times you’re getting casting directors who are just sort of speed reading through the lines in a blank room – and it’s usually just you, a camera, the casting director, and a chair. It’s a cubicle of a room – it’s not the environment in which you’d be acting, and you have nothing to work off of, and they’re giving nothing back on the lines being read back to you.
It’s just not acting, really. It’s just a game of who looks exactly the way that they envision the part to be, and who can memorize the best, really. That’s the process, unfortunately, and I’ll have to get better at it. But it’s tricky, for sure.”
“Bring The Funny” airs Tuesdays at 10:00 p.m. ET on NBC. Matt Rife will headline at the Dayton Funny Bone on Sunday, September 22. Learn more about Matt by following him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.