Finding her shtick

Super-funny stand-up comedian Ophira Eisenberg is an avid storyteller. She shares her personal stories with strangers wherever she performs — and loves it! The popular host of NPR’s hit trivia comedy show, “Ask Me Another,” took the city’s comedy scene by storm in 2001, when she arrived here from her native Canada to pursue her calling.

At 43, the newbie Brooklyn parent thinks she has that mysterious work-life balance stuff all figured out, and declares, “There’s probably no such thing!”

When the budding funny gal dropped anchor in New York City she was hell-bent on making a name for herself in the cut-throat world of stand-up comedy. In her gut, she knew that standing out from the crowd meant having your own style, as well as your own shtick. And she had plenty of style. Finding her shtick, well, that would come with time. Ask any comedian, and they’ll tell you the key is to keep working at it and trying out new material in front of different audiences to see what gets the most laughs.

After all, that’s what comics live for — getting laughs.

When she started her “finding myself” journey, Eisenberg didn’t want much out of life. Just to make a living and get lots of gigs, and hopefully find a New York apartment that was bigger than 300 square feet, so she could actually walk around her bed. Oh, and there was one other thing: she dreamed of owning a wine fridge. That was her definition of success.

Later on, life got a bit more complicated, as it always does. When the practicing New Yorker would meet up with her 30-something friends, who seemed like ticking biological time bombs (and rightly concerned about their aging eggs), it got her thinking. All that talk about pregnancy and stuff, combined with their collective yen for “gnawing on pudgy baby thighs,” made the rising comic wonder why she wasn’t experiencing that odd craving as well.

She would joke: “Every time I held someone’s baby, it screamed and cried like they had slipped it into the arms of an ice sculpture!

“I figured whatever came naturally to everyone else, just didn’t come to me,” she added. “On one hand, I felt bad about not being maternal. But I also liked it. It was okay that I wasn’t put on this earth just to raise children and clean the house. I could focus on building my career. Plus, who would torture a child by raising it in New York City? You’d have to have the last name Rockefeller to get a place with closets, let alone a backyard.”

Feeling stressed out, she just cavalierly shrugged off the whole mommyhood thing. After all, her career was finally taking off. And besides, she and husband Jonathan were having fun sans kids.

But it became increasingly difficult to ignore those “annoying” swirling thoughts of pushing strollers and bedtime stories.

“Then I turned 40. That year, things finally started to gel for my career: I was performing and traveling a ton, and I wrote a book. I had a job at NPR. For one nanosecond, I felt satisfied, but was still entirely ambivalent about having kids. So I ordered a wine fridge,” Eisenberg recalled.

But the stork wouldn’t have any of it!

When the stand-up comedian found out she was pregnant at 43, she immediately brought it to the stage. By the time she was 34 weeks pregnant, she was exploding with new material about what it was like being a “prego,” and her impending motherhood. She says she is still grateful for having so much more to riff on during her sets. When the expectant mom performed her fabulous show “Inside Joke” last year, at a Brooklyn venue with a snake-like Snoogle body pillow wrapped around her protruding, low-slung belly, the audience couldn’t get enough of her self-described “clueless and unprepared” comments and complaints.

“It’s funny how my act progressed. It was always autobiographical, but I have talked and written a lot on dating, relationships, marriage, and now on being a mom,” Eisenberg said. “I joked that I was both high risk and an inspiration, that finding out was somewhere in between a surprise and a mistake, like a ‘wow’ with a ‘holy crap’ in it. Because I was older, I didn’t have to worry about ruining my life, because now I’d be ruining someone else’s life.”

The comic said audiences lapped up these irreverent one-liners, but they also accomplished something larger: “The jokes made me feel safe. They distanced me from my intense fears and allowed me to partially rewrite my own story.”

And that was something she definitely needed, after being to hell and back prior to her pregnancy with her son.

Tragedy and comedy

It was shortly after she got her beloved wine fridge that everything changed.

“The next nanosecond, a sledgehammer smashed through my house of cards,” she wrote in her book “Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy.”

After a routine test, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Talk about a ‘wow’ with a ‘holy crap’ in it  —  just forget the ‘wow.’ To be clear, it was early stage breast cancer, but as you can imagine, there is no such thing as lucky cancer. And thus started a year of hell. I didn’t take to Facebook and ask for thoughts or prayers. I didn’t live-tweet it. I was destroyed by it. I could barely hold myself up as I went through one, and then unexpectedly two, surgeries, hundreds of tests, 30 days of radiation, and endless hours of trying to figure out what I did to deserve this.”

Somehow, Eisenberg got past it and is now okay. But fate had other plans in store for her when she took an at-home pregnancy test and discovered it was positive.

“The word ‘pregnant’ showed up in the little digital window. I called my husband and told him. Then I experienced my first actual pregnant pause,” she wrote.

Soon after, though, she miscarried.

It was when she got pregnant with her son Lucas, who is now 6 months old, that everything came together for this Park Slope mom. She’s so happy to finally have a chubby little guy of her very own. The family now lives in a decent-sized flat in the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Working mom

Eisenberg says she has found mommy bliss in her community.

“My mommy group is on the third floor of my apartment building, as there are four babies born the same year as Lucas, four other kids between 1 and 4, and one pregnant couple,” Eisenberg said. “These are the people that dropped off food, water, and clothing when I came home from the hospital. True neighbors! On some weekdays, all the kids pour into the hallway and we just stand around the chaos and talk. It’s quite wonderful.”

But triple-checking two baby cams and drowning in doo-doo and diapers can be exhausting — even for a celebrity — so, baby in tow, Eisenberg recently fled back to Canada for a family visit and some downtime.

The host of “Ask Me Another” — described as “pub trivia meets a variety show,” the rambunctious program is jam-packed with a mash-up of trivia, word games, music, puzzles, and celebrities — says she’s getting better at prioritizing, but has also realized that it’s best not to sweat the small stuff.

“Hey, guess what? If I don’t reply to that e-mail, because I’m too busy with my son and working, nothing really bad happens!” she says.

She has also realized why raising kids is more challenging today than ever before.

“I’m saying nothing new here when I say that the amount of information you have access to can be really confusing when it comes to figuring out how to raise your baby. On one hand, it’s amazing to have all of this information just one desperate 3 am Google away, but you can also fall down a deep hole of contradictory ideas, and of course, terrible conclusions to simple problems. (You Google, ‘My baby smiles so much,’ [and] you get an article that says it could be a brain tumor.)”

And she’s not worried that she had her child later in life.

“I’m enjoying the new perspective I have on life, and even though I’m one of the older moms, at least I don’t have to worry about feeling like I’m missing out on the party life, because guess what — I’ve done it!”

See Eisenberg in action! Her home spot is Gotham Comedy Club. She performs there several times a month. You can also see her at Union Hall and The Bell House in Brooklyn. Recently, she teamed up with New Yorker cartoonist and author of “Mama Tried” Emily Flake for a comedy show, where all the acts talk about parenting.

“Sh!t Show” at Union Hall [702 Union St. between Fifth and Sixth avenues in Park Slope, (718) 638–4400, unionhallny.com] Sept. 8, 7:30 pm.

Eugene Mirman Comedy Festival at the Bell House [149 Seventh St. between Third and Second avenues in Gowanus, (718) 643–6510, thebellhouseny.com] Sept. 17, 6:30 pm.

The new season of “Ask Me Another” is here! Listen to it on iTunes. For tickets to a live taping, visit www.nprpresents.org/organizer/ask-me-another

Ophira Eisenberg has also released her second comedy album “BANGS!” on Comedy Dynamics, www.comedydynamics.com.

Tammy Scileppi is a Queens-based freelance writer and journalist, parent, and regular contributor to New York Parenting.

Ophira Eisenberg is a stand-up comedian and host of NPR’s hit trivia comedy show “Ask Me Another.”
Photo by Mindy Tucker

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