How punk rock taught stand-up comedian Neil Rubenstein to pay it forward
Neil Rubenstein’s comedy is raw and honest, seen both in his clashes with hecklers during stand-up sets and his DIY podcasts, sometimes recorded in a car in the middle of long drives to and from his current home in Oklahoma City. It’s not hard to detect in his unpolished, from-the-heart persona that he’s a lifelong veteran of the punk scene. From his time in Long Island bands Sons Of Abraham and Irony Of Lightfoot to managing Motion City Soundtrack and hanging around with My Chemical Romance and Thursday, Rubenstein has been in music since his earliest years. (He’s also owned a brothel, ran an illegal poker room and been a TV gambling expert, which, paired with his heavily tattooed body, stands at odds with his soft voice and kind personality.)
With his dates on Motion City Soundtrack’s Commit This To Memory anniversary tour wrapped, Rubenstein talked about getting back on the road with the band, blurring the lines between comedy and punk rock and why he never really left the scene behind.
What led you to music in the first place?
The simple story is that at age 12, I saw Mötley Crüe on the cover of [a magazine]. I was like, “That’s it. I wanna do that.” There have been hiccups and hang-ups, but most of my adult life is just getting tattooed and being on tour. I got no complaints.
What made you take the jump into comedy?
Someone was putting together a TV show for Spike TV called Casino Cinema. They needed a gambling expert, and the guy they had made crazy demands, like, “You got 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 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 vividly, he was like, “You like doing TV?” I was like, “Yeah, I love it.” I remember the quote. He goes, “Shit ends, kid.” I was like, “All right, so how do I lengthen the career?” He was like, “You got to either start writing or doing stand-up.” Yeah, I took life advice from Artie Lange... probably the only person in the world who did that.
[Photo by Ryan Brook]
You seem to really exemplify that idea of doing everything you can to engage people — podcasts, Instagram, touring and the like.
You have to do all those things. There’s a Mitch Hedberg bit about it where it’s like, “Oh, you do comedy? Oh, you cook. Can you farm?” It doesn’t get the respect. People will see a meme or a video or whatever and repost it without regard for the person who created it, who spent time making it. If that happens with music, there’s a whole army that’ll pull it off the internet or make you give credit or pay. That just doesn’t happen with comedy. A guy who does TikTok videos and a guy who has been busting his ass for 20 years doing late-night sets, they’re both in the same field.
Music fans also have a different attitude about supporting artists, I’d say.
That’s the cool thing about music fans. They do convert. I opened for Taking Back Sunday once. After that show, a bunch of people followed me, more so than any time I’ve opened for a big comic. I still sort of consider myself part of the scene. That’s one cool part of the scene. They’re loyal, and they pay attention to what’s going on. People know who I am sometimes because of Taking Back Sunday. That only happens in music.
One thing that I find really interesting about your career is that you do feel like you are part of the scene. You do comedy almost like a band run their career. Is that something you went about intentionally?
I don’t know, man. I grew up taking the train to CBs on weekends. I lived on Long Island, and I worked at Kim’s Underground in the city, a record store. I would lose money to go to work. I would skip school to go to the city to work. That’s just who I am. I’m a punk-rock kid at heart. I’ve talked about this too on some other people’s podcasts. We learned some really good things, and we learned some really toxic things [about the scene]. Punk taught me how to be cool to people.
[Photo by Zachary Burcar]
Comedy does feel like it has a community ethos. The social aspect seems important. So maybe comedians are like musicians in that respect?
They emphasize the hang, 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 that crew and Limbeck. The tours are all the same. It’s all just variations of Rejects taking out Motion, taking out Fall Out Boy, taking out Limbeck. That’s the same in comedy. It’s that pay it forward kind of thing. I want to be on the road with the people I like to be out with, whether it’s Jesse and Tony from Motion City or it’s Liz Miele.
I wanted to ask you about your seven-inch EP. It’s very cool seeing a comedian do a seven. You even did it as a split and with the splatter vinyl. It’s super punk rock. Did you have an idea about blurring the line with music and comedy in doing it?
I just wanted to do a thing that felt authentic to me. All my stickers and stuff, a Man Is The Bastard rip-off, a Conflict rip-off. There wasn’t much thought into it more than it just felt natural to me.
[Photo by Danya Artimisi]
Touring with Motion City Soundtrack also seems like a natural fit. How do you feel about this tour?
I’m very excited. We’ve tried this already. We tried it in January, and COVID shut it down. It was a real bummer. Those are just good dudes I’ve known forever. I just heard that they didn’t have a first of three, and I gave it the full-court press. I was like, “Listen, I’m a better option than having another band open.” I don’t know how I convinced anyone of that. I do think that it makes sense. A lot of bands have done it throughout history, but I think it’s coming back into vogue a little bit. I guess they were feeling nostalgic, and they were like, “Well, it’s more nostalgia than having the guy we spent these years with opening the thing.”