Ben Hoffman resisted his first invitation to appear on Comedy Central.
He was a writer on Sports Show With Norm Macdonald and “about six weeks into it, he said, ‘Why don’t you go on the show?” the Lexington native recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t know,’ because I didn’t want to hear all the e-mails and tweets saying, ‘Norm’s so funny and you suck. Get off my screen.’”
The reaction was obviously much better. Less than two years later, Hoffman has his own Comedy Central series, The Ben Show With Ben Hoffman, which airs at 10 p.m. Thursdays.
The show, which debuted last month, is a sort of quasi-reality show that follows Hoffman through life experiences — redecorating his apartment, forming a band, etc. — highlighting a consistently awkward personality.
“I always wanted to do a sketch show where you could see me in my real life,” Hoffman says.
This week, the show gets very real with an episode called “Ben Goes Home,” which was shot in Lexington during Thanksgiving week. The episode shows Hoffman being interviewed by a reporter from WLEX (Channel 18), visiting Joe Bologna’s restaurant, talking to people including his former French teacher, and chatting with Backstreet Boy and Lexington native Brian Littrell.
“That one made me more nervous than any other episode,” Hoffman, 38, says. “The show’s pretty — I don’t want to say it’s offensive, but it’s pretty risque — a lot of bad words, etcetera. A big part of the show is a lot of real people, and I don’t try to mess with them, but treat them as equals, and hopefully comedy comes out of that.
“So I didn’t want to go home and mess with all these people that then my family would have to live with,” he says referring to his parents, Philip and Nancy Hoffman of Lexington. His brother is Scott Hoffman, aka Babydaddy, a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter for the pop band Scissor Sisters. “The point was to come back a conquering hero, but no one knew who the hell I was.”
All of the shows have a number of elements including man-on-the-street encounters in which Hoffman gets people to read introductions to segments; footage of Hoffman at his task of the week, such as buying a gun, often with Hoffman saying highly inappropriate things; and some sketches, including a rapper reading obituary notices. (Just as a fair warning, The Ben Show is about as raunchy as you can get on basic cable, so be aware of that if you tune in.)
Hoffman’s father, a Nicholasville physician, makes regular appearances but he has not incorporated his brother into the show except that Scissor Sisters wrote and recorded the theme song and do music for the show.
“It’s funny, because my brother grew up in Lexington and moved off to New York and formed this band,” Hoffman says, “I grew up in Lexington and went to Los Angeles and got this TV show. And all of a sudden, it’s like we’re this showbiz family, like the Barrymores or something. But we have no previous showbiz connections.
“We met Crystal Gayle once, when we were little kids,” he says referring to the country star and Eastern Kentucky native whose sister is Loretta Lynn. “I get nervous mentioning my brother because people say, ‘Oh, that’s how you got the show,’ and I’m like, ‘How does my brother being in a rock band help me get a TV show?’”
Hoffman says the program came about after his work on Macdonald’s show and other Comedy Central programs including the roast of Roseanne Barr, “which was basically sitting around figuring out how many ways you can say Roseanne is fat,” Hoffman says.
“They were fans of mine, and they kind of left a door open that ‘if you ever have an idea for a show, come pitch it,’” Hoffman says of Comedy Central. “So I pitched this kind of ridiculous show, and they said, ‘Let’s shoot a pilot,’ and I shot the craziest pilot, and they said, ‘Alright, let’s make it.’
“So it was basically eight years of struggle for three months of big breaks.”
Growing up in Lexington, Hoffman says, he didn’t even realize a career in comedy was possible.
“I just assumed I would go to college and get a regular job,” Hoffman says. “But I was so uninterested in school, I hated all my classes.
“So, when I got a little older, I moved to Chicago for reasons I’m not sure of, and that’s where I started taking these Second City classes,” he says referring to the famed comedy theater. “I started meeting these comedians who said, ‘You know, you can make a living doing this.’”
His initial goal was to be a comedy writer, which took him to Los Angeles. He started getting writing jobs and also did some acting on commercials and sitcoms, including small shots on Arrested Development and New Girl.
His biggest on-screen gig before The Ben Show was InfoMania, a defunct Daily Show-style news-satire show on Current TV, where he was listed as the resident curmudgeon.
“It was a good experience for me,” Hoffman says. “I was mainly a writer for the show, but it was so low-budget, they needed someone to be on it as well. It was like TV school where I was paid to be on TV.”
He says the Current TV gig brought attention to him, but it was clear he had to move on because of the low viewership. Even his parents wouldn’t buy the cable package that included Current, saying they would just watch his bits online.
“I remember telling the network, ‘We’ve got a major problem when the guys who are on the show’s parents don’t even want to pay for Current TV,’” Hoffman says.
Now, Hoffman is a lot easier to find on the dial.