Although Ben Cumings ’15 believes he peaked a decade ago, his late-night talk show (as well as his forthcoming involvement with theater and improvisation) would suggest otherwise.
“The funniest I’ve ever been or ever will be was in middle school at the cafeteria table when I was making my buddies laugh and making the dumbest jokes and people were just dying around me,” said Cumings. “And that’s the best feeling in the world.”
It was that feeling that prompted Cumings to join the Improvabilites, Bowdoin’s improvisation group, and then to create “Don’t Sleep with Ben Cumings,” a live late-night talk show that will debut later this semester at Jack Magee’s Pub.
“In August I was thinking about doing a podcast-type radio show,” said Cumings. “I then said, forget a radio show, let’s do this as a whole late night talk show…When I found out that there is this theater studio class being offered, I thought it would be the perfect place to get it underway.”
The class, which meets twice a week, allows students working on independent studies to share their work. Cumings says it served as a sounding board for his ideas.
“I’ve read a lot of books on [late night talk shows] and I’ve watched pretty religiously people like Craig Ferguson and Conan O’Brien,” he said. “I’ve been writing jokes and writing segments and working on interviewing people.”
However, the class is not Cumings’ only venue for editing and improving his show.
“I’m lucky to work with the funniest people on campus twice a week, an hour and a half each time at improv,” he said. “I have great feedback from people like Peter Tracy [’14], Simon Brooks [’14] and Jared Littlejohn [’15] who are hilarious and helping me to be funnier—because I need it.”
“I’ve found that my improv skills have been a crutch. Any time that one of my jokes doesn’t land, just doing goofy improv stuff can help me save a laugh, or make something just a little less awkward,” Cumings added. “If I’m doing a 45 minute show, about 17-20 minutes of it are actual content…that I have to script and write, like my jokes and the comedy segment. The interviews are all basically improvised.”
Through the Improvabilites, Cumings has learned more than just comedic skills.
“Really working hard on [improv] is really so rewarding… changing how you approach scenes, getting better every time, getting discouraged and encouraged in equal amounts—it’s a really challenging thing,” he said.
“Trying to recapture that feeling of just trying to make your buddies laugh and having a communal experience of laughter is the best thing about it,” said Cumings. “Every one in the group agrees; we would all be up there doing it and enjoying ourselves if there were two people or 300 [in the audience].”
Between improv and his independent study, Cumings is working hard to improve and develop his comedic voice.
“At present it’s a little grumpy and wacky, whereas I’d like it to be nicer and wacky,” he said. “I think my main comedic influences are Bugs Bunny, caffeine and Dennis Kucinich.”
“The thing I would work on most is being more confident in my voice, and not hiding behind any of the physicality or voices or crude humor that I sometimes find myself using as a crutch,” he said.