Comedian Robby Hoffman in action. (photo from Bell Media)
Onstage, her energy is barely contained. She delivers lines in a clipped, almost angry fashion, sporting a tight bun and dark clothes. From contemplating pizza’s puzzling popularity, to sharing how one customs officer saw the fire in her that she never knew she had, to musing about what it’s like to be the seventh of 10 children, the fashion choices of antisemites, her sexual prowess and the cost of duotangs, Robby Hoffman is very funny. It is no wonder that Robby Hoffman: I’m Nervous is among the new stand-up comedy specials Bell Media released last month on Crave.
Produced with Just for Laughs and Counterfeit Pictures, Robby Hoffman: I’m Nervous was filmed last September at Toronto’s Longboat Hall during the JFL42 comedy festival.
“It’s huge deal. It was always a dream of mine to have a special, to have a TV special specifically, and to do an hour,” L.A.-based Hoffman told the Independent in a phone interview from London, England, where she was doing gigs, and visiting her girlfriend, writer and director Ally Pankiw, who was there for work. In contrast to her stage persona, Hoffman was relaxed and chatty on the phone.
A lot of comedians self-produce amazing albums or routines in smaller increments of time, said Hoffman, but, “for me, in stand-up, it always felt like the pinnacle to have an hour…. It was a really great way to cap off all the work I’ve been doing since I started, and, to have an hour that was sharp, it felt like everything. And to do it with Just for Laughs, name of all names, it was everything and it was incredibly fun.”
Hoffman’s numerous writing credits include The Chris Gethard Show on TruTV, which just wrapped up last year, episodes of PBS’s Odd Squad (which has won an Emmy for writing), and CBC’s Workin’ Moms and Baroness von Sketch Show. Most recently, she wrote for eight episodes of the series Mind Fudge. The Crave special allowed her to jump back into stand-up full-time.
“To be doing stand-up night after night until this hour was great. And I had never recorded the hour all at once,” she said. “I was doing it in small increments of 10-minute spots, 15-minute spots, seven-minute spots, so when I recorded the hour, it was the first time I had done that hour. I had to nail it, working through all the themes … making sure it all cohesively worked, even though I only really worked on it in portions. So, agonizing over the different portions coming together and working on the transitions from different themes so that they flowed.”
And they do flow, somehow, despite the vast diversity of topics. She said that (apparent) randomness is a signature of hers. She uses it both to take audiences off guard, but also as part of the joke. As well, she uses it to prepare people for what’s coming. For example, she drops hints along the way to warn the audience well in advance that she will be talking about the Holocaust, so that, when she gets there, they will have been with her for some time. Then, she said, when “we’re really in the thick of it together … I’ll reward you with hand-job material or whatever.”
While Hoffman said she doesn’t have any red lines when it comes to comedy, she said, “I talk through my own experiences only. I’m never going to step into a territory that I don’t feel is mine to speak about. But, beyond that…. If it’s something within my realm of what I could talk about and you tell me not to talk about it, that’s what I want to talk about more. For instance, the Holocaust is taboo, and some people are really offended by [jokes about] it. I feel, as a Jew, I’m reclaiming it and, if you’re telling me not to talk about it, I’m going to.”
She said, “I think that Jewish people can talk about Jewish experience. I think black folk can talk about black experience. I don’t think there’s anything off limits within the Jewish community for me. I do think everything is off limits to me with regards to communities I’m not a part of or I don’t have a firsthand experience. My comedy is very firsthand – I’m not doing observational humour that are these one-liners that can relate to anyone. My comedy is unique, such that I’m the only person who could say my comedy…. You hear of big comedians having writers – I don’t feel like that would work for me simply because my comedy is so personal. I’m the only person who can write my own comedy.”
And Hoffman’s background is unique, indeed. Born in Brooklyn, she grew up in Montreal, where her mother raised her and her nine siblings as a single parent, having divorced Hoffman’s father and having left the Chassidic community. Hoffman came out as lesbian in her late teens, left home at 18 and kept kosher until about the same time. She started her working career as an accountant.
“I wanted to have a Plan B,” she explained, “and I knew that the arts was always something free, that if I wanted to do it, I could do it on my own, and I could find a way that wasn’t with the structure of school to do it. But a financial backup plan was not something as easily attained for me, so I went into accounting. I thought, well, I can always get a good job.”
With a laptop from her employer and a regular paycheque every two weeks, Hoffman said, “I felt like a billionaire. I can’t even explain what it was like…. It was just the best to be able to sleep at night. Being worried about money is not something a lot of my peers thought about. I felt very alone in that sort of stuff.”
Once she “felt safe and comfortable,” that’s when her “creative juices went wild,” she said, and that’s when she discovered stand-up.
“I didn’t grow up with it, I wasn’t somebody who had the albums and all this stuff, but, once I knew about it, I immediately thought, ‘Oh, I feel like I could do that.’ I don’t mean to say, ‘Oh, it looks easy.’ A lot of people think they could do it – I felt like it was me. I felt, ‘Oh, my God.’ It felt like me already. And I got started immediately.”
Thinking that all stand-ups wrote, she started writing. Noting that it was only later that she realized how little comedians also write, she said, “I wrote a pilot and, even though it never got made, it did get me rep and it got me writing on other shows and it started my writing career. But it’s amazing how many times I’ve been the only active stand-up and writer in a writers’ room, which I didn’t know.”
Hoffman is driven by her love of the work.
“What’s so incredible about doing what I do and making a living doing what I do is … I never imagined it possible. I didn’t know these careers as careers. I didn’t know writing was even a thing, let alone what you got paid for a script, nothing like that. But waking up and not dreading where I go to work every day is still something I don’t take for granted.”
She started as a writer’s assistant. “I was first one in, would get there early, have my coffee, enjoy. I was last one out. I was never more motivated – and it’s still to this day. I would have to be literally on death’s door not to go into work because I love it so much.
“I’m also really lucky in that the shows that I do work on, I choose to work on them for a certain reason. There’s something about them that either gives me growth or it gives me a challenge or I really just love it. And it’s a pleasure to work creatively all day, every day, and to be valued for it.”
As for what lies ahead, Hoffman said, “I have so many goals. Think of the biggest goal you can imagine, and that’s what I have for myself. Yes, my own show. Yes, who knows, my own studio. I don’t even know where it could go. I just want to try for the biggest, best thing. I want my life to be as much as I want it to be. There’s no limit on wanting that for yourself. There shouldn’t be a limit on dreaming. I never want to lose that.
“I almost, for a second, lost my childhood curiosity and dreaming and spirit, for a second, because, when you are poor and you want to be normal, and you want to make ends meet, you do give up a lot, and I was never somebody who was able to dream. We weren’t told to dream, we weren’t taught to dream, we weren’t taught we could be anything we wanted to be, almost nothing. There was not a lot of encouragement, so I gave that all to myself…. I always want to tell myself to reach for the biggest, best, whatever that is, and that changes for everyone. Within my career and within my capabilities, I want to continue growing forever.”