Comics On The Rise: Raanan Hershberg Doubles Down With New Specials ‘Brave,’ ‘It Could Have Been Better’

For Raanan Hershberg, this year marks perhaps the most productive of a 15-year career in stand-up.

Just a couple of weeks after the release of Brave, his third comedy special self-produced and released via YouTube, he’s taking to the internet today with It Could Have Been Better, his fourth special and his first to be produced by an outside company.

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Directed by Jason Katz and James Webb, Brave sees Hershberg riff on the notion of a “brave comedian,” a label that’s been applied to him by some online trolls given his tendency to aim jokes at those on both side of the political spectrum. If there’s a theme to the special, he says, it’s “the way dogma can keep you from having a more objective sense of reality, and the ways extreme thinking can kind of lock your brain down, and how it’s so important to break free from any ideology.”

The best jokes, Hershberg finds — those that perhaps “have more importance right now than ever,” in his mind — are those that “make fun of all ideologies and allow people to come together.”

While his Comedy Dynamics special It Could Have Been Better reflects on Hershberg’s Jewish upbringing in Kentucky and his overbearing mother, it’s less thematically driven and more of “a collection of jokes,” a “best of” from his recent catalogue that will hopefully win him new fans — “which is important,” he says, “because I feel like a lot of people still don’t know me.”

Though in the past, Hershberg has joked that at age 40, a lot of people think he’s younger because he’s had “so few accomplishments,” he’s in truth one of the sharpest up-and-coming comics emerging from an exceptionally vibrant current New York scene. Coming to contemplate a career in comedy in college, after flirting with the idea of life as a playwright, his foremost inspiration at the time, “for better or worse,” was comedian Doug Stanhope.

From Stanhope, Hershberg learned that comedians could make a name for themselves on “interesting takes” alone. The only problem with looking at Stanhope as a role model was the lifestyle that came with him. Says Hershberg, “He’s one of the best, but he’s a very bad influence because he can be drunk all the time and be great at it.” Subsequently, he spent seven years “trying to exorcise the Doug Stanhope demon” out of him, “because when I was drunk all the time, it wasn’t good.”

Before building his career out on the road, Hershberg began trying his hand at comedy in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, focusing at first only on learning “how to make rednecks laugh.” At this stage, he says, his material didn’t have to be unique. All that was important was cracking the code on “how to make people laugh, no matter [what].”

It was after moving to New York that Hershberg began to be more discriminating about his material, making his jokes “tighter” and coming to prioritize jokes of personal meaning to him. “And now with comedy, I think for the most part, I try to do jokes that I really care about,” he says. “Because that’s ultimately what matters. When you’re saying a joke, do you care about this?”

In addition to Stanhope, Hershberg was highly influenced by Kathleen Madigan — the first comic to take him on the road — as well as Louis C.K. and British comedian Stewart Lee. From Madigan, he learned to find universality within the personal; from C.K., how to bring the “chaotic emotions” behind the jokes to each performance, rather than letting any bit become rote. Of all the comics he steals from, Hershberg says, he perhaps steals most openly from Lee, whose “deconstruction of comedy…creates almost a bigger level of intimacy with the audience because…he almost lets them get in on the secret.”

First beginning to make a name for himself with the YouTube specials Downhill Ever Since and Jokes from the Underground — the latter of which was named as part of the New York Times’ ‘Best of Comedy 2022’ — Hershberg has also built a cult following with Joe and Raanan Talks Movies, a podcast dissecting films through the prism of a comedian’s mind, which he co-hosts with fellow comic Joe List.

For Hershberg, there’s great appeal to the route of going straight to his audience through YouTube, given the ability to “micromanage” every aspect of his content and the immediate feedback he receives — though he’s more than aware that when it comes in, it won’t all be positive. It’s a “weird world” right now, he says, for a self-starting performer looking to build a career on the world wide web, given algorithms’ tendency to thrive on “hate and division.”

Over the years, Hershberg has found himself subjected to no small amount of antisemitism, though he has to admit that fat jokes hurt worse. “Because antisemitism is just so blatantly wrong, and I’m also not like, ‘Oh no, I lost my antisemitic fan,'” he jokes. “I struggle with my weight; I don’t struggle with my Judaism. So it can be a little more upsetting.”

What’s helped him learn to manage negative comments is threefold. Observing that “a true troll will sh*t on something even if it’s good,” he’s also come to recognize that “if you’re writing a mean comment, you must be so depressed in your life.” With that perspective in mind, Hershberg is also aware of the double-edged sword of negative comments — it’s perhaps only when they start coming in that you can really say you’ve made an impact. Says Hershberg, “You almost have to feel bad to feel good, or also if you feel too good, you feel bad because it means not enough people have watched it yet.”

For the moment, though, Hershberg is focused on the positive, enjoying the opportunity to “feel seen for a couple minutes” with the release of his latest specials before “going back into the ether” and getting back to work. He’s also enjoying a separate career milestone — the fact that while he “used to ride the Greyhound bus all the time to gigs,” he never rides the bus anymore.

Currently prepping a new hour that deals with “Israel and Palestine…being Jewish right now, and a lot of relationship material,” Hershberg’s next milestone is coming up in August, when he fulfills his longtime dream of being a filmmaker, commencing production on Memory Room. Co-written and directed with Dan McCabe, the crowdfunded, 20-minute short is about a caretaker for a man with dementia who comes to suspect the patient is a murderer.

While working to build that career, Hershberg’s focus as a comedian is constant forward motion — not to have a special acquired by Netflix, necessarily, but to continue figuring out how to “reveal” himself on stage more and more.

Says Hershberg, “I think if you keep on working out new material and keep on getting tapped out and having to write more and more material, you’re eventually forced to dig deeper into who you are, and I think that’s, to me, the goal. You can always dig deeper into yourself and have jokes that express more of who you are deep down.”

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