"I don't have stage fright, I have life fright," says comedian Ben Hoffman over coffee in Los Angeles; except he is not drinking coffee today because, he says, "My idiot parents got me an espresso machine for my birthday, and now I have to quit caffeine. It gives me really bad anxiety." A neurotic with Southern charm, Hoffman channels his nervous energy into his hilarious new series, The Ben Show With Ben Hoffman, which recently debuted on Comedy Central (watch an exclusive clip below). The half-hour show combines staged vignettes – a rapper reading death notices in a segment called "YoBitchuaries" – with person-on-the-street humor, where the comedian's awkward interactions with strangers make for some of the best bits.
"The goal is always to make fun of me, not other people," he says. "During my late-night freakouts, I wake up and I'm like, 'I should have made fun of myself more!'"
Hoffman, 37, whose brother Scott plays guitar in Scissor Sisters, grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and has been having "late-night freakouts" for as long as he can remember. He first fell in love with comedy as a kid lying awake with insomnia, watching David Letterman. After college, he moved to Chicago and took classes at the Second City before relocating to L.A. eight years ago. Appearances at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre led him to a gig co-hosting the Current TV comedy series InfoMania. "They had no money," Hoffman recalls, "so it was like, 'Go be funny at a technology convention,' and you have to create comedy out of nowhere."
More recently, he wrote for Norm Macdonald's Sports Show on Comedy Central. "He sort of reminds me of Bob Newhart," says Macdonald, "because Bob Newhart, you thought he was a regular guy, but he was subversive. The show mirrors Ben's personality, and I like that the agenda is just comedy."
Hoffman's newfound success hasn't dampened his worries about the "same old stuff": "Why haven't I heard of this brand of bottled water before? Did I wash my hands too much last night? They're kind of dry." He laughs. "At first I thought, 'OK, I have my own TV show, I'm in charge, I can do anything.' That flew out the window in five minutes, because I am incapable of having fun. Did I just spit on you? In fuckin' front of Rolling Stone, like an idiot. I can see the headline now: 'Spitting Man Gets Own TV Show.'"
This story is from the March 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone