Friday, May 6, 2016

Backstage with Marc Rubben

I met Marc Rubbén on the Carnival Conquest, around 2009 or so on a western Caribbean cruise. At the time, he was doing regular shows as a fly-on entertainer with Carnival Cruise Line. I was fortunate enough to be one of his “victims” during one of his shows. I say fortunate because getting to directly interact with the entertainer was fun. Marc was never cruel or mean during the show, but he did manage to make me laugh, even when the joke was at my expense. Of course, sitting in the front row, wearing a bright t-shirt, may have contributed to me being picked as one of his “victims” (or maybe he just didn’t like my Texas Longhorns shirt).

He may not remember this, but I became an “inadvertent heckler” during his show. Generally, he’ll bring out one of his ventriloquist figures (sometimes called “puppet” and sometimes called “dummy”) and interact with a few audience members. Marc will ask your name, what you do, and that sort of thing. Depending on what you say, he may or may not use that later. He’ll then bring out another figure and interact with the same people.

So, there I was, getting “picked on” by one of his figures. Later in the show, Marc brought out his “Swami” figure, and once again asked my name. Thinking this was part of the Swami’s routine, I said something like “You tell me, you’re the mystic.” A collective oooooohhhhh from the crowd was my first clue that my answer probably wasn’t what the Swami was looking for. Marc briefly got this “OK, he’s gonna be one of those kind of people looks” and in Swami’s classic accent said “Don’t blame me if he can’t remember your name. And please don’t mess with the comedian.” This naturally got a laugh from everyone. Realizing what I had done, I quickly reminded Swami of my name and the show went on. OOPS!

After the show I explained to Marc why I said what I did, and he graciously shrugged it off for what it was. We talked briefly and went our own way. After the cruise, I sent him a friend request on Facebook and we’ve kept in contact ever since. He lives in a different state, so it makes it hard to just hang out and visit, although I’d sure like to one day.

Once I decided to start doing these interviews for my blog, I contacted Marc and he was happy to accommodate. We did this interview through e-mail, and his replies are presented here just as I received them. I tagged him as “MR” for our conversation that follows.

His current cast of figures, by the way, are: “The Rasta-Mon,” “Nash the Hippie,” “Cletus the Redneck,” “The Swami,” “Max,” “The Magic Drawing Board,” and “The Mask.” I haven’t seen “The Mask” or “The Magic Drawing Board” in live action, but have seen them on his YouTube channel.

Marc and his entourage

PN: Please describe your current gig as a corporate entertainer.

MR: I provide an interactive comedy ventriloquist show for corporate events and fundraisers with a few comedy clubs and theatre event dates mixed in.

PN: I know for a while you spent most of your time working on Carnival’s ships as a fly-on entertainer before transitioning to land based shows. What prompted your move away from Carnival Cruise Line?

MR: I really enjoyed my eleven years with Carnival Cruise Lines.  Unfortunately, their policies are typical of many big corporations today.   Most of the changes that occurred had the sole purpose of increasing the bottom line profit of the company in the fastest way possible which usually involved cutting benefits and salaries, reducing staff which had the effect of increasing the work load on remaining staff.  Most of these changes did not directly affect my job as a fly-on entertainer, but the whole experience was gradually changing as less variety of musical entertainment was offered and employees were less content and more stressed from work.  When illnesses and injuries occurred to most staff members, they were simply sent back to their country and a new employee would take their place.  Then the Carnival executives started applying this same logic to the Fly-on entertainers.  Having us perform eleven shows in a weeks time instead of five for no additional compensation, and then for a couple of years even having us perform teaser sets in the middle of the dining room during brunch.  The treatment had become much less respectful and only a few of us had the balls to speak up about it or walk away.  The final straw for me was when they started a new policy that no fly-on entertainers would get a regular ship and we would all have to go to different ships every week.  For me this would mean traveling with three large checked bags and risking damage to $30,000 worth of props as well as not having the little perks of a regular ship like a regular cabin with a locking closet to keep clothing and personal effects in.  I would always upgrade my cabin with a refrigerator, a larger flat screen television, and a memory foam mattress topper for the bed.  I also was able to indulge in my passion for table tennis on a regular basis because I got to know the good players from all departments.   Leaving Carnival when I did was an excellent move for me and I have no regrets.

PN: Wow! I had no idea it was getting to that point. Personally, I think it is Carnival’s loss that you no longer accept gigs there. Speaking with many of my fellow cruisers, I know we miss seeing you on the ships.
Please tell me about your pre comedy life. Where did you grow up?
MR: I was born and raised in Shreveport, LA   I was a shy kid and my first comedy performance was for family members at around age nine.  I was just a kid who was learning ventriloquism, but I remember that people told me that I was good at not moving my lips.  I gave it up for several years during my adolescence, but when I was a senior in high school I took a drama class and loved it!  At that time the ventriloquist Jay Johnson was on the TV show "Soap" and Willie Tyler and Lester were on Saturday morning TV shows, so I started doing ventriloquism again as a possible way to get into show business.  I took theatre classes while in college and developed an act by studying humor and performing sketch comedy every couple of weeks with a group of students who started a comedy night in a room above a local restaurant.  I got my first paid gig at age 21 in the Denver CO area.  I had moved to Grand Lake CO for the summer and was bar tending at a local club.  When it was slow I would sometimes pull out a puppet and entertain the people at the bar.  A Kenny Rogers impersonator from Denver had been hired to entertain one weekend and before his show he saw me messing with some people at the bar with my puppet and asked if I would be willing to perform on stage before he started his act.  I said SURE!  He liked what I did and offered me a room and 50 bucks a night to open for him in Denver.  I jumped at the chance to make money doing comedy.  My parents were supportive of my interests in entertainment , but urged me to get my college degree as a back-up plan.  I completed my degree at Louisiana State University In 1984, worked offshore on an oil production platform in the gulf for 8 months in order to pay off all my debts and have a small nest egg.  In 1985 I moved to Nashville to develop my act at "Zanies" a comedy club that had an open mic night. 

I developed both straight stand up comedy and ventriloquism and got on stage every opportunity I could for free while doing all kinds of odd jobs including bar tending and telephone solicitations in order to develop my act.  I became one of the house opening acts at Zanies and then took my act on the road in 1986 and have been full time ever since.  I worked my way up the ranks and was able to support my wife and two children with my comedy career.  There was plenty of financial struggling, but I was always optimistic about the future.  In the late 90s I began headlining some of the top comedy clubs in the country and frequented the clubs in Vegas and Atlantic City such as The Comedy Stop at the Tropicana and The Catch a Rising Star at Excalibur.

PN: You worked offshore? What did you do? Before my current job, I worked offshore as a rig medic, doing two week hitches.

MR: I was just a galley hand.  It was the only job that did not require off time between rigs, so I could stay out there for several weeks at a time.  We worked 12 hour days, 7 days a week.  I just wanted to make enough money to pay off my debt and move to Nashville to follow my dream.  I was 24 years old and my body could handle a lot more then!

PN: Well, I disagree with the phrase “just a galley hand.” At least in my experience, our galley hands were critical to our comfort. They fed us well and took great care of us.

You mentioned getting your degree from LSU. What degree did you receive?

MR: I chose a General Studies degree with a concentration in Humanities.  It was during a time when tuition was cheap enough for me to pay my own way and the General Studies curriculum offered the most electives.  I had accumulated hours in a wide range of subjects while trying to figure out what I wanted to do.

PN: I was originally an electrical engineering major, until I decided that wasn’t for me. I guess you could say I just didn’t have the spark for it. (you can stop groaning and rolling your eyes here) I’m sure having a more diversified education ultimately helped you along your ultimate path, though.

While this is probably like asking a parent to name a favorite child, do you have a favorite amongst your puppets?

MR: Not really, but I really enjoy bringing “The Swami”, “Nash the Hippie”, and “Cletus The Redneck” to life.  I suppose I personally relate to the free thinking and earthy Nash character the most.

Nash the Hippie

PN: Nash and Max are my two favorites! I can definitely see how you relate to Nash.
Who were some of your inspirations?
MR: Early on  Jimmy Nelson and Edgar Bergan, then Jay Johnson and many great stand-up comedians, and most recently the extreme financial success and popularity of Jeff Dunham and Terry Fator have been motivating factors.  I am always happy for the success of other ventriloquists because it increases the popularity of the art form in general which is great for business.  I understand that success is an internal job though and being perfectly content with my life exactly as it is makes me one of the most successful people I know.

PN: What was it like first starting out? Did you have any particular fears or expectations? Any surprises?

MR: It was exciting!  The uncertainty and limitless possibilities of the future combined with the adrenaline rush of being on stage trying out new material with a new audience made for a life that was anything but dull.  My biggest fear starting out was bombing on stage.  It’s expected for a few new jokes not to work, but most comedians biggest fear when starting out is that of something going so wrong that nothing works and your routine is met with dead silence.

Marc in the early days

I was able to meet my biggest expectations of being able to make a good living at my art and provide for my family, but it took a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and creative marketing to do so.  I usually had some kind of merchandise to sell after my shows and tried many creative ways of enhancing my income on the side including marketing long distance prepaid calling cards, and raising exotic live stock like emus.  Enter the biggest surprise of my life:  I love living in the country surrounded by nature.  In the mid 90s when my kids were just one and three years old I decided to sell my house in the suburbs of Atlanta and travel with my wife, two children, and two dogs in a 30 foot R.V. while doing shows on the road and looking for a small hobby farm in a beautiful setting in the country.  I was open to living anywhere, but settled on a 13.5 acre farm in rural Arkansas that was surrounded by National forest land.  I had never lived in the country and found that it was very agreeable to me and helped me to rejuvenate and restore my connection with nature after being in various cities performing my show.  We acquired five horses and had miles of logging trails to ride on as well as the quiet serenity of the remote setting of our home.

PN: It sounds like you’ve found your slice of paradise. Good for you! I’d love to take a road trip up there one day with my wife and check the place out.

So, what’s a typical day for you when you aren’t performing? Do you reserve your mornings for writing or rehearsing or something more mundane like everyday chores?

MR: I usually start out checking for gig leads and following up on them.  Then I like to get outside and either help my wife in our vegetable garden or hop on the tractor, cut wood, or any other of a number of activities associated with caring for the 22 acres we now live on.  Creative projects having to do with the show or writing are usually saved for bad weather days.

PN: My wife and I want to put in, at minimum, an herb garden in our back yard. I wish we had more space for a large garden. There’s nothing like freshly picked cilantro or basil to really elevate a dish.

What about days when you have a show? Does your routine change significantly?

MR: I usually try to arrive in town the night before a performance if possible.  I drive to most of my gigs now because in addition to all of my puppets and props for the show I like to bring my own sound, lighting, and backdrop curtain for the stage.  It usually takes 2-3 hours to set up and do sound checks and I like to do this in the early afternoon and then return to my room to relax, and get dressed for the show.  I go over my notes for the event and rehearse any specific references I might have for the particular group and then while I am getting dressed I like to just listen to some good music and do whatever I need to do to get my head in the right place for the show.

PN: Care to share your playlist? For some reason, I see lots of jazz on it.

MR: Ha ha.  If I put on some dinner music for the guests I usually pick David Sanborn’s Pandora station, but I was referring to the music cues for each character’s intro.  The RastaMon comes on to Bob Marley’s Jammin’,  Nash the Hippie comes out to Cream’s Sunshine of your Love, Max gets New York, New York, and Cletus gets Dualing Banjo’s.

PN: Ah, of course, intro music for your characters. I didn’t even think about that. I won’t reveal any spoilers here, but now that you mention it, I remember how Max reacted to his intro. I did guess right on at least part of it, though. You just seem like a jazz kind of person.

Now that you are a seasoned veteran, has anything changed? Different expectations or perceptions?

MR: The biggest change is my confidence level going into strange environments for different groups.  I can remember getting very nervous when performing for corporate events because they were outside of my comfort zone of having audiences that came to the show specifically to see me perform or just to be entertained.  Thirty years of experience is what makes the difference in my ability to adapt to almost any situation and to do what needs to be done in order to avoid bad situations.

PN: If you happen to book multiple shows at a time, how do you maintain your energy level? When I saw you on the Conquest, I couldn’t believe how energetic you were, even at the late show.

MR: When I do multiple shows it is almost always in a club setting which already makes it a more enjoyable experience to begin with.  I feed on the energy of the audience and if they are very laid back or flat, I can usually wake them up by interacting with them.  The most important thing an entertainer can do when the audience is flat is to have a good time with the show regardless.  The audience can still have a great time even if they are not the type of audience that are loud laughers.  Unlike many other comedians I like to watch the acts on stage before me to get a better idea of what kind of audience I will be dealing with and possibly to use the information I learn about the comedian or the audience in my own routine.  Even when an entertainer is not being spontaneous, it is always important to create the illusion of spontaneity for the audience and tune in to what they are feeling in the moment.

PN: I’m sure that can be a challenge in its own way. How do you manage to stay creative and fresh after all these years performing?

MR: The toughest challenge to stay creative for me is avoiding burnout from doing too many of the same kind of shows or venues and being open to following up on new ideas or characters when you know that what you already have works great.

PN: That makes sense to me. What advice would you give to newcomers in your field?

MR: Get on stage as often as possible.  Nothing can replace the experience you gain and lessons you learn during a live performance.  Offer your services for free in order to gain experience and keep writing and refining your act.

PN: Experience always seems to trump “book knowledge.” Knowing what you do now, what would you change about your profession (industry) if you could?

MR: I would change the public’s perception of success.  So many people seem to think that unless you are famous, you are not a success when in reality fame and fortune have little to do with success or happiness as is evidenced by the tragic suicide of entertainers like Robin Williams and Richard Jeni or the self destructive behaviors of John Belushi and Sam Kenison.

PN: That’s very profound, Marc. I know I’m guilty of thinking that way. “Oh, so and so was on SNL. They’ve made it to the big leagues now.”

What is your proudest accomplishment thus far, then?

MR: Raising my two children is hands down my proudest accomplishment, but it was definitely cool to see my name in big lights when Headlining on The Las Vegas Strip.

Marc and family

PN: Based on some of your social media posts, I know you have several interests outside of your profession. I’m glad to see that, as too many people let their profession define them, when ultimately it’s just a job (for the most part). That’s one of the reasons I do these conversations on my blog. I’m more interested in the person than the profession.

Can you tell me what hobbies and activities you enjoy? I really appreciate your passion with dog rescue. Your Facebook posts about all the foster dogs really touches my heart.

MR: I have not had much time lately to indulge in some of my favorite hobbies like table tennis, snowboarding, wakeboarding, and horseback riding.  My wife and I are also trying to cut back on fostering dogs for our local humane society, but sometimes it seems unavoidable when starving dogs show up at the house.  I have always been an animal lover and that is one of the reasons that I no longer eat meat.  The other reason is that I believe that the human body does best on a plant-based diet.    Having lost my dad to cancer at age 63 and knowing that he had open-heart surgery at age 55 (my age) I have stayed away from red meat, and deep fried food since college.  Then a few years ago I watched an excellent documentary film called “Forks Over Knives” and stopped eating poultry as well.  My wife and I like to grow as much of our own food as possible and we both enjoy optimal health as a result.

Hero of the dogs

PN: Lately I’ve seen you very supportive of a particular presidential candidate. Would you care to elaborate, or is this too touchy of a subject?

MR: Politics would only be too touchy of a subject if this interview were meant to be funny.   In most situations on stage it is best to stay neutral and avoid offending audience members with opposing views, but I am very open about my views when asked while not on stage.   I have never much been into to politics until recent years with presidential candidates who promise change.  Obama was a disappointment to me because he has not done enough to end governmental corruption and protect the rights of citizens.  Former Monsanto lawyers should not be considered for appointment to the Supreme Court and former food and drug company executives should not be appointed to the F.D.A.   With the wolves guarding the sheep It is no wonder that we have so many products available in this country that contain chemicals or additives that have been banned in other countries.  Our governmental and economic systems have become very corrupt.  I see the basis of the problem everywhere I go.  Huge corporations, many that sell food and drugs with CEO’s and board of directors who’s sole objective is to create more profit for shareholders.  Corporations are like people except that they have no conscience.  They use political influence to pass laws that allow them to make more profit usually at the cost of the environment or the quality of what they produce.   We get outrageous drug and health care prices, food that is dangerous and lacking in nutrients, and banks that get away with breaking the law in their business practices.  I am hopeful that Bernie Sanders will be our next president as he is the only candidate who is passionate about these issues.

PN: While I appreciate your opinion and applaud your convictions I must say that we won’t see eye to eye on this subject. That’s OK, too, as the right to speak one’s opinion is one of this country’s greatest aspects. People can openly discuss their differences and still be friends. I have to say I enjoy watching you and Mutzie engage in friendly “sparring” when it comes to politics and diet.

If you weren’t a comedian/entertainer, what would be your preferred vocation?

MR:  Possibly something working with animals in a positive way.  Possibly a councilor  or producing self help programs.  I’d love to help more people realize that Happiness is an internal job and not the result of getting the perfect job or being rich and famous.

Marc finds his inner happiness

PN: With that in mind, suppose you won a multi-million dollar lottery. Would you still continue to perform or would you retire?

MR: Sure, but I would probably be more selective about the venues I choose to perform at.  My wife Connie and I would definitely proceed with our plans to convert our property into a retreat center that hosts the kind of retreats and workshops that we would like to attend.

PN: Such as?

MR: Yoga retreats, Tiny House building seminars, organic gardening seminars, spiritual retreats.  The sky is the limit!  We would be able to offer our beautiful serene space, hiking trails, camp fire spots, pond fishing, organic gardens, and various entertainment including performances of my show and some very good local musicians.

PN: Most cool! Where do I sign up? I’d hate to have to wait until you won the lottery, though.

Marc, thank you for your precious time. I really appreciate you sharing your personal thoughts and comments with me. Any last thoughts?

MR: Thank you for the opportunity Patrick.  People often read me the wrong way or consider me to be preachy or fanatical about diet.  I do have concern for my friends who don’t yet understand the link between processed food and health problems.  I am so tired of seeing my friends die needlessly or suffer through long avoidable health problems that are a direct result of a poor diet, but I do respect the right of each individual to choose their diet regardless of the consequences.  Hopefully I can be a good example of how much suffering and expense can be avoided by a holistic approach to health and diet.

Highest blessings to you and your family and best wishes for health and happiness in the future.

That wraps up my conversation with Marc Rubbén. This is only the second conversation in a series I’m planning to do, and yet I’m glad I started it. I know my life has been enriched simply by reaching out to these fine people and getting to know them better…..knowing the person and not the profession.

If any of y’all get a chance to see Marc in one of his shows, or if you are in a position to hire him for a corporate presentation, I urge you to do so. You won’t be sorry. He definitely has my vote of confidence!

Want to get in touch with Marc? Here are a few ways to do just that:

Public contact info:

My next blog will be about a week later than normal. Cindy and I will be on the Carnival Breeze and I’ll regale y’all with tales of high seas adventures (and maybe a little debauchery) when we get back. Who knows, maybe I’ll even meet another entertainer who will be willing to have a conversation like this with me in a future blog. Hopefully I’ll have some really cool diving photos and stories to share as well.

Until next time……

carpe cerevisi

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