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Cassie Owens/Billy Penn

Philly comedian with Tourette’s on ‘letting tics happen’ and graduating Drexel [Q&A]

Benny Feldman’s “One Liners with Tourette’s” video has gotten more than 2,500 comments on Reddit and a whole lot of praise.

Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

Benny Feldman uploaded a video Friday of the opening set he did during his college improv group’s farewell show. Feldman delivered the five minutes of stand-up in one of his final acts as a Drexel student. The jokes are solid and clever. Take this one: “I think when two people with hyphenated last names get married, they should use the FOIL method.”

“One Liners with Tourette’s” now has more than 350,000 views and Feldman graduates from Drexel today.

The vast majority of people with Tourette’s syndrome don’t have coprolalia, the symptom that prompts patients to utter profanities, but Feldman does. On a normal day, he doesn’t have constant vocal tics. His eyes might blink; his hand may hop a little, but in relaxed settings, he’s on, what he calls, “vibrate mode.” Still, Tourette’s symptoms are influenced by nerves. When he steps into the limelight to tell jokes, the tics appear a lot more. Rather than abandon his passion, he’s embracing that.

“I do let [them] happen,” Feldman said.  “I don’t hold it back on stage. I’m not faking it. It’s genuinely real.”

Not all people with Tourette’s can control how the disease expresses itself, but some, more often adults, say they can attempt to suppress a tic when it seems like one may occur. Trying to stop a tic is not only difficult, it’s tough to bear. It’s often compared to trying to ignore a terrible itch.

“Oftentimes, it will interrupt the joke, and I just can’t do it anymore. If I’m halfway through the set-up or a punchline, it’ll kill it,” he explained. Feldman uses Tourette’s as a verb to describe whenever he has a tic. “So part of why I let it happen is: if I do a set-up, and I Tourette’s, that kind of releases it, and then it lets me do the punchline without interruption to a certain extent.”

It’s been a process, but his set at the graduation performance shows the timing he’s been carefully working on. He doesn’t let the vocalizations or gestures stop his flow— they become punctuation. He creatively responds to some of them. “Fuck… the police,” he quipped in one joke during the set. His dad isn’t too happy about that one. The crowd loved it, though.

During an interview with Billy Penn, Feldman explained that he made efforts to respond to all the comments he’s receiving on Reddit, which now top more than 2,500. He can’t keep up. Some Reddit users with TS have shared praise, and in some cases, their own stories of how they joke about their condition with friends. Feldman is loving that.

“Honestly I didn’t expect so many comments in the first place. Let alone so many people with Tourette’s,” he said. “One of them had even considered comedy, and I was like, ‘That’s incredible. Fucking do it.’”

The interview below has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

So, you’re from here?

Well, I’m from Blue Bell. Which is a small suburb, very corporate but also rural, outside of Philadelphia.

And you’re graduating on Monday?

Yeah, that’s a thing. [With] a computer science degree. I’m very happy.

At what point did you get into comedy?

Officially, I joined the Drexel Improv Team, my sophomore year. The Drexel Football Team, it’s called, because Drexel doesn’t actually have a football team. And so, improv was really rad and really made me more interested in actually performing on stage in front of people.

Every year at Drexel, there’s a comedy competition for stand-up, and I just tried it one year… I did terribly, but it was still a blast.

From there, I spent a lot of time writing and watching comedy, and I fell in love with stand up. That was about three years ago.

About a year and half to two years ago is when I really started doing it in the city. So, I’ve been hitting up different open mics in the city and different dive bars. I started a stand-up club in Drexel in my basement.

I read that you were diagnosed not too long after you got into comedy.

That’s right. I didn’t get Tourette’s until about two years ago, when I was 21. I’m 23 currently.

I very likely had it when I was younger, in fact, I probably definitely did. It just went undiagnosed because it was much more mild. I would do things like clear my throat all the time, shake my head.

I never went to see a neurologist as a kid. But then when I was 21, I noticed that I was shaking at times when I didn’t mean to, or my arm would twitch. I remember I literally sat in my cubicle holding a pencil and just staring at my hand for, like, a solid five minutes, because every 30 seconds or something, it would shake. I was like, “Shit, I’m not fucking doing that.”

I was actually terrified. I thought I was having seizures or something. But apparently when you have seizures you go unconscious, or something. And it also didn’t hurt.

Once I started making noises was right about the time I went to see a doctor, and he said, “You might have Tourette’s. Go see a neurologist.” By the time I went to see a neurologist, I had already started cursing. At that point, it was really obvious.

When you say, it’s real, but you’re letting it happen, could you hold it back onstage under that pressure?

Yes and no. That’s why I let it happen, because it so hard to hold back for so long. The way I’ve heard it described very well is like blinking. They call it “unvoluntary”— not involuntary— unvoluntary. The reason is it’s something that you can stop; it’s just after a little while, it just really fucking feels like you gotta do it. So, most of the time [when] you blink, you just blink. But if you imagine, you would try to hold your eyes open for a five-minute stand-up set. You’d really feel like you need to, and when you do again, you have to do it so much that it’s really…

So if I were to hold it, there were come a point, maybe a minute or two into the set, when I would just fucking break.

It seems like you’ve developed your own format.

Thank you. I actually got into one-liners before I had Tourette’s. There’s an old video that I have of me just doing one-liners, no Tourette’s at all. The timing is the same, but there’s no Tourette’s.

I think I got kind of lucky that my style was so conducive.

Now that the video is doing well, what are the most common questions that you’ve been getting?

People ask why are there two mics? The handheld mic was for the live audience and the lapel mic was for the audio recording.

Other people are saying, “fucking fake.” That wasn’t a question. But fuck you people. (He laughs.) No, I see where they’re coming from. Because two of the main Tourette’s things were fake. There’s an old YouTube guy, I don’t really watch him, he’s called like Tourette’s Guy— turned out to be a fraud. And there’s that South Park episode where Cartman pretends to have Tourette’s, and he’s just fucking faking it. So, the mainstream image of Tourette’s, first of all, is cursing Tourette’s, and I’ll get into that in a second, but it’s actually not that common. It’s actually only like 10 percent. But I think like the mainstream image of Tourette’s is that it’s fake, or at least the cursing type [is.]

I noticed that a lot of people were saying that they were worried there would be a misrepresentation of Tourette’s overall… A lot of people have Tourette’s but don’t have the type that I do. Everybody’s Tourette’s is different. Some people just make grunts. Some people twitch. Other people sing. Other people repeat other people’s stuff. I actually sing sometimes. That’s my favorite.

I’ve got one where I stop breathing. I have no idea why. It’s like lung Tourette’s. Just every now and again, I’m like why have I not been breathing for the last minute. And then I’m like (gasps). It can’t kill me because by the time I [wonder] I breathe quickly.

Was there a certain point after your diagnosis where a light bulb maybe turned on for how you were going to stay in comedy and incorporate your Tourette’s?

It was definitely like immediately. There was never a doubt in my mind. It was like, nah, this is hilarious.

It’s given me a lot of funny jokes too, but I try not to rely on the Tourette’s jokes because I know people would think it’s like hacky or easy material… That’s not what I’m going for at all. I’m going for a very specific one-liner comedy style.

What attracts you to one-liners in particular?

I’m really into the structure of comedy, like the technical structure… In terms of getting out good quality jokes in the shortest amount of time, one-liners are the way to do that.

I do like longer bits, but I often feel like they’re the same joke stretched out.

How is it different incorporating your Tourette’s when you do improv?

All my characters have Tourette’s. (He laughs.) No. I actually— the thing about how I can hold it? With improv, you’re not in the scene the whole time. So when I’m in a scene I actually do hold it. When I’m off to the side, is when I just shake it out.

In improv scenes, I will Tourette’s a bit, especially longer scenes, but I will try to legitimately just hold it.

And with improv, I’m actually more relaxed because I’m in the strict mental space of being a different character. Whereas with stand-up, the whole time I’m just thinking, ‘These are the jokes. Everyone’s looking at you fucking telling jokes to a large crowd.’ That’s such an immediately more nerve wracking thing, where with improv, it’s like “I’m a Wizard!!” You know? You run around; you get really into it, and you kind of lose yourself.

What’s your favorite one-liner, if you can pick, that another comedian has said?

Mitch Hedberg’s “I think Bigfoot is blurry.” I love that. It’s so simple, but it’s like, yeah, that so funny. It’s abstract.

Do you already have a job lined up after graduation? What’s next for you?

Nope. I’m interviewing currently for different jobs. I’d love to do comedy writing. I was kind of hoping that this clip would be seen by the right people… Hey, famous people, if you’re reading this, hit me up!

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