A conversation with "Cash Cab's" Ben Bailey
After calling the Green Bay Press-Gazette for a quick 15-minute chat Tuesday morning, Bailey was set to audition for a part in an HBO series before getting picked up by the “Cash Cab” crew for all-hours evening work. From there, Bailey had a midnight standup set at the Comedy Cellar, putting him in bed during the wee hours before waking up to do it all again the next day.
And this is only slightly less hectic from his usual routine considering Bailey – who is also a tri-athlete – recently finished wrapping a pilot called “America’s Strongest American” for CBS.
Yet you wouldn’t know it based on how prolific the New Jersey native has been since “Cash Cab” catapulted him into the game show host pantheon.
Based on a British series, the Discovery Channel show takes unsuspecting passengers on a joy ride through Manhattan while Bailey asks them general knowledge questions – each getting harder and more profitable as the trip progresses. Three strikes and passengers get kicked out of the cab. If they make it to their destination, they get to keep the cash they've earned or double-down on a video-based brainteaser.
It all whips by in a jam-packed half hour – as both "Cash Cab" and "Cash Cab: After Dark" – with questions moving all over the map, the majority of them at "Jeopardy"-like levels of brain strain.
Channel Surfing would like to thank Bailey for taking time out of his busy schedule to chat about life inside the Cash Cab.
He'll be in town performing a standup set at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Phoenix Rooms at UWGB's University Union. The show is free, but you'll still need a ticket to get in. Call (920) 465-2400 (thanks, Chris!) for more info.
So, new “Cash Cab” episodes started airing this week, right?
“Yep, new episodes started airing (Monday). Those are episodes we shot last year. We’re working on next season’s episodes right now.”
I understand you were working on two shows simultaneously.
“I was going back and forth a little. Most of the work is done for the other pilot, “America’s Strongest American.” It’s like those strongman contests, but for average Joes, not the professional guys like on ESPN. It’s supposed to be on CBS. I’m also working on a one-hour standup special on DVD. I have to do that in July. So I’m shooting, traveling, doing standup, auditioning for other stuff, working at my house. I got a full plate.”
Are you able to juggle everything that’s going on without losing it?
“Ummmm (pause). No.” (Laughs.)
But it’s good to be busy, right?
“It’s good to be busy. I’m definitely not complaining. But sometimes I can’t keep up. There are a bunch of things right now that I’m way behind on.”
Well, how does standup fit in to what you’re doing? Is that what you always come back to when you need to slow down a bit?
“Standup is really what I love to do. That’s not to say that I don’t love ‘Cash Cab,’ but at this point, it’s kind of like riding a bike, I’ve done so many episodes. So while I’m shooting ‘Cash Cab,’ I can totally be in the moment. But when I’m done with that, it’s good to shut it off and focus on standup.”
That said, “Cash Cab” is what really put your face out there. How have you handled the success?
“We’re celebrating 250 episodes this week. We’ve shot close to 300. It’s ridiculous. I don’t know how it happened. Something just seems to jive about the show. It’s silly, it’s ridiculous, it’s a game show in the cab, so there’s this voyeuristic aspect of watching people get in and be surprised. Then there’s the fact that I’m giving away money. I guess that might have something to do with it. People like that.”
Yeah, no one is going to complain about a few handouts while trying to hail a real cab.
“No, definitely not.”
How did you end up getting that gig?
“Auditioned for it, plain and simple. Did five auditions and they said, ‘Hey, you want to do it? Go to taxi school and get your taxi license.’”
Do you have to keep up with anything because of that?
“Yeah, I have to keep it up, have to take tests every year. Every couple years I also have to do continuing education for cab drivers.”
I assume since you’re so busy, you don’t just take a cab out for fun.
(Laughs.) “No, definitely no time for that these days.”
I know as some shows become more popular, it can become harder and harder to keep the surprise element in place. Have things changed dramatically in terms of people actively looking for the Cash Cab or making it their goal to be on the show?
“It’s much easier now. In the beginning, a lot of times people just thought I was some crazy dude. Like, ‘what’s wrong with this guy? A game show?’ Now it’s a little bit different. At night, I have to shut off all the (inside ceiling) lights before people get in, otherwise they see me. In the day, it’s a little easier because there’s more traffic, so I’m not the only one that’s lit up like a ballpark. But as we became more popular, we found that all the excitement would be left on the curb and people would get seated and be like, ‘OK, let’s play.’
“So yeah, we had to put a switch in so I could actually turn the lights on and off.” (Laughs.)
And now you’re coming to Green Bay for some standup. Have you ever been here before?
“Nope. Never been to Green Bay.”
Does your work on “Cash Cab” influence your standup routine?
“I talk about ‘Cash Cab’ in my standup out of necessity to some degree. Because if I don’t, people are like, ‘Why am I here? What’s wrong with this guy? He’s not talking about his show?’ But there’s also a thin line if that’s all I do. Like, if that’s all I talked about, people would say, ‘Jesus, doesn’t this guy have anything else to talk about?’ It doesn’t take them long to switch. They want to hear something else, too. You don’t want to be the guy who just goes on and on and on and on about his TV show. Then I’m just a pretentious douchebag.”
I understand you kind of accidentally fell into a comedy career.
“Yeah, I was telling a story about how I ended up in L.A., this long crazy story, at The Comedy Store green room while I was answering phones. It was after a night at work, and I was telling this story and I had an audience by the end of it. Some comic said, ‘Hey, how long have you been doing standup?’ and I was like, ‘Ummm, (laughs) never?’
“So I was asked to do a show that week, Friday night, and I said no because I was scared. But he left his number, and I changed my mind the next day and said, ‘Why not? It’s not like I’m doing anything else.’”
What do you think would have happened had you not been discovered like that?
“I have no idea. I think I would have ended up on stage eventually. I mean, I was working at The Comedy Store, around standups every night. I know I used to watch guys thinking, ‘I could do this already.’ But I don’t know where and when it would have happened. But I think I would have ended up on stage. It was destiny, you know?’
So what’s a typical week for you?
I’m in New York from Sunday to Thursday, then I go on the road and do shows on the weekend, or just go out to my house in Jersey.
Is it nice to be a Jersey native and have the city as your workspace, to drive around in a cab and see people that way?
“Yeah, it’s great. It’s hard work though, a really tough job because there’s so much going on. But when we started again a few weeks ago, I felt like I got back to my playground. I’m back in Manhattan and I know all the intersections, I know the buildings at every corner of what and what. It’s cool. A very comfortable thing now.”
You stay in a pretty specific zone for the show, right?
“Well, that zone being Manhattan. We go anywhere in Manhattan.”
Was there any thought to switching things up, or does the formula work too well?
“It works too well. There are people who say, ‘I hear the show is fixed or that it’s set up,’ which it isn’t, but it’s hard to get people to play sometimes. Some simply say no, or it can be very hard to get a release form from them. They’ll jump into another cab or say, ‘No, leave me alone.’ One thing we’d like to try and do is get forms from people, put a few of them into shows so that people will see that the whole thing isn’t b---s---. We just need Discovery Channel to get those releases on the show.”
When people turn you down, is it because they simply don’t have time or do they still not trust your intentions?
“Usually, it’s because they don’t have time. People know the show now, so they get excited, say, 'S---, I wish I could.”
It seems like the show gives you some freedom to be funny or at least rip on people from time to time.
“I do get away with a lot. That doesn’t mean they’re going to use it. But I do like to sneak it in while I can.”
Are you ever surprised by what people know, especially without preparation for the show?
“It goes both ways. I’m surprised by what they know and what they don’t know. There are times when it’s, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you knew that,’ or ‘Man, I can’t believe that people don’t know that.’"
How do you fare with the questions?
“I get quizzed on them first, and I, probably, I do OK. Sixty to 70 percent of them, I’d say. I always know more than half and sometimes I cruise through a whole stack.”
I find it interesting that people don’t really take it too seriously, or at least they’re willing to do the (double or nothing) video bonus question and lose everything because they have the attitude that, 'Well, I didn’t have anything to start with.' That seems to be part of the fun, just going with the flow of the ride.
“Yeah, that’s a good attitude to see. I always like when people approach the game that way.”
Before I let you go, can I get an idea of how today is going to be for you?
“I have an audition in the afternoon, and then the cab and crew pick me up and I’ll go and film until midnight (EST). Then I’ll go to the Comedy Cellar and do standup at about 12:30 a.m., come back to the hotel, eat something and go to sleep.”
They put you up in a hotel in New York then?
“Yeah, when we shoot, I stay in the city.”
What’s your audition for?
“Today, it’s for an HBO series.”
Comedy, or are you into dramatic roles?
“Either one, but I’d prefer to do dramatic roles. I get my comedy out on stage and in the cab.”
So you have the DVD special later this year and the strongman show is definitely a go then?
“Yep, standup will tape in July, out in August probably. The strongman show is definitely a go, probably this summer on CBS. I’m not entirely sure.”
Are they at least letting you be funny on the strongman show?
“They want me to be funny, but then they told me what to say. So it was kind of like, ‘If you want me to be funny, let me be funny.’ We’ll see how that works out." (Laughs.)
-- Thomas Rozwadowski, email@example.com