Ari Shaffir strives to make themed material actually funny

Ten minutes in, Ari Shaffir pauses from the conversation in an attempt to break wind into the phone.

Nothing happens.

“It was going to come out real strong and solid,” Shaffir says, expressing a disappointment that eludes the person on the other end of the line.

And so it goes when speaking with the comedian on a recent afternoon ahead of some weekend gigs in Florida.

“I get it now,” he says of that state’s reputation for headline-generating weirdness. “You’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re all strange.’ ”

Shaffir’s just getting started.

Playful, puerile and cerebral at once, he’s a deep thinker with a dirty mind, his intellect as pronounced as his fondness for fart jokes.

His stand-up follows suit.

The 45-year-old Shaffir’s most recent special, Netflix’s two-part “Double Negative,” is his most ambitious and accomplished work yet, divided between 45-minute “Childhood” and “Adulthood” shows.

With his sleepy eyes widening to a dinner plate’s dimensions as he hammers home a point, Shaffir riffs on the efficacy of adoption versus giving birth to kids of your own (“Why would you try and build a new team through the draft when there’s quality free agents to get picked up?”), the pleasure principle of prophylactics, and the ins and outs of soiling oneself, among other things.

Showing them how it’s done

“Double Negative” marks Shariff’s first forays into themed material, with “Childhood,” for instance, spanning a running narrative about one of his friends getting pregnant on a Tinder date.

Shaffir was inspired to try his hand at this style of comedy by frequent appearances at Scotland’s annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a massive gathering showcasing a variety of performances, where comedy comprises a central part of the programming, especially acts with themed sets.

“I started to see how they did theme hours, and it kind of rubbed off on me, but I always thought the biggest problem they had was the lack of funny,” Shaffir says of watching comics perform in the Edinburgh context. “I’d see these guys doing themed stand-up, and it was interesting, to hold on to a topic for an hour, but then I was like, ‘Why do you guys get not funny when you’re talking about a theme?’

“So I came up with a plan to show them,” he continues, “over like two different Edinburgh spring festivals, where one year I was just going to do a regular American hour of just jokes and then do this theme thing to try to show them how they’re doing it wrong. That’s what I did last year at Edinburgh. I invited every comic, ‘Come see it. I want to show you guys what I’m doing, what you can do.’ I was like, ‘I’ll let any comic come in for free so that you can just see this.’ ”

Despite the success of “Double Negative,” one of 2017’s best comedic offerings, Shaffir says he’s been laboring over his next special.

“This one’s been torturing me,” he notes. “It’ll almost be three years by the time I record it, which is longer than normal. At some point, it was just like, ‘I don’t think I can do an hour to an hour and 15 on the topic. I think I (messed) up. It’s OK, I’ll start over.’ And then it’s like, ‘No, no, no. Get back to it. Work harder.’ Then you just eventually find a way to make it all funny.”

West Coast come-up

Like his running buddy and fellow sharp-witted stoner Joe Rogan, whom Shaffir has toured with on a number of occasions, he honed his craft at L.A.’s storied Comedy Store, finding his voice in one of stand-up’s greatest incubators of talent.

“There’s this sign on the booth for the open mic, it says, ‘You don’t have to be funny in three minutes, but you have to be yourself in three minutes,’ ” Shaffir says of the club in question, where he worked answering phones and manning the door for years before breaking out as a headliner. “It’s weird, but it’s actually really difficult. It’s harder than being funny. You can just repeat (stuff) that you heard at the water cooler if it’s funny.

“To be yourself is way more difficult,” Shaffir adds. “Early on, I had a girlfriend come see me, and she was like, ‘Yeah, it was good, but you were funny at a dining hall at the University of Maryland.’ That’s when I realized I was contrived. I was reciting jokes. So I really worked on — no matter what — sounding like I was just talking to the people. That was a big step.”

Shaffir has maintained this looseness ever since.

The key?

Focusing on what makes him laugh first.

And then who knows? Maybe you’ll follow suit.

“Once I started getting more successful, I just stopped caring completely — ‘I’ll just do exactly what I want. It doesn’t matter,’ ” Shaffir says, “I’ve justified all of this in my head. Come with me on this trip if you want; don’t if you don’t. It’s up to you.”

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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