Meet Matt Rife — the rising star in the comedy world that has become a force to be reckoned with.
With his quick wit, sharp humour, and infectious energy, he has become a favourite in his field. Rife already began performing stand-up comedy at the age of 15 and quickly made a name for himself as one of the funniest young comedians in the country. Ever since he put himself out there as a teenager, his career has sky-rocketed — from opening up for the likes of Dane Cook to self-producing and distributing his debut one-hour comedy special, Only Fans, through YouTube, to selling out world-renowned comedy clubs and theatres and going viral on TikTok. With his natural talent, he is not going anywhere anytime soon. Only recently he has released his brand new special, Matthew Steven Rife, a brilliant one-hour-long showcase brimming with observational humour, social commentary, and personal anecdotes.
1883 Magazine chats with the comedian during his North American tour about crowd work, his coincidental TikTok success, and what advice he would give to aspiring comedians.
Hey Matt, nice to meet you. How’s the tour going so far?
Wonderful. I mean, all the shows have been fantastic. I think we’re 20 days in right now of shows every single night in Atlanta.
Sounds busy! When did you first realize that you wanted to get into comedy?
I was pretty young. I was a huge fan of Dave Chappelle and Dane Cook when I was around 13 or 14 years old. I would watch Comedy Central and Chappelle’s shows all the time, so I was always a fan of it. I remember I was sitting in my seventh grade class at the beginning of the day and my friend Amanda, who sat next to me, asked for no reason, “What do you wanna do when you grow up?” I said, “I think I want to be a comedian.” Instantly, without missing a beat, my teacher comes in and is like, “Hey, we’re having a school talent show.” And she [Amanda] said, “You have to do it. You have to do the comedy thing.” So I did it, and it was fun. I just thought that was a fun, casual thing to do. My mom won tickets on the radio to see Dane Cook at Nationwide Arena in Ohio when I was 14. It was amazing, it blew my mind. I was a huge fan. He was the epitome of fame at the time. I went and I knew this is for sure what I want to do. The next year when I was 15 was when I started going to open mics and stuff like that.
I love the fact that she won tickets to that show, it was a sign!
Oh yeah, you had to be like caller 37 or something like that. It was something so random. It’s fun, but it’s also concerning because now and then I remember I’m 27, I still have time to give up and I can start something else if I want to. I’m like, oh are you sure this is what you want to do forever?
It sounds like the perfect career for you though. You went viral on TikTok pretty quickly. What first emboldened you to start your content there, was it the pandemic?
I’d say it’s a chain reaction of things. I have a strong dislike for social media. I think it’s horrible and it’s one of the worst things to happen to humanity. It’s so much drama and negativity and people’s whole lives now are on a computer. I’ve never been a fan of it. I don’t just aimlessly scroll through TikTok or Instagram. I always said I’d never have a TikTok because I thought it is so stupid — this is where 14-year-olds go dancing.
At the beginning of 2022, I thought, “How long can I go against the grain?” Clearly things aren’t working on my own anyway, so I thought I’d post some random clips. I posted one clip at 10 p.m. to see what would happen. I went and did a show, I had dinner with a friend and got home around 2 a.m. The video had 1.2 million views. I could see why people get addicted to this because it’s instant gratification. Then I didn’t think too much of it; I posted a couple more clips throughout the next two months, very sporadically, and they would gain a couple hundred thousand views. I didn’t realize it was still a good amount. But, again, I never really took it that seriously.
I posted a few more over the next couple of months until we got to July. At this point, I had maybe 200,000 followers or something like that. I was sitting at the Montreal Comedy Festival with a friend of mine and my manager. I had this clip that I edited on my phone and, at that point, I’ve already dedicated so much time and energy in learning how to edit. I bought camera equipment. I thought, “This just seems so exhausting and so not worth it.” I’m watching this clip at dinner and I didn’t even think it was funny, I didn’t want to post it [the video]. My friend was said post it just to have posted something. I did, and that video changed everything. It did 20 million views in two days and that video made every other video on my page go viral where they all got between 1 and 7 million views instantly. I just started this big chain reaction and now pretty much everything I post does between like 3 to 40 million views. It’s insane.
That’s pretty impressive, considering you didn’t even want to be on social media in the first place. I checked and you’ve got over 9M followers on TikTok alone.
We gain about 100,000 followers every two to three days. It’s so powerful. I don’t know why, I’m chosen by the algorithm Gods for some reason. I don’t feel like I do anything special. I don’t adhere to trends, I don’t do whatever hashtag is trending that week or whatever. I just do my comedy and not even material. It’s just crowd work. It doesn’t burn material, so I can still work on my set. That way, when a crowd comes to see me, they don’t already know my jokes because they don’t even know what the actual show is like, they only see crowd interaction. I think it’s maybe just something unique that a lot of people are doing or doing well.
I think people on TikTok love authenticity, so the fact that you’re just doing your thing might attract them.
Yeah, that would make sense. I hope so.
For your live shows, what does the preparation process look like? How do you approach material for your live shows?
How it works is you build an hour-long set and at the end of that — once that hour-long show is exactly the way you want it — that’s when you record it as a special and then you release it. I just released my second-hour special Matthew Stephen Rife, it came out on Valentine’s Day. Right now I’m in the process of starting all over which is the scariest, most vulnerable thing, but also exciting because you don’t know what’s funny, you don’t know what works, and that also is a disciplinary thing. I’d say a lot of comedians will do the same material for five years straight. For your audience, that has got to be kind of disappointing because now they know those jokes. Your job is to be creative and create more stuff. Ideally, you want to put out a new special every year to 18 months and right now that’s what I strive for. We’ve done two specials in the past two years.
At the moment it is kind of fun and exciting to not use that old stuff anymore and force myself to work hard and write new material, which is very hard for me. I’m not a prolific writer. I’m not a writer by trade. Most of my comedy is a story based so it comes with a lot of life experiences. Sometimes I don’t write a new joke for a month and a half. Then, one day, I’ll write 15 new jokes in a few minutes. It’s inconsistent and frustrating sometimes, but that’s pretty much the process of building the show and building the set. I am looking at my notes a lot and trying to remind myself, Okay, how did you say this last time? Was there a certain inflection? But other than that, I kind of just chill out. I like to just listen to music before I walk on stage. I’m not super in my head about it.
That’s super interesting. You mentioned you don’t know what works once you write down a joke. When you have material, do you perform it in front of your friends and family first and see if they react in a certain way?
God no. Unfortunately comedy is such a weird art form because it’s one of the few art forms that you can only practice publicly. If you’re a musician, you can lock yourself in your room with a guitar for six months, teach yourself, come out of your room, and the first time you perform it for somebody, you’re probably great at it, or at least very good. Comedy is so subjective; you need an audience to perceive it to know what’s good. If comedy was just what I think is funny, I’d be a billionaire by now. I think there are so many funny things, but my job is to express them in a way that others will understand and also find humorous. Now and then I’ll run a premise by a friend and be like, “Hey do you think it’s something I could build off of?” It’s vulnerable and kind of embarrassing, but obviously the longer you do it the more confident you are in it. You start to have a better understanding of the odds of this [a joke] working are better than they were five years ago when I was learning how to write material. Every show is different, obviously, and now my shows are anywhere between 500 to 2,000 people sometimes, so that’s a little bit riskier to try out new material.
You have to force yourself to go back to an open mic or just a smaller room where sometimes there are 10 to 30 people in there. That’s the best time to try out something new because there are low stakes. It’s not my show most of the time. People didn’t pay hundreds of dollars to come to see this show. It’s some hole in the wall. It’s much easier to make a thousand people laugh than it is to make 15 people laugh. I know that’s a good thing to acknowledge. You would think with more people, the odds are different, but people are way less apt to laugh if there are only a few of them.
Gosh, that sounds like so much pressure.
Oh yeah, it’s weird. The entire thing is just a battle of psychology and I love trying to figure out what an audience likes. It’s so funny to me because you’re essentially trying to make 2,000 different people laugh. 2,000 different types of personalities you hope can, by the end of the show, like everything that you like.
That’s incredible though. What you said earlier about your TikTok’s, you do quite a bit of crowd work. I’ve seen those videos and think it’s so fun and you always seem to know how to react when they answer you. I was wondering if there was ever a moment where you blacked out and didn’t immediately think of something?
Oh, absolutely. I love doing crowd work. It’s fun because you do get those very raw, genuine moments that make people realize I didn’t write that. And I didn’t, because I don’t know this person or what they’re going to say. That’s very refreshing to me because, as I mentioned earlier, you’re building an hour-long show, so a lot of your shows are very similar. You do get tired of telling your jokes. At a certain point, you become an actor that is delivering material rather than it being fresh and genuine to me.
Crowd work kind of integrates a certain element of excitement again for me because of what could happen. All the time you’ll talk to somebody and you ask someone their name and it’s ‘Jim’ who is a stay-at-home dad or he works at a flour mill. You’re like, I don’t know anything funny about a flour mill and sometimes you have to just acknowledge that on stage. You can’t rely on crowd work. That’s why it’s so much fun because when you do get those nuggets of gold, it makes it all that much more special. I did crowd work the other week for probably seven or eight minutes, and both people I talked to were just the most regular, boring people you could have imagined. It’s a complete roll of the dice. You’re like, I hope I pick somebody with something interesting to say.
I guess you never know! Performing in different cities and states and even countries, did you ever realize that there was a cultural difference in humour? For example, here in London people have a different humour than in the States.
It’s definitely different, but everywhere is different. If you drive three hours in a different direction, no matter where you are, people are gonna be a little bit different, but that’s also kind of what I pride myself in. I feel like my audience is kind of everybody. I write material and jokes for everybody. To me, that’s the ultimate goal — you want to appeal to everybody otherwise you’ll kind of pigeonhole yourself. I personally love performing in London. I love it so much. I’m a massive Monty Python fan, and a huge Ricky Gervais fan. The dry sarcasm is what I fucking live for. I wish Americans had that so badly, that’s my sense of humour. Very sarcastic, very dry and dark. I enjoy that so much. I feel like when I go to the UK, I’m more understood I think. I love to push the boundaries with a good dry joke and Americans are wondering why I said it like that. I can’t wait to travel more, I’ve heard Australia has an incredible comedy scene. I’ve actually heard Italy does as well, surprisingly. Any excuse I get to travel the world and tell jokes, I’ll take it. I’ll go figure out what it’s like.
That’s going be super exciting to find out for sure. Last but not least, now that you’ve obviously made such a big name for yourself, what advice would you give aspiring comedians?
It’s two cliche things that are easy, and I’ll give the best piece of advice I was ever given. Obviously, write as much as possible. I also should be better about this — it’s a bit hypocritical — but you do have to write as much as you can. You have to perform as much as you can at the worst places possible. I’ve performed in laundromats, sports bars, during Game 7 of the World Series, the worst possible places where nobody should ever be doing comedy. You hate it and you think to yourself, there’s no way this is good for me, there’s nothing positive and come out of this. It really does prepare you for any situation and as a comic who’s vulnerable on stage and prone to people yelling out something. By performing in different environments, you do have to be flexible and know how to handle whatever can be thrown at you. You put yourself in uncomfortable situations.
The best piece of advice I was ever given is by my good friend Eric Griffin. If you believe in something, you don’t have to convince people that it’s a good idea and try to get them on board. A lot of the time, if you’re a creative person, they’re not gonna understand because they’re not inside your head. They can’t see how you picture something or why you believe it all the time. You can’t always articulate exactly what you plan or want to do. So, I would always go to him for advice, and ask him what he thinks about an idea or joke. He’d say, “I don’t get it.” I would get frustrated and say, “How do you not?” He would reply, “Hey man, why do you keep trying to convince me that this is a good idea? If you believe it’s a good idea, do it and show me why it’s a good idea.” So you fully have to believe in yourself, bet on yourself, and do the things that you think are going to be the right thing because nobody else is in your position or in your brain.
To check out Matt Rife on tour visit mattrifeofficial.com.
Interview Antonia Kunzel
Photography Noah Schutz