Meet Aaron Berg, the Comedian Behind the New Amazon Documentary '25 Sets'

Aaron Berg takes his stats seriously. "Comedy is a numbers game. I think I'm one of those fortunate guys that has my batting average up higher because I focus on the audience so much," the comedian told Newsweek ahead of the release of his new documentary, 25 Sets, set to premiere on Amazon Prime on October 15.

It's not uncommon for a working comedian in New York to perform four or five sets in an evening, but in September 2015 Berg, 47, set out to break the record for most shows performed in a single night. The documentary follows the Canadian-born comedian as he darts between clubs across the the city in his bid to complete 25 sets by morning. Between performances, fellow performers including Janeane Garofalo, Impractical Jokers' Sal Vulcano, Billions' Dan Soder and others pop in to riff on Berg's record attempt and what it takes to stand out in New York's comedy scene.

With humor that is sometimes raunchy, sometimes revelatory, Berg talked to Newsweek about the documentary, working the crowd and pushing the limit.

Aaron Berg
Comic Aaron Berg's new documentary 25 Sets documents a night where he performed at 25 different shows in New York. Bobby Bank/WireImage/Getty

The previous record for most sets in one night was held by Steve Byrne, but he only had 13 sets. Why did you want to chase 25?

Initially, I'd set out to do 18. Once I found out Steve's record, I was like, "I think I could do 18." I started putting the schedule together, and the numbers got up to 23, and I go, "I may as well push more." I had scheduled 26 sets. At that point, I was like "Oh, if this goes well, I could double his record," which seems mind-blowing to me. I did want to double it, but I knew as the night progressed, there's no way we're getting that 26th set. I just knew it couldn't happen. It was in Times Square, and we had spent so much time below 14th Street that to zip up there would've just shot us in the foot, and it would've cost us two more sets if we would've done that.

Was there any mental or physical preparation before doing the sets?

The most I'd done prior to that was nine, so I ran seven the Saturday before just to get a feel, and it hit me that by [the fifth set] I was tired. I was like, "This is weird. I usually do five, and I think I've been in my head."

Physically, I did not go to the gym that day, because I was like, "I want to save up what energy I have." I ran stairs for 20 minutes, just to feel better in terms of cardiovascular. Mentally, I basically said, and this was the mantra for the whole night, "In New York comedy, everything works out." I had this very positive attitude that if I was late, there would be another comic that would be able to go on and buy me time, or if I was early, comics would shift around. That was the mental attitude I went in with: It's all going to work out no matter what. There were highs and lows. Exhaustion kicked in around 18 sets. If you watch, you'll see where the comedy just became so base at best, where I was literally pointing out what people are wearing, like "You have a black shirt on" and trying to find something funny in it. It is exhausting in that regard.

When did you start leaning into crowd work [improvising jokes about audience members]?

I was like, "I can't keep doing the same act," because comedically I wasn't evolving. I saw there was more stuff to talk about than just my personal life being a middle-class Jewish immigrant who became a stripper. It was about the 12 year mark, where I basically threw everything away, and I'm like "I'm just gonna work by the seam of my pants," and I kinda leaned into that. It works beautifully for New York, because the volume of sets that you're doing, so you get to really get comfortable onstage, and you get to talk to people from all backgrounds, all different walks of life, all different countries. That's the beauty about New York. It's what makes New York comics stand out more. It's this ability to be on your heels and be in the moment and crush in front of any type of crowd. It was about six years ago where I was like, "Yeah, I'm gonna throw everything out and just focus on this."

I think comedy club audiences tend to hang onto what they hear from crowd work more than prepared material, because they feel like they're part of the show.

That's exactly what I think. They feel more invested in it. Even if you're doing insult comedy, the people that aren't insulted will be like "Hey, why am I not getting insulted?" They'll feel insulted that they're not getting insulted.

In the documentary, you do one set for a group of 3 tourists from Holland. Is doing a crowd work for an audience like that a lot more difficult? Do you have fun doing those sets?

I tried my best, but I'm not going to lie. That's like doing crowd work for three of your family members who don't speak English. I'll have fun onstage all the time, because there's also this glamour about New York City comedy like, "Hey, it's still New York City. Anything can happen. This guy could be a huge exec from Holland who wants to sign me to open for the Dutch Carrot Top." When it's bad, it's still bad, but New York comedy teaches you. That bad one, you don't hang onto, because you have another set in an hour. Comedy can't run you down, because whatever you learn, you keep your mouth shut, you take it to the next set and you just keep going.

Do you worry that comedy audiences have changed since you've filmed this in 2015?

There is an inkling of change happening in terms of live performances right now. Outrage online would lead you to believe that it's changed drastically—it hasn't. I do standup every night in New York City and across the country and in Canada as well. It hasn't really changed. People are more vocal with their disapproval in a live show now than they were before. That's because they feel empowered by online presence. If someone doesn't like a joke, if it falls into one of those buzzword categories: if it's stereotypical or it deals with race or trans-rights or sexism or misogyny, people will vocally say, "I disagree with that." They will say that out loud, whereas people didn't use to say that. They would not laugh or they would groan. It's becoming more commonplace to deal with these incidents as they occur.

The beauty of it is that it does open up conversation, which is the goal of provocative comedy. Above and beyond laughter is to open up discussion, and it's doing that. I do believe in evolving. I do believe comedy does have to evolve, and I do believe that words have to evolve. Language does have the right to evolve, but I still have the right to offend people, and I still have the right to be provocative. The fortunate thing without going too far is it's shocking but it's funny.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.