Ophira Eisenberg has accepted she’ll never know the full truth of how she ended up host of the hit NPR and WNYC show Ask Me Another. She’s heard some things. But there is one “myth” she likes to tell.
The station had held auditions for a couple years, and tried out two hosts for pilot programs. Eisenberg was a late candidate, recommended by sound engineer Paul Ruest, whom she had worked with at The Moth, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to storytelling.
“The lesson there is, always be nice to everyone you work with because never know where your next job is going to come from,” Eisenberg said. The show launched with her at the forefront in 2012.
As Ask Me Another’s popularity has grown, so, too, has Eisenberg’s. One of the most recognizable voices on NPR, Eisenberg will reconnect with Michaela Murphy, who she met through The Moth, for a night of storytelling at the Bucks County Playhouse’s Lambertville, N.J., location on Sept. 28. Murphy is BCP’s director of education.
Eisenberg will be one of four speakers for the first edition of BCP’s Word of Mouth series this season.
“When I came out here, she was on top of my list to bring out here,” Murphy said of Eisenberg. “She was always a real genius talent.”
A Calgary, Canada native, Eisenberg, who is Jewish, graduated from McGill University with a degree in cultural anthropology that yielded little in terms of employment: “As you could imagine, I had so many job interviews.”
Seeking a restart, she moved to Vancouver and contemplated getting a master’s degree. Instead, she met a bunch of comedians and tried her hand at stand-up. She was hooked.
After a couple of years, she moved to Toronto, where there were more resources and opportunities for comedians. But an ever bigger city beckoned. In July 2001, Eisenberg crossed Canada’s southern border and moved to New York City.
“I always wanted to live in New York,” she said. “It was super hard and it took me a long time to figure it out. I loved it there. It was something about the challenge and the pace. It got into my bones.
“Sometimes I go, ‘Why am I still here?’ It’s so hard. It’s like, when you get your foot in you want to keep it in.”
Indeed, it took Eisenberg “a thousand years of hustling” to get that foot in. She spent her free time at comedy clubs, trying to convince people to book her. She auditioned for parts and worked the college circuit, earning $50 per gig. Then she discovered The Moth.
“That was a game-changer for me,” Eisenberg said.
The Moth offered no money, but a stage. A stage and an audience. Eisenberg honed her voice and timing and built confidence.
“You know when you’re in the hands of a great storyteller,” Murphy said. “You just feel it.”
In 2012 she started on Ask Me Another, recording 12 test episodes with live audiences. The show is a mix of puzzles, word games and trivia games for contestants, with house musician Jonathan Coulton providing background instrumentals.
The format of the show has evolved over the years, with fewer contestants and more celebrity guests and interviews. In recent months, Eisenberg has interviewed writer Roxane Gay, singer Jason Mraz, actor Ed Helms and indie electronic duo/couple Matt And Kim.
As the friendly, jokey host of a game show on a network that frequently features political news and commentary, Eisenberg sometimes takes on the role of a soother. On the show’s Sept. 21 edition, a rerun from May, Eisenberg introduced a segment called “Real or fake news.”
She mostly strays from politics, though, instead opting to build connections with the audience by making light of everyday problems.
“That’s basically my entire mission. It’s to pull us all together,” Eisenberg said. “You have the monologue from being a stand-up [comedian] and it turns to a dialogue because you’re in it with the audience, and for a moment we all feel closer and less alone.”
She aims to elicit that type of reaction when she takes the stage at Lambertville Hall. She’ll tell a story that is both humorous and poignant, she said. It’ll be about a moment in time from her teenage years, when she became hyper-aware of some scars on her body and nervous about how her crush would react if they saw them.
Then she’ll return to New York, to the slate of stand-up gigs booked through the winter. To The Bell House in Brooklyn, where Coulton will welcome the audience as he does most every week: “It’s NPR’s hour of puzzles, word games and trivia, Ask Me Another. I’m Jonathan Coulton. Now here’s your host, Ophira Eisenberg!”