When Matt Rife was 15 years old, his grandfather, Steve, would drive him to open mic at the Funny Bone in Columbus each Wednesday after school.
“You had to bring five people so there’s an audience and the club can make some money,” Rife said. “Sometimes it would just be him, and he would buy four other tickets so that I could perform as if people were coming.”
Now, at age 23, Rife is performing for an audience of millions each week on “Bring the Funny,” an NBC comedy competition that debuted in July. Celebrity judges Kenan Thompson, Chrissy Teigen and Jeff Foxworthy have narrowed a starting group of 40 contenders down to 12.Keep up on what's going down in entertainment in central Ohio: Sign up for our Life in the 614 newsletter
Rife has advanced to the semifinals — his episode will air on Tuesday — after sharing a stage with other acts involving stand-up, sketch comedy, magic and even puppetry in pursuit of a $250,000 prize. If he advances to the Sept. 10 finals, he will need to rely on votes from the audience to win it all, with final results announced Sept. 17.
“It’s really hard for people to choose because some people just have different styles of humor,” Rife said. “There’s a bunch of really good comedians who I’ve known for years. … These are really good people who deserve an opportunity to shine just as much as me, but they’re also incredibly talented, so it’s really tough competition.”
With a style that relies more on storytelling than premise-setup-punchline, Rife said he finds the limited time slot on the show challenging. He also has had to edit his material to adhere to a family-friendly crowd.
“The audience is only getting like a C+ version of all of my material,” he said.
Rife grew up about an hour northwest of Columbus in North Lewisburg, and he also lived New Albany and Mount Vernon. With little to do for entertainment, he and his grandfather passed the time by watching funny movies.
“I grew up on my Adam Sandler, David Spade, Rob Schneider, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams — all those guys,” Rife said. “I loved it, and it just really resonated with me.”
Rife wasted no time in pursuing his dream. At 17, he moved to Los Angeles, where he took the California High School Proficiency Examination in lieu of having a traditional graduation. Now, his accomplishments include a stint on the MTV improv show “Wild ’N Out.”
But people continue to underestimate him because of his age, Rife said.
“I think people are just curious, like, ‘What am I going to talk about?’ because I haven’t been in this world that long,” he said. “I have a unique perspective on things that apparently makes people laugh. … But it is a lot of pressure because I have a lot of people to prove wrong.”
Rife, who has acting and producing aspirations, said his act tends to take on his life and the “weird circumstances” that he has been in.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky,” he said. "I’ve worked very hard, and I’m in a fantastic position, especially for someone my age. But I’m not exactly where I want to be yet.”
Rife is hoping that, should he win “Bring the Funny,” it will open more doors in the industry. But it also will serve as proof that he is in the right business.
And at the very least, if he makes it to the finals, he will invite his grandfather to L.A. to watch from the studio audience.
“He hasn’t been on a plane in like 30 years, but I’m gonna try to fly him out,” he said. “I think he’d like that.”