My friend Dan Ronan passed away two weeks ago. He was a stand-up comic and a hub of the Chicago comedy scene. He was just 24. I met Dan when he was maybe 19? We worked together at the Lincoln Lodge—the show that launched Chicago’s alternative stand-up scene from a banquet hall room in the back of a divey pancake house.
A few years before I met Dan, I’d moved back home to Chicago from Boston with daytime plans to attend grad school and nighttime plans to study improv at The Second City. It took me about two months to realize my fellow students weren’t getting their masters in social work as a way to bide their time between improv shows. I dropped out of the program.
By the next month, I’d connected with my deep, deep discomfort with improv and quit that too. I’m not a “yes and” guy. I’m a “have you considered” and a “why are we surrounded by idiots” and a “calm down I’m just a lesbian why the hell are you yelling at me from your car” kind of guy. It turns out that’s the perfect personality type for stand-up.
Dan died at the age I was when I started stand-up—a bit shy of 25. He was a fully formed comic—working at clubs and doing regular spots at Chicago’s best alternative comedy show. He knew how to talk about himself. He was honest. And he was such a young man.
I started as a comic without an understanding of the existing stand-up landscape. I began by organizing my own show at a theater on the city’s West side. I did some research and booked the coolest, most respected local comics using their MySpace pages. I prepped for the show by inviting my parents and making cupcakes for the audience. I didn’t write a single joke. I didn’t provide a microphone. All these great local comics—these comics I hoped to impress with my no jokes—stood onstage without a mic and did sets for my parents. I gave them each a bunch of cupcakes to take home.
It didn’t occur to me then that there was a greater Chicago stand-up scene—that a whole community of comics would exist before and after me. I didn’t yet realize that I’d start stand-up with a cohort of people around me and we’d all progress forward together—some would advance quicker than others, some would quit, but the ones who remained would be folks who’d performed around one another for years. I learned some of that in the few years between when I started and when I met Dan, and I learned that because I began working at the Lodge.
Every Thursday and Friday night, I’d head to the corner of Lincoln, Damen, and Irving Park and walk in the back door of the Lincoln Restaurant to meet the rest of the Lodge cast, set up the stage for our show and sit at syrup-sticky booths in a mostly empty diner waiting for our audience and watching our producer, Mark Geary, pace and worry that no one would show.
Actually, more than pacing, Mark would spend that time loudly cursing as he set up the sound for the show—rigging second-hand mics purchased off eBay into a perfect, good-as-new configuration. And people did come. We had great audiences. And shitty ones. Sometimes it’d be six people. More often, it would be full.
Dan joined in my second season at the Lodge. He was so young that he couldn’t attend bar shows or open mics in the city, so our show was perfect for him. Pancake houses don’t ID. Dan showed up in a way I hadn’t—with specific ideas about stand-up and with an immediate understanding of his connection to the stand-ups around him. I’d spent decoding the scene prior to Dan’s arrival and had some very specific ideas about what would make a great show. Dan showed up with his ideas—somehow, at 19, he already had a plan for himself, for our show, for the scene. Our ideas were nothing alike.
We fought one another immediately and we fought about almost everything. It was enormously frustrating and equally satisfying. If you’ve never argued with a teenager over waffle fries about how to best maintain audience numbers and general booking strategy, you haven’t felt passionately about a pancake-house comedy show. Stand-up runs in generations—the cohort you start with is your class—so Dan was my junior in the really fundamental stand-up-scene way that has nothing to do with age, but he was such a formidable opponent. I loved him for it, and yet I felt he couldn’t have known those things he asserted. I’m not sure I fully let his ideas in.
I stopped working at the Lodge a season or two later—I left to spend more time on the road; Dan took on more responsibility and became de facto leader of the Lincoln Lodge cast. We no longer worked together directly, but Chicago is a seven nights a week/multiple sets a night stand-up scene, and we’d still see one another a lot. It was fun to watch him progress onstage–to see his material become more personal, to stay up on his life by the things he talked about onstage. Stand-ups love watching this in other comics–watching one another change. But even more so than his onstage progress, it was unreal watching Dan begin to lead. He seemed to be everywhere—organizing or telling jokes on every show. He had shown up at 19 with these enormous ideas, and over years of work, he’d put them into practice.
A few years ago Dan began to email me, asking for advice, and because of our respective positions in the scene, this made perfect sense to me. He’d ask about travel or jokes or personal stuff, and I’d do my best to answer. After my move to Los Angeles a few summers back, my answers became a bit dashed off. I was stressed and confused and sad and overwhelmed. In some ways I felt like I was throwing cupcake-laden shows, sans microphone, all over again. And again, in those moments, I didn’t think to turn to community.
One of the last emails I received from Dan was a bit of encouragement. I had written about feeling isolated and scared after the move and Dan reached out to tell me that had helped him process his own relocation to L.A. “Reading that you, someone who I hold I high esteem and think of as very successful, feel the same way a lot of the time made me feel less silly and alone. Thank you.” He said. I remember the day I got that email—I remember that I was exhausted, home for a day between two weekends of travel—and I remember my response to it, “You’re not alone!”
I wish that wasn’t how I responded. Not because it’s untrue. Of course Dan wasn’t alone. He was beloved. I loved him. A community loved him. I just wish I’d leveled with him then and told him exactly how scared I really was, exactly how successful I didn’t feel. I wish I would have thought on at those ideas he had from 19 on—many of which ended up being right—and remembered all those moments when he seemed to so easily connect with the community of comics around him. I wish I would have really processed his amazing achievement in becoming a fully formed, professional stand-up by the age I was when I started.
I look back at that moment now, or other moments with Dan, and I wish I would have asked him how he knew to show up on the scene the way that he did. How he had space to support the many shows and comics he believed in so heartily. How he was able to be committed, so fully, so young. I wish I would have taken that chance, that day, receiving that email and asked him for advice. How the hell did you do it, Dan?
Dan Ronan performing in character at the Late Live Show in Chicago.