Side-skirting comedy's glass ceiling with Dan Telfer
The Chicago comedian heads outward on his way up
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For a city that has a storied history with comedy, Chicago offers a surprisingly limited number of opportunities for stand-up comedians. It puts a rising comedian like Dan Telfer in an awkward position: In only three years, Telfer has begun to exhaust the opportunities in his town and now looks towards touring. Before Telfer's upcoming appearance at the Comedy Club On State, The A.V. Club checked in with him about what comes next for a sucessful stand-up in Chicago and the release of his three-way split comedy EP with Paul F. Tompkins and Greg Proops on ASpecialThing Records.
The A.V. Club: How did you move from an acting background to one-man shows to comedy?
Dan Telfer: When I took acting classes at Columbia [College], this woman named Stephanie Shah, who’s a former Neo-Futurist—you know, Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind—she taught these solo performance classes and they were, right along with the sword-fighting classes, my favorite classes in theater school. She actually told me something that I took really personally at the time, in a bad way. She was like, “You’re meant to be doing this thing where you write material for yourself. You’ve got to stop auditioning for these Shakespeare plays. Just focus on writing for yourself as a solo performer.” I was so frustrated that there was only this one festival at the Live Bait that I was like, “That’s not a career. I’m not going to be some stupid, like, stand-up. This is bull,” and took it super personally. But then right around 2005 I started going, “I’m only getting cast in one or two plays every couple years because I’m tall, I’m gangly, basically a character actor.” Being able to take control of the art, so to speak, for myself was inspired by that thing that Stephanie Shah told me all those years ago, like in 1999 or something.
AVC: Because you were doing one-man shows, it doesn’t seem like it would be hard to jump into stand-up.
DT: No, not at all. The big thing of course is that I’m trying to make people laugh, as opposed to just telling my story. When I was doing one-man shows, I was listening to a lot of This American Life and aspiring to that kind of storytelling. Then I heard enough storytelling comedians where I was like, “If my jokes have to be shorter, I can’t tell these 15-minute stories.” It made me feel like I was writing my one-man show stuff better. I was making it more concise. Now, coming out the other end, if I want to do a one-man show, I’m so much less sloppy. I can tie together a bunch of short stories. I can whittle them down to their most important points, and I’ve accumulated enough storytelling jokes that I’m much more self-aware of the parts of my life that the audience will find interesting.
AVC: So what parts of your life does the audience find interesting now?
DT: They really seem to like when I look like a complete jerk. I’m a total introvert, and I do lash out sometimes because I’m so frustrated with the world. It’s usually stories where I think I’m a normal person and I fail that people enjoy the most. My whole stage persona is almost exactly like my actual personality, but I do have to ramp it up a little bit, being an introvert, to where I‘ve some stage presence. If I do any observational humor, I look kind of pompous. And there are a lot of stories like that from when I was a teenager. But it happens fairly often to me now, too.
AVC: You have that bit about being on the Red Line and having a drunk girl point to you and say something like, “They make nerds out of fags now!”
DT: Yeah. I have this thing I’ll say to transition between stories where I’ve been called a “faggot” like once a week even though I’m in my 30s. Almost everybody thinks that’s a lie. I have so many stories. I’ve been telling a joke about being called a fag in this sort of blue-collar area and had people literally try to shout me off the stage by calling me a faggot. It just happened. I’ll call myself nerdy onstage, and people will be like, “Yeah, you are a nerd!” really viciously. If we get too political, there’s a fight against science and knowledge and being smart makes you gay and all that stuff. By laying my point of view out like that and not being at all famous yet, I get to experience that quite often. I’m still finding my fan base.
AVC: You lost your job last July. Did it seem like a good chance to focus more on comedy?
DT: Not really. I was at this weird point, where I was getting taken on the road with Maria Bamford on a semi-regular basis. Not often, but like, I had already done it twice that year. So like, I wasn’t confident enough to put myself out like, “I’m going to go out on the road all the time,” but I was starting to take time off work to do stand-up for like, four days in a row. But I didn’t want to lose my job. I wasn’t really at that point and then when it happened, I was not really seeing it coming, and I was pretty upset about it. I was, “Oh God, I’m not in a good place for this,” but my wife was really cool and she was like, “You’re going on the road a lot. You’ve opened for some really cool people. I bet you could really be focusing on stand-up more.” She encouraged me to go for it. I got over my crippling self-doubt, and I went for it and to an extent, it got really good, really fast.
Who knows, at any point, I might go back and get a day job to save money, because, as I said, my style is really specific, and I can only cater to the blue-collar style of most of this nation’s clubs so much. I’m not in my element, and I don’t want to ruin my own reputation by forcing myself into that situation.
My goal has always been I want to make everyone laugh. It’s not like I want to make the hipsters laugh. I don’t do material where I think I’m playing to a certain niche at all. I’m really just trying to do stuff I find interesting and that I hope other people can get on board with, but sometimes people just hear you say the word “science” and go, “Boo!’ And there’s not a lot you can do about that.
AVC: There’s something about comedy that makes it very open to participatory criticism, more so than even bands.
DT: Well, if you’re in a band, you can play through a heckler. Sure, they might throw a cup of beer at you or something worse, but they can get put in jail for that. Whereas with comedy, especially if you’re trying to be subtle, you leave these huge open silences, sometimes longer than a couple of sentences, and people, they can sense that nothing is stopping them from being a part of the show. Maybe they showed up with this idea that all comedy is audience-interactive and you’re kind of cheating them, and so they’re like, “All right, I’ve got to turn this show around. That’s my job.” And alcohol does that magical thing where they forget they’re in a place where they’re supposed to have manners.
AVC: You’ve said at your shows and on your blog that the Lakeshore has been a great venue for you as a comedian. How has its closing affected you?
DT: Well, we still have good clubs, but the clubs that are still around can only put so much energy into booking local acts that have a personality that meshes with the headliner. I mean, almost all comedy clubs, I mean like 90 percent are just like, “Well, I got these features I can call and I got these headliners I can call. I’m just going to go off of availability, because I got too many people to juggle.” And the Lakeshore was all about that. They would put up people like James Fritz with Doug Stanhope,which was the absolute best marriage of a local comedian opening for a big headlining act. They were doing that for me all the frickin’ time. I don’t have a problem with the other local clubs, but there’s nobody going to that point. When I talk about the comedians who do inspire me and who made me want to make a leap to stand-up, it just so happens they were the style of Lakeshore. Those were comedians who weren’t previously coming to Chicago at all. So, kind of a bummer.
AVC: You’ve been looking for work in L.A., right?
DT: I’ve been trying for about two and a half years. Since I started stand-up, I’m like, “Oh, this is perfect. Perfect transition.” But I’ve done showcases, where people have taken my kit and my kit’s got my spec scripts in it. “Here’s just some of the spec scripts I’ve written. I’ve also got a pilot. I’m working on a screenplay. I’ve got novel manuscripts. I’ve got all this stuff.” And nobody—if you don’t live in L.A., they don’t care. They really don’t care. They’re like, “All right, well, when are you moving out here?” So that’s a hitch. It used to be that Improv Olympic would have showcases for Saturday Night Live and they still do, but pretty much Charna Halpern at iO is the only person pimping out Chicago people to the coasts. Like, we had the showcase show at the Lincoln Lodge last December. That was exciting, because the booker for The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien was there, as well as a guy from 3 Arts out in L.A. I had just auditioned for Conan, so this is like my second audition for Conan in a week. I was like, “Oh, here we go. Here we go.” But those guys don’t call you back. [Laughs.] They’ll talk to you after the show and be like, “Oh my God, man, I love you. Can I have your kit? I’m going to read your spec. Let’s talk.” And then they’ll e-mail you and be like, “Yeah, so when are you moving out here?” And if you say you’re doing exploratory trips until you can find a job, that’s the end of the conversation. They don’t even say “Sorry.” They’ll delete your correspondence.
AVC: Kyle Kinane said you eventually hit a ceiling in terms of how much you can do here, before moving to L.A. Do you feel the same?
DT: He’s 100-percent correct. I feel like that headlining weekend I had at the Lakeshore was a millimeter below that ceiling and whether or not I’ve hit it, I don’t know, but I’ve definitely can smell the streaks on the glass of the people who’ve slammed up against it before me.