Dan Telfer is a delightful Chicago-based comedian whose first full-length album, Tendrils of Ruin, was just recently released. You may also know him for hosting The AV Club‘s Pop Pilgrims, for producing Chicago Underground Comedy, or perhaps for one of his most-beloved riffs on the best dinosaur.
How does putting together a set for a comedy album differ from putting together a regular comedy set?
I knew that whatever material ended up on the album I’d want to send it off to my personal comedy Grey Havens. I would normally screw around with the audience or do new material in the middle of a long set, but I mostly gathered these joke babies and laid them down to sleep. FOREVER. Sorry, I don’t know how that got so dark. I mean, I’d have loved to do more loose stuff on the album, but I feel like most people’s perception of me is that I scream extemporaneously about dinosaurs all day, and I really wanted to make this album a tribute to what a control freak I can be.
What comedy albums influenced you most?
For this recording, Maria Bamford’s Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome especially. The way that album breaks itself into chapters is really impressive. It has movements, even! So very fancy.
You open for Marc Maron shortly: Do you tailor a set differently when you’re an opener vs. when you’re performing in another capacity? Or do you always just do your best with the time given?
If you’re setting a tone for the next comedian, you can do some real damage if you tank. Sometimes if I know a headliner reasonably well it doesn’t matter, but if I’m the last one performing I will sometimes dig a hole for myself just to have fun digging out. Plus, you know, these folks are all there to see Marc.
You can’t always assume people show up excited to see the opener. Your mere presence can be a challenge for some people. We live in an era where people can find the exact comedian of their dreams, doing exactly the comedy they want to do through their podcasts on the internet. A local comedian getting between that kind of dedicated crowd and their ideal comic has to work not to get naive or complacent.
And if I eat a lot of carbs before a show I have to be careful. Burritos make me soooo complacent!
What do you think are some of the more unfortunate trends in standup right now, either in terms of style or content?
Stand-up, as an art form, has some wonderful built-in devices to curb unfortunate trends: The chilling silence of an audience not amused is a million kinds of feedback at once. I don’t need to take a stand on what I don’t like to see. If you watch enough fellow comics do annoying or tedious stuff, you’ll see them do it to silence eventually, and that look in their eyes when they realize “OH SH*T THIS WAS A TERRIBLE IDEA FROM THE BEGINNING” is priceless.
Based on the criticism Daniel Tosh and Dane Cook have received lately, do you believe it’s unfair for comedians to be criticized for material they’re still working out?
Whether comedians like it or not, public criticism is here to stay. Mostly we don’t like it. So there are growing pains to be had. I think the most frustrating thing from a comedian’s point of view is, some of the notable “joke policing” right now is just so inarticulate. “Gee whiz, I’m not trying to get millions of Tumblr re-blogs, but if I must accept that fate in order to get the word out about this bad joke that horrified me then so be it!” You’d think the line “comedy is subjective” would be a cliché by now, but I don’t think a lot of people really know what that means. I hope we can find a way for comedians to remember the point of comedy and for audiences to stop trying to take focus away from the performer.
We both review podcasts for the AV Club. If you’re like me, you’ve encountered some awkwardness from podcasters who feel like we do them a disservice if we don’t write them glowing reviews week to week. What message do you have for readers or podcasters on what goes into reviewing the shows?
Nobody continually reviews a podcast unless they want to be that show’s advocate and help spread its popularity. If you get a review that makes you feel gross, your advocate wanted to like it and doesn’t hate you. Except that one podcast hosted by that sensitive comedian, everyone hates that podcast. Just kidding, every podcast is the one hosted by a sensitive comedian.
Which podcasts do you enjoy that you don’t review?
Some Chicago comedy ones that deserve more listeners are This Week In Despair, You Could Be Dead, and a new one called Tomefoolery, where stand-up comics and improv/sketch types discuss literature together. I do review my favorite though, Stuff You Missed In History Class. It’s kind of amazing how good it is.
How do you know which jokes to reserve for your act vs. which ones are good for Twitter or other venues? Or do they all go into the same pot?
I’ve experimented with doing jokes in both places and found, at least for the people who come see me perform and follow me on Twitter, that absolutely nobody notices or gives a sh*t. I perform it differently and often more theatrically if I try it onstage, and so few people read tweets more than an hour old. It’s easy to use Twitter for whatever you want. It’s a comedian’s dream, that site.
What Pop Pilgrimages were the most surprising or enlightening?
I was just dumbstruck by the New Orleans, Seattle and Portland areas. It was my first time in all those places. The walking tour of New Orleans’ Treme neighborhood was amazing. I was nervous the small park outside Kurt Cobain’s house would feel ghoulish, but it’s actually very neutral and contemplative and fitting. And I had several moments driving from Portland to Eugene where the whole car full of people wanted to strangle me because I was gasping at mountains for hours straight. And that’s how everyone came to call me Gaspy Mountain Telfer.
Where are your favorite places to perform in Chicago?
The Mayne Stage and Up Comedy Club are very high tech and brilliantly laid out. Performing and watching in those places is a privilege I wish I could enjoy more often. And I love rock clubs like The Beat Kitchen and The Hideout. One local room I am completely in love with is Entertaining Julia out of the Town Hall Pub. It’s a free show in a tiny railroad bar and the audience is so loyal. You can’t pull any cheesy club-style bullsh*t there. You see every face and they see you sweating under the track lighting, and some very honest and crazy stuff happens. I feel like my best bits don’t really work until I can make them work there. Also there’s vegan jerky there.
Who are some comedians that most people probably don’t know about but should?
Austin: Ramin Nazer, Bryan Gutman and Kerri Lendo.
Minneapolis: Mary Mack and Tim Harmston.
Seattle: Bryan Cook.
San Francisco: Mike Drucker.
Chicago: OK, I feel like this is even harder because maybe the only people who read this will be my Chicago comedy friends. Let’s skip those obvious local legends that have been crushing for five to ten years and go for Chicago people I only just realized are hilarious this year and wish I figured it out sooner: Dave Stinton, Kristin Clifford, Rhea Butcher, Stephanie Hasz, Katie McVay, Caitlin Bergh, Cody Melcher and Peter-John Byrnes. There are so many in Chicago. It’s bonkers. If you live here you cannot possibly know how many geniuses are going up every night.
Are there any other sibling teams that you know of in Chicago who challenge you and your brother Robbie in terms of creativity and hilarity?
I think calling us a team is a major stretch since we perform together about once every two years. The Puterbaugh Sisters could annihilate us. My brother is very talented, but what we do is pretty different. Check out his poetry-variety show The Encyclopedia Show. He’s my little brother but he has this huge cult of shouting slam poetry people that worships him and totally humbles me. I’m better at video games than him though, and I hope he remembers how I crushed him at Super Mario Kart in high school every time he tries to sleep at night.
What did your parents do to generate not one but two highly entertaining individuals?
Let us watch Ghostbusters and Star Wars three times a day for ten years.
How does it feel to be the 322nd person interviewed for Zulkey.com/WBEZ?
Asymmetrical, but in a good way.