Indie comedy label Stand Up! has produced the edgiest comedy in the country

The Twin Cities-based laugh factory offers smart hope in dumb times

It's 8:30 p.m. at the Triple Rock Social Club and Doug Stanhope is on in 30 minutes.

For the third April in a row, the iconoclastic pied piper and self-proclaimed "deadbeat hero" is playing the West Bank rock venue. Given his two-season stint opposite Joe Rogan on Comedy Central's The Man Show—not to mention his hosting a 2004 Girls Gone Wild video ("Show us where babies feed!")—you might be forgiven for assuming the 41-year-old is a bland, dunce-pandering hack...and not one of the most critically acclaimed and provocative comedians in the country.

On this unseasonably frosty night, fans running the gamut from bookish alt-geeks to boisterous rabble-rousers file into the stage room as Jello Biafra wails from the jukebox about lynching the landlord. Outside, the hanging mist and dropping temperature portend sleet; it's the kind of night conducive to cruel laughter.

Dan Schlissel
Nick Vlcek
Dan Schlissel
Clockwise from top left: Lewis Black, Doug Stanhope, David Cross, Greg Proops
Clockwise from top left: Lewis Black, Doug Stanhope, David Cross, Greg Proops

Dan Schlissel, the lumbering founder of Stand Up! Records, shuffles back and forth between backstage and the main room. His slacker appearance—dark unkempt beard and scraggly mane, a navy blue flannel shirt worn over a black iPod shirt—contrasts sharply with his brisk, purposeful movements.

"We're actually gonna record this tonight," he says, turning his attention to the cockpit of soundboards and wires near the back of the room. "We'll see what kind of material we get."

This is all unbeknownst to Stanhope.

"If he knew, it might fuck up his performance," Schlissel explains.

At 9:45, Stanhope finally appears, wearing what appears to be a dark cotton trench coat over bib overalls, complete with a stocking hat.

"I'm not a popular comic," he confesses. "I'm more of a fetish comic: Not a lot of people are jacking off to it, but those who do drive a long way."

For the next hour, Stanhope banters with the audience, downs shots onstage, and unleashes impassioned, often raunchy rants.

Schlissel's label, which has put out five Stanhope albums, specializes in a particular breed of comedy. Not the contrived "what's the deal with...?" escapism. More gritty. More earnest. The comics signed to the label past and present tend to be political and self-aware, but never self-conscious. Some of them are semi-mainstream and widely known (Lewis Black and David Cross), while others (Rick Shapiro) possess a deranged, fuck-all intensity that seems to repel anyone who's never been arrested. These comics prefer their sacred cows served bloody.

• • • • •

STAND UP! RECORDS' storage room is tucked into the basement of an unassuming northeast Minneapolis warehouse. The dilapidated brick exterior and exposed piping drip with a palpable DIY ethos. Hundreds of cardboard containers the size of shoeboxes have been stacked along the walls of the rectangular, warehouse-like room. In the far corner, Schlissel sits behind a desk conducting business.

"I can't really edit here, because my neighbor is a cabinet maker," he says. As if on cue, unidentifiable machinery across the hall ratchets up its agonized scream before finally puttering silent.

Born in Massachusetts, Schlissel moved up and down the East Coast with his family. They frequently visited his aunt and uncle living in the Bronx. During these trips, his uncle and parents would head downtown and catch a show or two in Manhattan, leaving his aunt to mind Schlissel and his two cousins. This is when a five-year-old Schlissel first got the comedy bug.

Knowingly in breach of his 8 p.m. bedtime, he snuck glimpses of Saturday Night Live during the much-lauded first season featuring Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, and John Belushi. Weeknight Johnny Carson monologues became a staple.

When Schlissel was 12, the family settled in rural Kearney, Nebraska—not the most likely (or pleasant) destination for the son of a Holocaust-survivor father and a native Israeli mother. The goy yokelry made no attempt to conceal their anti-Semitism.

"It was pretty explicit," recalls Schlissel. "It was usually 'Hey, kike,' followed by a beating. I couldn't get away fast enough.I tend to think of Kearney as a big shithole that should be plowed over with salt."

Now an unwitting outcast, Schlissel gravitated toward artists with worldviews that reflected that experience, acts with more bile and more forceful points of view: George Carlin with his nimble linguistic skewering of American prudery, Sam Kinison and his guttural disregard for decorum, and Bill Hicks, a brooding political philosopher who spent the bulk of his 32 years on Earth posing as a standup comic.

"My first exposure to Bill Hicks was on HBO," says Schlissel. "As a teen, I was taken aback by the amazing amount of bitterness and anger beneath the surface. That anger really spoke to me."

Schlissel found relief at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, which he describes as "liberation." No more ass-beatings. No more blatant anti-Semitism. He was about to become a record executive.

• • • • •

THE SEED FOR WHAT would blossom into Stand Up! was planted in 1992, while Schlissel was still living in the dorms pursuing a physics degree. Through his off-campus work at a local record store called Feedback, Schlissel became entrenched in the local music scene. And as a member of the university's Concert and Dance Committee, he helped book some small yet highly regarded touring acts, such as Seaweed and lefty hardcore darlings Fugazi.

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