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

"You're dealing with less ego, fewer personalities than when you're working with bands," says Schlissel. "You're not always fighting to prove yourself. Doing comedy CDs was more rewarding spiritually than dealing with bands. The comedians seemed to get that whole DIY thing easier. Which is ironic."

Now focusing exclusively on standup comedy and looking to better brand his label, Schlissel ditched the "-ismist" moniker. He hired illustrator Shepard Fairey, best known for designing the "André the Giant Has a Posse" 1989 sticker campaign, to craft a logo. Stand Up! Records was born.

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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

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For video of the comics mentioned in this story and more, see Matt Snyders' REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK.

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THROUGH LEWIS BLACK'S then-manager, Schlissel got in touch with Stanhope, a booze-drenched nihilist known for his lewd anecdotes (think transvestite hookers) and irreverent yet trenchant social critiques. The venture produced two albums in 2001—Sicko and Something to Take the Edge Off—which Schlissel mixed and edited with meticulous care.

"He's slow as fuck," complains Stanhope, tongue presumably in cheek. "He says it's because he's a perfectionist, which is extra-irritating because I am not. I have no qualms putting out an inferior product so long as it's put out quickly and haphazardly. Dan cockblocks those efforts."

With two highly regarded acts on the label, it was time for expansion. Next came projects from vets Jimmy Shubert and Rich Kronfeld, whose Minneapolis-based public access show Let's Bowl! was picked up by Comedy Central in 2001.

The attacks on September 11 "changed everything," as the cliché goes, and comedy felt the effects more acutely than any other branch of showbiz. Greg Proops—who's recorded two politically charged albums with Stand Up! but is probably better known as the bespectacled improvisationalist on Whose Line Is It Anyway?—recalls the politically prickly atmosphere.

"For a year, the audience was really frightened and very unreceptive to certain material," he says. "For comedians, that's tough, because it goes against the very fabric of what we're made of. We're supposed to make fun of authority, to be jesters. A good jester never says, 'I can't go there; that's too controversial.'"

A mere 30 days after the attacks, when Bush's approval rating was at an Orwellian 92 percent and opposition to the Afghanistan invasion was regarded as virtually treasonous, Stanhope took the stage at the Laff Stop in Houston to record his third Stand Up! album, Die Laughing. His opening line on the recording concisely summed up 8 percent of the country's misgivings.

"George Bush has told us to go back to our normal lives and go back to what we used to do," Stanhope grumbles. "So I've gone back to thinking that George Bush is a soft-headed tit and a danger to all of us."

The crowd's laughter is sparse and sprinkled with applause. It sounds as if the audience is cheering not so much the substance of the joke, but rather the audacity required to say it. Soon, comedy aficionados the world over were heralding Stanhope as the heir apparent to Bill Hicks.

The comparison is reinforced by Stanhope's DVD work with Sacred Cow productions. The company is headed by Kevin Booth, a lifelong friend of Hicks's who produced the late comic's early work. Both Hicks and Stanhope share the same anti-authority bent, but Schlissel is hesitant to endorse the comparison.

"While Doug and Bill Hicks cover a lot of the same material, there is a lot of individual take on that," he says. "To say that they're generally alike, while it has some validity, it does damage to both the memory of Bill Hicks and to what Doug does as a stage performer."

Expanding the scope of Stand Up!, Schlissel went on to license the vinyl rights from legendary indie label Sub Pop Records for David Cross's propaganda-lampooning, Grammy-nominated debut, Shut Up, You Fucking Baby. The following year, Stand Up! showed that edgy comedy wasn't just a boys' game when it struck deals with Rene Hicks and Duluth native Maria Bamford. (You might know Bamford as the purple-haired, mouse-voiced foil to Zack Galifinakis, Patton Oswalt, and Brian Posehn on the documentary Comedians of Comedy.) Judy Gold came on board a year later.

Rounding out the stable are Andy Andrist and Sean Rouse (both protégés of Stanhope), the Sklar twins, Tom Rhodes, Jonathan Katz, Jim David, Marc Maron (former co-host of Air America's Morning Sedition), Tim Slagle (a conservative-friendly libertarian), John Bowman (whom Schlissel says is the most underrated comic he's worked with), and rabid wild man Rick Shapiro, a former New York junkie/prostitute whose schizoid performance at the 2007 Edinburgh Fringe Festival elicited comparisons to Iggy Pop and Lenny Bruce.

None of these comics enjoys the level of mainstream success that has greeted Dane Cook or Larry the Cable Guy. Then again, saboteurs rarely receive popular acclaim.

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IN MANY RESPECTS, it's fitting that the country's most respected indie comedy label should be based in Minneapolis: The Twin Cities boast a deceptively fertile comedy scene, as evidenced by the slew of respected acts that got their start here. In addition to the above-mentioned Bamford and Kronfeld, home-grown acts include Louie Anderson, Nick Swardson, Last Comic Standing runner-up Dave Mordal, and the late Mitch Hedberg, whose hippie-stoner-dude persona and surrealist one-liners made him a cult favorite before his untimely death from heroin addiction in 2005.

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