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

Fittingly, Hedberg's last album, Mitch All Together, was recorded at Acme Comedy Club in Minneapolis in late 2003. Comedy Central hired Schlissel to record the performance. ("I hadn't known him well, but I dealt with him during those recording sessions and he was a real sweetheart of a guy," recalls Schlissel.)

Acme itself, located in the Warehouse District, is considered something of a bellwether of American standup; it showcases both big-name, national touring acts and more underground fare. Owned and managed by Louis Lee, the 290-capacity venue has hosted many a Stand Up! album recording and is highly venerated within the business.

"Acme just has a reputation among comics as being the shit," says veteran Tim Slagle, a Chicago-based comic who recorded his 2004 album Europa with Stand Up!. "It's the place to play in the Upper Midwest, largely because Louis [Lee] looks at comedy as an art form. Others view it more like an all-you-can-eat buffet to get you in the door and buy drinks."

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

Lee has seen plenty during the 20-plus years he's been in the scene. In the late '80s, spurred by the ubiquity of star-making sitcoms like Seinfeld and Roseanne, a glut of comedy overtook the nation. In 1989, the Twin Cities metro area was home to six comedy clubs. As the supply increased, the quality waned. It now seemed that every class clown and office crack-up thought they could break into the business. Oversaturation inevitably followed. In 1992, Spy magazine pejoratively christened standup "the disco of the '90s."

"With so many clubs in town, there were just not enough high-quality acts to fill them up," says Lee. "The headliners became more and more mediocre. Many were simply not ready."

The ensuing backlash resulted in clubs all over the country going out of business. Today, just two comedy clubs, Acme and the Joke Joint in Bloomington, remain in the Twin Cities.

This decade has seen an upswing. Audiences weaned on Comedy Central as teenagers during the '90s are gravitating toward unique voices, says Lee.

"It's changed drastically since around 2001. Now you have a lot more niche comics. There's been a realization among comics that you have to establish your own style and voice. And that's healthy. It's not like the '90s, when a lot of comics were just trying to be somebody they admire."

As the general attitude changed, so have the venues. During his "Let America Laugh" tour in 2002, David Cross eschewed traditional comedy clubs in favor of rock clubs. The notion caught on. In 2005, The Comedians of Comedy tour followed suit. So has Stanhope, hence the Triple Rock shows. ("Acme had audiences that were such poster-child dullards that you'd think you were working Garrison Keillor's suicide wake.")

By late 2005, the political winds had shifted dramatically. Not unlike a technique for housebreaking an errant puppy, the Hurricane Katrina boondoggle shoved America's face into the conspicuous turd on the rug that is the Bush administration's ineptitude. The president's approval rating dipped accordingly and material that was once considered subversive now seemed mainstream, even hackneyed.

"Back then it was fun to get 'em all riled up, yet frustrating to see what an incredible minority I was in," says Stanhope. "Now everyone agrees, but it's too late. I already learned to hate you back when you were saluting in lockstep, and I'm bitter."

• • • • •

BELLIED UP TO THE BAR at Acme, Schlissel washes down the last of his fries with a bottle of root beer. His guy Tim Slagle is performing in front of 250 people on the other side of the wall. By the sounds of it, he's killing.

"The thing about comedy is that it's always been treated as the bastard child of the recording industry, because it isn't necessarily a glamorous, sexy thing for a recording label," Schlissel says, grabbing a napkin to wipe the grease off his hands. "It isn't Britney Spears. It isn't the White Stripes. It doesn't sell millions of copies, unless you are a rare, breakthrough artist."

Stand Up!'s number-one seller to date is Lewis Black's 2002 opus The End of the Universe, which has sold over 50,000 copies. A sizeable number, especially for an indie, but it's dwarfed in comparison to the mass-appeal comics, who are almost invariably signed to heavyweights Comedy Central Records or Warner Bros. Dane Cook's Retaliation, on Comedy Central Records, has sold 1.3 million copies. Jeff Foxworthy's 1994 album You Might Be a Redneck If..., put out by Warner Bros., has gone triple platinum (more than three million sold).

But Schlissel will tell you it's not about record sales. It's about the love of the craft.

In 2003, after collaborating on three albums, Schlissel lost his biggest and first act. Lewis Black was off to the more lucrative pastures of Comedy Central Records.

"It was tough news," says Schlissel. "He was great—almost apologetic—about it. I couldn't blame him."

Schlissel stayed on board to produce Rules of Enragement, Black's first album with Comedy Central Records. It was performed at Acme.

Two years after Rules, Black brought Schlissel on board to produce his September 24, 2005, appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The result was The Carnegie Hall Performance, an 85-minute, two-disc tour-de-force of topical skewering and misanthropic rage. Seventeen months later, at the 49th Grammy Awards, the recording won Best Comedy Album, besting the likes of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour and Weird Al Yankovic.

A Grammy now sits atop Schlissel's entertainment center in suburban Minneapolis.

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