A Man Walks Into A Bar

Do I look like I'm laughing? Comedy impresario Dan Schlissel
Bill Kelley

Saturday night isn't for amateurs. Dan Schlissel, founder and head of Stand Up! Records, can show a reveler how to do things right: how to dowse for hassle-free parking spaces, what routes steer you clear of the downtown party stampede. Most important, at the moment he's conjured up the closest thing to box seats that the Acme Comedy Company has to offer. And so we're well appointed to watch Manhattan-based comic Jim David during his second sold-out show of the night.

David's act homes in on our beloved president with salvo after salvo: "We haven't found the weapons of mass destruction yet," he quips, "but don't worry, we'll put them there." David segues from the administration's lack of integrity to its lack of intelligence: "George Bush outlined his plan for postwar Iraq. Then he colored it." The routine finds sympathetic ears. Even Schlissel is laughing, and it takes a lot to make him laugh. In the course of making Stand Up! one of the most prominent comedy labels in the country, he's seen a lot of comedians, and presumably heard a lot of Bush jokes, too.

Acme, which Schlissel describes as "top of the heap in Minneapolis," has been the venue of choice for all the acts on Stand Up's roster. This intriguing rogues' gallery of potty-mouths and malcontents includes Lewis Black; René Hicks, whose Let's Roll was recorded at Acme last year and who returns this week; and the Sklar Brothers, whom Schlissel will be recording live here in March. Even when the headliner isn't one of his own, he's at the club every Saturday night, half scouting, half schmoozing.

As a result, the big, burly, and intense-looking Schlissel can walk around this joint like Tony Soprano at the Bada Bing. Staff and management greet him warmly, and he's on the permanent guest list. So at home in the club's subterranean environs is Schlissel that it seems perfectly natural when he ducks backstage after the show to greet the headliner. He's also checking in to make sure that a particularly pernicious heckler whom David pretty much pounded into the ground during his act isn't intending to escalate the encounter at closer range.

As it turns out, David is perfectly safe. "Jim does his own records; does a pretty good job, too--good sound, good graphics," Schlissel says as we leave the club and squeeze into his white '96 Grand Am. "A lot of comics just make a mini-disc, dub a bunch of CD-Rs from it, and slap on some kind of awful cover. With Stand Up!, I try to apply the highest standards possible, which is why I have people like [Obey Giant creator] Shep Fairey and [poster-art giant] Frank Kozik do the graphics and why I put so much work into the production. The artists on my label might not be quite as funny as Chris Rock, but their records look and sound much better."

Apparently, Schlissel is not alone in his assessment of the label. Lewis Black's White Album, Stand Up!'s biggest hit to date, sold some 20,000 copies--very respectable for an indie label. And by releasing David Cross's Shut Up You Fucking Baby on vinyl (SubPop did the CDs), Schlissel inadvertently landed himself in Grammy-nominee country--a surprising place to be. With his shock of curly dark hair, full beard, glasses, and earnest manner, Schlissel could pass for a physicist if you threw a lab coat on him. As it turns out, he majored in physics at the University of Nebraska. After school, he lingered in Lincoln for a while, working in the computer industry and running an indie-rock label, Ismist. He'd released around 70 records under the Ismist imprint when his most promising act, Slipknot, dumped the label. Moving here in '98 improved Schlissel's luck; the first act he signed to Stand Up! was Lewis Black.

We head next to another of Schlissel's Saturday night haunts, Grumpy's, where Schlissel is supposed to be running into an artist to pick up some cover illustrations. Yet the bar isn't quite itself this evening. A band, hired by the organizers of a half-fizzled private party, is playing so loudly that conversation is impossible. Schlissel's artwork is nowhere in sight. We have no reason to linger. Schlissel drains a quick Grain Belt, makes a call, and it's off to Eli's.

As he starts the car, he observes, "What bugs me most about comedy is the way it's perceived as the entry-level rung of show business. You hear these industry types talking about a comic and they're like, 'He's young, he's good-looking; maybe we can get him a development deal.' They have no respect for the art of comedy itself."

Eli's is a bit quieter than Grumpy's--and a lot more crowded. It even has rock stars: Jayhawks bassist Marc Perlman is holding court on a corner barstool, while Astronaut Wife founder Christian Erickson converses with friends at a table a few feet away. We find a pair of stools toward the back of the long, narrow room. Though Schlissel started out releasing music, he professes to having been a comedophile as far back as he can remember. "I learned Hebrew before I learned English," he says. "My parents had these records by this Hebrew skit comedy team. Someday, I will inherit them." The embryonic impresario nurtured an early love of Cosby's work. "But Eddie Murphy's Raw," he adds, "was the first thing that really opened me up to comedy's possibilities." Today, he cites Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks as all-time favorites.

By the time the lights go up at Eli's, Schlissel has located his artist. We drive to meet him at yet another of Schlissel's whistle-stops, a downtown bar where he's welcome after hours. It's just us, the artist, and the staff. Even though no one is drinking in the darkened room, we hang out with gusto.

"I find that as I work in comedy more," Schlissel notes, "the more it takes to make me actually laugh. I'll sit there and listen to a joke and go, 'That's funny,' but I won't necessarily laugh. Seeing the wizard behind the curtain has kind of taken away some of the magic of it. But I don't think it's ruined my taste."

By the time we leave, it's after 4:00 a.m. Schlissel has yet another stop to make.

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