Indie comedy label Stand Up! has produced the edgiest comedy in the country
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, 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.
"At the record store, I had known distributors, and through the Concert and Dance Committee, I had known a lot of local bands," he says. "The thought dawned on me that maybe I could put these two things together."
After borrowing $500 from a friend and another $500 from his brother, Schlissel put it together with a grand of his own and pressed 1,000 CDs for a Lincoln band called Such Sweet Thunder. Within three months, the album, called Redneck, had paid itself off. Within three more, every copy was sold.
"I thought to myself, 'There's something to this. Maybe I can keep doing it.'"
Schlissel's first indie label, dubbed "-ismist Records," was born. During the next seven years, -ismist would churn out some 70 records, mostly from local bands with names like Fifty Tons of Black Terror. During an excursion to Des Moines in 1996, Schlissel scoped two nights' worth of shows at a venue called the Safari Club. There he met a young Des Moines musician who insisted Schlissel take his band's self-released CD and consider it for distribution.
As he drove home along I-80, a lonely stretch of concrete splitting the barren western Iowa blandscape, Schlissel popped in the CD and gave it a listen.
"My label really didn't have a distinct sound, but I liked what I heard," he says. "So I got in touch with them and we struck up a deal for distribution."
The album was called Mate.Feed.Kill.Repeat, by a band named Slipknot. Within two years, the group was cashing in on the late-'90s nu metal craze, and soon signed on to major label Roadrunner Records, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group.
"After they got signed, they just weren't interested in dealing with small fries that had helped them," says Schlissel. "So that relationship broke up during 1998."
The Slipknot fallout marked the beginning of the end for Schlissel's foray in the music biz—no more indie rock, no more Fifty Tons of Black Terror. Soon, a different kind of Black would change the label's direction.
• • • • •
DURING HIS TIME heading -ismist, Schlissel was still a working stiff in Lincoln doing tech support, pulling down less than 20 grand a year. In August of 1998—just two days before his planned trip with his fiancée to the Twin Cities to visit her friends—he was laid off. The couple decided to make the move northward. By Thanksgiving, Schlissel had landed another tech support job at AdaptTech, a software company in Hudson, Wisconsin.
On a March evening, as Schlissel made the 30-mile drive home, a radio DJ grabbed his ear:
"From Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Lewis Black will be performing at Minneapolis's Acme Comedy Club for one weekend only!"
Once he got back to his apartment, Schlissel, still new to town, called up the club to get directions. Armed with a notepad and stack of -ismist records, he made his way to the venerable North Loop comedy club. Once there, he handed the portfolio, along with a handwritten note to Black, to an usher.
After the show was over, Schlissel walked toward the exit, convinced he had no chance of meeting Black face-to-face. But the curmudgeonly satirist was still at the bar, glass of scotch twinkling in hand.
"I went up to him and asked him if he got the stuff," says Schlissel. "He didn't know who I was or anything, and said no. I quickly pitched him on the idea and he said, 'Yeah, why not?' Comedy Central had just passed on working with him at the time, Warner Bros. had just passed on working with him at the time. He was keen to do it and I was just there."
Schlissel left the club feeling chipper. He had a big-name act (informally) committed to release an album on his comedy label. Having gotten Black's manager's phone number from Acme owner Louis Lee, Schlissel touched base with Black every two weeks for the next eight months.
John Machnik, a recording engineer in Madison, Wisconsin, was a friend of Schlissel's and owned a studio. A week before Thanksgiving of 1999, Black was scheduled to perform at Laugh Lines Comedy Club in Madison. The stars were aligned. It was time.
The result was Lewis Black's well-received CD debut, The White Album (the LP parodies the Beatles' album of the same name right down to the cover's font style), a smorgasbord of observational riffage. His vintage has-the-whole-world-gone-crazy?! rage was in full throat. But this was during the halcyon pre-9/11 days, so the targets were fairly innocuous: sun block, IHOP, the Heaven's Gate cult. The Monica Lewinsky fiasco and ensuing impeachment proceedings were what passed for government corruption during those heady days, and Black took the opportunity to blast President Clinton's semantic sidestepping.
"Oral sex has to be adultery, or I spent a lot of money in therapy for nothing!" he cries. "If curling is an Olympic sport, then oral sex is adultery."
To date, the album has sold more than 37,000 copies, an impressive number for an indie label (especially considering that Schlissel is the label's only full-time employee). There were other benefits to the comedy production racket.
"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.
• • • • •
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.
• • • • •
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.
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."
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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