Preface to ¡SATIRISTAS!

¡SATIRISTAS! Below is the preface to my new book ¡SATIRISTAS!, a collaboration with comic and filmmaker Paul Provenza, featuring my portraiture of satirists and interviews by Paul. It was published in the spring of 2010 by HarperCollins.

I’ve always respected the disrespectful. When I was a child, the hilarious impudence of Bugs Bunny, Mad magazine, and Hawkeye Pierce whet my appetite for the greater blasphemies of George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. When San Francisco became the flashpoint of the comedy boom of the eighties, I dove into the local scene with a zeal that most of my teenage peers had for music. But I wasn’t interested in what was simply silly, derogatory, or observant. I wanted insight and bite, with savage wit and a scowl at authority and convention. Stand-up became my punk rock.

Twenty-five years after I saw my first live stand-up show at thirteen, seventeen years after I joined the staff of the Holy City Zoo comedy club at twenty-one, and after I’ve been its most prolific portrait artist for about ten years, this book is my love-letter to comedy.

A headshot differs from a portrait in that a good portrait captures the stature and spirit of its subject as a testament of who he or she is in the world. A headshot is a desperate cry for attention. It’s an image designed to mask the subject’s need for work and love with an attitude, gesture, or look that might be marketable.
Marc Maron

Many years after I started photographing comics, Marc Maron summed up the philosophy I’d never quite put into words. I came to recognize that my aesthetic was created in reaction against the world of hack headshots, and was forged by the ubiquitous black-and-white eight-by-tens of open-mouthed muggers that encircled most comedy clubs. Their banality made me all the more drawn to the engaged honesty of August Sander and the elegant composition of Arnold Newman.
I began to wed my two passions, comedy and photography, while on staff at the Holy City Zoo comedy club. I took two photos that changed the course of my career, and neither were portraits: Mike Meehan onstage, and Bob Rubin off. In the supposedly jovial world of comedy, both revealed a dark and brutal vision.

Meehan said it was his favorite photo of himself, and Rubin said his hungover, daylight agony during a morning radio broadcast said all that needed to be said about stand-up.

I was inspired by their support, and recognized that there were other levels to these performers, which were rarely shown. I set out to create work that elevates the subject, and I think my portraits represent how I feel about comics: respectful, enamored, appreciative. I’m not asking the monkey to dance.

I will admit to not being a very “conceptual” photographer. While working with comedians would seem to be fertile ground for that kind of thing, I don’t very often create gag photos, though there are some exceptions. I never want to make my subjects uncomfortable. Greg Proops told me that in his last shoot the photographer wanted to put him in giant shoes. I could feel his distain, and knew that my smoky noir shot would certainly suit him better. Comics, by definition, need approval from the audience, but I want approval from them—the world’s greatest critics.

In general, stand-up comics hate to do photo shoots, while sketch performers pose at the sound of the camera bag unzipping. Sometimes the challenge is to draw out their true character, or sometimes it’s to tame the spaz. I don’t think portraits necessarily need to have something happening in them. I’m more interested in showing who someone is than in a concept or joke. Famous comedians in particular are used to photographers wanting them to “just do something crazy!”—which is especially annoying to comics who view themselves as social commentators rather than clowns. When my subjects ask me, “What am I supposed to be doing?” I reply, “Nothing. Just be here.” It manifests a stillness and relaxation, and I get to feel all Zen and shit.

I’ve often been told that I capture the “essence” of comics, which is a great compliment, and I’ve tried to break down why. My intimacy with the comedy world allows me to pick locations that are appropriate, but it is most influential in the edit, when I get to choose just one frame to encapsulate a comic mind. The great music photographer Jim Marshall taught me very early that the key to the guarded door of celebrity photography is trust. Without it, you don’t get in. Betray it, and the drawbridge is raised and you are thrown to the alligators. I can honestly state that I have never taken a celebrity or performer’s photo offstage without their cooperation (and I have a feverish contempt for paparazzi). The other main factor is my shooting style itself, which is built for both comfort and speed. By far the most common comment I get after a shoot is “That was painless,” which is something I’ve come to pride myself on.

My luxury is that the portraits are the purpose. With this work, I’m not shooting for casting directors, magazine editors, or managers, but for exhibitions, this book, and the artists themselves.

*****************

I met Paul Provenza on my first night at a comedy festival in Sydney. In a dodgy King’s Cross pub, over many pints and smokes, we bonded over our admiration of Dana Gould and Maria Bamford. Over the next week, I came to know the irreverent intersection of intellectual and scatological that is also known as Provenz. I’ve never met anyone who knows as much about comedy as Paul, who floats freely between the rarefied air of network late-night, down to the New York club scene, to the subterranean stages of Edinburgh. And he doesn’t give a fuck if you like what he says or not.

At the time I was on my seemingly continuous quest to find a publisher for a book of my comedian portraits. I soon realized that Paul, as comedy’s insider inquisitor, would be the perfect person to interview the people in the book. He was game, but we needed a bit more focus rather than just comedy in general.

When we narrowed the scope to satirists, the preferred comic subset for both of us, we were able to quickly make a master wish-list of those we wanted to include; we got probably 90 percent of them, and many others along the way. While some of my favorite comics, like Stephen Wright, had to be excluded, the wide world of satirists is populated with a unique and dynamic sort.

Over the years I’ve had some incredible privileges with comedy legends: drinking wine with Tommy Smothers on his vineyard; doing Cheech & Chong’s first portrait session in twenty-five years; exploring the multiple airport hangars of Jay Leno’s car collection; being invited to shoot inside the homes of Tom Lehrer, Fred Willard, and Jello Biafra; and shooting both Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert in their offices (on the same day). I’ve had the exalted rock awesomeness of hanging backstage with Spinal Tap and Tenacious D, and drank many after-show beers with reprobate geniuses like Dave Attell, Greg Giraldo, and Doug Stanhope. I had the bittersweet honor of having George Carlin say my photo was the one he wanted to be remembered by, three weeks before dying.

While getting some of these people required hoops and a ridiculous number of phone calls, e-mails, and scratched appointments, the vast majority were incredibly cooperative and permissive. None of these portraits were done in a photo studio. There were only two people who asked for approval of the image before publishing. Only on about four of the shoots did I have an assistant, and a makeup artist only on three of the women (and one dude).

These pages hold some of the world’s greatest comic minds for you to connect with, and I hope my images help.

Thank you. Tip your wait staff.

Dan Dion
San Francisco, 2009

  • Share/Bookmark

Leave a Reply