In Praise of Patton Oswalt

Twenty years ago, at a dingy nightclub on a block of Clement Street in San Francisco’s Inner Richmond District, the aging comedy boom of the 8o’s gave birth to the snarky, cynical, over-educated meta-child that would come to be known as Alt Comedy. (Like most nicknames, it was not chosen, but given.) Cable shows had oversaturated  the market; genuine wit and brilliant absurdity had been replaced by annoyed populist observations. Hollywood had once again siphoned off some of The City’s most promising performers, and was trying desperately to figure out how best to vampirize native daughter Margaret Cho. But SF was still a mecca for stand-ups, and a peak was imminent with the ascension of a few bright locals, and the immigration of several others- locals Greg Behrendt, Laura Milligan, Brian Posehn, and Arj Barker broke out. Fiery journeymen Marc Maron and Tom Rhodes hung out their shingles from our hills, and from the Baltimore/D.C. area came Jeff Hatz, Blaine Capatch, and Patton Oswalt- a comic triumvirate  raised on Monty Python, Alan Moore, and The Pixies.   “The Class of 1992″ had arrived.

Laura Milligan, Greg Behrendt, Brian Posehn, Blaine Capatch, and Patton- 1994

I was a part of that class, too. albeit with a different function. I’d put my Jesuit philosophy degree to work as a staff member of the Holy City Zoo, San Francisco’s most historic and legendary comedy club, where 80’s celebrities like Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, and Bobcat Goldthwait earned their stripes, and utterly unique and brilliant talents such as Bob Rubin, Warren Thomas, and Jeremy Kramer still prowled the stage, fighting the thumping live music from the Last Day Saloon upstairs.  Capacity: 79 not counting the roaches. It was here that I married my love of comedy with my photography career and started shooting portraits of these most dynamic artists.

Patton Oswalt in my vintage Volvo.

Patton Oswalt stood out in any show’s line-up. He had a different kind of energy, material that never seemed contrived, and a distinctive vocal timbre that projected confidence, even when the joke was on himself. He can be self-deprecating, but he’s never a loser.  He was early geek-chic, and proud to be a comic book nerd way way way before it was mainstream. He’s never seemed concerned with being “cool,” as cool requires acceptance by and admiration of the majority. Patton’s comedy consoles you that it’s ok not to be.

There’s a bit of a Dennis Miller in him; he throws references around like you ought to know them. But I got all of Miller’s and maybe two-thirds of Patton’s. But I never had any desire to research Miller’s rantfrences, whereas Patton led me to read The Man in the High Castle and tipped the scales as I browsed the racks at Amoeba Records. His comedy can be a hyperlink, whereas Miller’s was arrogance plugged in to a bit. It annoys me when comics use pop culture references as the punchline, and the audience laughs in self-congratulation at getting it. Patton uses them to frame his context, to let you know who he is and where he’s coming from.


In an ad for Dark Horse Comics

Early on, I can recall someone in the industry saying he was “very ambitious” which was intended as a patronizing insult but I took as the opposite. He may have been insubordinate to the timeline ladder, but he was headlining and producing his own theme shows in short order. His impeccable taste in comedy and respect from his peers has allowed him to gather amazing people. (I look back on his “Four Tuesdays of the Apocalypse” show flyer that reads like a time capsule of the city’s best.) Many years later this talent would manifest itself as he created The Comedians of Comedy with Posehn, Maria Bamford, and not-yet-household-misspelled-name Zach Galifianakis.

Patton in SF

One great thing is that he’s always writing. Even if you see him just six months apart you can bet that half his set is going to be new, or at the very least material you haven’t heard before. Can’t see him live? Check out his blog. Or watch Ratatouille with your kids (or without) to see one of the few Disney projects that doesn’t involve a woman being rescued. Or read his interview in ¡SATIRISTAS! Or see Big Fan for a film about obsession (with a brilliant climax). Or see him in Young Adult with Charlize Theron and tell me what it’s like to see a film in a theater. (My two young kids have constricted this activity for me.) And he still finds time to appear in his friends’ webisodes, get arrested on Reno 911, write a book, and give a graduation speech to his high school.  The fucker is prolific.

Patton and David Cross at Cobb's Comedy Club

There’s a great example of his comic worldview in his closing note as guest editor of the “The Funny Issue” of Spin Magazine. If anything, I think he’s an example that you can be very smart onstage and off-  without having to prove that you are smarter than everyone else.

Class of 1992 Revisited- 2009

ALL PHOTOS ©DAN DION

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Read more.. Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

¡SATIRISTAS! White Guilt Night at the Actors’ Gang

Paul Provenza and Tim Robbins

We had another sold-out house at The Actors’ Gang Theater for our monthly ¡Satiristas! night as part of the Axis Mundi Series curated by Tim Robbins. In honor of black history month, we celebrated White Guilt Night.

Billy the Mime

Following cocktails on the patio, Billy the Mime, performing in whiteface, kicked things of with his history of the African American Experience in America- incarceration and exploitation capped with a triumphant cigarette outside the White House.

Mark Silverman sang about the word white people can’t say, and cartoonist Keith Knight presented a slideshow of his racially themed one-panel cartoons (th)INK.

Cartoonist Keith Knight
Humorsician Mark Silverman

This was followed by a game Paul calls “RACIST or NOT RACIST” wherein he projects imagery gathered from around the world of questionable taste and intent and the audience comments on its effect. But within our audience were comedian friends and SATIRISTAS galore- Kevin Kataoka, Ngaio Bealum, Jim Jeffries, Rick Overton, Matt Kirshen, Kumail Nanjiani, Gary Shapiro, Suzanne Whang, Troy Conrad, Chris Pina, Emery Emery, and Franklyn Ajaye.

Everyone was encouraged to comment without reservations, but egregiously racist comments, even if hilarious, required a cash donation on the spot for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights organization that successfully sued the Imperial Klan in Kentucky for actions of its militia members.

Agitator Eddie Pepitone
Agitator Eddie Pepitone

This lowbrow high-mindedness seemed to be lost on Eddie Pepitone- as evidenced here in this video.

But even the Satiristas have their breaking point- and it apparently comes in the form of a woman yelling out racial slurs in fake accents. Thankfully, we had our own comic ninja  Dylan Brody available to forcibly eject her, for which he earned a punch in the nose before subduing the the heinous heckler.

Kung-Fu Comic Dylan Brody

The show itself had its proponents and detractors, with a glowing review on Buzzine, and a he’s-just-not-into-us open letter to the Actor’s Gang by Brian Kim Stefans, which he also posted to the Satiristas website.

During all the laughing, shouting, comedic race-baiting and card-playing, painter Michael Pukac was upstage creating his interpretation of the evenings’ proceedings. Shana Sosin, producer of Axis Mundi, summed it up better than anyone: “There were times when I was really uncomfortable. THANK YOU.”

Artist Michael Pukac
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Read more.. Monday, February 14th, 2011

¡SATIRISTAS! Axis Mundi show at the Actors’ Gang Theater

Pre-Party at the Actors’ Gang

On election night, we had our inaugural monthly SATIRISTAS show at The Actors’ Gang Theater as part of their new Axis Mundi series. The theme for the month was Prop 19, so we invited a few Satiristas as well as some other like-minded friends for an herbal comedic summit.

Our thanks to all the performers, producers, musicians, artists, and theater staff who made it happen. Among them,Robert Dubac, Shana Sosin, Barbara Romen, Carmella Cardina, Matt BesserGary ShapiroTere JoyceFranklyn AjayeRick ShapiroDylan BrodyJimmy DoreTracy NewmanJohnny DamRon Shock, Gary StockdaleMax Neutra, and Tim Robbins.

Below are some photos from the event.

Next show is Tuesday, Dec. 7th. The first one was jammed full. It’s pay-what-you-can, but RSVP here.

¡Viva Las Satiristas!- Paul ProvenzaDan Dion

Robert Dubac & Paul Provenza
Gary Stockdale and The Band
The Crowd- Sold Out!
Jimmy Dore

Johnny Dam

Matt Besser
Tere Joyce
Ron Shock
Franklyn Ajaye  (with Max Neutra)
Gary Shapiro
Rick Shapiro
Tracy Newman
Dylan Brody
The Reveal! Max Neutra’s Painting
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Read more.. Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Feature in SF Chronicle

PHOTOGRAPHER CAPTURES COMICS AFTER THE LAUGHS

by Sam Whiting

Portrait of Photographer Dan Dion by Chad Ziemendorf

After 18 years of shooting stand-up in San Francisco, Dan Dion knows what doesn’t work – a photo of a comic trying to be funny.

This rules out onstage action, and it also rules out offstage gags. What’s left is backstage after the show, when the artist is wrung out and relaxed.

Damon Wayans in San Francisco photographed  by Dan Dion

“Stand-up comedy pictures, performing?” he asks, rhetorically. “Boring. It’s the portrait that has always gotten me.” A hundred of these appear in “Satiristas!: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians” (It Books, $29.99), a collaboration with Showtime host Paul Provenza that has taken four years to put together.

“What I want is one moment that tells you who they are instead of making you laugh,” says Dion, 39, on a night last week when he is on duty at the Punch Line, where he is house photographer. His framed prints crowd the walls, but few of the subjects are smiling and none are laughing.

“Most photographers, when they photograph a comedian, their first thought is that the picture has to be funny,” he says. “Funny pictures have a rapidly descending half-life. Each time you see it, it’s half as funny.”

On this night, Dion is at the Punch Line to shoot the headliner, Maria Bamford. She is third on, but Dion doesn’t mind sitting through two opening acts. He grew up a “comedy nerd,” listening to Alex Bennett’s radio show while growing up on a vineyard in Kenwood, the son of a Pan Am captain-winemaker.

At Santa Clara University, Dion was the comedy director. He had an annual budget of $10,000 but always spent $15,000 flying in the likes of P.J. O’Rourke and Second City to perform on the Jesuit campus.

Comedian Dave Chappelle photographed by Dan Dion

During summers he worked at a portrait studio, shooting seniors for high school yearbooks. These two extracurricular jobs merged into a real one. Straight out of school, in 1993, he was hired to work the door at Holy City Zoo. At the time, 8-by-10-inch head shots were what passed for promotional materials. “They were universally horrible,” says Dion, who started making his own pictures of the talent.

“I had the arrogance to include personality and context,” he says. “I wasn’t shooting as a sales tool.”

The comedians liked that, and word got around. Along the way he also got jobs shooting for the San Francisco Giants and for concert venues. But musicians and athletes were never his kind. No comic ever made him wait two hours at a dressing room door. They’d invite him in right away for a beer, which is about as long as it took him to make a portrait. Ten minutes, 20 max.

“The greatest reason for my popularity among the comedians is that I don’t try to make them funny. I have a visceral reaction against open-mouth mugging,” he says, shrugging his shoulders, palms facing up in the standard “I don’t know why I’m funny” gesture.

When he is not shooting comedy for the Punch Line and Cobb’s Comedy Club, Dion is house photographer for the Fillmore, where he met his wife, Lisa. They are raising two kids in an Edwardian in the Panhandle. Dion has had an exhibition at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and his work is displayed annually at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. He estimates there are maybe five photographers worldwide who do what he does, and fewer still who don’t do what he doesn’t do.

Rachel Dratch photographed by Dan Dion

“I don’t make dishonest portraits,” he says, describing that crime as “taking a political satirist like Bill Maher and putting him in a kiddie pool. It’s funny but it’s dishonest. … It makes no sense.”

Among those shot for the book, with accompanying Q&As by Provenza, are Robin Williams, Stephen Colbert, Judd Apatow, Lily Tomlin, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno and the Smothers Brothers. Those photographed but not interviewed include Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Dana Carvey, Chris Rock and David Spade.

Here is a selection of portraits with Dion’s explanations.

Damon Wayans: “That was taken at the Punch Line 15 years ago. It was an exercise in color. I knew he had this jacket and I wanted to do a deep, deep, deep black shot. The toothpick was just what he had in his hand. I didn’t want to make him look like a hoodlum, but I wanted to make him look kind of badass.”

Rachel Dratch: “That was during SF Sketchfest. She’s actually standing on top of a counter in her dressing room. I love the way her foot is cocked. She’s so at ease.”

Dave Chappelle: “I’ve known him for a long time. I haven’t seen a shot that gets him better than that. I absolutely love this photo with the cigarette and Muhammad Ali screaming like it’s coming out of his chest.”

George Carlin: “It’s the last picture in the book, a quick shot after a show at Davies Symphony Hall, in 1999. He’s in the concertmaster’s office sitting on a piano. I gave him the picture the next time I saw him. Ten years later my partner, Paul, mentions the picture to him and he says, ‘That’s the picture I want to be remembered by.’ Two weeks later he’s dead.”

George Carlin photographed by Dan Dion
Fred Willard photographed by Dan Dion

Fred Willard: “I got to his house in L.A. and I see the hot tub and a rubber duck. I say ‘OK, that’s going to be the shot.’ It’s just got a little bit of silliness to it. It’s not a structured joke.”

E-mail Sam Whiting at swhiting@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page E – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Link to Original Article in SFGate

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/07/26/DDVO1EIDEN.DTL#ixzz0v6k6nvkF

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Read more.. Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Satiristas in San Francisco

The third leg of our book tour was back in the Bay Area for a hometown (mine) celebration. Paul has spent a lot of time here as well- I saw him in the lead in Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapine Agile in the nineties another woman and a universe ago. How could I have known that the same debonair thespian onstage then would someday tongue-kiss me in the middle of the Soho House in New York as an animated deterrent to some shit-faced woman by pretending we were queer. He’s that kind of friend.

Comedians Mark Pitta and Paul Provenza at the Throckmorton in Mill Valley celebrating ¡Satiristas!

Tuesday was perhaps the best show out of the four. Not taking away anything from the comics in our other ones, but this one epitomized what ¡Satiristas! is about. Comic Mark Pitta has built a fantastic following for his weekly show at the Throckmorton in Mill Valley, and we decided to jolt their NPR/Whole Foods/ Yoga-matted world with a massive assholistic dose of Doug Stanhope.

There’s a through line in the book about “preaching to the converted”- questioning if there is there any effect of satire on a crowd of like-minded people. Well, nobody is like-minded when it comes to Stanhope, and he had the sold-out, well-heeled crowed alternately howling with laughter and some with outrage. His chunk about Susan Boyle is nothing short of brilliant.

Comedian Doug Stanhope at the Throckmorton in Mill Valley celebrating ¡Satiristas!

But it wasn’t just Stanhope’s set that set this show apart. A surprise drop-in by Don Novello was the perfect contrast to what was to come with Stanhope and Jamie Kilstein. Novello is so gentle and kind in both style and substance- he’s the tickly feather of comedy compared to the sledgehammer rants of the other two. Rick Overton came up for the show, providing a delicious mix of insight and absurdity, and not-in-the-book but smart and subtle Myq Kaplan was in keeping with our charge of exposing people to new, intelligent voices. Many thanks to Pitta and the Mercer family for making the Throckmorton show such a success, and for helping us sell a ton of books.

Comedian Don Novello at the Throckmorton in Mill Valley celebrating ¡Satiristas!

In the audience was Kelly Carlin, who came up from LA to support the show, lending a post-mortem presence of the great one. In the back of the theater was none other than the legendaryt Mort Sahl, newly transplanted to Marin County after his third or fourth marriage collapsed. He’s a cranky old man, but at 83, he has nothing to prove, I guess. He turned down our request for an interview years ago, claiming “I’m not good in groups,” but which I’ve learned means if the book isn’t about him specifically, he’s not going to contribute. But we included his portrait within Paul’s introduction anyway, since he’s such a giant within the art form. He hates to have his photo taken offstage, and had refused me about fifteen years ago when I asked, but five years ago he let me shoot him before a show at The Purple Onion. That time he was amiable and talkative. THIS time was different.

At intermission I reintroduced myself to him and asked if he liked his photo. His reply: “No, now that you asked, I DON’T! And I don’t like the book, either!”

I looked at him and gave him my best Hollywood smile, “That’s great, Mort! So nice to hear! Thanks!”  If he was going to dick with me, I was going to dick right back.

Later, about halfway through the set, Doug walks Mort. I was outside when it happened and as the Godfather of political satire doddered back to his car I overheard him say to his handler “They have the FREEDOM to, but…”

Wednesday we were at The Booksmith in the Haight, which is essentially my neighborhood. Paul and I have become much better at this than the first time, which is good because it was all captured and broadcast on FORA.tv The audience included fine-art photographer, author, and co-burner Michael Light, as well as comic, agitator, and former producing partner Harmon Leon.

Comedian Will Durst at The Punch Line in San Francisco celebrating ¡Satiristas!

Thursday was our show at the Punch Line, which was packed for the event, and featured book sales by Green Apple, Jamie, headliner Will Durst, and an proper set by Paul, which couldn’t have gone better. We’d kind of piggy-backed on to a show that was already booked, but the fact that Durst was there that weekend was perfect synchronicity. He’s been one of my favorite comics since I dove into the local stand-up scene at 14 (Will once asked me from stage if I’d ever been kissed), and I ended up working for him at The Holy City Zoo when he and Deb bought it in 1992. I’ve probably seen 30 full Durst sets in my life, and each one had a huge chunk of amazing new material. I don’t think there’s a more prolific political satirist on the planet, really.  Robin Williams came down for the show, as he seems to be making room under his wing for Jamie, much like he did for Eddie Izzard years ago. The Punch is my home club, with forty of my portraits lining the walls, so the night for me was a triumph of sorts.

We also had two killer interviews while Paul and I were together in SF, with Rick Kleffel’s Agony Column on  Bookotron and   Robert Pollie’ 7th Avenue Project on KUSP. If you’re a glutton for all things ¡Satiristas! these are essential listening.

Will Durst, Paul Provenza, Jamie Kilstein, and Robin Williams at The Punch Line in San Francisco Celebrating ¡Satiristas!

Friday we were back in Marin at Book Passage, one of the most author-friendly bookstores in the country. They have readings virtually every night, and this was our best-attended store event, with about 50 people spilling out amongst the chairs and bookshelves. Maybe it’s all the Terry Gross these North Bayers listen to, but theirs was also the best Q&A session.

And then the whirlwind was over. Three weeks of great comedy, interviews, and support. Now it’s up to Paul and me to push this book without a HarperCollins-funded tour. The next post will cover the Montreal Just for Laughs festival; stay tuned for future shows in the works for Miami, Chicago, and Vancouver.

¡Viva Las Satiristas!

Dan Dion

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Read more.. Sunday, July 25th, 2010

Satiristas in New York

Authors Dan Dion and Paul Provenza at Gotham in New York celebrating ¡Satiristas!

Week two of the ¡Satiristas! tour had us going to New York for a couple of events as well as some national media. The day I left was horrible, for so many reasons. First off, my laptop crashed, with an unfixable logic board. Thankfully, no data lost, and the repair wasn’t outrageous, thanks to the Christ-like qualities of the guys at the Apple Genius Bar, who have saviored my ass several times. But it wouldn’t be fixed in time for the trip. Props to Union Square Computer Repair for getting my data out within hours. Those guys rule.

Next challenge? Lisa drops her keys down the door gap and down an elevator shaft. Taxi home for my keys, back to car, pick up Parker, drop at school, pulled over by the po-po. He said he could have cited me for reckless driving and towed my car, but instead ticketed me because I didn’t have my seatbelt on, even though I was literally putting it on when he was pulling me over. I’ll fight this one, and SFPD never show up to testify in this kind of infraction (another bonus to living in SF- in Marin I’d be toast and insurance companies look down on the no-seatbelt thing.)

I was taking the red-eye, and before my flight Lisa and I went to the memorial celebration for legendary music photographer Jim Marshall. I’ll write a separate tribute post to him here someday, as he was a very close friend and if I can be said to have a mentor with my portraiture, he was definitely it. Held at the gorgeous Great American Music Hall, it was both rough and cathartic, with a performance by Joan Baez, and a very moving speech by his gal Friday Amelia Davis. Great to be with friends like Gaynell and Roy Rogers, whom we hadn’t seen since the memorials to Norton Buffalo, so these reasons for seeing each other must stop. I can’t seem to ever bring my camera to memorial shows. There’s something… I dunno… tacky and slightly ghoulish about it.

The open bar and emotional wrenching had me in not a good place, and the 90-minute delay of my flight to New York sent me right to the cocktail lounge, which I closed. 45 minutes later, I awoke at the gate as the plane was almost boarded, and immediately realized I couldn’t find my phone. Frantically searching for it, in the end my Sophie’s Choice was to catch the plane and leave the phone somewhere in the international terminal, which of course would never show up in lost and found. Fuck that day. In the ass. No lube.

Tuesday had to be better, and was. Much. Gotham is the Manhattan’s classiest comedy club, and for almost ten years now has had my photos exclusively up on the walls. Owner Chris “Midas” Mazzilli has always been a huge supporter, and agreed to have me to swap out my 80 portraits downstairs to include only photos from the book, twice as many as my new exhibition at UCB in LA.

Comedian Eddie Brill at Gotham in New York celebrating ¡Satiristas!

That evening was our reading and signing at Border’s Books in Columbus Circle, and it was very cool to see the window and register displays they put up for us. The event went well, it seemed, and a crew of us went to Coliseum for an after-thing. Finally got to face-to-face meet a colleague who also specializes in shooting comics- Seth Olenick. A talented shooter with great taste in comedy. Check out his blog here- he’s way more conceptual than I am, so our work is actually pretty complimentary. One of these years I think we’ll do an exhibition together.

Comedian Colin Quinn at Gotham in New York celebrating ¡Satiristas!

Wednesday was our show and signing at Gotham. It was a killer night, with some fantastic talent from the book showing up to support. Colin Quinn (taking time off from his Seinfeld-directed off-broadway show Long Story Short) , Lizz Winstead, Lee Camp, Eddie Brill, and the perpetually satiristical Jamie Kilstein did sets, as well as one from good friend and San Franciscan W. Kamau Bell, who has stepped up his game in a big way in the last few years, was in New York for his one-man show Ending Racism in About an Hour, and whom we’ve promised will be in the next volume.

Comedian Lizz Winstead at Gotham in New York celebrating ¡Satiristas!

Wed. Paul and I were on the Joy Behar Show on CNN’s Headline News Network. We both really like Joy for her spitfire personality and say-what-she-wants modus operandi. We’re still trying to get the producers to post our segment online, but if it hasn’t happened yet, it might not. We also did a love-in radio show with Danny Lobell and Comical Radio, which can be heard here.

Paul was booked to do the show Red Eye on Fox News. He wanted to bail, but I pushed him on. If I’d known what it was going to be like I would have agreed with him. The show is quite honestly ridiculous, a train-wreck of allegedly comedic commentary by mostly right-leaning pundits, complete with pompous bashing of progressives, dumb-ass video clips, and – yes- a “talking” New York Times puppet that they use as a straw-man when the comedy gets shallow- and believe me it never gets that deep. The talking points that they gave him with quips and comebacks could only be described as limp and sophomoric, and Paul ignored every one. That said, the staff and on-air talent were very nice and professional. I just don’t happen to agree with them on much- ok, any- thing. Plus Guttfield’s book is going to outsell ours by 100 times, so he doesn’t exactly need our approval.

The best thing, however, was Paul’s panel-mate Ann Coulter. You’ll have to see the segment to get the full effect, but the two of them didn’t exactly hit it off, and Paul nailed her when she claimed not once but twice that England wasn’t part of the EU. Another Fox show aired a clip just to discuss the body language between the two of them. After a commercial break Ann had switched seats with another guest ostensibly to get away from Paul, but in reality everyone discussed that it would be amusing to switch and not acknowledge it, going so far as to misidentify the new seating order. Paul was later voted the second worst guest by a Red-Eye fanatic-site and everyone was congratulating Coulter for having the courage to change seats, but the reality is everyone thought it would be kinda funny.

I hadn’t brought my camera, so had to borrow someone’s cel phone to snap the shot of Paul, Ann, and a copy of the book. She is freakishly thin and avian in person, but indulged us for the photo. What she didn’t happen to notice that on the back jacket was a quote from Robin Williams- “I think they’re using Ann Coultur’s pap smear for anti-venom now.”

Paul Provenza and Ann Coulter on the Set of Red Eye with ¡SATIRISTAS!
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Read more.. Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Satiristas in Los Angeles

May 11th

Provenz and I kicked off our book tour in Los Angeles on May 11th at the Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood. It was a beautiful day and the store had us set up outside to do our reading, which doesn’t work so well with a projector before dark, but we made do. We had a decent turn-out and the staff seemed happy. It worked as a kind of dress rehearsal for future readings. Nice to have the first one out of the way, with a very casual vibe all around.

Paul Provenza at UCB for SATIRISTAS show
Paul Provenza at UCB for SATIRISTAS show

I had an automatic slideshow running and we had a very cool moment. Someone had asked who I’d photographed that meant the most to me, and as soon as I said George Carlin, his photo appeared on the screen. He’s one out of 100 images in the slideshow, so the chances of that happening are like, what? One in a thousand? Or one in ten? Dunno. Not so good at math.

And it so happened that in attendance was Kelly Carlin, George’s daughter and a big supporter of everything Paul and I are trying to do. We all piled in to Provenz’ car and we made our way to the The Steve Allen Theater at The Center for Inquiry, trying but failing to catch any of satirista Jamie Kilstein’s LA enflaming set.

The theater still had the stench of agent, as Kilstein was drawing a lot of industry attention, but that was offset by the likes of Rick Overton, who I think sees in Jamie a bit of himself as a lad, and seems have his mentor up when it comes to Kilstein.

Jamie Kilstein at the UCB for a SATIRISTAS show
Jamie Kilstein at the UCB for a SATIRISTAS show
Rick Overton at UCB for a SATIRISTAS show

May 12

The next day was a bit surreal for me, in large part due to the aforementioned Kelly Carlin. May 12th was George’s Birthday, and not to allow a ghoulish marketing opportunity to pass, The Laugh Factory decided to have a birthday show for George, complete with VIP passes, etc. Problem? Didn’t even invite or ask permission of Carlin’s family. Some scumbag publicist who worked with George for a very short time decided he was the guy to bring together such Carlin-esque comics as Tom Arnold, Judy Tenuta, and Tom Green. (Where is Arj Barker’s “sarcastica” font when I need it?)

In far more of a good karma happening, we were invited to Kelly’s house to give a toast to the man on his birthday. Once there, it was very joyful and celebratory, and Kelly led the toast. I’d brought down a very fine bottle of wine, a 1998 Kenwood London Ranch Cab that I’d been saving for our publication, and it was tre delicious. In attendance were satiristas Lee Camp, Jamie Kilstein, and Roseanne Barr, in addition to several members of George’s family and friends.

Lee Camp at UCB for a SATIRISTAS show

Now for the surreal part for me. Over ten years ago I picked up the phone and on the other line was George Carlin. I’d given him a print of a portrait I’d taken of him at Davies Symphony Hall, and he was asking about buying another copy for his daughter. Now, in the world of celebrity there’s this ass-backwards phenomenon where the richer someone is, the more they expect to get for free. George made a strident point that he absolutely insisted on paying me for it, which is a good indicator of what kind of man he was offstage. As a photographer of the famous and talented, sometimes a personal experience with someone you admired as an artist will forever sour you on that person’s work. Then there’s times like these that only reinforce your admiration of someone.

Three weeks before he died George told Paul that my photo was the one he “wanted to be remembered by” which I consider to be the greatest compliment of my career. This night, a day after my book dedicated to him is published, his daughter tells me that it was the “sweetest” photo ever taken of him. I knew that George had given it to her, and coming over to her house I was expecting it to be in a place of prominence among a plethora of George memorabilia, but on her wall of family photos, mine was the sole representative of her dad, which moved me incredibly. Fuck the Laugh Factory and their exploitative “celebration,” — I was riding a wave of validation for the years it took to create the book– with the people George loved most. Meanwhile, back in Hollywood, Paul Rodriguez does another cucaracha joke.

May 13

Our first post-publication ¡SATIRISTAS! show, and it was at LA’s best venue, the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. I’d approached Upright Citizen Matt Besser a while ago about putting up some work there, and he was very into it, paving the way for my newest LA exhibition– 40 prints of Satiristas lining the hallway into the showroom. UCB just has the perfect simpatico with the book, and the idea of artists owning and running the venue is fantastic. The exhibition is ongoing, and after the book comes out in paperback, we’re going to switch the show out to showcase UCB alum instead- in a year or so.

Marc Maron at UCB for a SATIRISTAS show

We were sandwiched in between two shows, so we had to be really tight, and with the people involved my real accomplishment was not that I created this show, but rather that I was able to bring it in only fifteen minutes over. The line-up was amazing, and full of dudes that go long, so we wisely did the book signing first. But really, how’s this for a killer line-up- Provenz, Lee Camp, David Feldman, Greg Proops, Rick Shapiro, Rick Overton, Jamie Kilstein, and Marc Maron. An epic night of amazing talent, doing fearless comedy to an appreciative audience. Big thank you to the comics and certainly to the staff of UCB.

All our pimping and publicizing seems to have paid off, as we made the LA Times both as a piece in their Op-Ed section as well as the bestseller list for nonfiction.

Stay tuned for accounts of Satiristas in New York and San Francisco, as well as our upcoming Montreal event.

Rick Shapiro at UCB for a Satiristas show.
Greg Proops at UCB for a SATIRISTAS show.
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Read more.. Monday, July 5th, 2010

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

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Read more.. Thursday, July 1st, 2010