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 Cable shows had oversaturated  the market; genuine wit and brilliant absurdity had been replaced by annoyed populist observations.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

  • Share/Bookmark
Read more.. Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

Goorin Behind the Bar

One of my favorite new clients is Goorin Brothers- a local hat company that is exploding all over North America. Established in 1895, it’s been family-run for four generations, but only recently has it opened its own retail stores. Check out this recent piece in the Chronicle about them.

We wanted to do a project with real people- not models- that had some kind of local/ neighborhood connection. The result below is a collection of bartenders in North Beach- my favorite neighborhood in San Francisco, and the site of Goorin’s flagship store in the city on Washington Square.

Ana at Sodini's

Gigi at Sotto Mare

Devon at Tony Nik's

Romina at Cinecitta

Janet at Vesuvio

Deirdre and Kat at O'Reilly's

Mike D. at Amante

  • Share/Bookmark
Read more.. Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Yao Ming for Monster Cable

Yao MIng on Set with Noel Lee

Yao Ming on Set with Noel Lee

Just back from temperate Houston Texas where my fellow Monsters and I did a photo and video shoot with the towering Houston Rocket Yao Ming. Monster has launched a massive line of Yao Monster products being sold throughout China, and we were there to get video of him speaking Chinese directly to Chinese retailers and consumers for his headphones, power, HDMI, and other products.

Yao Ming with iSport Headphones
Yao Ming with iSport Headphones
Yao arrived on the dot at 2pm at the studio we’d rented, which is Houston’s best- Ralph Smith Studios. He’s a real pro when it comes to this kind of stuff, and he was soon correcting our Chinese script in what was apparently a slightly awkward translation we’d brought. He was calm and friendly throughout, and he and head Monster Noel Lee have a good relationship, it seems, as they were frequently cracking each other up.
Yao Ming with Head Monster Noel Lee

Yao Ming with Head Monster Noel Lee

Yao Ming Correcting our Chinese Script

Yao Ming Correcting our Chinese Script

Video guys got their retail shout-outs, and I got some nice portraits of a legendary athlete. That night Noel got to sit courtside to watch the Rockets stomp our hometown Warriors, while the crew, hungry from a long production, got to strap on the ‘ol feed bag for some Texas steaks.
Yao Ming rocking Beats Headphones

Yao Ming rocking Beats Headphones

Yao Ming on Set With Monster Cable

Yao Ming on Set With Monster Cable

Yao Ming Between Takes With Monster Cable

Yao Ming Between Takes

Yao Ming and Noel Lee with Beats Headphones

  • Share/Bookmark
Read more.. Friday, March 25th, 2011

In Praise of Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams at the Warfield- 2001

I first saw Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore in 1997, when she was just about to release her breakout album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. A few years earlier I’d seen Johnny Cash and he’d done a fairly complete job of curing me of my distain for country music. I’d soon be musically educated to learn that what I didn’t like was actually what was considered “new country” at the time- your Garth Brooks/ Billy Ray Cyrus kinda music.

I’ve always had a preference for great lyricists- Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Randy Newman. And I’d soon find that so-called country music has some of the best songwriters in the world as I delved into the work of Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda.

Lucinda and Band at The Fillmore – 1997

But I had no idea she’d become one of my favorite musicians at that first Fillmore show. I just liked what I heard and made the effort to get a shot of her with her band backstage in the stairway.

Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 1997

Cut to two years and a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album later. “Car Wheels” was a huge hit and critics had gone apeshit over a blend of rock, blues, country and folk. They were calling it “Americana” and “Roots Music” when in truth it was just a great blend of all of it anchored by a true poet.

Lucinda Williams at The Warfield – 1999

And Lucinda had clearly been inundated by media with her new renowned, and it took about half an hour before she came out from her dressing room to do a portrait with me. But she was incredibly kind and gracious when we did it. And I guess she’d been doing lots of annoying photo shoots because she said “I LOVE the way you take pictures! Other photographers always tell me to do this and that and look this way and you don’t do none of that!” Then she gave me a hug- something I wasn’t used to from my rock and roll subjects- and cementing me as a fan for life.

And in saying this she also helped me crystallize a part of my shooting style, which values comfort above all else. Without it, you’ll never get an honest portrait.

I think she’s had to deal with a lot of photog-douchebags over the years, because I’ve heard that she’s not a big fan of being shot- but she always seems to allow me to do a quick portrait- as long as I’m patient (she’s still a superstar, after all, and anointed by Time Magazine as America’s Best Songwriter).

Doug Pettibone at The Fillmore, 2003

But to be fair, I had a lot of help and advocacy from her guitarist for many years, Doug Pettibone. Somewhere around 2000, The Warfield had put up a shot of the band performing, and he’d seen it. I met him at The Fillmore the next year and he asked me if I knew the guy who shot it. “Yeah, I know him pretty well,” I said. We ended up hanging out and he came with me to a jam session at Capp’s Corner that was mostly comprised of cast members of Beach Blanket Babylon getting away from their camp and into some classic rock and soul tunes. He tore it up and we’ve been friends ever since.

Lucinda puts out a new album about every two or three years,  and it never disappoints. There aren’t too many artists who’s vocals and lyrics seem to get better all the time- Bonnie Raitt is an example. But what sets her apart, especially as a female artist, is that she can be honey-sweet one moment and whisky-sour the next without coming off as contrived. She can be growly, angry, and raunchy, then tender, sad, and lovely, then pointed, poignant, and political.

And something else I find attracts me to her music (and is often the case with artists I admire- be it Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, or late-era Beatles) is the percentage of songs that aren’t about love. While she can pine over lost lovers and do done-wrong songs with the best of them, she also sings of suicide, wealth, abuse, and in one case how her ex-boyfriend couldn’t get her off. Not exactly the stuff of country music clichés.

Lucinda Williams at the Fillmore – 2003

She’s so smart, yet so American. So vulnerable, yet so strong and sexy. If I had to pick one word to describe her, though, it would be “authentic.” If you wonder where the heart of country music went, look no further.


Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 2003
  • Share/Bookmark
Read more.. Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

¡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
  • Share/Bookmark
Read more.. Monday, February 14th, 2011

Second Season of The Green Room with Paul Provenza

On Set of The Green Room with Paul Provenza

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of doing portraits during the production of the second season of The Green Room with Paul Provenza for Showtime. Held at the Vanguard in Hollywood, we did six shows in three nights, with some of the greatest comics in the world. It was a masterpiece of booking, with each show sculpted rather than scheduled.

Paul Provenza portrait by Dan Dion

You can see portraits of almost every guest on the Green Room Facebook page, but I’ve attached a few of my favorites here.

Among the celebs in the audience were Laraine Newman, John Corbett, Darren Criss from Glee, Lucinda Williams, Dave Foley, and the dashing young star Ron Jeremy.

The season will air sometime this summer, and it’s funny as hell.

Bo Burnham portrait by Dan Dion
Jamie Kilstein portrait by Dan Dion
Jamie Kilstein portrait by Dan Dion
Ron White portrait by Dan Dion
Marc Maron Portrait by Dan Dion

Kathleen Madigan portrait by Dan Dion
Richard Belzer portrait by Dan Dion
Tommy Chong Portrait by Dan Dion
Rick Shapiro portrait by Dan Dion
  • Share/Bookmark
Read more.. Saturday, January 29th, 2011

The Rule of Thirds- A Comedy Triptych: Zach Galifianakis

This is the first in an occasional series of posts highlighting one comic as depicted by three photographers who shoot a lot of ‘em: Robyn Von Swank of Los Angeles, Seth Olenick of New York, and Dan Dion of San Francisco. We encourage you to friend, follow, subscribe to, and/or contact us.

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

Zach by Dan Dion

DAN DION

Zach is a such a unique comic. Part Steve Martin, part Steven Wright, part Steve Carrell. He’s cultivated that kind of clueless confidence of Martin, the absurdity of Wright, and the cringe-inducing silences of Carrell. But the best thing about Zach is that he has become one of the biggest comedy stars in the world completely on his own terms, in his own sweet time.

This shot was from his 2006 show at The Fillmore, where I work as the house photographer.

DAN DION-WEBSITE

FACEBOOK TWITTER

BLOG RSS CONTACT

SATIRISTAS- Book Site

ROBYN VON SWANK

Zach by Robyn Von Swank

This is an unreleased shot of Zach that I photographed at All Sets, when we were doing the first Comedy Death Ray Calendar. I had been a very huge fan of Zach for a long time and was super nervous to meet him. He ended up being a really nice and down to earth person, and this shot was actually just done on the side for fun, and not ever used in the calendar. Zach also smells nice.

*

*

*
*

Robyn Von Swank-  WEBSITE

FACEBOOK TWITTER

BLOG RSS CONTACT

Zach in Brooklyn by Seth Olenick

SETH OLENICK

If I was a pretentious artist, I would say that I conceived of this image as a commentary on the commodification of comedy and the comedian that our post-modern society has put in place.  We are living in an “Add to Cart” world where the decisions on what comedy we consume are based less on our brains telling us what is funny and more on what percentage of people who viewed said comedy item actually purchased it.  So the notion of what is funny enough to consume is decided by how palatable the comedy is to others, thus making our decisions that much easier.

The renowned French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, brought to our attention the idea of understanding signifiers and meaning only through observing how signs interrelate. By that notion, do we want to consume the comedian because we find him funny, or do we find him funny because he is being presented to us in a way that is easy to consume?

Thank God I’m not pretentious.

SETH OLENICK-  WEBSITE

FACEBOOK TWITTER

BLOG RSS CONTACT

  • Share/Bookmark
Read more.. Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

O’Reilly’s Oyster Fest- Cake, Jackie Greene , Raveonettes

Oyster Fest

Here are some belated photos from the annual O’Reilly’s Oyster Fest in San Francisco. This used to be a free event in Washington Square Park in North Beach, but moved to Fort Mason, became a ticketed event, and started having much bigger bands. With the right weather, the view of the Golden Gate Bridge can be positively muralistic.

Cake by Dan Dion

This year’s headliner was the Sacramento-baked irono-comic band CAKE. I’m a huge fan. While other bands are spewing cliche-filled “love” songs, Cake says they “want  a girl with a short skirt and a long jacket.”  I can appreciate that in a big way.

The Raveonettes are a Danish band that were cool, and a good bit of variety to a typical festival, but to be honest, really shouldn’t be playing in the daylight.

Also on the bill was Jackie Greene, who has been anointed by the Deadhead set as some kind of second coming. Of what, I’m not sure. He’s talented and can certainly kick out the jams. A few years ago he was sporting black leather jackets, but now seems to be channeling the freewheelin’ spirit of Bob Dylan. His drummer got caught in Bay Bridge traffic, so renaissance man and former Tubes drummer Prairie Prince sat in and did a fantastic job. Mad props to Fiachra O’Shaugnessy, Myles O’Reilly, and O’Reilly’s Irish Bar and Restaurant for pulling of another cool local fest.

Jackie Greene by Dan Dion
Raveonettes by Dan Dion
  • Share/Bookmark
Read more.. Saturday, November 27th, 2010

In Praise of Les Paul

In Praise of Les Paul

Les Paul at The Iridium near Lincoln Center in 1998

Les Paul died a year ago today. I wanted to share these two images of him. His passing was the loss of one of the greatest innovators in music, as he created the first solid-body electric guitar, which as I understand it is an instrument that is really starting to catch on.

This first time I saw him was at the original Iridium nightclub in New York in 1998. He was so amazing and spry, busting out licks and dropping Monica Lewinsky jokes between songs. Every once in a while his arthritic hands would seize up on him and he’d have to pull his left hand over the guitar neck and slap his picking hand to get it to release. But he did it so fluidly and in rhythm that it seemed to be part of the song.

I went back to the new Iridium on Times Square almost ten years later and he didn’t seem to be a day older. After each of his weekly performances, he sat at a table to meet every fan that stood in line. What an epic human.

Les Paul at The Iridium in Times Square circa 2007
  • Share/Bookmark
Read more.. Thursday, August 12th, 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

  • Share/Bookmark
Read more.. Thursday, July 29th, 2010