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 Cable shows had oversaturated  the market; genuine wit and brilliant absurdity had been replaced by annoyed populist observations.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

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

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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

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Read more.. Friday, March 25th, 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
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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
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Read more.. Wednesday, December 8th, 2010