In Praise of the Purple Onion

The most historic comedy club in America that exists today won’t in October. The building that contains the Purple Onion’s 60-year-old subterranean stage was recently sold and will be gutted; taken with the red booths and faux-brick walling will be the legacy of The Smothers Brothers, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Phyllis Diller.  I have a personal history with the club that goes back almost twenty years now, and its passing is truly awful-  personally, to the comedy community, and San Francisco as a whole.

In 1994, the Onion was showcasing garage bands under the psychotic stewardship of a local victim described by the SF Weekly as “Crispin Glover after two weeks of intravenous double-lattes.”  The club where I was on staff, my beloved Holy City Zoo, had just closed down and a couple of comics and myself had formed a production troupe staging shows at alternative and DIY venues, and we pitched the return of comedy to The Onion. It did not go well. When the guy in charge of the room is drunk and heckling the show, sends rookie comics offstage in tears, and needs physical coercion to cough up the door split, that’s not good. But for a while I had the honor of saying I put on the first comedy show at the Onion in over a decade. It closed soon after- an entire trust-fund spent by a managerial lunatic on 3-chord surf music and kegs of PBR.

The space itself was taken over by the Ascione family, who operated Macaroni Sciue Sciue upstairs, and it was ignominiously used as a storage area. At the time I was living in North Beach, and would walk by the shadowy staircase and envision a time when I could once again put on shows there. Ten years after our first debacle, while arranging a photo shoot with Don Novello, I learned that Mario had restored the place and was planning a re-opening. Mario had great intentions, but little knowledge of our local comedy scene, so I offered to start off booking the club for him. Opening night of “Jim Short and Friends” will forever be a homecoming, a triumph, and now a bittersweet remembrance.

Jim became my partner and whenever he was in town, Jim Short & Friends were the likes of Greg Proops, Will Durst, Tom Rhodes, Arj Barker, Robert Hawkins, Greg Behrendt- national headliners playing a 99-seat basement club because of the love of the room.  There were other great shows, too- with Paul Krassner, W. Kamau Bell, Will Franken, Mike Birbiglia. All of them unique, honest, and brilliant comics.   It also allowed me to reconnect with the amazing young talent of which San Francisco always seems to have a bumper crop.

After a year or so, the birth of my daughter, and tons of great shows, I handed the reins of the Onion over to David Owen, a truly professional producer and co-founder of SF Sketchfest, who proceeded to up the ante by bringing in the likes of Judah Friedlander, Doug Stanhope, the return of Mort Sahl, and a DVD production for Zach Galifianakis.

Then in 2007, I partnered with Crackle/Sony Entertainment to film “Live at the Purple Onion,” a stand-up web series that allowed me to present Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Tig Notaro, and other personal favorites. And that’s the thing- I had the incredible privilege of always booking shows that I would have wanted to see. My shows ran on equal parts talent and goodwill, as the size of the place makes a big payday impossible. I didn’t need to worry if my acts had the right TV credits, social media clout, or mailing list. I didn’t have to care if we made good numbers with nachos. My shows were by candlelight, there was no drink minimum, and the comics dressed up.

The ongoing problem at this point was that the club had become a room-for-hire, with a hodge-podge of producers bringing in various showcases, theme shows, and comedy-college graduations. Quality could be amazing or unwatchable, and I started hearing complaints from people who had been coerced into going there to watch their friends’ first time on a real comedy club stage.  I love Mario- he’s honest and has a great heart- which is probably why working in show business was challenging for him. Plus he had the gift and the burden of having an intimate venue.

After years away, I had actually booked a show there for September 6th, when I heard the awful news that the building had been sold and the Onion would be no more. Then I asked for and was given the Purple Onion’s final show, which will be on Monday, September 24th.

This Thursday’s show is Bob Rubin, with Larry Bubbles Brown, Randy Hauser, and more. Tix are available via Eventbrite here: http://onenightwithbobrubin.eventbrite.com/

Plans for the last show are still underway, and tix will go on sale soon. We’re looking to send the place off in style, with a marathon of great comics as- what else?- Jim Short & Friends. If you want to be notified when tickets will be released to the public, write me at dan@dandion.com  .

I’ve heard variously that the building is going to be a steakhouse or a strip club, but for me, the most gorgeous prime rib or even the tastiest slab of T&A doesn’t compare to a night of hilarious, smart comedy on a stage steeped in history.

Toast to the club with Bob Rubin.

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Read more.. Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

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
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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
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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

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
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Read more.. Saturday, November 27th, 2010

¡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

Comedy Festival Season 2010

Comedy festival season 2010 has come and gone, and here are some of my favorite portraits I made this year in Montreal, Vancouver, and San Francisco.

Bo Burnham at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival

Steve Martin at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival
Kevin Smith at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival
Tim Minchin at the Just for Laughs Festival
Ngaio Bealum at SF Comedy Day
Mae Martin at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
Jon Dore at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
Matt Kirshen at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
Dave Foley at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
Maria Bamford at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
James Smith at the Global ComedyFest
Tom Green at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
A. Whitney Brown at the Other Cafe Reunion
Barry Sobel and Robin Williams at the Other Cafe Reunion
Paula Poundstone at the Other Cafe Reunion
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Read more.. Monday, October 25th, 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