Interview: Danny Kallas

Danny Kallas recently announced he's planning to record his first stand up album in March of 2013 here in Chicago. Kallas is a guy like few others, he's intensely self-aware and a relentless champion of the local scene as one of the producers of Comedians You Should Know, not to mention one of the funniest, most capable performers in the city (and the subject of a fascinating episode of Wrestling With Depression).

I talked to him over email about his plans during these next few months leading up to his impending recording. You can catch Danny headlining tonight (Monday, October 29) at The Comedy Evening at Ace Bar, and should probably go to CYSK more than you already do.

The Steamroller: How long have you been performing standup?

Danny Kallas: My first set was in March of 2004 at the legendary Lyon's Den, which is now Globe Pub. I performed three more sets that month and quit for two and a half years until performing again in August of 2006 at Hoghead McDunna's, later known as McDunna's, and now Ace. That night is when I tell people I started performing stand-up. So, a little over six years.

TS: What led to the decision that it's time to start working on a record?

DK: I have been on the road 12 of the last 16 weeks and I'm not able to do all the material I want to do because not one person is there to see me. Not being able to do all the material I want to do becomes frustrating. I get the job done most times, but it makes me feel miserable inside. So, getting more fans is the only way to get to do all the material I want to do. Because I have no interest at the time of acting or podcasting or murdering a Kardashian, recording an album seems like the best way of getting those fans.

TS: A lot of people view their first record/special as a sort of best-of from their first several years of material, is that the approach you plan on taking or are you looking to write a lot of new material between now and March?

DK: I always said I would never record a full-length album unless I could go out the next night and do a headlining set (45 minutes) without using any of the album's material. Currently, I have 60 minutes I'm confident in and plan on burning about 35 minutes on the album. That leaves 25 minutes. So, I set the goal of recording in spring of 2013 with the main purpose of writing new material so I have enough left once the album is done. Writing 20 minutes in five months is easy. Writing 20 minutes that not only you like but most of your audience likes is not; however, I'm up for the challenge. 

Besides writing new material, I plan on really tightening up old material. Adding tags, more act-outs, dropping a line or even just a word that isn't needed, etc. Anyone who knows me knows I'm very honest with myself about my material. If I don't like a bit or can't get the audience to respond to it the way I'd like them to, the bit doesn't stay in my act and it most definitely ain't going on my album, which will be made up of 35 minutes I wrote from about a year into performing to the day before the recording.

TS: Are you planning on independently releasing the record or are you working with a label?

DK: We've talked about starting a CYSK label but at his time it's up in the air.

TS: Are you looking to some of your favorite records/specials as reference points?

DK: I honestly don't watch or listen to enough comedy specials/albums but to get some reference points, I definitely will within the next few months.

TS: Adam Burke recorded his first album at Comedians You Should Know earlier this year and it sounds great. Are you planning on recording yours there as well?

DK: Yes, I plan on recording at CYSK. The room is not only my favorite room in the city (and many others), but it's also my favorite room I've ever set foot in. The low stage, low ceilings, intimate setting, it's everything a comedian wants in a room and the most ideal place for recording.

CYSK has made me develop my act tremendously. We started the showcase in January of 2008 and I was a year and a half into performing stand-up and would go to shows at The Lincoln Lodge and Chicago Underground Comedy and watch comedians like Nick Vatterott and T.J. Miller and Brady Novak and think, man, they're really funny and their material was a little out there and I didn't think my material was weird enough to work in those "alt" rooms. Then I'd go to Zanies and see someone like Michael Palascak and think, yeah, he's really funny and has mass appeal and I didn't feel like my material had enough mass appeal to work in the clubs.

So, I really didn't know where I fit. CYSK (the showcase) was started by my comedian friends and me with the purpose to produce the best weekly showcase possible. We never wanted it to be considered "alt" or mainstream, we just wanted to showcase the funniest comedians in Chicago. We've built an audience that gets that funny is funny is funny, which is why a comedian so out there like Junior Stopka does just as well in our room as a comedian who has mass appeal like Sean Flannery. (Note: In no way was this an insult to any comedians I mentioned. I love all their acts and they're all better than me.)

Five years after starting CYSK, I still don't know where my comedy fits. Some alt crowds find me too mainstream while some mainstream crowds find me too alt-y. I guess I'm a "CYSK comedian" and I'm fine with that. We have proven there is an audience for that. Without CYSK, I probably would've quit doing stand-up years ago, go back to my dead end job, moved to Palatine, married some broad I hate, and have ugly kids.

Interview: Cullen Crawford

Cullen Crawford writes biting, absurdist material for The Onion News NetworkGrouponThe Late Live Show and more, and is also one of the funniest people I follow on Twitter (read this article for context for the above tweet). He's is in a pretty unique position here in Chicago as a supremely funny dude that generates a ton of material, but doesn't perform live all that much. 

You can, however, see him in the flesh tonight, as a panelist for The International Movie Betting Game at 7pm in the Schubas Upstairs Lounge. I talked to Cullen over email this week about his background and the several projects currently occupying his time.

The Steamroller: Where'd you grow up and when did you move to Chicago?

Cullen Crawford: Ok. First of all, thank you for asking me questions for a website. The idea that anybody cares anything about me saying something is pretty much proof that God is dead.

I grew up outside of New Orleans, then Virginia, and then Raleigh. After college at Appalachian State in the mountains of NC, I moved here. The South has this weird thing of being the worst and also the best. I couldn't really appreciate it until I moved away. I'm probably never going back, but I like it now. 

TS: Were you always in to comedy/writing or is that something you came into later on?

CC: I wanted to be a little hard-assed Ernest Hemingway clone in college because college is when you do that. I majored in creative writing and had to take a playwriting class and then basically just wrote plays that were series of ridiculous sketches because I didn't want to be there. I think there was one where the conceit was that the play was being put on by a Baptist church to scare children away from sin and was about a haunted abortion clinic and some kid getting AIDS from masturbating or something. Anyway after it was performed my professor was like "you should get into writing comedy." I think he wanted me nowhere near his beloved theater. So I did. 

TS: I've heard you have an Achewood tattoo. That's awesome. Can you tell me the story behind that?

CC: Alright, so I'm not really a comics or webcomics guy. At all. But Achewood is just on this whole different level. It's probably the most consistently funny thing I've ever come across. It's a webcomic about cats (I know), but it is so much better than that sounds. I mean, come on. It is equal parts Louis CK, Kurt Vonnegut, and Mr. Show. It is really hard to get into but everyone who likes funny things should read it. So I got a huge arm tattoo of it cause I was 22 and loved it so much. Tattoos are how 22 year-olds love things. 

TS: You work in the humor department at Groupon, correct? What's a normal day like for you there?

CC: It used to be that myself and my actually funny coworkers (Daniel Kibblesmith, Megan Green, Wes Haney, and Ben Kobold) would write the Groupon Says sections all day (here's an example) . But while we still write those, our job has gotten much crazier.

Basically whatever they want to have a humorous bent comes through us. Anything from creating a cartoon to make fun of marketing to children/market to children to inventing a fake murder-based board game that somehow relates to buying homewares

TS: You also recently started working for the Onion News Network. Were you a fan of The Onion going in? 

CC: I've loved The Onion ever since I was an angry sad teenager. The Onion is so consistently good it is mind boggling. They always have the joke for whatever is going on and they never rely on easy laughs unlike pretty much every other comedic institution. So getting to be a part of that has seriously been amazing. I was just on set for a video I conceived and co-wrote for them and it was probably the best day of my life.

TS: Do you think your sensibilities match well with theirs or is it a different headspace you have to occupy when generating material for them?

CC: I love how mean and dark they are. I kind of naturally gravitated to that stuff being raised Catholic and full of self hatred. The only thing I have to change is to pretend to be smart and well-informed enough to hang with those guys.   

TS: You're involved in the comedy scene here, and have mentioned that performing live is a sort of "necessary evil" for now, and I think that's an interesting point. There's not much in the way of a "local scene" for folks that are especially good at writing comedy stuff, is there?  Do you think there's space on a local level for folks that just do comedy writing or is it such an ethereal thing that live performance has to be a part of it as a way of distinguishing oneself?

CC: I'm probably going to ramble about this. When I first got to Chicago and was exploring the "scene" (for lack of less horrible word), I was surprised by two things: The number of truly talented people toiling in obscurity and the widely lauded bullshit comedy that involves a wig and a funny voice and a reference to the 90's.

Joining up with the Late Live Show was such a revelation. That writers' room is such a sharp group it's insane. And it's through that lens, writing and rewriting stuff for that show, that a lot of the performer-y stuff of like "what if a spicy Latina TSA employee strip-searched Rahm Emmanuel" rings hollow and lazy. I have nothing against performing; a good performer can make or break a sketch. But everyone seems so fixated on being up onstage that most of them don't seem to care about the grunt work of figuring out what's actually funny.

I don't know. All of this is probably just coming from the fact that I'm a terrible performer. That's why I love Twitter. It's essentially the closest thing to writers' community there is. Every day it's this giant contest of trying to make strangers laugh using like 2 sentences.  

TS: You're also working on a serialized Sherlock Holmes novel. How'd that come to be?

CC: So my friend Tom McHenry has started a real, physical newspaper called The Proof and wanted content for it. I love Sherlock Holmes like all hell. He's the British superhero the way Superman is the American superhero. Instead of being a big strong handsome idiot who throws cars at his problems, Sherlock Holmes is smart and weird and gets to be a dick to people in a society where being polite is the most important thing.

So all the Sherlock Holmes stuff is public domain and the original books were published serially so I just though this would be a fun thing to do. I'm working on the first installment right now and it is just dumb as all hell and I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Interview: C.J. Toledano

​C.J. Toledano is a very funny and accomplished standup comedian and writer. I talked to him about his experiences as an intern on Conan, a writer for Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, and in his new position as a consulting writer for The Onion News Network, which recently relocated from NYC to Chicago.

Read More