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On the record: Stand-up comics with Chicago ties aim to impress on debut albums

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

9:53 AM EDT, August 23, 2012

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One of Beth Stelling's motivations for making an album out of her stand-up comedy was to put some of her older, best-working material on the record to, in a way, enshrine it and push herself to move on to the next thing.

What she didn't know when she returned to Chicago to do the shows for her first CD was the extent to which the album-making process would help her achieve that goal.

The night before she would perform four shows over two nights at the Comedy Bar, someone broke a window in her boyfriend's car, reached in and took off with Stelling's backpack, leaving behind a couple of full suitcases and an iPhone.

"Yeah, I'm a 27-year-old woman that uses a purse-backpack," she told the crowd, turning the incident into the opening of her show and the forthcoming album. "That is not the point."

The point is that it contained all her comedy notebooks from the past three years, "jokes and notes and set lists," she said. Essentially everything she had thought of that was funny or that might, with work, become funny. Not to mention her four sheets of paper laying out what she was going to do, and in what order, for the record.

"It was liberating," Stelling, who moved to LA last summer after four years on the Chicago stand-up scene, says now, by telephone, "but I felt like I had to feel that way. You could forget about it and turn it around and figure out what you want on the album, or you could obsess about each scrap of paper and notes and ideas."

Her story is more dramatic than most, but recording an album can be an anxious-making thing for comedians, even now when so much of what they do is visible on YouTube and Twitter and their own websites.

No one's expecting a "Let's Get Small," the 1977 Steve Martin comedy record that became a blockbuster, but the comedy album can still be an important tool in a comic's repertoire, part calling card to the industry, part memento for fans, part mirror they can gaze into to figure out where they are as artists.

By happy coincidence, three of the best of Chicago's recent crop of comedians have first albums out or coming out soon. So we talked to them, in separate conversations this week, about making their first albums.

The players

Adam Burke: 36, born in Australia, reared in Northern Ireland and London. Moved to Chicago in 2004, began performing stand-up two years later after researching an article on the scene for Chicago Social magazine. "Universal Squirrel Theory," recorded at Timothy O'Toole's in April, will be coming out on Aspecialthing Records in October.

Stelling: 27, grew up in Ohio, moved here to become a theater actress but quickly detoured into stand-up. Nominated for a 2011 Chicago Beat Award for best actress in a non-equity play, for her role in "Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche," a play she and her fellow performers developed via improvisation. Made her first "Conan" appearance the Monday after the Comedy Bar tapings in Chicago. "Sweet Beth" is due out on Rooftop Comedy records in September or October.

Dan Telfer: 33, from the south suburbs, began in improv. His best-known bit, on which dinosaur should be your favorite, became a YouTube hit in 2010; he did an EP, "Fossil Record," for Aspecialthing that year. "Tendrils of Ruin," released in late July, is his first full-length recording.

Why do a comedy album?

Stelling: "I just never felt like I needed to, and I didn't think it was necessary because I was like, 'Who's gonna buy that?' My mom's gonna buy 20 copies. Then, when I started working on my late-night-show set, and I knew that I would be recording it, I wanted to have something to plug that wasn't, like, a show. I didn't want (the host) to have to be like, 'Beth's doing Wiley's Comedy Club in Dayton, Ohio, in December. Check it out.' And I wanted to kind of preserve these jokes I'd been doing for years and also to kind of force myself to purge them."

Burke: "It started out with me just doing it on my own. We set up the show and everything, and I found someone to record it. But then Dan Telfer put me in touch with Aspecialthing Records, who do Doug Benson and Greg Proops and those kind of people. They happened to be looking for more artists. I sent them the raw audio from the two shows I did. They liked it, and they took over from there."

Telfer: "I waffled my way through the whole process. I got booked to do a headlining show at the Mayne Stage theater for a second time, and they have really good sound equipment there. They were telling me, like, 'If you can think of anything to make this a more fun recording, let us know.' And so I decided, what the hell, I'd run it by the label, AST Records, and they were like, 'Yeah, if you want to do it, just tell us.' In all the publicity (to promote) the show, I said it was a maybe CD recording."

Burke: "For me it was about having some sort of calling card. Also, I always had a sense that I'm never gonna love the album myself. I'm never gonna think it's the bee knees, 'cause I think you have to be critical and keep on moving. But I kind of like the idea of having some sort of mile marker, so to speak, some sort of artifact of, 'This is what it sounds like when I'm five-and-a-bit years in."

A somewhat representative line from the record

Telfer: "I think we should murder the wealthy in front of their children so their children become Batman."

Stelling: "We are in a long-distance relationship, my boyfriend and I, so as you can imagine, I'm constantly looking for a new relationship."

Burke: "The world is going to end, and we know this, apparently, because the Mayan calendar ends in December 2012. And if you believe that, that's fine. That's cool. My question is, why is this the only thing we listen to the Mayans about?"

Their day jobs (needed because their CDs haven't sold a million copies yet)

Stelling: "I chose a job (at Intelligentsia Coffee in LA) that is way too intense for my own good. It's way too consuming. I think I'm ready to take more of a risk of putting myself out there on (acting) auditions and getting that side of things rolling, more than just the safety of a day job."

Burke: "I'm sort of like a freelance editorial jack-of-all-trades: proofreading and copy editing and some writing. It's almost too steady now."

Telfer: "I'm a comedy writer. I don't think I'm supposed to say that to press, but it's a good job. It's a humor publication, I think I can say that. It's like advertising comedy."

On the place of the comedy album in the modern world

Telfer: "I do disagree with people who think — this has become sort of a new meme — that podcasts are replacing comedy albums. I think that they are very different. When you listen to a comedy album, you are definitely trying to picture yourself in that audience."

Burke: "I think it's got a currency that it hasn't had in years. I never heard people talk about comedy bits the way they (do) now. A friend of mine just cited me this bit from a recent Patton Oswalt album. Maybe I'm just more attuned to it now, but I feel like you're getting fans of comedy albums now. For instance, I love that James Adomian has put out an album ('Low Hangin Fruit'). I really hope that makes him a star. I really think he's amazing. He's just unstoppable."

Stelling: "The fact that anybody can do a CD, I don't think it fits in with any sort of goal hierarchy. I think it's to try a project for yourself and your fans. … My hopes for it are to capture those jokes at arguably the best time I was telling them and also before I started hating them and they died. And also in the hopes that cities I'll never get to might see it on iTunes or wherever. I'll have physical copies, too, for when I go to clubs. Hopefully it'll be a way for me to make a little extra money when I'm on the road. So that's the practical side of it."

The unsolicited — but relevant and perhaps even obligatory — Louis C.K. reference

Stelling: "Louis C.K. was talking about how he did material for, like, eight years, and he just hated himself, hated everything — this was before his wild success — and he read where George Carlin was saying he was asked how he does so many specials, and (Carlin) was like, 'Every year, I write a new special. That's the challenge.' So Louis C.K. was like, 'Yeah, I'm gonna do that.' And he scrapped the stuff that he'd been holding on to for eight years, and he had no place to go but take this challenge. … So I, of course, don't think I can do that, but it is sort of an indicator of what it means to become a better comic, what it can do for you creatively."

Burke: "Not that we're all going to be Louis C.K. and turn out another hour (of stand-up) every year …"

Telfer: "There's all this stuff that Louis C.K. did right (making and selling a special on his own), and I think most of it does not apply to mid- or low-level-popularity comedians like myself. We're a long way from that being an option for people like me who are barely making, like, below minimum wage at this. I think I make more at stand-up than most people in Chicago, and still if that were my only source of income I would be far below the poverty line. The one thing that did come in handy was (Louie C.K.) sort of announced, 'Hey, pirates, could you please leave me alone a little bit on this and not put it up?' Because then when people did put it up on those (piracy) sites, they got reamed out and, like, threatened: 'Didn't you read Louis C.K.'s thing, where he thanked you not to do that?' Whereas I think most albums, comedy and music, nobody cares at all."

So can you still perform material from an album live after it's out?

Stelling: "I think the general consensus is, you lay it down on an album, you don't do it anymore. Of course, that's terrifying, and I'd like to think I will still be doing some of the material from the album because it's some of my strongest stuff."

Burke: "I don't know that I will never do that material again, because it's, like, 50 minutes. To be honest, there's stuff on there that I just really enjoy doing. I just have a fun time actually telling the story, and it just makes me laugh to tell it."

Telfer: "If people are paying $10 to have something they can listen to in their car, on their iPod when they're jogging, in the office while they're working, they don't want to then see me live and be like, 'Boy, this theater event is exactly like being on a treadmill.' That's not appealing to me. I don't know that it would be appealing to other people."

Burke: "For me it was a little frustrating. The flow of that material, it was, I think, the best order I'd ever put it in. It is good. It's a real sort of impetus to write more stuff and to get the newer stuff you have into sort of a more final state."

Telfer: "I just think, creatively, it's good to put a bow on something and set it aside when you're happy with it. An album is a nice excuse to do it."

 

sajohnson@tribune.com

 

Twitter @StevenKJohnson