Comedy for Indie Rockers

On Tuesday the Empty Bottle and Drag City will present the first show of what’s planned as a monthly comedy series, “The People Under the Stares,” at the north-side bar Weed’s. Saturday Night Live cast member Fred Armisen–who played drums in Trenchmouth and other local bands before leaving town in 2000–gets top billing. The other performers are three representatives of the local underground comedy scene, handpicked by Drag City boss Dan Koretzky: TJ Miller, Elizabeth England, and David Angelo.

The worlds of indie rock and comedy have increasingly intersected in the past decade. David Cross and Eugene Mirman record for Sub Pop; the Shins and Yo La Tengo routinely ask comedians to open shows; and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster does radio comedy on New Jersey’s WFMU. “There was a stand-up boom in the 80s, and in the 90s it kind of went bust,” says TJ Miller, who’s performed solo and with the Second City touring company. “At that point people saw stand-up as this kind of hacky thing where everybody wore jeans and blazers and talked about airline food. That simply wasn’t the case–even in the midst of that so-called bust, there were so many comics that were doing new and original stuff. And a lot of the new comedy has tapped into a sensibility that’s more in line with indie-rock crowds than with the people who go to traditional comedy clubs.”

Drag City has made comedy part of the mix since its earliest days: the three-day Drag City Invitational festival in 1994 included skits between acts, and the 1996 compilation The Drag City Hour was assembled like a variety-show broadcast. In 2004 the label cosponsored a show in New York that featured stand-ups Todd Barry and Laura Kightlinger, and last year’s Drag City A to Z sampler featured comedian Demetri Martin as a “narrator.” Anti-stand-up Neil Hamburger is Drag City’s biggest comedy star, and this week it released his new DVD, The World’s Funnyman; next year it will release a DVD by Armisen that spoofs music-instruction videos and includes a Kightlinger disc.

Drag City producer and head of staff Rian Murphy says promoting live comedy is a natural next step. “This is an attempt to find a crossover audience for stuff in town that we think is worth people’s attention,” he says. The decision to hold the show at Weed’s, a 100-capacity bar in the Goose Island neighborhood, was part of an effort to avoid traditional brick-wall, two-drink-minimum spots. “We wanted to try and create an event in a place that was totally unexpected, just to further push the fact that it’s not a comedy club atmosphere,” says Empty Bottle booker Pete Toalson.

The intersection of comedy and music follows a larger commercial resurgence of the comedy album. Blue-collar comic Larry the Cable Guy and frat-boy favorite Dane Cook lead the charge, but David Cross has cut a pair of discs, one of which was nominated for a Grammy; Eugene Mirman released his debut album on the Seattle indie Suicide Squeeze; Patton Oswalt records for United Musicians, a label co-owned by Michael Penn and Aimee Mann; and Comedy Central Records, which launched in 2002, has put out discs by Todd Barry and Jim Gaffigan. Rock fans can get the jokes: comics like Cross and Oswalt riff on Evanescence, Creed, and the homoerotic undertones of 80s metal videos, while Todd Barry’s sets include gags about Fugazi and Wilco.

But Chicago doesn’t have a place those fans feel comfortable seeing comedy like LA’s Largo or New York’s Pianos, which have regular nights tailored to the indie-comedy crowd. “Chicago Underground Comedy,” a weekly at Gunther Murphy’s, and “The Lincoln Lodge” at the Lincoln Restaurant come closest. “All the rooms we do are in bars or hosted by other venues,” says David Angelo. “Other cities might get better turnouts, but I don’t think the performers are any better. . . . I think their scenes might be tied into the industry more, which makes things easier and gives it a higher profile. But the performers here are just as good, even though you may not have Lorne Michaels in the audience every night.”

Toalson and Drag City’s Koretzky began discussing the idea of a comedy series earlier this year, and in the past month they agreed on Weed’s as a venue and on a division of labor: Drag City would select the performers and the Empty Bottle would handle booking and production. For the Empty Bottle, the series is a natural extension of its recent history of booking comedy events in the city: in the past 18 months the club has promoted appearances by Mirman, Doug Stanhope, and the New York troupe Stella, as well as the “Comedians of Comedy” tour led by Oswalt. “In the last handful of years, there seems to be a move toward playing in alternative venues rather than traditional comedy clubs,” says Toalson. “For the comedians, there’s more freedom in terms of their material or how long they perform for. But comics are also realizing that the DIY aesthetic of going out on tour and playing venues like ours means the economic scale is better than at comedy clubs.”

For now, the Empty Bottle and Drag City plan to hold events on the last Tuesday of every month. “It would be nice to do a regular thing,” says Murphy. “We’re gonna do this first one and see what the turnout is like, see if the comics like working with us, if we like working with them, and then decide based on that.”

“People respond to a brand name, and essentially that’s what Drag City and Empty Bottle are,” Miller says. “Hopefully they’ll get people out who haven’t seen us before, and we can take it from there.”

Was That Wim Wenders?

Yes, that was filmmaker Wim Wenders behind the counter of Reckless Records’ Milwaukee Avenue store on Wednesday and the Broadway location on Friday. The German director of Wings of Desire and Paris, Texas was in town shooting footage for a short documentary sponsored by Nokia about music scenes in cities around the world. During the shoot Wenders and his crew got to talking to store manager Chris Connelly, and on Saturday night they were at the Hideout filming Connelly’s set opening for Eleventh Dream Day. It’s not clear if the documentary will be released commercially or if Connelly’s performance will be included; reps for Saville Productions, the New York and Beverly Hills-based company handling the project, declined to comment.

Man Down

In the early morning of August 13 Holopaw keyboardist Ryan “Beachwolf” Gensemer and a friend were beaten by a group of men and teens near the Rainbo Club in Ukrainian Village. The attack was apparently random–nothing was stolen. His friend sustained minor injuries, but Gensemer suffered a concussion, kidney damage, and a broken jaw that required surgery and the insertion of metal plates and screws. Gensemer has been living here since last fall–a few months before Florida-based Holopaw went on hiatus–and like many musicians he’s without insurance. Those wishing to contribute can do so via PayPal to The band is also setting up a PO box to accept other forms of payment; e-mail the same address for more info.

The People Under the Stares

When: Tue 8/29, 9 PM

Where: Weed’s, 1555 N. Dayton

Price: $7

Info: 312-943-7815

Also: See Section 1 for more on Fred Armisen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Julie Sadowski.