Dan Telfer worked his ass off in the Chicago standup scene, becoming one of the most respected local performers, producing one of the best comedy shows in town (Chicago Underground Comedy), performing with the biggest names in the biz and teaching others the art of stand up along the way. Dan has since taken his gangly, nerdy and über smart comedy to the west coast, relocating to LA at the start of 2013. I had a chance to talk to him on a recent trip back to Chicago where we discussed process, hidden talents, penguins and pizza.
Serial Optimist: When I first met you, you were my improv coach and were working that whole circuit. What made you switch from improvising to stand up?
Dan Telfer: In 2006 I just decided to commit to stand-up every night of the week I had open. I was still on a house team at an improv theater and had no real intention to “switch”, but within only a couple of weeks of committing to stand-up I was booking paid stand-up gigs. Since improv almost never pays and getting regular stage time is a brutal fight, improv just had to take a back seat. I love improv and the scrappy nature of it all, but it was my main comedy outlet from 1996 to 2006 and I wasn’t doing anything that different from when I started. My dear friend and improv teammate Erica Reid told me she was thinking about going on hiatus from our team, so in the interest of not driving myself crazy I followed her lead. I recently got to do the monologue and some improv scenes in IO West’s Armando Show, though. It was a very fun itch to scratch again.
SO: What was your very first stand up set like?
Dan: I re-appropriated some of my theatrical solo performance stunts at an open mic. This was in 2000, after I’d done lots of improv and some solo performance shows at real venues, but was kind of unrealistic about what stand-up was. I told a story about how when I was a kid I pretended to smoke a pen like it was a cigarette, I talked about building a jetpack to fight cyborg Nazis, and I talked about a Polish immigrant I had a crush on. It was all interweaved with mimed fake smoking and long pauses. The audience was paying attention but didn’t know what the fuck I was trying to do to them.
SO: You talk a lot about being awkward and uncoordinated. Do you have any hidden talents that would surprise us?
Dan: It has a lot to do with my short attention span. I have a hard time focusing on all my limbs when my mind is occupied. When I focus and practice I’m not terrible at some physical activities. I used to do a lot of sword fighting in college because I wanted to be a living Dungeons and Dragons character so badly. Also, I am 6’5″ and could never get cast in any “mainstage” productions at my theater school, so it was kind of a last ditch effort to give myself castable theater skills before I graduated. I retook the advanced stage combat classes, got certified in 6 weapons for the stage, and became a teacher’s assistant despite my lack of natural ability.
SO: I see a lot of pictures of you with nerdy posters, swords and other weird props. What’s your strangest keepsake?
Dan: I have kids with lots of toys now, so I’ve purged a lot of science and pop culture artifacts I used to hoard. Most of what you see in pictures is probably me having just begged to play with my friends’ props. I used to own a part of a NASA telescope that mapped the universe, but I sold it when I moved to LA.
SO: Describe your writing process?
Dan: I just do whatever I need to do to remember a bit as it falls in my lap. I walk around like anyone does, try to stay open to my surroundings influencing me, and when I need to write things down I do as fast as possible. Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) is the most amazing invention for writers on the go. When Google invented a Drive phone app it made my life so much better. I keep notebooks too, because sitting down with a pen makes me feel more in touch with my creative side than hammering my fingertips into a tiny glowing brick. I’m not a scrap paper person though- that’s a slippery slope for people who obsess and organize. The last thing I need is for one of my daughters to find a bank receipt with “ATHEISM, LOBSTERS, THAT TIME I WAS HIT BY A CAR” written on it.
SO: You were the first stand up teacher at Second City when they started offering it. What was that process like and do you enjoy teaching?
Dan: I came up with a curriculum and pitched it to them. They knew me from my improv and sketch days, so it worked out perfectly. I really wanted it to be like an open mic or a salon and not an “I’ll teach you how to be funny” stand-up class. Second City’s Training Center let me work with dedicated writer/performers who could support each other and not turn giving each other notes into some kind of competition. I still make students go to open mics. I don’t pretend that a classroom is a replacement for going out every night. What was great was how many introverted writers I got to work with whom normally might avoid an open mic. And I’m excited that.
SO: Anything you can teach us now about the art of stand up?
Dan: Go up. All the time. More than you think is normal. Sooner than you think you’re ready. It’s not enough to be the comedian you visualize in your head. Nobody gives a shit if your jokes are long, short, or memorized. You have to make rooms of strangers laugh, and you can’t even begin to wrap your head around that unless you’re constantly taking that risk.
SO: If you weren’t a comedian, what would you be doing?
Dan: I never know how to answer questions like this, because I am a comedian but I am still doing other things. If like, I was forbidden to do stand-up comedy on a cosmic level by some weird Marvel Comics outer space guy with white retinas I guess I would just keep trying to write and perform however I could.
SO: You seemed to have found a fit with the “type” of comic you are, having opened for Brian Posehn, Maria Bamford and Patton Oswalt and other “alternative” comics. Is that the kind of comedy you gravitate towards yourself or are you a fan of other types of comedic styles?
Dan: I don’t know if I found a fit so much as I was fortunate enough to perform at a like-minded venue with comedians on similar wavelengths, and I just got lucky enough that they remembered who I was for a while. The part of me that likes to consume comedy was really happy about that, but I had to kind of give up classifying comedy and just try to stay busy making comedy. I mean, as you know from when I was your improv coach, I used to have a blue and green Mohawk way back in the day. (SO NOTE: I also was the one that colored and cut his hair into that blue and green Mohawk! So yeah, I remember.) So I was especially grateful for all the stage time in rock clubs I got from working with those particular comics. But if you asked me what I loved so much about Maria I wouldn’t say that she’s alternative, it’s that I’ve seen her perform at least 100 times and she is always different and surprises the hell out of me. That’s all I want from comedy.
SO: Do your kids think you’re funny?
Dan: I have very spastic, constantly squealing children. I’m not sure they think I’m funny, so much as they think the universe is a joke and I’m standing in it. I am but a cipher for their monstrous and terrifying imaginations. They do laugh pretty hard when they hide behind corners or under tables and spring out to club me in the genitals with found objects. They like the faces I make when they physically abuse me; I’m very expressive and fall down a lot. I’m the Marcel Marceau of weakling fathers.
SO: Can you picture either one of them following in your footsteps someday?
Dan: I try not to picture my kid’s careers. I just want them to be financially independent and keep off the meth.
Dan Telfer: “The Best Dinosaur”
SO: I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but if you were a dinosaur, which one would you be?
Dan: Penguins count. A penguin. Obviously. Ice dinosaurs.
SO: I know you’re a big pizza fan and I know you’ve traveled and live many places. What is the best pizza you’ve ever eaten?
Dan: Without a doubt it is Pizzeria Aroma, 1125 Berwyn Ave. in Chicago. They use a special kind of asiago cheese as a premium ingredient that my wife and I dubbed “crack” over 10 years ago. Order a pan crust with asiago and red onions and tell them Dan told you to do it, I’m pretty sure I paid half their rent for a 10 year stretch.
SO Note: Dan Telfer writes and performs comedy in Los Angeles. You can follow him on Twitter or visit his website to hear about his upcoming performances and projects. He has an upcoming show in Chicago at the Lincoln Lodge tomorrow night (April 6) with tickets on sale HERE.