What happens when a former psychology major with little direction — but with a wicked imagination — gets nudged onto a comedy stage? Seven years later, with high-profile Comedy Central gigs and national headlining shows booked into summer, the answer for stand-up comedian Dan Cummins is pleasantly positive.
Comedy Central recently kicked off its season of new Comedy Central Presents specials. For those not down with the concept of Comedy Central Presents, CCPs are 30-minute stand-up specials wherein up-and-coming and well-established touring comics alike air out their comedy wares in a polished network production.
For many comedians, the CCP is their first substantial foray into television. Over the years, these specials have become anchors for participating comics’ visible body of work as well as mainstay programming for Comedy Central.
In fact, the winners of the network’s yearly “Stand-up Showdown” — a contest running now — is based on viewers voting on their favorite CCPs. Those same specials (even the ones that don’t place in the showdown) are constantly repeated on Comedy Central for years; and now, a large number of CCPs are available for download on iTunes.
As part of the 2008 season of stand-up on Comedy Central, quickly rising comedian Dan Cummins — on the heels of an impressive appearance on last season’s Live at Gotham (a separate Comedy Central stand-up series) — premiered his Comedy Central Presents on Jan. 11.
A relative newcomer — he hit the stage for the first time in 2000 — the Spokane, Wash., comedian has been making a healthy dent in the memories of comedy fans nationwide, appearing in most of the country’s major comedy festivals, touring colleges like a madman, opening for the likes of Daniel Tosh, Ron White and Jim Gaffigan, and maintaining an aggressive Internet presence with sites like RooftoopComedy often featuring his impressive live work.
PunchlineMagazine.com recently chatted with Cummins about his musical beginnings, the underappreciated Auggie Smith and prepping for his first television comedy special.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember seeing you sometime in 2002 or 2003 at God-only-knows what venue. Were you once billed as “The Singing Comedian?”
Well, you know what? Early on, I did songs, like original guitar songs and stuff, but I was never billed that way.
Because for some reason that stuck with me. There was also a bit about little yipper dogs.
Oh my God! You did see me early on! I forgot about that bit. Yeah, I bet you’re thinking of me because I used to do songs and I had a bit about Corgi, the neighbor’s crazy dog. Man, I started in late 2000, so you probably saw me a year or two in.
So what was the process like prepping for your Comedy Central Presents?
Well, first you just submit a tape, through your management or whomever, to Comedy Central. I remember the month or two before submitting it, just going through my act, and figuring out what to include. I’d done work for Comedy Central the year before, so I couldn’t use that material. So I had to figure out what material I had left and what I thought would be the best.
I don’t have that many dirty things, but I have a couple of things that I knew wouldn’t fly, so those you cut immediately. So out of the rest, it’s like, “What are my favorites? What do I want to showcase?” And I put those together on a tape in Detroit at a club called the Comedy Castle and sent it in.
Then, by the time I was notified, a couple of months had gone by, and it’s like the end of May, the end of June, and they let me know I got it. By then, I’d actually ended up changing probably a third to a little more than a third of the material I’d submitted. Once I knew that I’d gotten it, that whole summer I really tried to refrain from working on too much new material.
When you watch comedy specials on DVD, the performance seems seamless. But sometimes in the DVD extras, they show re-takes. If you do have to redo jokes, is there like a comedy fluffer waiting in the wings to get the audience back up?
There’s a guy that warms the audience up before you go out, and he was fantastic. He did great crowd work. He got the audience really excited and in a good mood and he also didn’t burn any topics. He was like the ideal guy. He did such a good job of getting the audience hyped.
I didn’t even know you could do that — stop the show like that. But I was aware that if I had to stop the show, I would try and still make a joke, kind of rhythmic and funny to keep the energy up. You don’t want to just have it be like completely dead and mess it up bad and then you get frustrated and create a weird energy.
I actually had to come back out only once. There were a couple of moments when I restarted a joke, maybe I fudged a word right at the start and I just paused and started again without making a comment about it. I think that only happened twice.
I had heard of one person that had to redo like 15 minutes. I’m glad I didn’t do that. It would be pretty awkward for the performer and the audience.
I noticed on your MySpace page, that you have comedian Auggie Smith as one of your friends. Did you two work a lot together?
Yeah. We don’t really work together anymore, but we both work at the same places and he’s from the Northwest, and it’s like we stick together out of respect. He’s one of the most underrated comics out there. I saw him at an open-mic once and it was dead. Just a bunch of comics and a jaded room, and I couldn’t believe how much he killed. Just doing stuff — off the cuff rants. He’s a very talented guy.
What originally prompted you to start doing stand-up?
I started more on a whim here in Spokane. I went to Gonzaga University from ’95 to ’99 and majored in psychology. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I had several little jobs. My wife — we were dating at the time — had heard about this amateur night; it was Sunday nights at this local club. That was the first time I had ever walked into a comedy club to try an open-mic night. I never really watched stand-up like most comedians who were huge fans of the genre and then tried it.
Yeah, I don’t know how anyone can perform at an open-mic and actually come back willingly.
Yeah, it can be really rough. I kind of loaded the audience my first time, so I knew what they thought was humorous. I think I lucked out in a way, because I did it here in Spokane, where there weren’t a lot of touring comics. Nothing against the other guys doing it, it’s just the talent pool was not outrageous, like New York or LA or something.
Just people whose mom’s said they were funny.
Do you feel you’ve gone through a number of comedy-style incarnations?
Oh, big time. My background is sketch. That’s what I loved growing up: SNL, Kids in the Hall, In Living Color — all that stuff. So when I was in school, it was more character-based stuff. When I first did stand-up, I didn’t know how to write a joke to save my life, so I did characters. I just did whatever I thought was funny.
My act was way more varied early on, way more physical. And then as I got deeper into stand-up, I kind of fell in love with the writing part of it. The physical performance [of being a musical comic] kind of grew and grew, and I didn’t like how when you start a song, you’re tied to it for two or three minutes. So I dropped that. I wanted to see how it felt not to do songs. Then I kind of just evolved into a joke writer.
Yeah, with any amount of musical comedy, you sometimes tend to get pigeonholed into doing just that aspect of stand-up. It’s like, if you don’t have the guitar, it’s not a complete set.
Right. Now, I like the freedom. When I had the guitar onstage with me, I always felt like the audience was…
Yeah, half-listening. But also just waiting for me to pick the guitar up. I like it now. People pay more attention to the jokes.