Comedy fans know Dan Telfer from his stints as an opener for the likes of Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn. He’s familiar to podcast listeners, particularly fans of Doug Loves Movies and The Benson Interruption. He also gained buzz from his debut EP, 2010’s Fossil Record, which contained his popular bit about “The Best Dinosaur,” a version of which became a viral YouTube hit. Telfer will perform this weekend at the Mayne Stage in Chicago, and is recording the show for release as his first full-length comedy CD. Maybe.
You’re doing an album recording from this performance, right?
I’m recording on professional equipment for potential release. I’m gonna listen first. I definitely will have enough people to make it sound like an album, but I’m only doing one show. If I had my druthers, I’d fly out to some city and do four shows. But this venue has been good to me and I’ve headlined there before. It’s got every ingredient it needs to go well. I’ll listen to it. I’m going to give it a couple of weeks and then go back and listen to it, and go from there.
Given that you’re planning a possible move to Los Angeles, is recording a performance in Chicago for an album meant as a sort of farewell to the city?
[laughs] Not really. The venue itself is the descendant of the Lakeshore Theater, which was sort of like my home comedy club before it died a couple of years ago. It has an excellent sound system. It’s all very functional. For those reasons, it would be very ideal. But I have no nostalgia involved in this. I’m not a very nostalgic person.
If I could say anything about Chicago, it’s that it doesn’t really give a fuck until you’re leaving. Chicago press, the local press, just completely ignores comedians 100 percent until they’ve moved away. They’ll publish these articles that are like, “Chicago’s Top Comedians!” and they’ll name no one who’s lived here in the last five years, just people who moved away forever ago. But they’ll call them “Chicago comedians,” people who are already getting a lot of press, and that does all the homework for them. The local press never leaves their office.
The idea of recording a CD here is great because I’ve learned so much here. I have built up a pretty decent fan base; I’ve been doing it here for 15 years. It will be fun. But as far as any romantic sentiment, ah, fuck it. The fans are amazing, but there’s this attitude amongst the gatekeepers here of, “Fuck you for trying to be creative. Could you just have no ego? Could you hate yourself? If you could hate yourself, you’d be the ideal Chicago artist. Hate yourself and achieve nothing.” Of course not everyone does that; not everyone hates themselves. But I feel like there’s resentment if you have too much pride.
There are plenty of comedians who hate themselves, but you don’t seem to have very much self-loathing in your personality.
No, I had plenty of bullying in my youth. I don’t need to beat myself up. Fuck that. I had people cock-punching me from ages 8 to 13. I make mistakes, but c’mon. I can be proud.
What about the community in Chicago among the comedians themselves? It’s certainly produced a lot of great talent over recent years, such as yourself, Hannibal, Kyle Kinane. What does the Chicago scene offer comedians, or what do you get out of it, that other cities don’t offer?
Chicago is huge, area and population wise. It is quite literally as big a city as you can get and have no paid opportunities for people in the entertainment industry. This makes everyone hunker down, with bitterness or determination, and work on being as efficiently funny as possible. But the scene is, in my opinion, extremely supportive. There are so many kind, insightful comics to lean on for support and perspective. I got a similar vibe in Minneapolis and Austin. Smart, talented people stick it out here for a long time, and you just want to be around those people to motivate yourself and be better.
You got your start studying improv at iO under Del Close. Do you still do improv shows occasionally, or at all?
No, I formally retired from my last full-time improv team in 2007. There was some gentle in-fighting between two other members at the time, and stand-up was going well enough that I felt it best to let it go. I would love to do it again. I did it very often for 10 years. But after 10 years nobody was really begging me to do it. I was coaching a team and on a team at a co-op theater where you had to put in work for your own stage time. It was still fun, but little things going wrong would just devastate me because of how low the stakes were.
I remember one time I was trying to park to get to an improv show, and this guy in oncoming traffic did a sharp left turn in front of me. No turn signal, no intersection. So I slam on the breaks and honk, and he stops and gives me the finger and screams “fuck you!” Then I see his face and he’s on the team going up after me that night, and he’s a staff member of authority at the theater who decides which teams stay on the schedule. Nothing came of it; he never acknowledged it later and probably didn’t even know who I was. But I was like, wow, this is what I’m fighting for. I’m rearranging to get the car, skip dinner, miss my pregnant wife, all for this moment. I’d rather have slightly more control over my destiny within an art form. Who knows, maybe I will get asked to do a guest appearance someplace. I still see tons of improvisers that I get along with all the time because I teach at Second City. But I’m in no rush.
If this performance at Mayne Stage does become an album, it will be your first full-length. But you’ve had success with the Fossil Record EP.
Yeah, it was a top-50 bestseller on iTunes. And I considered its release alone to be a success because it was a co-release with Greg Proops and Paul F. Tompkins, and the fact that they would even allow their names near mine is astounding. And the CD came out right around the time that video of me doing the dinosaur bit went viral and got around 300,000 views.
And at that point I was already occasionally going on the road with Maria Bamford as her opener. Then Brian Posehn started taking me around, and Patton Oswalt, and Paul F. Tompkins let me open for him, and people from the Lakeshore Theater whom I was opening for were remembering me. Stuff like that was all happening at once, like late 2009 leading all the way through 2010.
How have your podcast appearances helped your career?
The last time I did Doug Loves Movies in November was my third time doing that show, and Doug has been very good to me. He had me emcee for him when he performed at Zanies here. I did one of his Benson Interruption shows.
If you’ve heard me do the dinosaur bit, I think my favorite time I’ve ever done it was when I did it for The Benson Interruption for like 20 minutes, with Doug heckling me as I’m doing it. That was really fun. Every time I do it it’s a little different, but with the “Interruption” especially, I got a couple of dinosaurs I don’t get very often, and then Doug encouraging me to go on longer then I normally do about stegosaurus, challenging me about where specifically the hatred is coming from. It’s a dumb, goofy bit, but to have somebody egging me on to continue being extra dumb and goofy is really fun.
Do you ever worry about becoming too closely associated with the dinosaur bit? Will you reach a point at which you’ll have said all you can say about that material and want to retire it, or are you happy to watch it grow and change, and to continue playing with it indefinitely?
I think there is a small but real percentage of my fans that have never seen me live and think I go onstage only yelling about dinosaurs for an hour, because so many of my fans come from the Internet, and that video is my shiniest Internet badge. I don’t focus on its “growth.” It’s a fairly simple formula and if I muck with the bit, it will break. But because I have been doing variations of it for five years I have to update my answers for everything, and it becomes like, “OK, time for a sixteenth opinion on stegosaurus.” That’s a fun exercise, but I would rather focus on new material than assign any importance to that bit anymore. I do think it’s strange when I skip it in a set and someone comes up to me afterwards and is like, “I can’t believe you didn’t do that bit; I was so excited to see it!” But there’s at least nine variations of it on the Internet, plus a track on a CD.
Sure, when people go to see you, they want to hear it. But with that bit in particular, there’s kind of a reveal to it, because if people have heard it, they know what the “correct” answer is to the question.
People want me to do it, but I also feel like if they’ve got a dinosaur in the holster, it’s always a dumb one, or they don’t understand the point and they think the point is to stump me. The longer I do it, the more improvisational it gets. If people say “velociraptor,” which is the first dinosaur joke I ever did in 2007, I try to think of something completely different from what I used to say.
It’s funny, because people will say, like, “Sterrhopalachiocephalosaurus! Ha ha, gotcha!” That’s not the point. I asked you what you think is the best dinosaur. People will look something up on the Internet and yell it out, and then I’ll ask them, “Well OK, I’ve never heard of that. What is that?” And they’ll say, “I don’t know.” I asked you what the best dinosaur is, and you’re telling me the best dinosaur, you don’t even know how many legs it has. And the whole bit is now about how you’re just some idiot who looks up garbage on the Internet.
Those aren’t dinosaur fans.
No, they’re not true dinosaur fans.
Dan Telfer will be performing tonight at the Mayne Stage in Chicago at 8 p.m. Call 866-468-3401 or visit MayneStage.com.
PHOTO BY: Liezl Estipona