Interview: Comedian Kyle Kinane
By Samantha Abernethy in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 8, 2013 6:20PM
Chicago-area native Kyle Kinane is one of the fastest rising stars of comedy today. Kinane put together a show called, "Dancing Around The Shit Fire" at the Just For Laughs Festival in June, which he calls a "love letter to the Windy City." The show featured comedians Cameron Esposito, Adam Burke, Ben Roy and Bryan Cook, with musical performances by Chicago musician Brendan Kelly (of Lawrence Arms and Slapstick.) Kinane turned footage from the shows into a special, on sale now for cheap on Chill.com.
We spoke with Kinane about his new special, the meaning of "shit fire," and those two perfect warm days after a rough Chicago winter. Fans of Chicago's 90s punk scene will particularly enjoy his take on the DIY scene.
Kinane will perform five shows at the Up Comedy Club Nov. 14 to 16. Tickets are on sale now. Follow Kinane on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr. Also check out his Comedy Central special Whiskey Icarus.
CHICAGOIST: I actually happened to see "Shit Fire" at Just for Laughs, and I was wondering how you decided to bring in music.
KYLE KINANE: One of the things that really informed me and kind of got me - well not really got me into comedy, kind of indirectly was just all the bands I’d go see, growing up in Chicago and just really latching onto that DIY scene and seeing everybody just making a scene. No need for press or publicity, just bands playing whatever venue they could play, all ages shows, and so when they said do you want to do a comedy show [at Just For Laughs]? I was like yeah, of course I’d like to incorporate music because they’re all great musicians and I want to expose people that are coming to comedy for the same reasons that I was going to see bands in the 90s. So I was like, hey these guys are kind of responsible and maybe we can do a little homage to them.
C: How did you pick Brendan Kelly?
KK: Well Brendan was in a band called Slapstick way back when that was, yeah, that was a big night out when I was in high school, if it was a Slapstick show, man you couldn't miss those. Then of course many other successful bands, Wandering Birds and Lawrence Arms. Then I met him in person for the first time back in December in New York. I saw the Jaded Punk Hulk Twitter account put on a live show and asked me to do it and Brendan was on it, so we started talking about Chicago and all that kind of stuff. I was a big fan, I kind of gushed a little bit on him. I didn’t embarrass myself too much, and I managed to ask him to play that show - "Shit fire."
C: So what exactly is a "shit fire?" What's your definition?
KK: Just a total mess, you know. Just a disaster. I explained in the beginning that I didn’t know if it was going to work, so I figured if I put a title on it that already lets people know what they’re getting into, so they can’t blame me if it doesn’t go well. But if it does go well, that's why we're dancing around it. Hey, things fall apart. We can still have fun about it.
C: When did you start doing standup?
I started in 1999. The first time I performed, on a whim I tried some open casting calls - maybe that was the first time I tried standup, at the Red Lion Pub on Lincoln Avenue, which is no longer. Which was even back then run by Mark Geary, who is still prominent in the Chicago comedy scene. That man's got a real thing about Lincoln I guess. For being a Brit, he's really attached to the 16th president.
C: How does that blend in with your current scene?
KK: It could you know, maybe. It's all coming together, maybe you’re unlocking the Da Vinci Code on all of this. Take an English guy to do a comedy show on Lincoln Avenue, all those at the Red Lion Pub, those English guys are hip. Which I now live across from place called the Red Lion Pub in Los Angeles. It really is like the Da Vinci Code, but I've never seen the Da Vinci Code, I should stop saying that. By seen, I mean read, because I'm a literate guy.
KK:I think open mics, in LA are more prominent. Every single venue has had comedy in it at one point.
C: So are you back in Chicago often?
KK: I get back about three or four times a year, so I don’t know what you consider often. That's a good amount; I like coming there, my family’s there and we grew up there so.
C: What are some of the things you miss about Chicago?
Well I mean if anyone knows anything about me obviously, it's hot dogs, but that's such a low hanging fruit of an answer. I miss that first warm day after a terrible winter when everybody's just friendly and wearing shorts, even though its just 50 degrees and it's going down to 25 at night, they're still wearing shorts because they're just excited about it. There's that kind of communal mentality of, "Oh we made it, we made it out," and nobody's going to be a dick for at least the first 48 hours of the first warm couple of days. But also I miss going into a bar when it is the absolute shittiest weather and everyone has the same communal attitude like soldiers in the foxhole like, "We made it out, we got here, we're safe in this bar." There's the pile of coats in the corner, and you just make friends with everybody just out of the sheer the fact that you were all willing to go out on such a crummy night. Yeah I guess, just the sheer experience and bonding of dealing with absolute shit weather.
C: So how did you decide to move to LA?
I wish I had a more elaborate answer, but I lived with my parents until I was 26 in the suburbs, so it was time to move out. Columbia College finally kicked me out by giving me a bachelors degree because I had been going to college for long enough and they were like, “You have enough credits to graduate” and so then I was like, Okay I guess I’m gonna leave. I never even visited California, I moved here when I was six and then I was like, ah go for it. Sometimes you gotta go big, you gotta make some big choices so I was like, Eh, why not.
C: How long had you been doing comedy at that point?
Around four years? Four years in Chicago, and I’ll be here 10 years this June.
C: That’s funny, you’re considered such a Chicago guy and really you've been in LA much longer.
KK: I know, maybe I'm not there enough. But there's a whole crop of us that came out in that same era like Matt Braunger, Pete Holmes, Kumail Nanjiani. We all cut our teeth there.
Photo Credit: Erin Nekervis
C: Do you feel a kinship with that group or with Chicago comics in general?
KK: Oh yeah, I still see them all the time, we’re still all pals. Nobody was really fame hungry, everyone was doing comedy like, oh this is what we like to do. We just found this hobby that we wanted to crack open and I think that’s what kept it pure and that's what helped push everybody to be successful, nobody was concerned about fame or stardom everyone was just like I want to be good at this. And then everyone got good enough to take that chance like, oh I'll move to New York or LA and see what happens there because why cut it short. But everyone in Chicago is just like, oh I just like doing this.
C: Now you’re venturing into a little bit of voice work, you’re the voice of Comedy Central right now. How did you wind up getting that?
KK: A complete lark. Comedy Central knew me from standup and was like, "do you want to come in and read these announcements?" And I was like, okay. I didn’t do any other voice work anywhere. You forget that’s a job that somebody has. I went and I tried it, and they were like, "Oh that’s good want to come in next week?" And I was like okay, and now it’s been almost 3 years or so. A complete lark, Comedy Central just said, give it a shot, like yeah, okay.
C: So what’s next, what’s your dream job or dream gig?
KK: What's next? Wow, that question is so weird. I never had a "what's next" before and it got me this far, so I don't want to screw up that pattern. You know, do this, keep trying to be better at what I’m doing. That's it - just get better at comedy, and then let everything else happen, as it needs to. But yeah, nope, no big plans for the rest of my life, no big plans, just let it be unpredictable.
C: You just did Drunk History. I was wondering just how drunk you were.
KK: I was the most drunk. I know people think it's fake—it's not fake at all, I drank a bottle of tequila, which I'd never done in my life, and I don't think I'll do again.
C: Did you know much about the Haymarket Riots going into it?
KK: I knew about them, but then I had to study knowing that I’d be drunk having to recite these facts and dates, but I had a cheat sheet with me which I couldn't read after a few minutes of the interview. But yeah, I knew about them, but I did have to study it. I was gonna say so I didn't turn into a blabbering mess, but that's what I turned into anyway.
(Watch a clip from Kinane's segment in Drunk History below. Watch the whole Chicago-themed episode here.)
C: How did you decide to release the special through Chill.com, and how is it a love letter to Chicago?
KK: Chill had done the Maria Bamford special, so I knew they were kinda on the level with stuff. The love letter to Chicago was just, first off, I wanted to bring music. It's what brought me into the mentality that there's no fame, there's no anything, just do what you love to do. Maybe the universe will let you do it for a living, and even if not you have to do it anyway. That’s what I learned from all those bands. John Pierson, Jughead, and Screeching Weasel was my first all ages show, and that just kind of sent me spiraling into that world. He was there and that was a huge honor. Brendan Kelly, obviously Slapstick was another one of those bands. And Dave Merriman from The Arrivals and The Shadow League, who was later but still he was one of these guys. You find what keeps you alive - he found it through music, I found it through comedy. And then the comedians - one night we had Cameron Esposito and Adam Burke on it, so they're Chicago comedians, a little bit of a nod there. And the other guys (Bryan Cook and Ben Roy) are just my pals, and they're funny. And hopefully people who come to see the comedy like the music, and who came to see the music like the comedy. And Brendan Kelly wound up being real funny up there, too, so that helped, just trying to bring all my interests together, and they all developed in Chicago.
KK:That's the thing, I see it now in the comedy scene. And for Chicago, I started going to shows in '93 or so and basically until I left. You know a lot of them were all ages, and for a long time they had $5 all ages shows that would always be some combination of Smoking Popes, Apocalypse Hoboken, the Oblivion, the Bollweevils, all these guys, 88 Fingers Louie. I'm looking back, and it always seemed like they were always sold out, just packed, and everybody was just so excited to be there. It just built up these great events. The bands knew each other, so they were having fun on stage. Whatever makes up a good scene. The bands were great, got along, everybody got along. Before it got popular—later people were just going to mosh and punch each other—before that it was also a very friendly, welcoming scene. And also it was showing venues and promoters that, look, these bands were gonna get to the spotlight on their own. They put flyers out there, and god forbid I say it myself, but it was before the internet. Fireside Bowl had a hot line and you’d call it up, and they’d list all the shows that were coming up. And now comedy is like that - now it's comedians that are putting on shows, not promoters, and they’re not doing it in comedy clubs. Especially in LA, the two best places you can see comedy are a room in the back of a Meltdown Comics, run by Chris Hardwick who's a standup himself, and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, which is all founded by comedians. And now the clubs are scrambling, saying, “Well how are they getting people in there every night and we're struggling to fill our rooms?” Well because they put on a quality show that starts at a price that allows everybody to be able to go see it and it’s sensibilities too - it’s getting people familiarized with the shows they’re putting on. And that’s what the music scene was. Like I couldn't afford a fifty dollar ticket to go see whatever band was coming to—I'm still gonna call it the Rosemont Horizon or Tinley Park or the World Music Theater—but shit, I can get five dollars together and go and see these great bands at the Elmhurst VFW.
C: Do you think it has sort of evened the playing field?
KK: Oh very much so. And you know comedy wasn't like this when I started. I was kind of ashamed to tell people that I do it, that I was comedy. And now it's kind of flipped, now comedy is the new DIY scene. And notwithstanding of course I've got publicity from Comedy Central, which I work with now, but with that I can just go on Twitter or Facebook and just start clicking on things and go, I wanna do a show, and inevitably there's a collective of comedians who run their own show somewhere and, you know, rally up their troops through their website or whatever, and put on their tour. So it’s comedian-run, and so they know how it works, and that can serve a profit. You may not get famous or rich off that, but you can put on fantastic shows. People are like, "What’s going on Thursday?" "Oh there’s this great comedy show that happens at this bar up the street." More people just start going and taking notice of them. As opposed to, "Oh should we go to this comedy club in a shopping mall that’s gonna cost us 30 bucks plus two drinks, and we don’t know what guy’s there." Or we're like, "Let's go to this bar, and then the guy or woman on stage is the kind of person we would want to know in real life anyway and they're talking about stuff we can relate to."
KK:No, I think there’s some clubs that do it right too. I mean, they’re businesses, you’ve gotta make money in a business. I’m not saying it should be a totally Socialist thing—you know, it should be free for everyone and we all eat a out of a collective bucket of oatmeal every morning! You know, I understand some places want to make a profit. For comedy fans, it's not so much a date night in a lot of markets. It's not the guy that’s like, "Oh, she better see me spend X-amount of dollars tonight." Now it's, you know, the beat up place, like the Metro or something, that's become the equivalent of a comedy club.
C: Is the way of the comedy club becoming antiquated?
KK: It can be. There's a place called the Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Indiana, and that is run by a guy who loves comedy. And he books acts and he basically trains his audience. It sounds weird, but the audience expects a good show, not just comic ohohoh. He's made comedy fans out of people in that town, and now he provides a level of entertainment to the kind of people that appreciate good comedy. And the local guys there are all fantastic because he cultivates a great local scene where it's like, "You wanna go up again tonight? Bob, are you going up tonight, are you trying new material, are you trying new stuff are you trying to expand?" And he's cultivated a fantastic club now. He still has to make a living, but his first priority is not, ‘I’ll make money first and then we’ll worry about the club.’ He's doing it out of passion and a love for comedy and that reflects in the fact that he's got one of the most fun comedy clubs to play in the country. And the same goes for Comedy Works in Denver, you know it’s a big club, but it cultivates an audience. You know it brings in an audience that’s not going there to get drunk and heckle at somebody. Some clubs are like that, though, like, "We'll have four drinks, we don't care, just let the comic babysit people." And a lot of comics don't want that shit, so they don't go to those clubs, those clubs aren't booking acts that are good, and then they're shitty clubs.
C: You’ve reached a point where you’re starting to reach the bigger rooms. I think last fall I saw you at The Paper Machete in the afternoon, which is pretty small, and then I saw you at Up Comedy Club the same night.
KK: Yeah Up was great, Paper Machete was great too, I didn't get to do it the last time I was there, but that was a fun little room. Up is a comedy club, but you also have people coming into the Second City building. You know you're gonna get drunks anywhere, you're gonna get drunks at alternative of shows - people who wander in their briefs, but something about Second City building—you're going to see a performance, it's a club set up nicely. I really like it. I'm going back there in November actually. Promotion!
C: Do you have to change your act to cater to that kind of different crowd? Do you change it much or do you just kind of throw the "shit fire" at them?
KK: No I think I'm lucky now that people are coming because they know me. I didn't work the road right away, I just stayed in Chicago and kept working on my weirdo jokes, at the Red Lion or just local places. And people who go on the road learn how to deal with a rowdy audience, and sometimes they deal by flattening out their own jokes to just appeal to everybody and get through the set. I didn't do that—I got to be very opinionated about my own material, but I lack the skill set of dealing with rowdy audiences. So when I first started going on the road, nobody knew who I was, I was getting shut down a lot by drunks. Fortunately the drunks are now more on my side, so I don't have to tailor the act too much because they might know who I am.