It often seems that the people for whom the DIY punk scene was an integral part of their growth are often now following interesting and less-traveled paths, almost as if the scene gave them an advantage in this new world, or ingrained in them some kind of crucial value. Kyle Kinane came up in the small punk venues and comedy clubs of Chicago and his success has paralleled that of the fellow Chicago comics with whom he shared those small stages, comics like Matt Braunger and Kumail Namjiani. While Kinaneís narrative, grown-up slacker brand of standup has resonated with comedy enthusiasts, it seems to have especially resonated with those who came from similar beginnings. Perhaps touring with no money and sleeping on couches was good practice for a world where even major label bands are sometimes expected to pay their own way on tour.
Punknews staff writer Jon Reiss caught up with Kinane to find out the extent to which punk has played a part in his adult life, and how it does-or does not-reconcile itself with the comedy lifestyle.
Death Of The Party is the first comedy album Iíve ever seen posted in the ďBest New Music" section on Punknews. Do you have any perception of how that happened and how people in this pocket of culture became interested in you?
Well, I came from that scene in Chicago.
Okay, I thought so but didnít want to assume.
I think what turned it around the most was a story I told about going to Fireside Bowl in Chicago, maybe that lent some credibility my way. But also, I think it was because it was an album on an independent comedy label and I tried to model it off the DIY scene. To me, it was a record, so it should be ten bucks, and then I went around and just toured small venues, not like it was my choice because nobody really knew who I was [anyway] but I basically did it like a band. If I wanted to play a small town, Iíd play a house if I had to.
But, I think talking about taking a shit at the Fireside Bowl helped too. But, yeah, I grew up in the punk scene.
Thatís partially why I wanted to interview you. Iím always interested in talking to people who grew up in that world who now do interesting things, other than just being in a punk band. I feel like a lot of people I grew up with, for whom this was a big part of their life, are either doing nothing at all, or something really interesting. I think growing up in that world can inform the way people live their adult lives in really interesting ways. Would you say thatís true for you?
You know, I hope it would be. For some people, it just didnít take or they found another path. But for me, to see that there was another viable existence and a worthwhile life outside of just pursuing the highest paying job, to see that I could do something that made me happy and then Iíd be content if I was poor doing it [was worth pursuing]. It also kind of gave me faith that if I did something that made me happy, that I truly enjoyed, it would turn out all right. And thatís good, you know? Thatís not hurting the world. You feel like the universe will let you do that as long as thatís the case.
I think that ethics was a big part of it. A lot of people go into comedy thinking ďOh, Iíll be famous.Ē No, I found it because it was a form of expression I was better at than playing guitar. Then it was like, okay, I found something that makes me happy and Iím going to keep doing it and if the universe allows me to do it for a living, then great, but Iím not going to change myself in order to be able to do that.
Itís interesting that you brought up ethics. Because few people who were personally unfamiliar with punk rock would equate ethics with the culture. I think thatís a misconception. You say this thing on Whiskey Icarus that I think is this really poignant descriptor of the punk ethos. I know it was a joke, but it really hit me. You say, ďI wasnít put on this earth to be a goalie.Ē
Well, I mean, itís something I have to put on myself because Iím a comedian so there is always judgment. A lot of times Iím walking around going ďLook at this dude over here.Ē From a comic standpoint, that can be fun and humorous, but from your own well-being standpoint, you canít just walk around criticizing and being disgusted with things. My thing is if youíre going to complain about something, either complain about it but then have an idea for a solution, or try to go inwards and ask, well, what about this is making me upset? Maybe I can improve myself rather than just point fingers and just decide everything is stupid. The cynicism thing just gets too exhausting.
Can you tell me about going to see shows in Chicago? Can you reminisce?
I was trying to write a piece for Jaded Punk, it didnít come together because it was coming out too schmaltzy. Valentine's Day was my twenty-year anniversary of my first show, which was the last show at a place called McGregorís. It was Screeching Weasel, the Vindictives and the Bollweevils. I didnít know what I was getting into; some skateboard kids said they were going to see a show and I was like, ďAll right, I thought if itís bands isnít called a concert?,Ē and they were like, ďNo dude, it's a show.Ē
I get very nostalgic about this stuff because the only stuff Iíd heard before that was in movies or something when bands would play, like when Plastic Bertrand played in National Lampoonís European Vacation. Iíd see that thinking, whereís the music that sounds like that? Where does that music come from? So as soon as I heard Screeching Weasel I was like, ďThis is what I want music to sound like, and I could take this CD home and learn to play it.Ē Also I realized what was possible, that there were hundreds of people at that show and this band has never been on MTV or the radio, but somehow all these people knew about it. So it brought me into it from the DIY standpoint, from the scene of it. It affected me on many different levels.
I heard Screeching Weasel is doing a reunion...
Whoís doing a reunion, Ben Weasel or Screeching Weasel? I know Screeching Weasel has been playing and thatís justÖ I canít. My theory on Ben Weasel is that he just went with the contrarian element of punk rock. He just has to be against whatever he can go against. Like heís going to be a right-wing Catholic now? Okay buddy, good luck with that, youíve succeeded in being outside the norm.
Okay, hereís another punk question. I promise not all these questions will be about punk rock butÖ
No, pleaseÖ I donít get to talk about this stuff with all of my comedy friends. I like talking about this stuff.
Great! Well you had a Cheap Girls song as the opener for Whiskey Icarus. It felt like a major coup, hearing them on TV. Iíd guess that many of us, when we think about realizing our dreams of having a movie, or TV show or comedy special or whatever, that weíd hope to be able to incorporate the music we like. Iím curious whether you were met with resistance from the network, or if there were licensing issues or anything like that.
It was Comedy Central and therefore such a huge jump from the first one. So I was like, ďOkay, this is Comedy Central itís a lot more money and everything but I still wanted have control.Ē My friend Mario whoís in Madison Bloodbath, he introduced me to Cheap Girls, I met them doing The Fest and I thought they were great and we hit it off, so I just asked them if I could use their song and they were like, ďYeah go for it.Ē
Itís weird, Iíve met more people in my favorite bands now from doing comedy than I ever did trying to play in bands myself.
Can you rattle off for me some of your new or current favorite bands?
Iím looking forward to the new Off With Their Heads record. When I moved to LA in 2003, I basically just knew comedians who didnít know where to go for shows, and nobody really plays here in LA as much as they do other places like San Diego or San Francisco. So I fell out of the loop. But within the past two years Iíve gotten re-introduced to new music, like I got into everything that Mikey Erg has been involved in. Laura Stevenson and the Cans is a great band! I just heard Torche for the first time a couple weeks ago and I havenít been able to stop listening to them since. Lately I feel like Iím 16 again, finding and getting excited about all these new bands.
What do you think you would have done if you werenít a comic?
Man. I donít know! I think Iíd still just be doing whatever I already was doing during the day and just failing at comedy at night. I mean, I just thought Iíd found my retirement hobby when I started comedy, the thing that would keep me busy. I always thought Iíd just go to work during the day, doing some menial job and do this at night, and Iíd be okay with that job as long as I had something I could throw myself into at night. For whatever reason Iím allowed to have that hobby turned into a career. So honestly, I donít really have a back up or another idea of what I would have done. I would have just been working at a warehouse job or whatever I was already doing and failing at comedy at night or failing at being in a band at night.
Thereís a perception of you as ďa storyteller comic.Ē Youíve definitely got a knack for engaging people into a story and building that engagement. What makes a good storyteller? Has it always been a talent of yours?
I think itís just a Chicago thing. Itís bar bullshittery. You sit there at a bar and someone is telling a story with everyone sitting around listening and the next guy tries to tell a bigger story. Or, if you tell a good story then you go to the next party and the story gets a little bit bigger, then a little bit bigger. First, you fought two guys, and then you fought three guys and so on. It's just bar bullshit. Iím jealous of guys that can write joke after joke after joke. I canít do that. But, I can keep adding to a story to make it more entertaining. I think itís laziness really, but Iíll take the ďstorytellerĒ moniker. But I wish I had the skill to write as many jokes as other people do.
I was listening to Slateís Culture Gabfest podcast and they were talking about the Mike Birbiglia movie Sleepwalk With Me, which is about a stand up comic. In response to the film, they posited the zeitgeist is currently sick of the idea of ďthe tortured artist,Ē and further, the only archetype of ďthe tortured artistĒ people still accept is ďthe tortured comic.Ē Do you agree with that? Why do you think that might be?
As far as comics being tortured artists I think itís a reaction of this generation, a generation that was like ďOkay, we went to college like we were supposed to,Ē and in response they got, ďGood, hereís your debt and hereís your shitty economy.Ē So I think everybody is tortured. I donít think someone gets to be tortured just because theyíre an artist. A lot of people are fucking tortured. There are tortured day laborers, tortured office workers, people that donít have the privilege to go and express themselves through jokes or writing or music. Everyone is tortured in one way or another, and so I think the ďtortured artistĒ thing is just a little bit exhausting right now. Threeís definitely a trend in comedy of which I fully fall into the category of just privileged, bearded, straight white males who are disappointed in their privilege. Itís why when I write, Iíll say to myself, why not try to write comedy thatís positive and be more amused by the wonder of the world rather than constantly critical of it.
Can you tell me about your path to success? Were there awful jobs and going bed without supper? How did it all happen?
I always had a day job. Maybe itís the way I was raised or something like, ďDonít screw up your credit, donít go into debt.Ē I donít understand capable people who want to criticize the system but theyíre also all bartenders who are getting unemployment under the table. Then theyíre criticizing the very government theyíre scamming. Like, ďThe government is totally fucked!Ē but theyíre making $500 dollars a night and still getting a government check.
So I always had a job, I always worked, paid my bills, etc. I moved out to LA and got a shitty job because thatís what you do here. You donít get to move out LA and hear, ďOh thank god youíre here! Another comedian has moved to LA!Ē So I worked in a warehouse and went to college, I went to like three colleges and dicked off and they eventually made me graduate because I had enough credits but I was like ďI just want to be here!Ē Itís a catch-22: if you stay in college-you donít have any debts to pay. Itís like a weird prison mentality.
But yeah, nothing exceptional. Two nice parents that let me chase my dream. I never put comedy in front of having a wife or a kid or anything so if I screwed up anything it would just be for myself, so thatís all right. I cannot call myself tortured, not in any way.
Iím not sure why I have this compulsion but I want to prod you to tell me about how good it feels to have realized your dream. I mean, you chased your dream, you worked and now youíre there, like right now as Iím talking to you. Is that not a unique feeling? I guess what Iím asking is, if you could talk to yourself from 2003 when you first moved to LA, would you be psyched to tell yourself that you just had a Comedy Central special? Would you be excited to tell yourself that this is where it all leads?
Oh yeah! Of course thatís whatís fun about it. Thatís what I knew early on. I moved here because I lived with my parents until I was 26 in the suburbs and didnít want to move 20 minutes from where I lived to Chicago. So I moved to California because I always like skateboarding and BMX and the culture and palm trees made me happy, so fuck it! Let's go for it! I came out and I was like, ďHereís my jokes! Iím going to keep coming, and keep telling them.Ē It didnít happen right away. It happened over the course of many years.
Thereís always going to be confusion either way. Thereís always someone thinking, what if I just kept trying or practiced music a little bit more? Then thereís someone in a band thinking, what if I settled down and had a family? Iíve never worried about it. Also I will say, LA is an easy place to do this because itís a city of adult children, where people play make believe and make jokes and make movies and thereís not that pressure of "When are you going to settle down?" Itís a whole city of people saying ďDonít settle! Keep going!Ē so I think itís much easier to get away with that attitude here.
Did you ever feel like you had to be someone you werenít to get ahead?
A little bit of it popped up here and there. But thatís whatís really great about comedy right now. Standup comedy really took on a kind of DIY form. I wasnít going to stand in line for three hours to get time on an open mic at the Laugh Factory. I didnít need to do that because there were all these great independent rooms that came up. Now all those big comedy clubs are trying to emulate these independent rooms in LA because theyíre thriving. And that attitude affected the landscape, and it was great.
Tell me about some of the up and coming comics to look out for.
Standup is flourishing in an unbelievable way right now. My buddy Matt Braunger is great but heís on Comedy Central, most people know him. Up and comersÖ my buddy Ian Karmel is great. Iím blown away by standup right now, my initial reaction is to say ďGo see everybody!Ē Letís see whoís been just killing me lately? Aparna Nancherla, sheís writing for W. Kamau Bellís show right now. Actually I almost want to tell you to check out scenes. I want to say, look up Denver standup comedy, look up Atlanta standup comedy, because that whole scene is great. Itís just a whole scene of people pushing each other to be better. Itís not unlike DIY punk. You know that scene and its characteristics and you know the pedigree they come from.
Whatís next for you, Kyle?
I donítí know. I mean, Iím allowed to just tell jokesÖ for a living! It seems like such a foolish thing to even be allowed to do. So I just donít want to fuck it up. So whatís next for me? Not fucking this up.