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 Kinane's 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 I've ever seen posted in the "Best 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 didn't 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, I'd 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.
That's partially why I wanted to interview you. I'm 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 that's true for you?
You know, I hope it would be. For some people, it just didn't 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 I'd 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 that's good, you know? That's not hurting the world. You feel like the universe will let you do that as long as that's the case.
I think that ethics was a big part of it. A lot of people go into comedy thinking "Oh, I'll be famous." 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 I'm going to keep doing it and if the universe allows me to do it for a living, then great, but I'm not going to change myself in order to be able to do that.
It's interesting that you brought up ethics. Because few people who were personally unfamiliar with punk rock would equate ethics with the culture. I think that's 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, "I wasn't put on this earth to be a goalie."
Well, I mean, it's something I have to put on myself because I'm a comedian so there is always judgment. A lot of times I'm walking around going "Look at this dude over here." From a comic standpoint, that can be fun and humorous, but from your own well-being standpoint, you can't just walk around criticizing and being disgusted with things. My thing is if you're 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 didn't 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 McGregor's. It was Screeching Weasel, the Vindictives and the Bollweevils. I didn't know what I was getting into; some skateboard kids said they were going to see a show and I was like, "All right, I thought if it's bands isn't called a concert?," and they were like, "No dude, it's a show."
I get very nostalgic about this stuff because the only stuff I'd heard before that was in movies or something when bands would play, like when Plastic Bertrand played in National Lampoon's European Vacation. I'd see that thinking, where's the music that sounds like that? Where does that music come from? So as soon as I heard Screeching Weasel I was like, "This is what I want music to sound like, and I could take this CD home and learn to play it." 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...
Who's doing a reunion, Ben Weasel or Screeching Weasel? I know Screeching Weasel has been playing and that's just… I can't. 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 he's going to be a right-wing Catholic now? Okay buddy, good luck with that, you've succeeded in being outside the norm.
Okay, here's another punk question. I promise not all these questions will be about punk rock but…
No, please… I don't 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. I'd 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 we'd hope to be able to incorporate the music we like. I'm 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, "Okay, this is Comedy Central it's a lot more money and everything but I still wanted have control." My friend Mario who's 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, "Yeah go for it."
It's weird, I've 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?
I'm looking forward to the new Off With Their Heads record. When I moved to LA in 2003, I basically just knew comedians who didn't 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 I've 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 haven't been able to stop listening to them since. Lately I feel like I'm 16 again, finding and getting excited about all these new bands.
What do you think you would have done if you weren't a comic?
Man. I don't know! I think I'd still just be doing whatever I already was doing during the day and just failing at comedy at night. I mean, I just thought I'd found my retirement hobby when I started comedy, the thing that would keep me busy. I always thought I'd just go to work during the day, doing some menial job and do this at night, and I'd be okay with that job as long as I had something I could throw myself into at night. For whatever reason I'm allowed to have that hobby turned into a career. So honestly, I don't 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.
There's a perception of you as "a storyteller comic." You've 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 it's just a Chicago thing. It's 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. I'm jealous of guys that can write joke after joke after joke. I can't do that. But, I can keep adding to a story to make it more entertaining. I think it's laziness really, but I'll take the "storyteller" moniker. But I wish I had the skill to write as many jokes as other people do.
I was listening to Slate's 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 "the tortured artist," and further, the only archetype of "the tortured artist" people still accept is "the tortured comic." Do you agree with that? Why do you think that might be?
As far as comics being tortured artists I think it's a reaction of this generation, a generation that was like "Okay, we went to college like we were supposed to," and in response they got, "Good, here's your debt and here's your shitty economy." So I think everybody is tortured. I don't think someone gets to be tortured just because they're an artist. A lot of people are fucking tortured. There are tortured day laborers, tortured office workers, people that don't 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 "tortured artist" thing is just a little bit exhausting right now. Three's 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. It's why when I write, I'll say to myself, why not try to write comedy that's 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 it's the way I was raised or something like, "Don't screw up your credit, don't go into debt." I don't understand capable people who want to criticize the system but they're also all bartenders who are getting unemployment under the table. Then they're criticizing the very government they're scamming. Like, "The government is totally fucked!" but they're 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 that's what you do here. You don't get to move out LA and hear, "Oh thank god you're here! Another comedian has moved to LA!" 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 "I just want to be here!" It's a catch-22: if you stay in college-you don't have any debts to pay. It's 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 that's all right. I cannot call myself tortured, not in any way.
I'm 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 you're there, like right now as I'm talking to you. Is that not a unique feeling? I guess what I'm 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 that's what's fun about it. That's what I knew early on. I moved here because I lived with my parents until I was 26 in the suburbs and didn't 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, "Here's my jokes! I'm going to keep coming, and keep telling them." It didn't happen right away. It happened over the course of many years.
There's always going to be confusion either way. There's always someone thinking, what if I just kept trying or practiced music a little bit more? Then there's someone in a band thinking, what if I settled down and had a family? I've never worried about it. Also I will say, LA is an easy place to do this because it's a city of adult children, where people play make believe and make jokes and make movies and there's not that pressure of "When are you going to settle down?" It's a whole city of people saying "Don't settle! Keep going!" so I think it's much easier to get away with that attitude here.
Did you ever feel like you had to be someone you weren't to get ahead?
A little bit of it popped up here and there. But that's what's really great about comedy right now. Standup comedy really took on a kind of DIY form. I wasn't going to stand in line for three hours to get time on an open mic at the Laugh Factory. I didn't 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 they're 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 he's on Comedy Central, most people know him. Up and comers… my buddy Ian Karmel is great. I'm blown away by standup right now, my initial reaction is to say "Go see everybody!" Let's see who's been just killing me lately? Aparna Nancherla, she's writing for W. Kamau Bell's 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. It's just a whole scene of people pushing each other to be better. It's not unlike DIY punk. You know that scene and its characteristics and you know the pedigree they come from.
What's next for you, Kyle?
I don't' know. I mean, I'm allowed to just tell jokes… for a living! It seems like such a foolish thing to even be allowed to do. So I just don't want to fuck it up. So what's next for me? Not fucking this up.