Comedy is Playwright’s Next Stage: Talking with Dave Stinton

Playwright Dave Stinton is relatively new to Chicago stand-up, but is already winning honors and accolades and headlining January's Comedy at the Mette.

Dave Stinton may be relatively new to the Chicago stand-up comedy scene, but he's already garnering honors and accolades typically reserved for the veterans, including January's headlining gig at Comedy at the Mette. A stand-out in his first stand-up class at Second City in 2011, this Itasca native scored a rare comedy coup when his instructor, Dan Telfer, invited him to make his debut at Chicago Underground Comedy's (ChUC) prestigious weekly showcase. Within months, he was appearing at the TBS Just for Laughs Festival and at top venues around the city. He remains a popular guest at ChUC. Jenny Byers, creator and producer of the Comedy at the Mette series, says, "While in the past, all the headliners were full-fledged ChUC cast members, we will be occasionally extending a special invitation to select very talented comedians who frequently guest perform at ChUC. Dave is one of those very, very funny comedians we have always wanted to headline at our theater."

So what are the secrets to comedy success? Stinton says he's still figuring it out, but his history reveals clear possession of those magical seventh and eighth senses: a gift for language and the ability to use it humorously. Years of hard work as a playwright at Chicago's WNEP Theater, as a storyteller at multiple venues and a no-fear approach to risk have also been key. His plays have been "critic's picks" and lauded on both the Chicago and New York circuits. There's even a romantic back story: he married his frequent co-author and creative partner, Jen Ellison, this past August.

Stinton's writerly background has no doubt been instructive when it comes to his vibrant wording, literate sensibility and flawless timing, all noted with admiration by his fellow comics. But to really inspire fandom, comedians need that something extra that makes audiences want to brave January's frozen tundra for the warmth and therapeutic benefits of great laughs. And that elusive quality is something that Stinton radiates. He'll remind you of the friend you're reluctant to say goodbye to at your party, even when you're secretly relieved to see everyone else go home. He's the one you'll hope will linger, offering his hilarious deadpan, dead-on, off-beat observations unlikely to issue from anyone else. He leaves you wanting more whether he's discussing the dishonest things we tell kids, our collective lust for hunky firemen, birds that should exist in nature but don't, or distilling life into its infinite absurdities. In other words, he makes an evening memorable.

Stinton kindly spoke with me about his experiences as a writer and the launch of his career in comedy.

Q: When did you know you wanted to be a writer and comedian?

A: As for writing, it probably goes back to grade school English classes. When we got assignments to write stories or essays, I think a lot of students saw it as a chore to get through, but I saw it as an opportunity to be playful and to have some fun. So when I got some positive feedback from teachers, I thought, well, this is a fun thing to pursue and to keep doing.

As for stand-up, that was something completely unexpected to me. I hadn't been doing a whole lot of writing for a long time and I was looking for something to force me to write. My wife teaches at Second City. She teaches writing there and I asked her if I should take some writing classes at Second City, if she thought that would be a good way to give myself a deadline and an assignment every week just to force myself to create some output. And she said, well, have you ever considered stand-up? And I said no. It had never entered my mind. I didn't even know Second City offered it. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, this is a cool, terrifying challenge, so maybe this is exactly what I should dip my toe into and see if it works.

Q: And how about your playwriting? Which topics interest you the most?

A: I find most interesting the things that are based on historical events. The last thing I wrote theater-wise was a play based on a true story about a forged Shakespeare play from the late 1700s. It was such an interesting event that had a lot of built-in theatricality to it. I enjoyed playing with how to turn it into something that could be acted out and watched. And before that, I think what got me writing in the first place was a desire to be funny. I've always wanted to be seen as a funny person, so any way to get that across, whether it was telling jokes or drawing cartoons or writing something to make people laugh.

Q: Which came first, the plays or the storytelling?

A: The plays. Plays are a kind of a storytelling themselves, but as far as performing at storytelling events, that's a much more recent thing. Chicago and every major city have hundreds of storytelling events sprouting up and I saw that as an opportunity to do a little bit of writing and performing. It's also a fun way to write and perform in front of an audience that's there to be supportive and to hear what you're saying.

But as for plays, I think I was in high school when I first started thinking I might want to write a play. My first play that I was ever in was in high school and then all of a sudden whatever ideas that occurred to me that otherwise I would have turned into cartoons or short stories, suddenly I was thinking in terms of theater.

Q: Do you have a favorite story to tell?

A: My favorite one was that I went to France in 2006 or -7 and I ended up getting this horrible throat spasm and throwing up for like twelve hours straight. The fun of that is the wonder of going to this foreign country and seeing all the beautiful sights and all the beautiful food and then all of a sudden from about 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. just throwing up almost nonstop. There's a lot of humorous potential and also terror in telling that kind of story. It was not funny at the time, but in retrospect, it's fun to tell.

Q: How would you advise people to become great storytellers?

A: For me, I'm not as good extemporaneously speaking about a story as I am when I have time to shape it. Other people are much better at that, but for me, if you're going to tell a story at one of these events, write it, leave it there for a little while, come back to it, edit it, keep polishing it and practicing it. Maybe it's a little trite, but I think it's pretty sound advice.

The other thing is you can't write by thinking about writing. And I think this is a trap that I have fallen into and I think a lot of people do it, too, is to think, "Man, I would love to do that," but then they don't take the next step and just start doing it. It's such a great environment that it's okay if you don't knock it out of the park right away. There are places where you can go to hone it. People will give you advice. People will support you. You're not going to be booed offstage at any of these storytelling events and so I think you have to get over your fear of the lousy first draft and just go ahead and vomit everything that you can out onto a page and start from there.

Q: How would you compare storytelling and comedy?

A: Well, like I said, storytelling is nice because the way the environment has sprouted up here, people go to listen and to appreciate the writing. I come from a very writing-heavy background, so there's something really great about that. And even if you're not funny, or even if you try to be funny but somehow fall short, people are still there with you as long as you tell the story well and keep people interested.

Now stand-up is completely different. The word comedy is right there in the phrase "stand-up comedy," so there's a lot more pressure to get that particular response consistently. That's the challenge that makes it a lot harder than a plain old storytelling event, but it's also a lot more satisfying when you're able to be successful at it and to hit those notes the way you want to.

Q: You mentioned your wife teaches at Second City and that you have been writing partners for years. What is it like to live in such a creative household?

A: It's great. We know each other really well. We've known each other for something like fifteen years, long before we started dating. We worked together creatively for a long time, so we really know what makes each other tick. We're really good at giving honest but supportive feedback on each other's creative endeavors. We trust each other well and it's nice to have someone like that just sitting next to you on the couch. She's constantly very nurturing and supportive of me doing creative things. I think the nice thing is that we understand each other really well and understand the need to give advice and also the need to back off and not give advice when it may be less than welcome.

Q: How did you start writing together?

A: We met when she was the artistic director of the theater company, WNEP. They were working on a play that was an adaptation of a bunch of drawings by the children's author, Chris Van Allsburg. He has a book called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick which is a bunch of pictures and captions that are theoretically from lost stories. So we wrote short plays for a lot of the stories and put them together. A friend of mine who was already a member of the theater brought me onboard as a writer so that's how Jen and I met and we started writing together with that very play.

Q: How would you describe your comedy?

A: The person I portray is kind of an affable weird guy, but the feedback I get is that I'm really dark. I don't set out to be dark, but then when I look back at some of the stuff I do, it actually has a kind of a weird dark edge that I don't necessarily set out to try and capture. So there's a lot of trial and error right now, but I think smart and funny and occasionally dark is my aim.

Q: Which onstage comedy experience has been your best or craziest or just most memorable?

A: I've been lucky that there haven't been many catastrophes. The closest I ever came to something like that was being heckled at an open mic. I was on vacation in New York and Dan Telfer suggested I find an open mic to do while I was out there. This guy, a fellow comic, was kind of murmuring in the back the entire time. I wasn't doing well with my bit. I just needed to get to the end of it and was kind of powering through it because I was so uncomfortable up there.

All of a sudden I said something that pricked up his ears and he started shouting questions at me from the audience. This was like my worst nightmare because like I said, I'm not as spontaneous as I think I should be. Sometimes I think that's a weakness of being so writerly about your material. But the good thing is that after being on my heels a couple of times, I was able to turn it around and take control of the conversation and go off the script that I had for myself.

The great thing is that the only real laughs I got at this open mic were when I was interacting with this guy with unscripted responses. I see it as a personal success story because I got over a lot of my phobias and I was able to show myself that I do have the potential to step out of the boundaries that I've set for myself and to handle something unexpected.

Q: Do you have a favorite comedy topic or inspiration?

A: I wouldn't say necessarily a favorite topic, although I do like it when comedians go off on a tirade about something that they've clearly given a lot of thought to and spent a lot of time nursing their resentment about that maybe other people haven't thought about as much, but everyone can identify with. That's always a pleasurable thing to see and a fun to do. I've been able to have some success with going off on a series of tangents about minutiae.

Q: I love that, too. When comedians do that they're articulating a truth that I knew was true but never actually described to myself. It illuminates a whole area of life and I think, "Yeah, that's exactly how it is."

A: Exactly. That's the sweet spot. If you can find something that everybody knows but nobody knows consciously yet, that's a great seed for comedy.

Comedy At The Mette is at 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, January 12 at the Wilmette Theatre, 1122 Central Ave. Tickets are $12. The show features Kristin Clifford and is hosted by Bryan Bowden. This is a 21 and over event. For more information or for tickets, call 847-251-7424 or visit http://www.wilmettetheatre.com/events/.

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