Dan Telfer's comedic talent is scientifically proven. In September, he was chosen to deliver a set for a BBC television crew and a Northwestern University professor who studies the science of humor. The segment, for the show Horizons, will air next year on the Science Channel in the U.S. and on BBC Two in the U.K. The conclusion? Telfer is indeed the embodiment of funny. The segment was filmed at the Wilmette Theatre where Telfer will also headline this month's Comedy at the Mette.
Horizons' endorsement is particularly fitting because Telfer is known for his passion for science. The video of his now classic bit, "The Best Dinosaur," went viral and has fans stopping him everywhere from the local Chipotle to Great Britain.* In the bit, Telfer debates the audience at hilarious and impossible speed about, what else, the best dinosaur. No one has ever managed to stump him.
But science is only one of Telfer's many comic strengths. He covers topics as diverse as the verbal slaying of bullies, parenting, insane astronauts and life's unforeseen predicaments. He is a self-proclaimed "obsessive introvert." His fans know this makes for superlative comedy. There is never a wasted word and dumbing down is not in his D.N.A. His high octane exchanges with the audience might make you question that introvert tag. But the give-away? Only someone who has observed the universe and its inhabitants very closely could come up with a perspective as astute and funny as Telfer's.
This married dad of two daughters recently released his second album, Tendrils of Ruin, which was named a 2012 Amazon Editors Pick. His first, Fossil Record, was named a best comedy album of 2010 by the Onion's A.V. Club. The Onion's discovery of Telfer led to him becoming an Onion A.V. Club contributor and a host of its outstanding web series, Pop Pilgrims, which explores famous pop culture and film locations. Maria Bamford, Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn have sought him out as an opening act and when The Doug Benson Interruption traveled to Chicago, Benson tapped Telfer as a guest. He is also a producer of Chicago Underground Comedy and an instructor at Second City. If all this weren't endorsement enough, this past week a fan created a change.org campaign to cast Telfer in the next Star Wars movie.
Telfer kindly took time to speak with me during a hectic holiday week, made even more hectic by his impending move. Yes, Chicago's loss is about to become Los Angeles' gain. So catch this rising star while you can. Comedy at the Mette will be one of his last Chicago area appearances. After that, we'll have to wait for what will likely be sold-out tours.
Q: Did you expect "Best Dinosaur" to become a classic?
A: Oh, no. Of course not. Early on, I was looking for more ways to interact with the audience. I'm always looking for more ways to do that. When that video went crazy it had already been online for a couple of weeks and only had a hundred and fifteen views. So it was very unexpected. A former student of mine from Second City posted it on that web site Reddit and from there it jumped onto a few other high traffic nerdy web sites.
Q: It's an amazing feat how quickly you come up with responses.
A: If everyone thought about it, they could do their own version. It's really like, take a thing you care about and have an opinion about variations of it. It's just weird that I care about dinosaurs that much.
Q: I don't think just anyone could do it.
A: Well, the medium of stand-up is you get the lights pointed at you and you're the center of attention. If you're being loud as I often am in that bit and go on this weird tangent of opinion, everyone is forced to listen to you. Under the right circumstances, a lot of people could be that passionate and silly. It comes from being so determined to make stand-up about what I find interesting. As paleontologists bring up, although not in casual conversation, dinosaurs were around much longer than humans. That to me is disturbing and has occupied my thoughts my entire life. What does that say about us? What are we even doing?
It occurred to me, other people probably got disturbed by that, too, and rushed past it because they didn't know what to do with that information. So why not play with that childhood moment when everybody picks their favorite dinosaur?
Q: What is your advice for dealing with our own personal hecklers, the unsolicited advice, criticisms, all of that holiday-party-gathering nonsense stuff?
A: That was always something I was not good at, so I might not be the best person at giving this advice, but I can definitely speak from the perspective of having grown up listening to extremely religiously conservative family members make other family members, not just myself, feel uncomfortable. Those people who are really nosy and who really push it? Ninety-nine percent of the population knows that relative is really bad. Just take comfort in the fact that eventually you will be with like-minded people again and they will all agree that your uncle is completely bonkers.
It's the way we get to enjoy the family we relate to as we put up with the ones who are completely impossible. And it's a stress relief for your mom if you put up with your crazy uncle. I've definitely had step-cousins-in-law say something incredibly racist and then say, "You're a comedian, you can use that in your act!" And I'm like, "Nope!" That's all you can say sometimes.
Q: That's really good advice because probably the best response is not to engage.
A: Well, it is. But then there's that small group of people where you have to engage on some level. I'm a big fan of being confident and terse when you're emotionally distressed. I think the best thing you can do is not play your whole hand. When people are in emotional distress, they often make the mistake of blurting out all their anxieties, so the best thing you can do is go ahead and shut it down, but quickly and un-insultingly. If asked something horrible just say, "Nope. Not comfortable. Nope." It's sometimes the only path and all you can do.
Q: What are your most and least favorite things about the holiday season?
A: I love this time of year. It's underrated. This is completely irrational, but I always get this twinge of annoyance when people say they have seasonal affective disorder. Isn't there enough to be depressed about all the time? How nice that you get to be choosy about it. I'm not a particularly depressed person. I definitely am sensitive and get struck by the tragedies of the world. With people who are like, "Well, this is just a temporary sadness ...," I'm always like, " … which is awesome!"
Q: For everyone not enjoying the holiday frenzy, which planet do you think would make the best escape?
A: The beauty of other planets, all the ones we know about, is that they don't have anyone on them, so pick any planet. If you have the ability to get to outer space and create an independent ecosystem, I would go moon or Mars just because it seems the easiest. That way, you could also come back more easily and it would only take a couple of years if you're going to Mars.
You could kick it Europa. Just be careful if you go Europa because the moons of Jupiter are constantly being smashed around by Jupiter's intense gravity and there are a lot of volcanoes that spew molten iron and stuff like that that you kind of want to avoid. Acid rain is pretty popular on other planets. Just know what you're getting yourself into. I would pick somewhere with no atmosphere and no volcanoes.
Q: What are the best gifts this season?
A: I found a cool thing called "GoldieBlox" on Kickstarter. The woman [who invented it] wants to encourage girls to be interested in engineering. It teaches your kids to make simple machines. It's not coming out until next April, but it's a hell of a lot cooler than, "Here's a drum. Bang on it!"
Q: You've mentioned going to science museums with your kids. Is there an exhibit that you would like to see that hasn't yet been created?
A: One of the things I like about the Museum of Science and Industry is it's all about progress and scientific innovation. The worst part about all museums is the dead things, like that's all they have because they're easy to keep.
If you go to the Field Museum, there are stuffed dusty corpses of animals everywhere. It's nightmare fuel. It's the scariest thing in the world for kids. First you see kids get excited and then this look on their face like, why isn't that animal moving? Half the kids ask their parents and are bummed out the rest of the trip and the other half runs out screaming.
Why not use technology to make that better? We're at the point where it shouldn't be that hard to create a fake ecosystem of an animal and let kids feel like they're at the bottom of an ocean and have robotic animals you would never ever see in a million years or holograms or projections or something interactive. Let them see those weird creatures that live in volcanic air vents at the bottom of the ocean. There's very little use for taxidermy at this point unless you're a creepy hunter who loves having corpses in the house.
Q: Please tell us about Chicago Underground Comedy. What do you look for when you invite someone to join the cast?
A: It really goes back to what Steve Martin said, "Be so funny, they can't ignore you." If a comedian recommends a guest should be booked and then the guest shows up and is fun to work with and good at handling a crowd even if the crowd is stuffy and bored and nervous, if they're awesome, they come back. And if they do that a bunch of times, they may end up being invited as a cast member. But if you spend all your time sending emails, and hyping yourself up and trying to be your own f****g machine, it's just not that kind of show. You don't get paid sometimes because the crowd is light and the show has to pay rent. It's not really a goal that comedians should set for themselves to be a cast member. You should just be good and have fun.
Q: What is your favorite episode of Pop Pilgrims?
A: One of my favorites was the Kurt Cobain Seattle episode.
Q: I love that one.
A: It was so great. The guy had written a book …
Q: Charles Cross!
A: Yes. He knew Kurt on a personal level and he was able to take that improvised monument and really explain what it was without being black or white or judgmental about it. It was such an iconic moment in my music history because I was a fan, but I wasn't obsessed with it because I was almost too young. I was fifteen or sixteen when [Cobain] died, so it wasn't something I really appreciated until another five years went by and I was like, wow, music hasn't got better. Yeah, I loved talking to [Cross]. I love the city of Seattle. I liked going to Fantagraphics Books. That was tons of fun. Got to meet [cartoonist] Peter Bagge over there.
I had fun in Austin, too. I had fun in Portland and Eugene. I had fun at the fake hotel location for The Shining. I also liked doing the Blues Brothers one because my dad was in Blues Brothers for a fleeting moment. He was one of the guards in the scene where they are all rushing the Daley Center at the end.
Q: That is so cool. A piece of Chicago history. Speaking of screen gigs, what do you think about the new upcoming Star Wars?
A: As soon as I heard that Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill were involved, I was like, sign me up. I was worried it was going to be obsessed with pleasing children … I'm still a little concerned because part of what made the prequel so frustrating was they were married to George's original vision of it as an old sci-fi serial. I feel like it got sort of mushy around the edges because he was trying to imitate something and it didn't hold up.
I definitely reserve the right to feel slighted when I'm not cast as a background Jedi, which I'm pretty sure I deserve at this point. I don't know why, other than personal private obsession. I haven't really done anything productive to earn it. But I think conceptually I deserve it. And I want to be clear I deserve to be in this movie, despite not "deserving" by traditional understandings of the word "deserve."
Q: My husband, who has a fondness for minimalist composers, keeps wanting me simply to ask the question, "Why?" I hope it's ok if I ask you the inaugural "why?" (Please answer however you would like.)
A: Why do I do what I do?
Q: Sure, why anything! Please consider it an honor that you're the first person I've asked.
We are the only beings that we know of that are able to reflect back on the universe. There are lots of life forms we know about here on earth. We are the only ones able to process it and reflect back, so I think it would be a pretty big waste and a shame and pretty insulting to the universe if we did not take advantage and continue to reflect and produce in response to what we are witnessing.
Q: That's a great answer. Thank you. Is there anything else you would like the Wilmette audience to know?
A: Just that I may like darkness, but I'm also very silly. So don't worry. We're good.
*Check out "The Best Dinosaur" here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4vSY_rB928c
Comedy At The Mette is at 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, December 8 at the Wilmette Theatre, 1122 Central Ave. Tickets are $12. The show also features Ever Mainard. 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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