INTERVIEW: Dan Alten on jokes, Louisville Comedy, and Burger King!

Pictured above: In Soviet Russia jokes tell you. Photo credit: Maple Monk.

Dan Alten’s mission is to make Louisville laugh, or perhaps better put, to make Louisville LAFF. An alt-comic, Alten is helping to spearhead the burgeoning comedy scene in town with regular events in alternative spaces in town. You can catch his comedy tonight as part of the LAFF Fest Presents: The Jaxie House #4, which features a host of talent including Darren Jaz Rodgers, Raanan Hershberg, Kate Sedgwick, Harrison Cyr and featuring Special Guest Finn Straley. We caught up with Alten to talk to him on yuck yucks, the Louisville comedy scene, and Horse marriages!

Never Nervous: How did you get into comedy? Have you always been prone to jokes? Were you the class clown?

Dan Alten: Since I was a kid I always flirted with wanting to do something in entertainment, and I always gravitated towards weird comedic things. I liked making people laugh. In classic comedian fashion I was a kid often looking for attention so I would quote movies and just act really weird, I’d dress up in ridiculous outfits and dance to Pure Funk to get a rise out of my parents. As you get older you want to nurture these energetic outbursts and funnel them into something productive as opposed to just drinking yourself to the state of being a social pariah, so I started writing down strange thoughts I had that I hoped would make others laugh.

NN: What does writing look like for you? Practice? Are these just live sets, or do you have a smaller audience that you start with?

DA: For a comedian writing takes place both with a pen and with a microphone. I think of something small and write it down on a scrap of paper while going about my day. If I’m lucky I don’t lose the paper and I can later write the original idea down into my notebook, along with all the new lil aspects of the bit that have (hopefully) been bouncing around my head. I then try and make that page of the notebook covered in words, so that it isn’t just blankly starring back at me with some dumb pun in the center.

“You have to see how the world reacts to what you have created, and their
reactions often serve as the catalyst for the most important aspects of
the writing.”

Then you take that shit to an open mic and have your dreams crushed, you revise, you rework, and you keep grinding. You have to see how the world reacts to what you have created, and their reactions often serve as the catalyst for the most important aspects of the writing, which is why it is very important to always record yourself (which I do), and listen to it (which I totally intend on doing at some point when I have more time on my hands, Jesus we aren’t all fucking perfect).

NN: Tell us about LAFF Fest. How did it start and how has it evolved?

DA: In Fall of 2014, Eric Sorgel and myself wanted to put on a little DIY comedy festival, modeled after the regional punk festivals I used to attend like Berea Fest and Plan-It-X Fest or The Louisville Alternative Fringe Festival… just a weekend hangout for the other young comics we knew. We’d set up shows in all of our venues in a 3 day period, we’d organize floors for everyone to crash, blah blah blah, the Comedy Club in town got upset as it was going to be the same weekend as their festival which looked to be of insultingly poor quality (comedy festivals CAN SOMETIMES be a way to fleece low level comedians out of $30 submission fees for a deceptive chance to perform on several very low quality shows for no money). The club asked us to move our Fest so as not to compete with their Comedy Festival, we did. The owner still then called us and threatened to “ruin our careers” if we went through with it and all the local/regional comics we wanted to do this for in the first place would be put in an awkward position. So we sheepishly bailed.

About 6 months after that Eric and I were putting out a split and we needed a name for our label, so we resurrected the name and kept the 2014 on there to forever stick it to the Man, by reminding him of that time we backed down from sticking it to him.  We have since released a split of Kent Carney and David Britton (Bloomington), we signed Jordan Goodwin, and our stickers can be found in bathrooms all over this great midwest/south.

We also started touring and booking our shows under the banner. We started bringing some big name comics through town from all over the World and giving them profitable and fun shows. We made Louisville a place that good comedians actually want to come to. And we’ve built a nice little reputation for ourselves here. If you see a LAFF Fest logo, it means it’s going to be good comedy for a fair price. Not racist, not homophobic, not some dude yelling at the crowd.  It’s gonna be a good time, possibly a strange time, maybe a smokey time in a house, but definitely a good time.

“If you see a LAFF Fest logo, it means it’s going to be good comedy for a
fair price. Not racist, not homophobic, not some dude yelling at the
crowd.  It’s gonna be a good time, possibly a strange time, maybe a
smokey time in a house, but definitely a good time.”

NN: Relative to that, what is the house series about? How are alt-rooms different than regular venues?

DA: The Housie shows are just about putting on the best shows we can, and currently we can put on really good shows in my friend’s basement. We can smoke weed there, we can drink whatever we want, we can book whatever we want whenever we want. We can guarantee that everyone at the show is very much on board with watching some comedy, not just folks who wandered into the wrong room of a bar, or some OLD LADY who picked up 2 free tickets at a smoothie bar.

The big difference in my opinion between comedy venues is that some of them are about comedy and some are about making money. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, we pay our comics plenty of money and tons of spots with two drink minimums host tremendous art. However, when you have to pay rent on a 325 seat venue year round you need to have a specific set of priorities. I just think it is a failing business model and I don’t enjoy it as a consumer or a creator, so I tried to create something I could stand behind. Few people I know want to go out to a comedy club, but I know a lot of folks who like watching stand-up.

NN: What are the best rooms in town and why?

DA: The Jax Housie is hands down the best place for comedy in Louisville right now. Every single set on every single show has been killer and the vibe is absolutely perfect, I want to live there (not literally). I also love the Bard’s Town which has a terrific mic at 10 on Thursdays, Kaiju can be a nice spot, Gallery K has always been good to me. I miss Groucho’s Bar and Grill every single day.

NN: What makes for a good set and why?

DA: It has to hit that itch. It’s about a balance of people coming along with you, and you taking them as far as you both can go. For me I also feel very proud when I can give an audience something unique to this performance, perhaps a riff that will be soon lost to history, something that is just for them. It also feels great to make people laugh really hard at something you thought they were going to hate.

NN: How do you gauge your success? Do you work the crowd any if you’re set struggles?

DA: I know I’ve had a good set when I feel the urge to hide from everyone out of fear they will look me in the eyes and say “good set” with a level of frightening sincerity. Being able to sell Cd’s is also a good gauge. And if someone asks me about croutons.

My sets are very much live. I pick certain jokes to write down on my set list, but I don’t really plan out how each set will go in terms of order or tone, and how the audience reacts very much affects how I proceed on a laugh to laugh basis. I don’t do typical crowd work as much as I try to create a ME and YA’LL mentality to play inside, I very much feed off the crowd and try to utilize them as further propulsion for my material, but not by talking to a person directly.

I just spoke with a deaf person who told me that they hate comedy. It kind of blew my mind, but they cited cultural differences and the lack of interpreters at shows, which makes sense. Do you work to make your comedy inclusive to a wider audience?

DA: Like many artists, I have spent a great deal of time working in restaurants. I am constantly writing bits in spanglish for dishwashers.  I have a bi-lingual Who’s On First that is Telemundo-ready. I also try to be very tactful with my use of cultural references, we all live in very different worlds these days.

NN: How has your own comedy evolved?

DA: It has gotten much better (I hope).

When some comics start off they want to get a reaction, because gasps are better than indifference, so they lean a bit heavy on shock. Thankfully as time has gone on I have found other ways to keep a crowds attention.

I’ve also been trying to do more act outs and exciting bullshit these days, I’m fina razzle dazzle ’em dawg.

NN: What can you tell us about the Louisville comedy scene? What are the strengths and weaknesses from your perspective?

DA: Oh Boy! Louisville is a great place to do comedy. I moved here 4 years ago from Bloomington, Indiana which is a really hip college town with an amazing comedy club, which seems like a terrible idea. But I wanted to grow as an artist. I wanted to get good at comedy. So I willingly embarked on the uphill battle that was learning how to be a cool young comedian in Kentucky, which is a town that is not typically classified as largely intellectual, and was unlikely to put up with my hipster shenanigans. They called bullshit on my too-cool-for-school Zach GalifinakisHedburg knock off real quick, forcing me to rethink my approach. Plus it is a mid-sized city and we had to build up or create many of the shows, which forces you to be more invested in what you are doing and really appreciate how the sausage gets made.

“I willingly embarked on the uphill battle that was learning how to be a
cool young comedian in Kentucky, which is a town that is not typically
classified as largely intellectual, and was unlikely to put up with my
hipster shenanigans.”

After a lot of work we built Louisville into a town where you could go up 6 times a week but at least a third of the crowd at each show would be from the same pool of fans, which forced you to constantly be writing new material and adding dimension to what you were doing. I was forced to work really hard for what seemed like low yields, but then when I would travel and when I started to develop the kind of audience that meshed I could see that I was much stronger than I realized. Every Louisville comedian I know has way more material than they should, and it’s stronger than they all realize. The stakes also feel very low here, so there is a real freedom to it allowing for a lot of diversity in styles and substance. Yet we also have national headliners like Tim Northern living in town to remind us how it’s done.

When I travel around to other scenes I am always left feeling very proud of the incredible pool of talented Louisville comedians like Kate Sedgwick, Darren Rodgers, Kent Carney, Jordan Goodwin, and Raanan Hershberg, who is one of the better comedians in the country right now but happens to live here (for the next few months). And our Young Gunz are heating up! But we don’t have the big theater shows places like Atlanta have, or the amount of audience a town like Chicago can facilitate. And we don’t do the best job of documenting and promoting what’s going on.

Louisville comedy is all Cake, no Frosting.

Under what circumstances would you marry a horse?

DA: If I was in love and was a rebel/lived in a world where that was acceptable.

NN: You have a catapult and the authority to launch three people. Who would it be and why?

DA: I try to deal with adversity from others by improving myself. But I’d prolly launch the scumbag

NN: What is your relationship like with Burger King? Do you think the Burger King King is actually the king of burgers and if so, how do you think he flexes that power?

profiteers of my industry out to sea so they could think about “what’s up” while swimming their vape pen smoking bodies back to their ironically miserable Comedy Clubs, ideally picking up some integrity along the way. But even then I’d feel real bad about it.

DA: He is certainly not the king of burgers in terms of quality, market share, notoriety, or pizazz. But I do like to sometimes get a Whopper meal and a Whopper Jr too and then instantly regret getting them both like some kind of drive through Icarus.

NN: What non-comedy things get you motivated? Have you read, watched, eaten, or drank anything worth discussing lately?

DA: DIY Punk from the 70’s and 80’s. Losing my health insurance at the start of next year. Pro Wrestling. My girlfriend thinking I’m cool. Cooking. History.

I just watched a documentary about Tony Robbins on Netflix, if you ever wanted to watch a documentary about Tony Robbins I’d say you might as well watch that one. Turns out he swears a lot, he uses it to shock people into paying attention.  When I first put it on my girlfriend asked me, “is this guy a wrestler?”. A few moments later she was hooked. I plan on stealing many of his techniques to improve LAFF Fest shows.

I’ve also been picking up some guitar moves from Noisey’s Guitar Moves series.

I’ve been using fresh cilantro from my garden on everything, I have genuine worry for what I will do come winter.

NN: What music have you been listening to lately and how does it influence your comedy?

DA: Lately I’ve been playing Boner City’s killer CD, as well as disc 2 of Iggy Pop’s 2 disc greatest hits. I have been enjoying both very much and both are filling me with youth and vigor. Plus Iggy Pop is the ultimate performer and now that he is dead I am going to steal his swagger.

Personally I’ve always tried to instill my comedy with the vibe of Sergio Mendes and the Brazil ’66. When I write I’ll often play some Ventures or something without words. At work I’ve been getting slammed with 80’s Pandora, which is keeping that ever important pep in my step.

I’ve been listening to the entire Defiance, Ohio catalog on drives and feeling like my stand-up should be more about community building and riding bikes and building a new society or some smelly nonsense like that. Death Grips has been helping me knock stuff off my to-do list real fast. I take a lot of notes from music, LAFF Fest is really just Fania Records meets Plan-it-X Records meets Silly Goose with some Bomb The Music Industry, and a little bit of pot.