Comedy record producer learned the ropes in Lincoln

2013-08-03T17:10:00Z 2013-11-03T21:18:04Z Comedy record producer learned the ropes in LincolnBy CORY MATTESON / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

On Sunday night, if everything goes according to plan, Dan Schlissel will be a nervous mess.

He arrived in Austin, Texas, on Thursday to oversee the recording of the first album of  young comic Jake Flores, who caught Schlissel’s attention years ago with a joke he turned on himself, about fetal alcohol syndrome.

It made him laugh, which, after about a dozen years spent scouting comics at clubs and showcases, can be hard to do.

“That’s generally the test,” said Schlissel, a 1993 University of Nebraska-Lincoln grad who went on to found Stand Up! Records. “If I do laugh, they’re worth talking to. If I don’t find myself laughing at their comedy, they’re probably not worth my time. If I get a genuine laugh out of something, I know it’s good.”

Flores is scheduled to perform an early set in Austin and then a late one Sunday, and his record will come from what amounts to two long takes. So there’s not any room for a technical error, which gets Schlissel nervous. But there is some room to mess with the audience or go on an unplanned tangent, which is why Ray Harrington usually can tell a record that came out on Schlissel’s label from another comedy album.

“It’s got a certain rawness, a certain organic feeling that Dan gets,” said Harrington, a comedian who released an album this year on Schlissel’s label.

Schlissel, 42, is the only full-time employee of the Minneapolis, Minn.-based label, and he physically has touched about every copy of every record that’s come through his warehouse there. Many of them were recorded by rising names in comedy — podcast host and “Maron” star Marc Maron, “Comedian of Comedy” Maria Bamford and late-night regular Hannibal Buress, to name three.

There also are albums from Lewis Black, the unattended stove pot that boils over during his “Back in Black” segments on “The Daily Show,” and Doug Stanhope, the gleefully vile comedian who also spearheaded a $125,000 fundraising effort for a fellow atheist who lost her home during the Moore, Okla., tornado.

You can find multiple early albums by Black and Stanhope on the Stand Up! website, but those two names also can be found on the artists’ roster of a dated webpage for -ismist Recordings, a music label that Schlissel started in his dorm room at UNL.

“That was the place where everything changed for me,” Schlissel said.

In Room 635 of Abel Hall, Schlissel and band members would hole up to assemble the labels and discs and jewel cases stored in his dorm closet. He put out his first record in November 1992 — Such Sweet Thunder’s “Redneck.” The band, made up of members from Kearney and Lincoln, didn’t have enough money left over from recording to press the album, said Daniel Ostdiek, the guitarist and a longtime friend of Schlissel’s.

Schlissel, a physics major who went to Such Sweet Thunder’s shows and seemingly everyone else’s in those years, offered to invest in the record. Ostdiek said it was the first do-it-yourself independently produced CD made in the state — release No. 001 for -ism Records, which listed Schlissel’s Abel Hall dorm room as its business address.

Such Sweet Thunder sold all of the records they pressed for $10 out of the back of the band van, Ostdiek said.

Schlissel made back his investment in about two months, and then he began what would be a six-year run of pumping money back into recordings for more Nebraska and regional bands.

His -ism Records became -ismist Recordings — “Home of the world’s greatest completely unknown bands.”

If you went to shows in Lincoln in the '90s, some of the bands that released records on the label might ring familiar — Mercy Rule, Floating Opera, Such Sweet Thunder, Honeyboy Turner, Polecats. His label put out the first record of the psycho clown-dressing metal group Slipknot after one of the band members gave him a demo during a second long night at a Des Moines, Iowa, bar.

“Because it didn’t fit in with anything else, I thought it’d be perfect,” he said.

The -ismist collection encompassed every genre — singer-songwriter, rap, psycho clown metal, alternative rock — probably too many of them, Schlissel said. When he moved out of the dorm, the bands' CDs swallowed his apartment.

“It looked like a hoarder hovel — it was crazy," he said. "There was a path from the kitchen to the sink, a different path to the refrigerator and everything else was boxes.”

Over time, he ran up excessive credit card debt while bouncing from day job to day job until, in 1998, he got laid off from one and decided it was time to go. While visiting Minneapolis that year, he picked up a help wanted section, applied for a job, got an offer and moved there with his now-wife, Suzanne Schlissel, around Thanksgiving 1998.

The record label, meanwhile, seemed destined to shutter, he said, until he heard that Black was coming to a comedy club in Minneapolis that March. Schlissel brought a pile of -ismist CDs and told him how much he wanted to record him, at a time when few comics released live records. Black said to keep in touch, and Schlissel left the club "super, super happy." He saved the piece of paper that he used to write directions to the club, a slip from his bank saying a check had bounced.

At the time he pitched to Black, Schlissel thought recording a comedy album would be a one-time thing, like a Slipknot record. The album they recorded in Madison, Wis., “The White Album,” did so well that Schlissel turned his attention to comedy.

“It breathed new life into everything,” he said.

By 2002, everything he released would be on his new label, Stand Up! Records. Black’s career exploded, and so did Stand Up! Records. Stanhope and Jimmy Shubert signed on, and the three comics recorded four records that covered Schlissel’s music label debt.

Black recorded four albums on Schlissel’s label, and Schlissel produced several more Black did on Comedy Central’s label, which didn’t exist when Stand Up! was founded in 2000. In 2007, Black thanked Schlissel during his acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards when he won the best comedy album for “The Carnegie Hall Performance.”

No one else who has released an album on Stand Up! has gone on to win a Grammy, but many have signed deals to record for Comedy Central.

“I don’t have Viacom money,” Schlissel said. “It’s Viacom versus a dude in Minnesota. I just think I can offer a little bit more service than they can.”

He continues to scout for acts in his backyard, at Acme Comedy Company in Minneapolis, and at festivals and showcases across the country, meeting potential Stand Up! comics in ways that seem unique to the comedy world. Austin comic JT Habersaat, for instance, said his first encounter with Schlissel was cut short because he had to run out into the parking lot after a show to help break up a fight that involved bottle rockets.

“He’s collected a lot of different voices,” said Harrington, whose album, “The Worst is Over,” reached the No. 2 spot on iTunes comedy downloads this year. “He’s a fan of comedy in the best way. He wants to see a comedian develop and work with them on that. I trust him a lot. I’ve joked around with him that he’s like my comedy dad. I had an absent father, so just getting phone calls is great.”

Comedian Jackie Kashian said Schlissel’s music background has helped with Stand Up! recordings, hers included.

“I know, as a comic, I usually think, ‘Well, if they can hear the jokes, good enough,’” she said. “‘If it was good enough for Redd Foxx's fans in 1969, it should be good enough now. That is, blessedly, not how Dan thinks.”

Schlissel said a comedy record should inspire a listener to dissect it in the way that Cameron loses himself staring at the Seurat painting in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” To that end, Habersaat said, Schlissel cares deeply about the details of the records, from the sound mix to the album artwork.

Some Stand Up! album covers feature illustrations from revered artists. Album covers for sets by Tim Slagle and Dwight York were drawn by Jack Davis and Mort Drucker, cartoonists for MAD magazine. Habersaat’s “Hostile Corporate Takeover” album has art from Raymond Pettibon, the artist who did the cover work for many of Black Flag’s iconic punk records and Sonic Youth’s “Goo.”

Not every album features illustrated covers, nor do the comics share repetitive voices. There are right-leaning and left-leaning acts as well as comics who hardly touch politics at all. There are comics who work blue, comics who don't, and Stanhope.

In that way, Stand Up! Records collects a variety as diverse as the -ismist roster once was.

“With comedians, you want to see a diversity in material,” Schlissel said. “You don’t want the same jokes over and over. The unifying thing that I see with the comics I deal with — no matter what their material is, it all comes from a true point of view of the comedian themselves. Whether it’s one-liners or political or observational, you can 100 percent see that person’s logic and their worldview on the material.

"And that’s what appeals to me. I really don’t want to just deal with some silly stuff that’s just silly. I want to get some impact — this is how this person sees the world. That’s kind of where my stock and trade is. I like some hard-hitting stuff, generally. I like if you recognize yourself in it and don’t like what you see. That’s like an added bonus. I say on the website, ‘We like our truth straight up and bitter.’ The (comics) onstage, I look at them as the truth-tellers."

Reach Cory Matteson at 402-473-7438 or cmatteson@journalstar.com, or follow him on Twitter at @LJSMatteson.

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