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Feature Mon Aug 25 2008

An Interview with Dan Telfer

Dan Telfer, co-producer of Chicago Underground Comedy, stand-up, writer and so forth, will be staging a reading of a spec script of "The Office." Performing will be a host of strong local comedy talents, ranging -- or, "ranging" depending on your point of view, I guess -- from stand-ups to improvisers and actors to fellow writers. Telfer is a veteran of stand-up and theatrical comedy in Chicago, a description that can sound like an insult in the wrong context, or if said with quotes around veteran. But I don't mean it that way; I mean that he has written, performed in and produced well-received shows, and helps propel one of the best stand-up nights in the city.

Chicago's comedy is dominated by heavyweight institutions like Second City, the iO (once Improv Olympic), the Annoyance and a handful of others. Rightfully so, the result is that stand-up, the most straightforward and often challenging form of comedy, can be overlooked by a city that greatly perfers live music to live anything else. Staged readings like the one Telfer is producing at the Lakeshore Theater are as useful to the creator as they are entertaining for the audience.

Chicago Underground Comedy, along with open mics like the brilliant Prescott Tolk's Your Sunday Best show at Schubas, populate an intensely creative "writers' stand-up" community that makes constant performance a sort of public drafting process. So if you have the time, it's a bit like joining the artist in the studio, but less creepy. They're funny, is what I'm saying to you. Go see them.

But without the intense competition for potentially huge rewards that exists in markets like New York and Los Angeles, the comedy here is allowed to be more raw (uncharitably you could say less polished) and even experimental (or at least, weird). As a result, Chicago feeds comedy talent consistently to both New York and Los Angeles, although that doesn't mean its homegrown. Aspiring comics and writers come from all over the country come here; Chicago serves as a sort of regional or experimental waystation on the quest for greater rewards, the same role it served during the settling of the West, the dreamscape of a previous epoch. I'm so pleased with that historical analogy I'm going to stop there and go to a new paragraph.

Anyway, like I was saying, our city has some of the most raw and creative comedy in the country. It isn't that it's "ahead of the curve", but rather it has some of the key genes that, when meshed with extant alleles* in bigger markets, design the new styles, tropes, and themes that eventually dominate what makes Americans laugh. See how I built it up real high there?

Dan Telfer is a really funny guy who wrote a script. I asked him some questions and got really long answers, which were good, but long. So I cut a bunch out from them and reproduced them below.

"Office" Spec Script Reading will be at the Lakeshore Theater, 3175 N. Broadway in Chicago, on Wednesday August 27 at 7:00pm. Tickets are free and are available by calling (773) 472-3492 or by visiting

*A somewhat mixed metaphor. Still.

Just who the hell do you think you are?

Look, Chicago is full of losers with full time jobs, a family, and working a second full time job trying to get attention for their creative efforts. Right? We've all had enough of those whiners. If you want to be paid to write, which is a really hard scrap to fight for, you need to be able to work within a formula, such as a television spec script. This reading represents me taking that step in a lot of ways. Mostly I'm focused on stand-up as my passion right now, but I've written, plays, novels, all for essentially myself and people who think like me.

Why "The Office"?

It was hard to decide between "The Office" and "30 Rock," my two favorite sitcoms still on the air. But in the end I felt I knew the voice of the characters in "The Office: the best. In the end, the show you're writing a "spec" for won't read and doesn't care about your spec. It's not true for some fan-friendly sci-fi shows, but big network sitcoms staff can only read a spec from another show, or commission something specific from you.

Tell us about the performers you've recruited.

They are actually very representative of my experience in Chicago, and the diversity of talent is pretty flattering and amazing. There's amazing improvisers and sketch writer/performers, some who I'm in a comedy production company with and some who took a spec script writing class with me under former SNL writer Michael McCarthy. There's some of the best stand-up comedians in the city.

Here's the rundown:

Michael- Rob Janas
Dwight- Todd Edwards
Jim- Paul Luikart
Pam- Leslie Frame
Creed- Jamie Buell
Angela- Erica Reid
Andy- Sean Flannery
Darryl- Hannibal Buress
Holly- Caitlin Savage
Meredith- Crescent Prah
Kelly/Phyllis- Kelsie Huff
Narrator- Chris Walsh

I'm honored to be a connecting thread for so much of this city's talent, even if it's for this one night of doing me a favor. And honestly, I was pretty obsessive about finding people whose voice ties in nicely with the characters I offered them, so I think even if you're not familiar with all those names you'll come pretty pleased with how well these guys channel the characters.

What kind of feedback do you expect?

Conceptual feedback is the best. Who knows how useful I will find the feedback, but if you get someone examining the big picture and offering their point of view with feedback, that's valuable from anyone familiar with the show. I'm hoping some strangers who watch the show religiously come, because I'm not looking for friendly pats on the back. I am going to feel flattered enough having these awesome people up there selling my words. So if I just have a couple people show up who can take the time to articulate their thoughts and who know the world of "The Office," I will be pretty happy.

"The Office" captures a lot of the current alternative comedy style, with its self-referentiality and subtle texture. Is that what attracted you to it, or do you see potential for the structure of the show to change comedic direction?

I think the main reason I was attracted to it was that it's a GREAT show. It did take me a season before I watched. I loved the BBC version so much, and I loved Carrell already and Rainn Wilson was amazing on Six Feet Under. If you'd told me Carrell and Wilson were starring in a show about meatpackers during the Great Depression I would have been less creatively disgusted at first, but the show is really a marriage of great things and luck must have played into that more than anything. I hope people creating new comedies and TV series don't try to copy it, but instead get inspired to take that kind of risk with a different form.

Do you see these types of events as important to moving comedy forward in Chicago?

I definitely think it's more important to a comedian than COMEDY. Comedy in Chicago needs a hell of a lot more than one more guy showing off. It needs local TV stations banking on pilots. It needs more creative radio programming and less bland idiots with trust funds rambling about what they think is cutting edge. It needs less Broadway in Chicago and more Storefront in the Loop. Chicago has this weird underdog/Napoleonic complex about success- it's proud of how much it makes its artists suffer in obscurity without paying them. Of course this works, in spades, but it turns the city into a revolving door where eventually all the good people leave because they want to be able to afford groceries doing what they love.

Which of the characters drew you to writing this script?

I love Dwight. He's such a creative archetype that I haven't seen in TV before. He's like a disciplined warrior who is crippled with nerdyness. So much potential. Also I think Creed is this dark creature looming on the edges of the show, and I wanted to try putting the spotlight on him a little more.

We're busy. Why should we come to this reading?

It will be really, really fun if you like the show. Not to toot my own horn, but I think the script is in a great place. It picks up where the last season left off as much as possible given my practical restraints, so if you're hungry for the next episode to air, this is a great little bonus to last you until then. And if that cast list doesn't give you a huge, unrelenting comedy boner try googling some of those names. Best of all, there's going to be another one right before mine at 7pm, from my writing buddy Todd Edwards. Then he's sticking around to read Dwight in my reading. Worst case scenario- you love the show and hate the reading.

About the Author

Ramsin Canon was born in the Assyrian neighborhood on the North Side of Chicago and currently lives on the West Side. Writing is his game, but symbolic logic makes the world go round. Markets rise and fall, real estate bubbles burst: The Wizard of Odds says, bet on sports.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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