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Comedy Thu Jan 26 2012

Interview: Sean Flannery

Local stand-up comedian Sean Flannery (voted the best stand-up in Chicago by the Chicago Reader in 2010) is returning from a comedy-hiatus and bringing his critically acclaimed one-man show (Never Been to Paris) and his new show (Blackout Diaries) to Chicago audiences.

Never Been to Paris is Flannery's one-man show, in which he recounts all of the car accidents that almost cost him his life. Yes, he has been in enough car accidents to warrant an entire show about it. In Blackout Diaries, Sean and his comedy friends tell their best drinking stories to a room full of strangers and then field questions from the crowd. Both shows feature a unique perspective, one that explores the darker, less flattering aspects of life, a refreshing change for many comedy fans.

What made you decide to get on stage and talk about all of these potentially fatal accidents?

Sean Flannery: To be honest, it started as a show on drinking, then, as I was writing it, I realized: "Jesus, I nearly died in half these stories" and changed the focus.

Which was a welcome turn, because I've always found near-death stories to be hilarious. My uncles used to do that- they were all heavy drinkers who stopped before I was born, but they would tell these loud, amazing stories about how close they came to dying at various times. It was never in a smug or regretful tone, where they were bragging about how exciting their lives were or sermonizing about how far they have come. Instead, it was just a celebration of -- a kind of hearty laugh at -- how life can be a game of inches. They would talk about wrecking each other's cars, throwing them into reverse at 80 MPH and flipping them into trees, then laugh about how they'd all be dead if the car dealer hadn't talked them into a hardtop after the convertibles were out-of-stock: "Higabee Used Cars saved our lives!" laughing hysterically

To me, if you can laugh at death- that's the most alive thing in the world.

How do you explain getting into that many accidents and not being dead?

I figure my luck to be amazingly good when you consider that half those stories should have resulted in my death. Plus each of them was the result of a drastically under-planned, fully avoidable decision on my part, rather than, say, an unlucky twist of fate.

Thus, I'm alive somewhat through luck, but also because, at the end of the day, your body is tougher than we give it credit for. That's probably atrocious advice, but I consider it to be true. Most people say "you only have one body -- treat it with respect',' but I'm of the opinion: you only have one life, use that body to have as much fun as possible. To me, my body might as well be a car I stole.

In fact, when you sell a car, you always say it has "highway miles" because those are easier on it. My body has city miles.

Blackout Diaries is an interactive show where you and others get together and tell stories of getting drunk and the stories that come out of those experiences. What do you think is the appeal of a show like this?

I think we've all had those kind of nights. And I think we enjoy hearing about them because it's kind of a hilarious confirmation: "YES! I'm not the only person who flat-out embarrassed himself at the company christmas party." Blackout Diaries is also interactive. The audience can ask the performers questions about the stories (or anything else they like) and I think adds appeal.

I love when a friend introduces me to a new circle at a bar, say his old college buddies, because all of their stories are new and hilarious. I always have a thousand questions. I wanted to aim for that kind of experience with the show -- the excitement of hearing new, raucous stories.

To that end, the show is more about the kind of stories you might hear at a bar, rather than exclusively drinking stories. For example, during the last run we had a guy talk about being stalked by a perfect stranger; a guy who believed in Santa until age 18; and so on. This Saturday we have a woman talking about how her dad tried to save pennies on vacations in hilarious ways.

It tries to match the excitement of hearing great stories at a bar.

You seem to like to talk a lot about the parts of life that a lot of people would rather forget about. Near death experiences, drunken blackouts, etc. Why do you think that perspective works so well for you?

One, I've never been embarrassed about drinking or acting dumb. That's probably not a strong attribute in most professions, but, it helps in mine. You can't tell those kind of stories with shame, I feel, and make people laugh.

Second, I've been gifted with an Irishman's best wish: the happy drunk gene. I don't say things I later regret when drunk, I don't fight, I don't become difficult (well, unless you consider someone constantly insisting we go to karaoke difficult).

So, perhaps it works because it sounds like I, and the people around me, are having fun in these stories.

Both of these shows have received a lot of positive feedback, from the press as well as audiences. What made you decide to bring them back?

This is just a better time for my family. In the last year, we had some very bad moments -my wife lost her father, who was a great, great man -- and some very good moments: the birth of our youngest son. We are now back on our feet in Chicago, hence the shows restarting.

Blackout Diaries seems as though it would be a pretty endless source of material. Is this a show that you would like to have a permanent run for?

Yes! In fact, we are planning for it to be permanent: the last Saturday of every month at The Beat Kitchen, in conjunction with Chicago Underground. And, yes, I think the show has an endless supply of content, particularly when you consider: it's not just standups you will be seeing. One of the performers this month is a real estate agent with amazing stories. Next month, my wife is performing, sharing hilarious stories about being married to a drunk (and probably correcting all the details I've gotten wrong on stage, over the years, because I was too drunk to remember the facts).

You are different from a lot of stand-up comics in that you do a lot of storytelling. You're very good at it, too. Do you have a favorite story to tell on stage?

Yes: I once drove a car off a bridge, went off a highway, down a ravine and on to a separate highway without stopping. It's my favorite story to tell because 1) the details are so funny, 2) the title of my show, Never Been to Paris, comes from that story, and 3) I think about the incident each time I tell it, and it's invigorating (which is probably also terrible advice -- that reckless driving "invigorates you." ...In a lot of ways, I can probably be thought of as a life coach who's advice is so bad, it borders upon standup comedy).

Are there specific comics (or anyone, really) who have inspired your doing comedy/your style of comedy?

While I'm continually amazed by many comics, particularly the ones who have come out of, or are still in, Chicago -- I'm probably most influenced by my family and friends, growing up in Cleveland. They all have this hearty laugh and hearty approach to life: walking through a door, already laughing, saying, "You gotta here what I did last night." And they all speak very idiosyncratically, even inexactly. I think that's important myself: to be so excited about telling some ting, you get words wrong, or skip thoughts.

I love watching people who are bursting to tell a joke, even if they get it all wrong because of that excitement. That kind of fervor is infectious and, as a comic, you can sell more with that enthusiasm than just words (I feel at least).

Let's face it: your uncle telling a joke wrong is probably more funny than a professional telling it right. If you can duplicate that kind experience -- the hilarity of inexactness -- on stage, I think you can create some interesting effects.

I guess I'm saying: you should be wrong more often (more great advice).


Never Been to Paris runs Thursdays, January 26 - March 8th at the Comedy Bar. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased here.

Blackout Diaries takes place the last Saturday of every month at the Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $10, and can be purchased here. 21+

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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

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