On the record: Stand-up comics with Chicago ties aim to impress on debut albums

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Comedian Beth Stelling

Comedian Beth Stelling (August 23, 2012)

One of Beth Stelling's motivations for making an album out of her stand-up comedy was to put some of her older, best-working material on the record to, in a way, enshrine it and push herself to move on to the next thing.

What she didn't know when she returned to Chicago to do the shows for her first CD was the extent to which the album-making process would help her achieve that goal.

The night before she would perform four shows over two nights at the Comedy Bar, someone broke a window in her boyfriend's car, reached in and took off with Stelling's backpack, leaving behind a couple of full suitcases and an iPhone.

"Yeah, I'm a 27-year-old woman that uses a purse-backpack," she told the crowd, turning the incident into the opening of her show and the forthcoming album. "That is not the point."

The point is that it contained all her comedy notebooks from the past three years, "jokes and notes and set lists," she said. Essentially everything she had thought of that was funny or that might, with work, become funny. Not to mention her four sheets of paper laying out what she was going to do, and in what order, for the record.

"It was liberating," Stelling, who moved to LA last summer after four years on the Chicago stand-up scene, says now, by telephone, "but I felt like I had to feel that way. You could forget about it and turn it around and figure out what you want on the album, or you could obsess about each scrap of paper and notes and ideas."

Her story is more dramatic than most, but recording an album can be an anxious-making thing for comedians, even now when so much of what they do is visible on YouTube and Twitter and their own websites.

No one's expecting a "Let's Get Small," the 1977 Steve Martin comedy record that became a blockbuster, but the comedy album can still be an important tool in a comic's repertoire, part calling card to the industry, part memento for fans, part mirror they can gaze into to figure out where they are as artists.

By happy coincidence, three of the best of Chicago's recent crop of comedians have first albums out or coming out soon. So we talked to them, in separate conversations this week, about making their first albums.

The players

Adam Burke: 36, born in Australia, reared in Northern Ireland and London. Moved to Chicago in 2004, began performing stand-up two years later after researching an article on the scene for Chicago Social magazine. "Universal Squirrel Theory," recorded at Timothy O'Toole's in April, will be coming out on Aspecialthing Records in October.

Stelling: 27, grew up in Ohio, moved here to become a theater actress but quickly detoured into stand-up. Nominated for a 2011 Chicago Beat Award for best actress in a non-equity play, for her role in "Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche," a play she and her fellow performers developed via improvisation. Made her first "Conan" appearance the Monday after the Comedy Bar tapings in Chicago. "Sweet Beth" is due out on Rooftop Comedy records in September or October.

Dan Telfer: 33, from the south suburbs, began in improv. His best-known bit, on which dinosaur should be your favorite, became a YouTube hit in 2010; he did an EP, "Fossil Record," for Aspecialthing that year. "Tendrils of Ruin," released in late July, is his first full-length recording.

Why do a comedy album?

Stelling: "I just never felt like I needed to, and I didn't think it was necessary because I was like, 'Who's gonna buy that?' My mom's gonna buy 20 copies. Then, when I started working on my late-night-show set, and I knew that I would be recording it, I wanted to have something to plug that wasn't, like, a show. I didn't want (the host) to have to be like, 'Beth's doing Wiley's Comedy Club in Dayton, Ohio, in December. Check it out.' And I wanted to kind of preserve these jokes I'd been doing for years and also to kind of force myself to purge them."

Burke: "It started out with me just doing it on my own. We set up the show and everything, and I found someone to record it. But then Dan Telfer put me in touch with Aspecialthing Records, who do Doug Benson and Greg Proops and those kind of people. They happened to be looking for more artists. I sent them the raw audio from the two shows I did. They liked it, and they took over from there."

Telfer: "I waffled my way through the whole process. I got booked to do a headlining show at the Mayne Stage theater for a second time, and they have really good sound equipment there. They were telling me, like, 'If you can think of anything to make this a more fun recording, let us know.' And so I decided, what the hell, I'd run it by the label, AST Records, and they were like, 'Yeah, if you want to do it, just tell us.' In all the publicity (to promote) the show, I said it was a maybe CD recording."

Burke: "For me it was about having some sort of calling card. Also, I always had a sense that I'm never gonna love the album myself. I'm never gonna think it's the bee knees, 'cause I think you have to be critical and keep on moving. But I kind of like the idea of having some sort of mile marker, so to speak, some sort of artifact of, 'This is what it sounds like when I'm five-and-a-bit years in."

A somewhat representative line from the record

Telfer: "I think we should murder the wealthy in front of their children so their children become Batman."

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