Stephen Lynch has always struggled to draw the line between music and stand-up.
Lynch doesn't think he'd make it as a singer/songwriter. He's not a big fan of comedy, either. By bringing together a little of both, he struck a chord with audiences around the globe.
"I didn't set out to become a comedian," he said. "I still don't think I have a real knack for it. I just happen to have found this really small window of opportunity that allows me to play music and use whatever skills I have at being funny."
As far back as the early 1990s, Lynch wanted to be a musician. But early on, he discovered he was much better at penning playful, vulgar tunes than traditional songs. So good, in fact, that he has been able to build a career out of touring and performing as a comedic singer/songwriter. His fourth album, "3 Balloons," came out this year, and tomorrow, he performs at the Lyric Opera House.
Few topics are taboo for Lynch. He sings about priests molesting altar boys, ugly babies and the things he would do if he were gay. His songs are anything but politically correct.
Over the years, Lynch has graduated from playing small comedy clubs in New York City in the mid-'90s to larger theaters like the Lyric. Now 38, the Pennsylvania native has appeared on Broadway and toured with high-profile comics such as Bob Saget and Carlos Mencia.
In 2006, Lynch starred in the Broadway adaptation of the film "The Wedding Singer." His performance garnered nominations for the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical and the Drama League Award for Distinguished Performance. The role was exciting, but given the chance, Lynch said, he'd probably never do Broadway again.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he said. "The schedule's too brutal for my delicate sensibilities. ... Toward the end, I was secretly wishing for its demise so I could get back to doing what I like to do."
What he likes to do is play three or four shows a week, max, he said. Broadway had him performing eight times a week.
"Look, I'm not digging ditches here, I'm going up on stage and singing a couple songs for two hours. It's not that difficult," he said. "But there's something about the mental process you have to go through to get up on stage and be a singing and dancing entertainer."
Before each show, Lynch obsesses over the night's set list, swapping out songs and deciding on the best spot to cue up certain video clips. For each tour stop, he rummages through his archives and pulls up the set lists from the last time he played in the area, making sure he doesn't put on the same performance twice in the same city.
"It's really stupid," he said. "I should just pick a set list and do it everywhere I go. But I'm always trying to hone it and craft it so that it's better than it was the night before."
Some of Lynch's fans see him as a musical act: They have their 10 favorite songs, and they want to hear those songs every show. Others come to be surprised by fresh jokes and new routines, Lynch said. Appeasing them both can be tough.
"Every night before a show, I'm trying to find that perfect balance between what some people in the audience want, what other people in the audience want and what I want," Lynch said. "There's a lot to juggle around."
Lynch's last two albums, 2005's "The Craig Machine" and 2003's "Superhero," were recorded live. When Lynch set out to make "3 Balloons," he was sick of hearing himself on a stool, on a stage, guitar in hand. He wanted to make an album in a studio with a cast of professional musicians - the way he had originally intended to make all his albums.
"To me, the music is as important as the comedy," he said. "Probably more important, because I have no real interest in comedy. I like music."
The narratives on "3 Balloons," which came out in March, are par for the course with Lynch. The title track is about a person who smuggles several balloons filled with drugs (hidden in a certain private place) through an airport.
The music, on the other hand, is drastically different. In addition to the usual guitar or piano, there are strings, drums and a bass guitar - exotic instruments, as far as Lynch's albums go.
Lynch wanted the instruments to complement and interact with his lyrics, not just support them. "Waiting," a song about a man nervously anticipating the results of an HIV test, has a beautiful, wailing violin solo on the album.
"That beauty mixed with the horrible lyrics I was singing made it even funnier," he said. "It worked."
Since he started playing music years ago, Lynch has quietly built up a stockpile of regular, unfunny songs. He doesn't play them live. He doesn't know whether he ever will. But when he retires from the comedy shtick, they might come in handy, he said.
"Maybe someday I'll bust them out," he said. "I like to think I'll grow a big beard and change my name and embark on a whole new career."
Until then, Lynch will be Lynch - crass and comedic.
Born: Abington, Pa.
Education: B.A. in theater, Western Michigan University
Career: In 2006, Lynch starred in the Broadway adaptation of "The Wedding Singer."
On Broadway audiences: "They're quiet and respectful and not drunk most of the time, which is totally different than the audiences that go to see comedy shows."
If you go
Stephen Lynch performs at 8 p.m. Friday at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mt. Royal Ave. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.