Comic

An oral history of failure, and (partial) redemption


By Curt Hopkins

“Dave had two ways of expressing emotion,” said Patton Oswalt, “anger and silence.”

Dave Anthony is a comic, a contemporary of Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn, Margaret Cho, Kathy Griffin, Janeane Garofalo and other comedy powerhouses who came up at the now-defunct San Francisco alt-comedy hotspot the Holy City Zoo. But while they built film careers and television franchises, Anthony stumbled.

Mainly he stumbled because, as his friend and fellow comedian Greg Behrendt, author of the best selling relationship book, “He’s Just Not That Into You,” put it, “he’s always shot himself in the foot.”

One such shooting, Oswalt recalls, was when he had asked Anthony to MC the first Comedians of Comedy tour, which subsequently became a television series and a movie. At rehearsals and during the first outing, Anthony expressed his trademark emotional polarity, alternating between rage and icy silence, and was susequently dropped from the project.

That, in part, is why you have probably never heard of him. Or, perhaps more accurately, why you have only recently heard of him.

A landscape of burnt bridges

Things have started to turn around for Dave Anthony. And that story — how a self-sabotaging talent spends half a lifetime destroying his world then has to figure out how to create a new one from its ashes — is one with which everyone of a certain age can empathize.

Even if we haven’t been as enthusiastic in our own demise, and equally determined to find a route out through a landscape of burnt bridges, we still need to figure out how to reconcile what we’ve gotten in our first rush of youthful enthusiasm with the sometimes stark realities of an uncooperative world.

Anthony now has a wife, Heather, and a son, Finn, and is by acclamation a dedicated father. Twenty years in, he has finally released his first record, Shame Chamber, which went to #1 in the Australian and #7 on the US iTunes chart and charted on Billboard.

He resuscitated his stand-up career, performing around LA and touring as a support act for Drew Carey, an old friend, and appeared last season in an episode of another friend’s eponymous IFC show Maron, which he has since joined as a staff writer and series regular. His podcast with Behrendt, “Walking the Room,” has climbed precipitously in popularity and he staged the second annual groundbreaking Los Angeles Podcast Festival — which he co-founded with comics Graham Elwood, Chris Mancini, and Andy Wood — and is planning a third.

Room to breathe

In the wake of this change, Anthony is writing a new show. Not a traditional American stand-up hour, but a UK/Australian-style one-man show in the vein of Dylan Moran; his friend, top-selling Australian comedian Wil Anderson; and his favorite comic, Stewart Lee, who is virtually unknown in the US.

Because of his album’s success, reps from the huge Melbourne Comedy Festival announced they were coming to LA to watch him last July. That fell through, however, in a call-back to earlier failures, and he is currently unsure of how he is going to proceed.

British-style shows are not remotely popular in the States, where “comedians are constantly chasing the laugh,” as Anthony puts it.

“I am all for absolutely any kind of experimentation with forms in stand-up,” Oswalt said on the phone from a family picnic. Oswalt is widely hailed as one of the godfathers of alt-comedy, which broke staid, brickwall comedy open in the 90s. “The form allows it. Why aren’t we celebrating this? There’s no one way to do comedy!”

Anthony thinks he knows.

“In America we don’t give room for space in comedy,” he said. “We don’t allow it to breathe. Maybe that’s why I never felt comfortable doing the American style of stand-up.”

This realization led him to ditch his old material and start writing differently. You see some of that on his record. But this rededication to radically stretching out, to making laughs only part of the show, not its sole raison d’être, to de-emphasize their primacy, their tyranny, as Anthony might say, is new. No other American comedian anyone I spoke with knows is doing it.

To that end, he is starting to plan a new monthly stand up show in LA, featuring only three comedians, each given 20 minutes to do one bit.

The successful reception of both his one-man show and his monthly showcase has the potential, Oswalt believes, to break comedy back open again. And to write Anthony a second act in his distinctly American life.

An oral history

PATTON OSWALT

We had a practice run for the “Comedians of Comedy” tour on Largo one Monday. Dave was going to be the host for the tour. A couple jokes didn’t fly, and he just kind of started attacking the crowd, his portion was kind of deadly. I pulled him aside afterward and said, “You’re not going to do that on the road, right?”

He exploded at me.

“You’re a tiny dictator!” he said. “You get a little bit of power and you’re an asshole!”

Dave had two ways of expressing emotion at that time, anger and silence. I’m not doing this, I’m taking my ball and going home. There’s a lot about the industry that angers him and he’d walk away. But if you walk away, the industry, it doesn’t care.

DAVE ANTHONY

I went out and did the tour, treated him cold the whole way. I was dropped from the tour when we got back. I didn’t talk to him for two years

GREG BEHRENDT

At that time, Dave couldn’t acknowledge he was wrong and some people are really comfortable being miserable. There’s an assumption with Dave that you’re a dummy for not knowing what he knows. I think he likes correcting people. His way of doing that can be off-putting, but it’s also his style.

At one point, we hadn’t spoken for three years.

DAVE ANTHONY

The only person anger hurts is yourself, it’s pure self-sabotage. I’d flip out at things and that’d be the end of that. I literally have to lose my anger on stage, I have to be vulnerable, that’s part of the silence, to leave myself open to it falling

GREG BEHRENDT

Dave’s a guy who’s just funny, you know? But if you don’t have a life, and he didn’t, you don’t have anything to be funny with. Now, he’s a better relationship comic than I am, and he has very high standards.

DAVE ANTHONY

I never wanted to do anything else but comedy. As a five-year-old, I’d stay up until the Tonight Show came on to watch the comics. I was obsessed. I wrote jokes in junior high and all through high school. But it wasn’t until I was 23 that I went on stage. It was me waiting to get up the nerve. I first went up in a bar in San Rafael, where my dad lived. I did great the first time.

I grew up in Marin County, north of San Francisco, a wealthy area, but I wasn’t from a wealthy family. My father was an attorney and he drank a lot, and still does. My mom had her own problems. They divorced when I was in second grade. They were not capable of giving me what I needed.

PAM GUNNING

Dave and I always got along really well, but he was a little more distanced from the family than I was. He was very much an independent thinker and tended to do what he thought was best. He was not that influenced by his peers.

Dave started to flower when he was 10. He used to write stories that were really funny.

I remember when he younger he did what all little boys do, he went along with the program. But I think my Dad and Dave have different value systems, different priorities, and when they interact, it’s about who’s right and who’s wrong. The focus is on that, on being right. You know that “agree to disagree” thing? They don’t do that.

MICHAEL ANTHONY

Dave was interested in comedy really early on. As a freshman in high school he was already really turned on. He’d go down to the local comedy club and watch, then he moved down to the City. It was just a matter of him eventually moving on his interest. But he did it on his own. He didn’t talk to us.

He experienced a lot of disappointment with his comedy career. People went to see him and weren’t positive about what they received. I’m glad he’s turned it around, but I’m not sure he’s really invested in it. I felt I had modified my thought processes by the time I reached his age more than he has and that’s bothering me. I started as a prosecutor for seven-and-a-half years, then went to defense. It affected how I thought of things in the public arena. But he’s staying down the same track.

My daughter kept coming to visit me every weekend until she was 18. The connection always there. Not with Dave. He was angry about things, very, very angry about the alcohol abuse problem. My doctor didn’t like the looks of my liver at one point, so I stopped for 60 days. He checked it again afterward, because it regenerates, and it was fine. So I started again and Dave hated that. Twenty years and I haven’t had a problem with my liver since. Those sorts of perceptions on his part interfered with our relationship.

MARC MARON

Dave always had a special edge to him. To be a real crank, a cantankerous personality that functions comedically, you can’t manufacture that, and it’s hard to make that charming. He’s aggravated, beaten up by life, and a bit cynical. He rides the balance of anger and comedy pretty well, if he lets himself relax and be himself.

He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. You can’t underestimate what a horrendous obstacle it is to people like Dave, having to perform for people who don’t like you. But having your ass handed to you is a pretty great story, so start there. Keep talking or you’re going to fade away.

KAREN KILGARIFF

We went out for about a year. I was a straight up alcoholic. I drank constantly and that was all I wanted to do. My wanting to be free was less a judgment on him and more about wanting to live a rock-and-roll lifestyle, my lifelong dream. But of course we didn’t have an adult conversation about it.

I was so surprised at how he reacted when we broke up because he never seemed happy when he was with me. I told him, “I didn’t know it’d bum you out since I was such a constant pain in your ass.”

DAVE ANTHONY

I was unhappy, but I was happier with her than I was alone. I was always unhappy. How would she know? I had no feelings. It’s a really hard thing to understand. But, I didn’t have any feelings until I was 33. I didn’t know what happy was or sad was, just angry and depressed. It was a defensive mechanism. It was too painful to have feelings, so I shut them down. It happened when I was really young, nine or 10.

When Karen broke up with me, it was a pretty bad breakup on my end. The state my parents left me in, I was unable to cope. Any bump was a catastrophe. I couldn’t even be in the same city. I left on a tour of colleges for four months with a terrible company, and made hardly any money. I came back to San Francisco and got a job for eight months. Then I went off to New York in 1995, for five years.

I have poor emotional geography. I can’t place feelings and time. A lot of people think of time, they think of emotion. Not me.

I had made a mess of my relationships with club owners in San Francisco. I figured I’d go to New York and make it afresh. But I kept creating situations. I had a fight in the Comedy Cellar with a host and got banned from the club.

TOM SAWYER

I had gone to a weekend self-growth workshop and I came back in a great mood, really happy. I got to [Cobb’s Comedy Club], and I was talking to people about how great it was. Dave was kind of making fun of me, and he wouldn’t stop. He kept busting my balls until I blew up. Dave went after me nonstop until I snapped a tether. I got two inches from his face and started screaming at him. “Is this better?! Is this what you’d rather see?! Is that all you’re good for, pissing on someone else’s happiness?”

Dave was an asshole before he did that, but at that point it rose to a cartoonish level.

I liked Dave. I always thought Dave could have been a really good comedian, but Dave’s his own worst enemy. He’s got a kind of anti-charm, a gigantic visible chip on his shoulder, and this throws up a wall between him and the audience. He had really had good material and was honestly a really funny guy, but he was just bent on making things rougher on himself then they needed to be. He went on stage miserable because he was miserable. He never rose to what he was capable of in comedy. I always thought if he could kill the bug up his ass he’d be a good comedian.

I never let my personal feelings get in the way. I didn’t punish him by not booking him. I’m always going to do what’s best for my club. I eventually stopped booking him because he moved to LA, and out of sight out of mind.

But my personal relationship with Dave? That was the end right there.

DAVE ANTHONY

I didn’t see a pattern until I was in LA. I had gotten engaged to a woman, then I started to notice same shit happening all over again: blaming people, not taking responsibility. Bob Odenkirk asked me to write on one of his pilots and other people started to ask me. But I considered writing to be giving up on standup!

My fiancé recommended I go to Al-Anon. I did. I got better. But part of that was realizing I couldn’t be in relationship with her.

In 2005 I met my wife Heather. She was finishing up a divorce and I hadn’t dated anyone in a long time. The relationship sent me into tailspin and I had a breakdown. That’s when I realized every professional thing I’d ruined because I was trying to get back at my father. Since then, I’ve had to carry that albatross of past behavior around. Just because I say I’m not going to be the angry, self-sabotaging guy doesn’t mean other people are going to buy it.

I’m still frustrated and cranky but I’m making a change, professionally as well as personally. There are different reasons for that change, but my problem has always been that I’m scared to take a risk. I rarely bomb because I’m trying so hard to kill, but you have to bomb.

PATTON OSWALT

Sustained rage remains Dave’s strong suit. He can really follow his own rage. When he was younger, he pointed his rage outward. Now he does that, but then he looks inward. What’s in me? And gets even bigger rage. He never let go of rage, he’s just pointing it at better targets.

WIL ANDERSON

I came from Australia to LA on business and Greg [Behrendt] said, “Come over to the house and do the podcast.” I was a bit wary. I loved their show. “Walking the Room” is the only podcast I’ll listen to the minute it downloads. It’s a Wagnerian, end-of-the-world opera meets the two old guys from the Muppets.

Dave came across with such anger, the way he was railing against other comedians, I thought, “Dave’s going to hate me. I’m the kind of person he’d hate.” But we clicked straight away.

What makes Dave really interesting is the complexity of his persona. America’s in an interesting time. It’s like a failing boxing champion. It still has the biggest guns and everything, but it’s a richer, more complex time for what it means to be an American. Dave’s personality sums a lot of that up.

DAVE ANTHONY

Most people just see anger at face value. That’s how it’s designed, to push people away and scare them. But my anger is mostly directed inward at this point. The idea governing this show is to present how I grew up and the anger I lived with as a kid, then to go into my own, and into how I got better. It’s a really challenging thing, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it.

The stuff I want to do now, if it kills in a standard comedy club, it’s probably not what I want. Now I’m writing a one-man show about anger, I’m trying to bring it honestly on stage and not make it threatening to the audience. I had to move more toward being honest to do this new thing.

WIL ANDERSON

The interesting thing about Dave’s record is that it’s a summation of what Dave’s personality used to be. He starts every joke with its most horrible element, then, as you go through the joke you get to know him.

GREG BEHRENDT

Walking the Room gave him something he never had before: fans. He never did standup consistently enough that people were aware of who he was. When the podcast got the nod from Patton, it allowed us to grow a fan base. When we did the first Starfish Circus performance, people screamed.

The podcast gave people a reference point for Dave. The album gave him a brand. His son has softened him, and he’s married to a wonderful woman.

MARC MARON

I have a comfortable chemistry with him. We take pretty thorough shots at each other, without it getting ugly. We already had a relationship, and he’s always had timing and an edge. Now the podcast and record have given Dave a certain amount of visibility and possibility.

PAM GUNNING

For any kind of family issue, the first person I talk to is Dave. We see eye to eye. I’ve seen a little bit of softening in him, more after getting married. There’s a lot of comparing his raising his son to dad raising him, and he’s on his way to being happy, at least he’s a lot closer than he has been before

MICHAEL ANTHONY

One thing that makes me really happy is that he seems to be a superb father. I took lessons from what my father did wrong, and I presume he’s doing the same.

DAVE ANTHONY

Working on the album, I started to realize that the style I used to have just didn’t feel right. I got to know the comedy of (Irish comedian) Dylan Moran. It was a different style than anything I’d ever seen. (English comedian) Stewart Lee, the greatest comic working, blew my mind. The American point of view is to pack as many jokes as possible into the act. It slowly dawned on me, the new thing I was doing was something that should be pursued.

If the one-man show I’m writing is successful, if it were to win an award or something, it would help create the idea that it’s legitimate to explore a longer arc. I think a style with more space and fewer laughs has the possibility of catching on. I’m looking into staging a show in LA, three comics, each doing 20 minutes, working out longer sets. In an LA theatre, it might catch on, an Uncabaret story-telling type thing, not hitting the funny so hard.

In July, Melbourne stopped returning emails. They were supposed to come see my show on the 10th or 11th. Never heard anything from them and I’m not one to keep banging down doors.

I have a pilot in contention at Amazon, a script I co-wrote, a satirical take on aliens invading earth. I have a tape in to Conan. We were in the black for the Los Angeles Podcast this year. And I’m writing for Maron.

In the end, I’ll probably be just another voice in the sea, but at end of the day I’m making a living doing what I wanted to do when I was a kid, living my dream.

KAREN KILGARIFF

We still relate and understand each other really well. We don’t exactly have the careers we dreamed of, but still believe in ourselves, we’re proud of what we do. He’s a good friend. I could call him out of the blue and he would totally be there.

In the back of the comedy club, he’s the person I want to stand next to.

Nothing to cringe at

Sometimes it is the good as well as the bad, that derails, or at least delays, the plans we have for our lives. This is certainly the case with Anthony. Five months after we first spoke about his plans to debut his UK-style one man show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and to launch his monthly long-form stand up show, both of those things are on hold.

The bad has come in the form of a pinched nerve sustained in a December car accident, and the depression that comes along with it.

“For me, pain triggers depression,” he said. “Well, this is me for the rest of my life,” he winds up thinking, fearing, as many men do when they hit 40, that every illness or injury will prove to be life altering and chronic, though it usually winds up proving to be accute, though no less unpleasant for that.

But his long-form plans have also had to be relegated to the back burner because of success. He’s signed with an agency for the first time in years, APA, and his job on “Maron” as both a writer and an actor takes up the bulk of his time. The payoff is not just financial, but also in the ability to see his voice shape a viable piece of popular entertainment.

In the meantime, he has been pressed into service hosting a monthly showcase at Largo for All Things Comedy, the collective podcast network started by Bill Burr and Al Madrigal, which hosts Walking the Room. He has also become a sought-after comedian on LA area standup shows run by the next generation of comics, for whom Anthony fulfils an unexpectedly aspirational role.

But the one-man show at Melbourne is delayed, not cancelled. He plans to debut it there in 2015. He still plans to launch his long form comedy show and has already begun talking to venues about hosting it. For now, he has committed to performing in his first storytelling show.

Explosive success may come, and it may not. But for Anthony, who long ago let go of the expectation of anything resembling overnight success, everything he does he thinks of as contributing, brick by brick, to the place where he wants to live, emotionally as well as professionally. And for the first time in his life, he doesn’t feel he owes himself any apologies for where he’s wound up.

“You know, looking back at my career, there isn’t a lot to cringe at,” he said. “I think that’s rare in this business.”

Rarer even, perhaps, than success.

Photo by Joseph Angelo Warner