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Cummins draws from the dark side

Fri., Nov. 22, 2013

Stand-up comedian finds humor in tough topics, human shortfalls

On his latest album “Hear This,” comedian Dan Cummins recognizes how weird his job is. “The most common question I get is, ‘So, you gonna be funny tonight?’” he says. “If it was up to me, yes. That’s the horrible part of this job. I have to rely on a lot of other people to get it done every single time.”

That gag seems to sum up Cummins’ stand-up persona: He’s a gleeful misanthropist, particularly perceptive at spotting the worst in others (example: blaming your audience for not laughing at your jokes), and his material, which combines the absurdist with the observational, frequently veers unexpectedly into darkness. It’s like Jerry Seinfeld by way of Mitch Hedberg or Steven Wright.

Cummins grew up in Riggins, Idaho, which he describes on his first album “Revenge Is Near” as being “410 people and an hour from a stoplight.” He graduated from Gonzaga with a B.A. in psychology, and he was first coerced into comedy when his then-fiancée got him to perform at a Spokane open mic night at the now-defunct Season Ticket sports bar.

“I didn’t really watch much stand-up before going to do that,” Cummins said, “which I think, looking back, was a good thing. I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what exactly it should be.”

But his comedy debut went well, and he kept going back with new material every Sunday night. The local exposure led to comedy night hosting gigs, and soon after Cummins was touring clubs in the Northwest. In 2008, Cummins starred in his first half-hour special on Comedy Central, which he says was the moment that he felt legitimatized as a comedian. Cummins’ second special, 2010’s “Crazy with a Capital F,” was filmed at the Bing Crosby Theater, where Cummins will headline tomorrow night as part of the Bada Bing! comedy series.

Since his first album, Cummins says his approach to comedy has changed considerably: Whereas his early material leaned toward surrealism and silliness (one of his popular routines involves breeding a squirrel and Labrador retriever), he now focuses on real world issues he considers important or worth discussing.

“Early on, I picked more obscure things, because I wanted to talk about things no one else was talking about,” Cummins said. “Whereas now I want to talk about things I care about regardless of who else is talking about them, and just know that my take will be unique.”

Religion, politics, violence, the media – Cummins touches on all of it, and he’s honest about his feelings. “I’m just trying to be true to my own real thoughts,” he said. “My mind is drawn to things that a lot of people think of as dark. I’m not doing it just to have a shock value. I’m using certain imagery to convey an idea, and that’s just how I like to do it. That makes me laugh, and upsetting people over things I don’t think are actually upsetting makes me laugh.”

That sense of surrealism and playfulness is still apparent, however, especially in Cummins’ storytelling, which is often as spontaneous and strange as stream of consciousness but is in fact crafted to sound just so.

“I’ve gone into storytelling, but I want it to have the same level of precision that I used to have when I told jokes,” he said. “I might be telling a 7-minute story, but I’ve thought about every word in that story the same way I used to think about every word in a 20-second joke.”

A good example is the opening anecdote on “Hear This,” which involves a hotel desk clerk who steals Cummins’ credit card information. It begins simply enough, but Cummins interjects the story with vivid, tangential details and bizarre flights of fancy – at one point, he imagines said desk clerk as the world’s most conspicuous bank robber – that walk us through his thought process step by crazy step.

But there is some seriousness beneath Cummins’ goofy exterior, and he says that, as his style has developed over the years, he’s come to realize the importance of sharp social critique in stand-up comedy. “The material I’m working on now, I’m actively trying to change people’s perceptions of certain things. I am trying to bring you around to my viewpoint in certain ways,” Cummins said.

“I think the greatest comics have always combined ethos and comedy. There’s a passion in what they’re doing and they care about what they’re saying. I want to do that.”

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