A few years back, two nine year-olds bought a hand grenade at a flea market in Princeton, Wisconsin. When mom found out, she marched the boys back to the vendor and demanded an explanation. Being a salt-of-the-earth Midwesterner, he had a memorable reply.
This explosive story really happened to Daniel Van Kirk's family. I badly want to tell the rest of it, but it’s under wraps until tomorrow. “Real Flea Markets Only” is one of the very funny, entertaining and relatable tracks on his new album, Thanks Diane, which will be released on Friday, November 15.
The Rochelle, Illinois native who now lives in Los Angeles, is a versatile, nationally acclaimed comedian and podcaster who has retained a refreshing Midwest perspective. The world may be frigid and inhospitable outside, but inside it’s warm and there’s a sense on the streets that we’re all in this together.
“We’re all in this together” is in fact the theme of Thanks Diane. Whether Daniel’s talking about the trauma of losing your most critical bag at Midway Airport, confessing to being a bad adult (thank God I’m not alone) or revealing foolproof strategies for getting your way, he unerringly taps into secret feelings we all have.
Back in L.A., Daniel is a member of UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade) and the co-host of popular podcasts including Pen Pals with Rory Scovel and Dumb People Town with the Sklar brothers. He’s also the creator and host of Hindsight with Daniel Van Kirk. Listen to the recent episode with his friend Paul Lopez who survived the Las Vegas mass shooting. You’ll discover that Daniel’s conviction that “we’re all in this together” isn’t just talk. It’s the way he lives his life.
Daniel kindly took time out to talk with me about the family challenges that shaped him, building his career, his role on the Emmy Award-winning Bob’s Burgers, and why the last stop on this tour will be Rochelle, Illinois.
Teme: How did you get started in comedy?
Daniel: I started at Second City in Chicago. I got a job as a night host showing people to their seats and making nachos in the back. I got to absorb some of the best comedy in the country at the same time.
I hosted a weekly improv show in Second City’s de Maat Theater and I kind of weaseled my way into that. That theater saved me. I never even took a class at Second City. I didn't have any money to take a class, but I got an internship. I got to work alongside and do improv with the staff of the Training Center.
When I moved to L.A., the connections I made at Second City helped me integrate really quickly into the Upright Citizens Brigade. Then that led to podcasting and to what I eventually wanted to do, but was honestly afraid of doing for a few years, which was stand-up.
HOW TO CONNECT
Teme: What are the secrets to connecting with people as a performer?
Daniel: It comes down to being very personal. There are amazing comics who do one-liners and abstract jokes, but my approach is different. The more personal my comedy is, the more there's a true relationship with the audience and the more applicable it is to everybody because you're chipping away at the facade we all walk around with in our public lives.
In the [album’s] opening, I have everyone clap together, repeat that we’re all in this together and then look at a person they don’t know. I say that we're the group of people that the universe put together tonight, so let's experience that together.
I still have to establish that I'm the only one who gets to talk. But it's an experience that all of us are sharing together, and as long as I can hit that up top and loosen people up a bit, then I can carry it through the whole hour.
WHY SHOW UP FOR PEOPLE?
Teme: I see a theme in your work. In your podcast Pen Pals, you’re there for fans who need advice. In Hindsight, your friend talks about how you were there for him after the Las Vegas mass shooting. You’re donating the proceeds from your last tour stop. All those things say to me that you make it a priority to show up for people. What inspires you to want to make that connection and to make it a priority?
Daniel: I grew up in a family where my grandfather, who was my father figure, passed away at a young age. My mother had to end her second marriage, so my two younger brothers and I moved in with my grandmother. My aunt and uncle and their three kids lived next door.
I grew up in an environment of people being there for each other. Unfortunately, some people are told in life, "Go figure it out. Good luck." I grew up in an environment of, "We will figure it out. You're not alone." I think that translates into my comedy. I want people to feel, "Hey, we're doing this together." It is deliberate in how I do comedy.
I’m doing the last show of my current tour in Rochelle because my grandma will be 90 in a few months and I really wanted her to see my hour. Then I thought, well, my aunt runs the senior citizens center. My grandma loves the senior citizens center. I could take this opportunity to do this show for my grandma, and use that as a way to give back to a place that already gives to other people in the community.
Teme: How did you decide to call your album Thanks Diane? Diane is your mom, so that's so cool. What does the title mean to you?
Daniel: Anybody who hasn't heard the album thinks, "Oh, that's so nice. I assume Diane is his mom or grandma or aunt." Then you hear the track and you realize, "Okayyy. He’s blaming her [for his career].” It’s tongue-in- cheek. My mom saw me run the hour on my stop in Chicago this summer at North Bar. I asked her the day after the show, "You get that I'm making fun of you, but also highlighting how hard you worked for me and my brothers, right?" She said, "I get it!"
WHAT TO BRING ON A TOUR
Teme: I love your Midway Airport story. You describe exactly how it is flying in and out of Midway. With all your touring, is there anything that you always bring with you? What is your favorite souvenir that you've brought back?
Daniel: I try to bring my pillow. Anybody who goes through a lot of tours knows that you never know what you're going to get and then you end up with a crick in your neck. Also, a comfortable jacket. You never know, especially in the Midwest, what kind of weather you're going to get. That, and never underestimate the power of a good sleep machine. You don't know what you're going to need to sleep through. Those are my staples.
As far as souvenirs, on my most recent tour I got to stop in Scranton, Pennsylvania and go to Poor Richard's which is a real bar where they go to drink on The Office. It's inside a bowling alley and it is exactly what you would want it to be. I picked up a cool little koozie there.
One thing I didn't get to take with me other than the memory, was on tour in Louisiana. I met somebody after a show that does Cajun food tours and he had a day off. So he took me on a personal Cajun food tour of Louisiana. It was some of the best food that I could not pronounce that I have ever eaten.
REAL FLEA MARKETS ONLY!
Teme: You have very funny material about the flea markets in L.A. and how they charge admission. I was aghast. Are flea markets in L.A. so different from the Midwest that they warrant charging admission?
Daniel: The flea markets [in L.A.] are a lot like mobile Etsy shops. Everything is artisanal. There are people selling extremely beautiful dreamcatchers that they’ve made. But I want to look at fireworks next to old clothes and not buy either one of them. I want to go to Princeton, Wisconsin or Montello, Wisconsin, or the South Side of Chicago and just mill about - some guys selling an old hammer next to a fishing boat motor.
Teme: Exactly. Once I went to the flea market in Michigan City and somebody was selling a full bottle of 30-year-old pickle relish as an antique.
Daniel: That's perfect. A perishable antique! I could do an hour just on flea markets. At the flea market in Wisconsin, a friend bought a bowling pin where you could screw off the top and secretly put liquor in it. What alcoholic needed to combine their love of bowling and secret drinking? There was also a violin case with a portable minibar inside the violin. I remember these because they're awesome, but you just don't see a lot of that out here.
Teme: You reveal best and worst flea market finds on your album. Is there a flea market item that got away?
Daniel: I have a little bar cart at home. I saw a vintage mid-century ice bucket that was a perfect 1953 [shade of] orange at the Princeton Flea Market. I should have spent the eight dollars to get it and I didn’t. It's one of the things that, man, I hope I see that again and I probably never will.
HOW TO BUILD AN ALBUM
Teme: When it came to putting the album together, what is the art of deciding which material to include and how to order it?
Daniel: You start with a theme. I very much wanted to establish up top that we're all in it together. Then I want to establish that this is a safe place to admit things and that leads us through losing the bag at Midway.
Then I want you to understand my perspective on the world. So I have material about watching people when they don't think anyone's paying attention. Now that I've built up that rapport, I can go into a conversation about how dark I feel our documentaries are. But really that also serves as another way to have a direct conversation within the relationship which I've hopefully earned by that point. I can't walk out and start with something dark because I haven't earned it yet.
Then you want to do something a little silly. That's kind of a palate cleanse before leaving the audience with something big and fun.
I have so many things I can't wait to do, bits I've written down and already started working on. For example, early in my career I got kind of known for doing this Mark Wahlberg character. A lot of people come up to me after the show and say, "I was hoping you were going to do Mark!" They feel like it's funny and I appreciate that. But it doesn't really fit in the [album] hour. I think a lot of people expected, "Well, in his first comedy album, he'll definitely do Mark Wahlberg." But it doesn't work.
I think of it like you get on the interstate of comedy and you're hopefully cruising at seventy miles an hour. Are we getting off on an exit to go do this Mark Wahlberg thing and slow down? And then try and get back on to where we were? It better be worth it. If it's not, stick with what you're doing.
Teme: On the podcast Pen Pals, you talk about fans meeting comedians after a show. What was your most memorable fan encounter?
Daniel: After a show in San Francisco, someone told me that they had gone through a period of being homeless and lonely. Listening to the podcast kept them feeling like they had friends because of the good energy of the show. I don't trade a lot in negativity. That's not really the type of comic or person I am. So it was very touching to feel, "I've played a role in your life through some dark times and even in better times. I wasn't privy to it, but I am now."
I’ve also had listeners who find themselves working in another country where they feel isolated and where it's hard to get acclimated to the culture and speak the language. They've told me, "Listening to your show made me feel like I had a piece of home.” Those are the times where you realize, "Oh, I play a positive role in somebody's life just by making them laugh."
Teme: What was it like to voice Flips Whitefudge on Bob's Burgers?
Daniel: It was great. I was looking at sushi in a Trader Joe's when I got a phone call wanting to know if I would be interested in doing this role on Bob's Burgers. My first thought was, "Is that rhetorical? Who would say no to that?”
A couple of the producers were familiar with my comedy and thought I would be a good voice for the role which was in the range of the Mark Wahlberg voice.
I got to go to the table read and that was surreal. I was sitting down and somebody said, "You might want to move one over because someone sits there usually.” I'm like, "I'll go wherever you want. I'm just a guest here." So I moved one over and then ended up finding out the person that I needed to move over for was Loren who created Bob's Burgers. I didn't find out until the end of the table read, thank God. Otherwise, I probably would have been very nervous about how I was doing, which was great because I didn't have any of that anxiety.
Then we went in to record and I just kept telling myself “Act like you've been here before. Act like this is cool. Act like everything is normal.” They have the cast in your scenes there with you. We got to play and add a couple things that weren't in the script. It was acting in the moment doing voice theater with some of the best people in the world, the cast of Bob's Burgers. The episode came out a year later. Then about seven months after that, the episode won an Emmy and I ended up getting an honorary certificate from the Television Academy noting my performance.
Teme: When you’re home, what are your favorite things to do in and around Chicago?
Daniel: My favorite thing to do is go to Second City, the Old Town Alehouse or Monks. I'm a sucker for those good neighborhood Chicago bars. There's a great one called Cody's in Roscoe Village - just going in there for one or two cocktails and having that feeling of slowing down and enjoying the city, especially if it's in the summer and there's a Cubs or White Sox game on and the front door is open and maybe it rained earlier in the day. I love Chicago. If I'm lucky, I’ll get to have dinner with my buddy Michael Muser who has a restaurant, Grace. Also, going up to Chicago's on Lincoln Avenue and grabbing a slice of their pizza up there. If I can hit those spots and swing by Second City and grab some good food, that is a great Chicago day.
When I’m in Rochelle, there are times I just go for a drive in the country to get some of the good Northern Illinois fresh air. Spend time with family, play some cards, order pizza from Vince's. Or get a cheeseburger from Country School, a little fast food place that has been there since my mom was in high school. I like to see friends and do that classic Midwestern move where you throw open the garage door, grab a couple of cocktails, sit in the driveway and hang out.
UNIQUE MERCH FOR THE LAST SHOWS
Teme: Absolutely anything else we should add?
Daniel: If you’re in and around the Chicago Northern Illinois area and want to come out to Rochelle for the final show, the money will go to the senior center and you'll get to be a part of my last show. By the time we get done with Rochelle, it will have been forty-seven cities on tour. I’m actually doing decks of cards for merch, like [the deck of cards that makes an appearance] in the flea market story. You can buy the album right there and the cards will be for sale. Unless you're playing solitaire, it's another thing that people can do together.
The last show of Daniel Van Kirk’s Together Tour is on November 15 at Abraham’s Bar & Grill, 1127 North 7th St., Rochelle, IL. Doors open at 7:00 p.m. Show at 8:00 p.m. Tickets here.
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