When in doubt, the comedian is not afraid to shred.
“Because rock was so sacred, I tried to keep them separate.”
Dave Hill is talking about music and comedy, which have become intertwined in his career whether he wants them to be or not. He has played in hard rock band Diamondsnake with Moby, Phil Costello, and Tomato, and he has an indie rock band, Valley Lodge. He brings his guitar with him on stage, but not to play funny songs. “Tenacious D, Flight of the Conchords do great songs, but most don’t,” he says. Instead, he makes loops to create musical beds for jokes, or plays shredding solos between jokes.
“The more guitar I play, the less talking I have to do,” Hill jokes. “A 10-minute set becomes a 20-minute set if you put enough guitar solos in.” In fact, he uses solos as punctuation marks, much the same way that filmmaker Jim Jarmusch uses blackouts. “Sometimes the solo is like a second punch line because it’s so ridiculous.”
Wednesday night, Hill will headline a night of comedy at One Eyed Jacks with Andrew Polk, Fayard Lindsey, and Molly Ruben-Long. Last year, Supagroup’s Chris Lee shot a series of comedy videos titled Metal Grasshopper with Hill and Down’s Phil Anselmo, and one of the episodes will be screened as well. Anselmo will also make an appearance.
Hill and Anselmo have become friends since shooting the series at Anselmo’s home on the Northshore, which involved Anselmo trying to coach Hill on how to rock. “We rented a goat,” Hill says. “I set fire to a pentagram on his front lawn. He’s such a goofball, and I mean that in the best of ways. Phil’s non-stop.” Since then, the two have become friends, and when Down played New York City recently, he brought Hill onstage to play a solo. “I took my shirt off,” Hill says. He hosts “The Goddamn Dave Hill Show” on WFMU, and Anselmo periodically calls in during his show.
“People heard we’ve been working together and assume that he’s this super intense, super serious dude all the time,” Hill says. “No, it’s just the opposite. I hope we can do more of it; there’s endless silliness between us.”
Music came first for Hill, who only got into comedy when a friend putting on a show in the back of a bar asked him to do something. He did it, and his career grew organically from there. His background was in music and journalism, so he figured that his future was more likely down one of those paths. “I was always goofing around, but I never planned to become a stand-up or a performer,” he says. Ironically, he has found that since he has adopted a similar laissez faire attitude toward his music career, he’s got to do more cool things in that arena as well. His background in music is one of the reasons Lee approached him for Metal Grasshopper.
The downside of integrating the guitar into his comedy is that soundmen in rock venues often treat it the way they would for any rock guitarist, jacking the volume up and running it through his monitor. Unfortunately, that hurts his ability to hear the audience. “In comedy, it’s such a key part of the rhythm of it is hearing what the audience is doing or not doing,” he says. When he can hear the audience, he’s conscious of different qualities of laughter and responses to jokes.
“There are some jokes of mine that will be in a wave,” Hill says. “There’s one level that people will get it on right away. If you wait, you can hear it work its way around the audience where it took people a few seconds to get it. I really like that kind of stuff.” On the other hand, “sometimes people are laughing at me because they think I’m an idiot, which is fine. I’ll take it.”
That response isn’t off-base. When Hill appeared on the “Comedy on Vinyl” podcast, he talked about the importance of silliness when he discussed Steve Martin’s A Wild and Crazy Guy album. Metal Grasshopper draws laughs from the distance between the hard rock image and Hill’s, which appears better suited to long nights of sorting out the chronology of The X-Men movies. Still, he’s not simply silly. In one piece on YouTube, he reflects on the death of his mom. When he says, “The last two or three times I saw my mom, she was so dead. I touched her and kissed her and she was just, like, the deadest lady you could ever imagine,” the laughs are uncertain. “I may have been too accepting of death now that I think about it.” Eventually, he takes her passing to a more clearly comedic place, imagining her in Heaven able to see everything, then establishing ground rules about what she can and can’t watch.
“The sad part about it is that I spent plenty of time processing it, so by the time I’m talking about it on stage, I’m a comedian and all I really want people to do is laugh, no matter what I’m saying,” Hill says. “So I forget what I’m talking about and am, like, Wait! Why aren’t they laughing?” The start clearly unsettled the audience, but he eventually offered more conventional jokes that made it easier for them to respond comfortably and more enthusiastically. He may have done that instinctively, but it wasn’t intentional.
“It was all real things—denial, confusion, accepting her death, and then processing it in this weird way where I thought she could see me all the time,” he says. “It worked out that it gets more absurd as it goes and works out organically.”
The piece began as Hill working out his thoughts about his mom’s death, and he wrote about it in his book of essays, Tasteful Nudes. Dealing with subjects that heavy is not his usual mode, but the bit has elements common to his work. He deals with anxiety and stage fright before going on stage and decided, “If I’m going to be uncomfortable, everyone else is going to be uncomfortable too,” he says.
“A big part of what I like to do is tension and release and maybe having people not that comfortable, but there’s a reason for it so there’s more of a payoff.”