Too many books about stand-up comedy fall into one of two categories; the obviously phoned-in autobiography of some famous comedian used to pad bank accounts, or a hackneyed “how to” manual about telling jokes that is about as funny as a trainwreck (and not the hilarious kind). ¡Sataristas! doesn’t fall in either of those categories, it’s the kind of book that cuts through bullshit aspects of comedy and gets to the core of what comedians do and why they do it. It’s the Gray’s Anatomy of comedy literature, picking apart comedy into little bits in order to understand it as a whole.
No two drink minimums, no “take my wife… please” jokes. Just a plethora of interviews done by comedy great Paul Provenza. And trust me the names in this book are big, George Carlin (in one of his last interviews before his death), Bill Maher, Paul Mooney, Conan O’Brien, do not even begin to scratch the surface.
As the book title suggests, the interviews are with some of the greatest vulgarians, raconteurs, and contrarians of our times. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always introspective and deep. Each conversation delves deep into why they do what they do, and what the role of the satirist/humorist/vulgarist really is in our world.
Accompanying the interviews are dramatic and beautiful photos done by comedy photographer Dan Dion. The interviews give you a reason to pick up the book and read, but it’s the photographs draw you in. Whether in somber black & white or vivid color, his ability to capture comedians personality in the snap of a shutter is mind blowing. The Laugh Button got a chance to speak with Dion about his career and the book.
The Laugh Button: The book is called ¡Satiristas!, was it intended to play off the album by The Clash?
Dan Dion: A little bit, we liked the idea of the name. There is sort of the cliche with the “ista” ending like with “fashionista,” but for us we really liked the term because it conjured up the image of a sort of cadre of like-minded revolutionaries.
TLB: The majority of your portfolio is portraits, what is it about a portrait that appeals to you?
DD: For me the portrait has a greater meaning and resonance especially when it comes to comedy. Whereas a music performance has so much action and activity to it, I find performances shot with that to be a lot more dynamic. Stand-up and sketch comedy don’t translate well into action performance shots. I can’t really think of any iconic shots of comedians that are of them performing. We remember portraits of comedians because their personalities come out in ways that it doesn’t on stage. When a comedian is on stage there is very little context or meaning behind it. It’s not like smashing a guitar or reaching out to a crowd like rock stars can. How can you possibly convey what Maria Bamford is when she is just on stage?
TLB: So you have different approaches to photographing rock stars than you do comedians. Are the photos staged more with the comedians?
DD: If I can make my rock stars look like comedians and my comedians look like rock stars then I have done my job. As far as something being staged, very very rarely do I come into a shoot with a concept or an idea that I want to convey. That occasionally happens with album covers, but in general a lot of my work is created on the fly based on what is around me and in what way I can get my subject comfortable and let their personality come out. Putting someone in an uncomfortable or dishonest situation I think is a disservice to the level of talent you are dealing with.
TLB: Do you do much research about a comedian ahead of time then?
DD: Oh absolutely, I virtually always know who they are and what their act is before I shoot them, whereas it’s not always the case in music. I know who they are and what their act is like so I know ahead of time what situation I am not going to put them in. I am not going to do something goofy for a comedian that performs very smart comedy. It’s a lot about knowing your subject and building an environment which lets their personality come out. Me being familiar with who they are and their act allows me to create a set of images that might work, and my intimate knowledge of comedy and their personality allows me to pick the shot. Comedians themselves comment on my shots of their friends, they are the ones who go “you really got Marc Maron in this shot. You really got Dana Gould.” Whereas other photographers come to it with their own ideas, and don’t necessarily come away with it like I do. Not that there is anything wrong with that, it is just some of their shots are designed to be funny on a magazine page and it’s not necessarily what I am set out to do. Plus editors always choose the goofiest shot anyway, so I don’t want to add another level of artifice to that.
TLB: *Laughs* Yeah, usually if there is any image of a comedian picking up a prop they will run that.
DD: Yeah with the goofiest expression, and they will crop it tight and run it big. Comedians HATE that. They say “what about the shots of me looking sardonic? Or the shots where I look like I am saying something hilariously insightful? But no, you got the picture off me where for two seconds I acted like a monkey.”
TLB: Adding to the sentiment of how you decide what to do, does that have any bearing on whether you decide to shoot in black & white or color?
DD: Well it did, but people don’t shoot in black & white anymore because it’s all digital. But for example when I was shooting film, I have a shot of Greg Proops, or Stephen Wright, or some of these people I came into the shoot thinking, “this should be black & white”. My Dave Attell shot had a feeling of, “this needs to be in black & white.” Now everything is shot in color and you have to process it into black & white in Photoshop, but sometimes there are photos that you go into it thinking, “I am going to make this black & white.” When I shot Russell Brand I just saw it as a more romanticized and more dramatic, so I half lit him with split lighting and I just thought, “this is going to look so much better in black & white.”
TLB: There is a running a gag that comedians aren’t the most attractive people, and photography is a sometimes a world where you are trying to show aesthetic appeal. Have you had any issues or problems with that?
DD: Personally I got into portraiture because I love people’s faces and I would rather shoot Fred Willard than Kate Moss. There so much more there. Anyone can shoot a supermodel and they look great, but if you can make a comedian feel good about themselves, that gets a lot of drinks bought for you *laugh*. They appreciate it since the world wants them to be a clown and they don’t differentiate between smart, funny, and silly. There are photos where someone tried to make Bill Hicks look goofy and you can just see how fucking horrified he is with it. There is a reason they were comedians, they weren’t the most popular kids in school, they weren’t great athletes, but I love them and I love who they are. My work shows my love and respect.
TLB: How did you get involved in shooting comedians? It’s a pretty niche thing.
DD: Well I kind of brought together the two things that I liked to do, producing comedy which I did in college, and portraiture which I worked in portrait studios. So when I graduated I went to work in a little dive comedy club called the Holy City Zoo which is where Robin Williams and Dana Carvey started along with a bunch of people from San Francisco. Then when they found out I was a photographer they asked me to shoot them. At first I did it on my own, but when they started seeing what I had done, they wanted me to shoot them for promotional material and stuff. This was in the nineties and the word was “headshots,” because back then you only had one 8×10 glossy headshot. Thankfully the world of promotional portraiture has expanded tremendously since then. People have color now, people have multiple shots, and they have all kinds of different stuff on their website so there is a lot more to it. But I always had a reaction against hacky headshots, so I always wanted to do something different than that, something that showed who they really were. So I started doing it that way. Then I started working for “Bill Graham Presents” as the house photographer at The Fillmore and the Punchline here is San Francisco so I had a steady stream of major headliners that were coming through that they hired me to shoot. So not only was I working for the local guys but I had the greatest touring comics in the world laid at my feet, so that was nice.
TLB: How did ¡Satiristas! come to be?
DD: I always wanted to do a book, all photographers want to do a book. It’s a rite of passage not everyone gets to go through. I went through a different number of iterations of what I wanted it to be. I know I wanted it to be about comedians, at first I wanted it to be about comedians writing about their friends. So for example Kevin Nealon was going to write about Dana Carvey and that sort of thing. But that became a big can of worms. Plus comedians are great speakers and they write great material, but they aren’t all great writers. It also didn’t have a great focus. In 2006, I was in Australia working on a festival. There I met Paul Provenza who also was working the festival and we just became best friends. We loved all of the same comedians, he just came off doing the Aristocrats, and so we saw our favorite form of comedy was satire, political and social, so we just decided to work together and put together his interviews and my photos. We went through two different publishers and blew a bunch of deadlines. It was a crazy experience but now that it’s done it is so rewarding to finally have it in my hand. We are thrilled with it, its getting amazing press, and the industry loves it. Comics absolutely love it, they are writing all the time saying how much they just appreciate this work.
TLB: When you were putting the book together did you already have shots that you wanted to include based from what you came up with as your theme?
DD: When I started I kind of thought I was already done *laugh*. I had all of these great photos, just go interview them. With Paul though comes a fucking amazing address book. When he starts making calls we get Conan O’Brien, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and we get access to the most elite. So I ended up shooting fifty percent more for the book. The book didn’t get bigger, but some people who we thought we would do fell by the wayside and it became a whole different animal in terms of the people that we got. And it snowballed too, we heard “oh you got this person, well sure I will do it too! And let me put you in touch with this guy, he will do it also.” So everyone got behind it pretty much.
TLB: Of everyone you shot who was the most interesting or memorable?
DD: God, that is a hard one. I got to shoot Tommy Smothers years ago so that was great hanging out with him in his vineyard drinking wine. Shooting comedians who ended up being the coolest guys in the world, like Kevin Nealon was great. Not all of these were shots that ended up being in the book. Some of these were done for other things and we interviewed them later. Getting to meet Randy Newman who I always loved. Getting to go to Jello Biafra’s house was really interesting. Just being in someone’s personal office is interesting. I shot Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert in their offices on the same day. Being there and being in his [O’Brien’s] office, it’s small. I’m sure his LA office was much bigger but in New York, yeah it was a really small office. Seeing all of his guitars on the wall and pictures with people who are important to him like Bob Odenkirk and the SNL crew twenty years ago, it’s that kind of stuff. When people trust you, they let you in.
TLB: Has anyone not let you in? Have you ever not been able to get the trust of someone?
DD: Oh sure, there are just some people who just don’t, or won’t. There are some people you just can’t get through their levels of management.
TLB: Can you name any names?
DD: I wanted to get Al Franken, when he was still in the primaries. I approached his press secretary at the time, but he was trying to be seen a serious politician and didn’t want anything that referenced him as a satirist or that he wrote a sketch called “Placenta Helper.” *laugh* Which could bite you in the ass. So we offered to make a contribution to the campaign and then come down, and while there take some shots. Which they said was really nice and flattering but also illegal. I do like the fact that I tried to solicit a politician.
TLB: *laughs* You sure you want to go on the record with that?
DD: Absolutely! I was turned down, but I did do it. Maybe it wasn’t enough, I should have given him a number. Maybe said the offer comes with three zeroes, but no guarantee there isn’t a decimal place in between.
We’d like to thank Dan Dion for his time and stories. ¡Satiristas! is in stores now! Go get a copy and put it on your coffee table and visit www.dandion.com for more information and pictures of his work.