Lewis Black admits to being practically speechless when he won a Grammy Award for best comedy album in 2007 for “The Carnegie Hall Performance.”
“My blood sugar dropped,” he says. “All I wanted was a sandwich. I had prepared nothing to say.”
But what he did manage to get out resonated with Dan Schlissel, who produced Black’s CD and was listening to the acceptance speech via a streaming audio feed. Black made a point of thanking Schlissel, “who had the nerve to start producing my CDs before anybody else.”
“It was exhilarating,” Schlissel says. “I saw myself in the mirror; believe me, it wasn’t that pretty of a look, but I was overjoyed.”
The founder of independent comedy label Stand Up! Records, Schlissel has emerged as a key player in the world of recorded comedy, with a 65-item catalog to date, including a handful of vinyl pressings and DVDs. The online Punchline Magazine included three of Schlissel’s CDs on its list of the 10 best comedy albums of 2009: Matt Kirshen’s “I Guess We’ll Never Know” (No. 8), Doug Stanhope’s “From Across the Street” (No. 6) and Marc Maron’s “Final Engagement” (No. 3).
Black released his first three CDs — “The White Album,” “Revolver” and “The End of the Universe” — on the Stand Up! Records label, but now records for Comedy Central Records. Schlissel recorded and produced four of Black’s albums for Comedy Central.
Schlissel, Black says, “is meticulous to the point of insanity. He is a perfectionist. He is an innovative thinker in regarding packaging of a CD. He is excellent at culling the best version of multiple performances. He brought in a sound genius to work with us, named John Machnik, whose work is impeccable. And Dan works his ass off.”
Black says he tried without success to snag a recording contract with other labels before meeting Schlissel. “Dan found me way before I broke out.”
Stanhope had soured on recorded comedy after the release of an earlier CD, and “after that I had no desire to get into contract, but Dan worked out a deal that was mutually beneficial in a way that I haven't seen any other company offer an artist.”
If Schlissel was first to put Black on the national stage, it was his desire to work with Black that led to the creation of Stand Up! Records. Now 39, Schlissel began recording indie bands while at the University of Nebraska (he graduated in 1993 with a bachelor’s degree in physics).
Schlissel’s original label was called ism, and he recorded an eclectic collection of artists he’d come in contact with while serving on the university’s program council on its concert and dance committee and managing an independent record store.
“My music label went from singer-songwriter to Slipknot, to hip-hop to blues,” Schlissel says. “There was no focus, so no one knew what they were coming to see or get when they got one of my records.” He noticed that successful labels, such as Sub Pop or Touch and Go, “defined what they were doing and they stuck within that definition pretty well.” (Schlissel renamed his label Ismist, after getting a cease-and-desist letter from the band Ism.)
“Sub Pop was big at the time, Discord was doing well — all these labels,” Schlissel says. “So I decided to give it a shot and the first record paid itself off in two months. I fooled myself into doing that for a good number of years, with various results. It seemed like I was always an inch away from something big, like I put out the record that gave the Saddle Creek record label its name. I distributed the first Slipknot CD. There are all these things where I was an inch away from breaking big, but things always seemed to conspire against me. Six years later, 1998, I’m sick of maintaining crappy-paying jobs in Lincoln, Nebraska, got laid off from the last one right before I came up here [to Minneapolis] to see Bauhas’ reunion tour. Liked it here, picked up a newspaper, saw a couple of ads, sent out a couple of resumes, got a job here that doubled my pay, moved here Thanksgiving of 1998.”
Schlissel’s commute was a long one, and he spent his time listening to Howard Stern in the morning and whatever was on that station in the afternoon. Driving home in March 1999, Schlissel heard an advertisement that Black would be performing in town. By then, Black had been attracting attention from his rant-filled appearances on Comedy Central’s faux news program “The Daily Show,” but Schlissel was already familiar with Black’s work from years earlier.
“There was this show on Comedy Central called ‘Tompkins Square.’ It was hosted by Jeffrey Ross. In one of the episodes, Lewis was the last comic. He spoke with such a firebrand way. It wasn’t political. He was talking about how New York was a crazy town and there was a big blizzard that Al Roker had gotten wrong and how it was so quiet and he didn’t move to New York because he wanted quiet. He moved there because it was the loudest city in the world and he didn’t want to hear the voices in his head. I told my fiancé about him. One day he was on and we both saw him. He became that guy. ‘That guy’ is on ‘The Daily Show.’ I love ‘that guy.’ I kept saying I’d love to work with that guy, he’s so brilliant, but I’ll never get to meet him while I live here in Lincoln, Nebraska.”
When Schlissel heard Black was appearing that night, he raced home and left his car running in the apartment complex parking lot while he grabbed a couple of CDs and called the club to get directions.
“I went down to the club and wrote him this note saying, ‘I’m a big fan and I’ve been a fan since “Tompkins Square.” To me, you’re the living embodiment of Carlin and Hicks and Lenny Bruce. This is the progression and I see you in that progression. And even though I don’t work with comedy and these bands aren’t representative of what I care about right now, I’d really like to have the opportunity to work with you.’ And then I handed that off to the seater at the club. I kind of assumed comedy clubs were like rock clubs — you never got to see the main act because they’re on the way out the door to their bus or a van, back to their hotel after a show.”
After the show, Schlissel spotted Black drinking at the adjoining bar and made his pitch in person. “I explained the whole story and he said that Comedy Central and Warner Bros. had both passed on wanting to work with him, so why not? He and I were talking through his management for a few months, and then right before Thanksgiving of 1999 we recorded in Madison, Wisconsin.”
“I showed up on the second day of recording with my wife and Lewis was just floored how good things were turning out,” Schlissel says. “We had dinner together and he was like ‘I want to keep working with you. I want to get you a contract signed. We’re going to do this so that eventually you won’t have to do this crappy tech support job that you’re doing.’ He got up to go to the bathroom and I looked at my wife and I said, ‘Did I just hear all that or am I hallucinating?’ I was wiping tears of joy out of the corner of my eyes and trying to compose myself before he got back from the bathroom. It was like this fantasy thing was playing out.”
Black’s debut CD, “The White Album,” came out in June 2000, with one glitch. One track was missing from the original pressing.
“I remember I was so stressed out that I burst a blood vessel in my eye,” Schlissel says.
On the Ismist label, Schlissel released “The White Album” and thanks to Lewis’ connections, hooked up with other comedians. Black’s managers also managed Stanhope, and Stanhope’s publicist also handled Jimmy Shubert. Schlissel released “Sicko” and “Something to Take the Edge Off” for Stanhope and “Animal Instincts” for Shubert.
Those first four comedy CDs, Schlissel says, paid off the previous eight years of debt he’d built up running a music label.
Initially, though, Schlissel didn’t have much hope for life beyond “The White Album.”
“I expected that it would probably be one of the best sellers my little label did, and my label would probably wither and die after that,” he says. “I really expected that Lewis would be right off to bigger and better things because I thought he was as big he is now back then. Turns out he wasn’t but he was happy to keep working with me. The expectation was one comedy record and out. It was just going to be an experiment because I’d done so many other types of things that never seemed to gel or take off.”
Black’s second release for Schlissel was “Revolver,” a 20-minute collection of outtakes from “The White Album” recording session. The cover shows Black with a prop gun in his mouth. “The End of the Universe” was next, and became the label’s best-selling recording so far.
At the time, Schlissel says, a label could expect to make its money back after selling 200 copies of a CD. To date, “The End of the Universe” has sold more than 45,000 copies. The first 30,000 copies were sold without a distribution system in place.
Schlissel says his best experience was recording “The End of the Universe” in Atlanta. “It was great and it was bad because we recorded two weeks before Sept. 11. So automatically at that point there was a lot of material that we couldn’t release in the big welling of patriotic support of the president, which was the appropriate response of the nation right then. So we waited six months until Lewis was back at the same venue and recorded again and that album was edited together from two weeks’ worth of material. But that was the best of it because at that point in time there was not a better room in America than the Punchline. It was the right layout for the audience. The construction of the room was the best to reflect properly to where the mike locations were; it was the easiest place to wire up to. The management and staff were super great to work with. To me, that was the best.”
Schlissel’s first exposure to the world of standup comedy came in 1983, when he saw the Eddie Murphy special “Delirious” on HBO.
“I was in junior high school when it came out,” he says. “One of the first things for me was that it was the first comedy routine I had heard that was aimed at adults, so it opened a new world of subject matter and language to me. It struck me right at that age where you are defining who you are and what you like. I think in that regard, it steered me toward things like Rodney Dangerfield, George Carlin, Sam Kinison and then Bill Hicks, pretty much in that order, which then set me on my path for what I do now.”
Like when he first connected with Lewis Black, Schlissel seeks out the comedians he wants to work with, although Maria Bamford was an exception to his rule. Bamford was interested in recording a CD, and the manager of the club where she was appearing called Schlissel.
“So I went in. I met Maria Bamford. She was nice,” he says. “I had new equipment I was going to start recording with the next week. I figured this was a good way to test out all the new equipment and see if it works. So I set it up. I offered to do it for free and while I was recording I was like, ‘Wow, this woman’s great.’ I kept her in the loop and we kept talking and sure enough, she let me do the album. But generally, I have to hear the comic first and know who they are. I don’t have to know them personally, but I have to know who they are.”
Schlissel released Bamford’s first two CDs — “The Burning Bridges Tour” and “How to WIN!” — as well as her first DVD, called “Plan B.”
Stand Up! Records has released a handful of DVDs, but the company’s mainstay is CDs. Editing the material recorded over two or three nights down to a release Schlissel likes takes about 40 hours. “I am pretty retentive about pretty much everything. I try and make the CD seem like it's one show.”
Being a record producer comes with a bag of worries, Schlissel says. “I’m worried about if the material’s ready, first and foremost. I’m worried about the comic’s attitude going on stage. I want them to think they’re going to knock it out of the park. I don’t want anything defeatist, because that comes across, and the audience feels it. I’m worried about microphone placement. I’m worried about if all the gear arrived and is working properly. I’m worried about a lot of technical stuff.”