He's as Free as a Squirrel

by DANIEL WALTERS & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & T & lt;/span & o truly understand the Spokane-based comedian Dan Cummins, one must first consider the noble Squirrelador. The Squirrelador is a genetic miracle -- some might say abomination -- bred by the mad scientist who lurks in Cummins' twisted mind.

Inspired by the Cockapoo, it's Cummins' ideal hybrid pet -- half squirrel, half Labrador. "In my mind, that thing could do cool Lab stuff, like swim and catch Frisbees," Cummins says, "and cool squirrel stuff, like walk on power lines and water-ski."

It was a fairly throwaway bit, one of many featured in his stint on Last Comic Standing and his two Comedy Central stand-up specials. He never expected the comedy-viewing public to latch on to those few lines of absurdity with frenzied abandon.

"Most of their e-mails and MySpace messages were about the Squirrelador," Cummins says.

Fans started sending him not only Squirrelador-centric e-mails but also Squirrelador-inspired fan art. Cummins began gathering a tidy crop of artistic conceptions -- drawings, Photoshops, Microsoft Paint masterpieces -- of fans' interpretations of the Squirrelador's appearance. Cummins started hawking T-shirts with the beast's squirrely visage emblazoned upon them.

"That's a bit where I start to do it, I see people mouthing along with it," Cummins says.

The mythical creature became a mandatory part of Cummin's act -- at every show, audience members demanded it.

"Squirrelador is my very, very tiny version of 'Freebird'," Cummins says. "If I could pack out theaters because of Squirrelador, I would do it every week."

As if the bit couldn't get any bigger, Cummins says he's talking with Comedy Central and Adult Swim about transforming it into a cartoon television show. (Yes, Squirrelador: The Animated Series.) Cummins explains it would follow a Squirrelador doing Squirreladorish things in a whole Squirreladorian world.

The whole thing -- from inception to unexpected phenomenon -- is typical of how purposefully surreal Cummins' comedy tends to be.

A Gonzaga University grad who stayed in Spokane after the migration from Riggins, Idaho, Cummins' influences include Steven Wright, Jack Handey, and, uh, Salvador Dali. Like Dali's paintings of melty clocks and freaky dreamscapes, many of Cummins jokes run purely on dark whimsy. It's the odd, the messed-up, the socially unseemly that powers his act. Audiences are bound to think, "That is wack" more often than just, "That is wacky."

(Here's Cummins' idea of a hilarious practical joke: In the middle of the night, you wake up a friend after surrounding him with "10 of the littlest people you can find" dressed in clown suits. Again, weird.)

Cummins' punch lines often come as a single freeze-frame, an absurd "what the..." scenario caught at its most bizarre, most ludicrous moment. Cummins lets the audience ruminate on that sublimely goofy image for a few seconds, and then presses play, regaling them with the chaotic aftermath.

His penchant for weaving weird, highly specific situations has made him particularly popular on the college circuit. "When somebody's watching a bunch of tapes [to decide which comedian to bring to campus], it's not run-of-the-mill, pedestrian 'Marriage is hard.'" Cummins says. "It sticks in people's heads more."

But uniqueness has its downside. On the radio, he says, the host will often throw out commonly riffed-on topics: "So, Dan, do you like sports?" Normally, comedians would use that to jump off into their sports-based material. But Cummins doesn't really have any sports-based material. As Cummins remarks, "They don't say, 'So, Dan, I notice a lot of people have tattoos of dragons on their faces." (Which he does have material about.)

Another unique aspect of Cummins comedy: He says it's more funny when you're sober than when you're drunk. The inebriated love filthy and shocking punch lines, Cummins says, but not much of his more intellectual fare.

"When they're drunk, they want cheering points instead of jokes," Cummins says. "It lowers their inhibitions but doesn't raise their comedic intelligence."

For his brand of stand-up, catching each word is important. Cummins says each syllable is carefully crafted for maximum humor effect. "If I was to get a tattoo, I'd get a tattoo of my face on my face," one joke goes, "Same size as my face, but slightly to the left. Then I would stand outside a 3-D movie theater and ruin people's lives."

At first, he used some other words and got a few laughs -- but not nearly as many as when he switched to "ruin," drawing the word out with sadistic menace.

"There's a whole music aspect to it," Cummins says.

That's why "Chipmongrel" and "Marmutt" aren't funny. But "Squirrelador"? Funny.

Dan Cummings joins Harry J. Riley, Launce Paullin, and James "Roadkill" Riggin at "Laughing Stock 2" on Saturday, Sept. 27, at 8 pm at the Bing. Tickets: $16; $18, at the door. Call 325-SEAT.

Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays. Continues through May 16
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