Practical Jokes

On the eve of his biggest performance ever, Dan Cummins has learned nothing so much as this: It's complicated being funny.

"I get so paranoid about this." Dan Cummins stands on the back patio of his late-’40s ranch home, looking indecisive. After making sure the vertical blinds that look out onto the patio are closed, he peeks around the corner of the house toward the front. Nothing.

The town of Millwood, a dowdy little Luxembourg surrounded on three sides by the city of Spokane Valley, is in the full hush of an early September afternoon. The neighborhood kids are at school. Most of the parents are at work. And Cummins is trying to sneak a smoke without his children knowing.

He’s not worried about the 1-year-old, Monroe. She’s down for a nap. (And she probably isn’t old enough to recognize a cigarette or care about either the pleasure it’s bringing Daddy or the havoc it’s wreaking on his lungs.) Kyler, though, Cummins’ 3-year-old son, is very impressionable. He’s also still awake, left inside for the moment, with nothing greater to preoccupy him than an episode of Scooby-Doo.

“I gotta make sure he never sees me,” Cummins says.

The parent in Cummins knows smoking is bad, and not to be undertaken by toddlers — or anyone else. But the comedian in Cummins — who has spent up to 60 percent of his time the last eight years crisscrossing the country, hustling night after night to earn jokes and fans and handshakes with club owners and booking agents and talent managers and on and on — knows smoking is an indelible part of that life. It’s a coping mechanism for loneliness and melancholy and a natural social lubricant.

And so he smokes, always trying to avoid his children seeing.

When Cummins is in Spokane — which is rarer and rarer the way he’s been hitting the college standup circuit lately — his days look a lot like this. He spends every minute with the kids while their mother, Heather, is at work, trying to offset with in-person contact all the time he spends on the road communicating with cards and phone calls and, lately, by reading bedtime stories via Skype.

When he’s away, as he has been for the better part of seven years, Cummins’ life is a series of nested circles. The arcs he traces across the country get wider and wider as his popularity grows, at first via word of mouth between fans and club managers.

More and more, though, it’s been through those traditional star vehicles: The Late Late Show, Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham. A comedy record on Warner Brothers that reached No. 7 on the Billboard comedy charts. In 2007, after a courtship, Comedy Central gave him a half-hour special. This year, they called back.

Wide as they’ve gotten, the loops always begin and end here, at the house, with the kids. For a little while longer anyway.

When Cummins leaves again — tomorrow, early — he’ll spend six weeks touring East Coast colleges in a kind of traveling dress rehearsal. He’ll be compiling and editing and testing out and revising upwards of 60 minutes’ worth of material that, he hopes, will change his life completely.

The day after he returns, the dress rehearsals will end. This Saturday, at Spokane’s Bing Crosby Theater, he’ll play to more than 600 people and a handful of cameramen.

Those cameramen will shoot the evening for an hour-long showcase on Comedy Central. It’s the kind of spotlight that the network gives to talent like Dave Attel and Lewis Black — people who end up with their own TV shows.

It will be the biggest gig of Cummins’ young career.

By the time it airs, in the first quarter of 2010, Cummins will have left Spokane completely, well on his way to becoming a much bigger deal in a much bigger town.

Cummins doesn’t tell a lot of big jokes, the kind that build and build toward a cascading, cathartic release. He doesn’t tell many one-offs either — the “take my wife, please” type. The best way to imagine the arc of the average Cummins joke is as a family of related ideas, a cluster of bits linked thematically, in no set order. They build upon the structure the previous joke established or subvert it — or they drop completely out of left field in a way that makes you question if you really understand the joke.

I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance…  by fleeing the scene of the accident.

Don’t worry, it wasn’t my fault. He was jaywalking.

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

Sometimes he delivers the punch line you’d expect. Sometimes it’s only so that he can knock you off your feet with the follow-up. Several times. A bit spawned by fast-food restaurants that offer two chains in one store (KFC/Taco Bell, for example) ends with.

My best idea is strip club/daycare.

Mostly just for the name: I could call it “Tits & Tots.”

Somebody’s gotta watch those kids. Mommy is clearly working.

And Daddy’s at home with his real family.

I know, that’s a sad joke.

So is life. We don’t live in Disneyland.

His jokes are cerebral but not elitist and they’re culturally on-point. He’s nerdy like Demitri Martin in some ways and, in other jokes, dickish like Zach Galifianakis (see “The Art of the Rip-Off,” page 30). Running through them all is a hint of menace.

Physically, Cummins is built a little like Dane Cook — he’s big enough and wears enough trucker hats to carry off just a whiff of frat-boy asshole — but much smarter, which makes him seem more dangerous. Cummins is an astute social critic who also seems — as when he’s making jokes about stabbing people — like the kind of guy who might actually want to stab someone.

And while those comparisons to contemporary comics have their place, Cummins’ real knack is in combining it all, the way his various personae and joke styles intermingle to create a wit that feels diverse and sometimes mercurial. He’s capable of catering to a wide variety of comic tastes, though he doesn’t linger on any style long enough to become as iconic an artist as Carlos Mencia or Jerry Seinfeld. (Though clearly, in the case of Mencia, iconic is not necessarily a good thing).

I saw a grown man a while back riding a Segway, wearing a toga and holding a sign for a pizza sale.

My first thought was, “Congrats, you’ve hit rock bottom.”

My second thought was, if you took away just the sign, that guy would rule. “Where’s the toga party, lucky? Sweet chariot.”

But he doesn’t rule.

The Segway joke is the best example of this odd mix of social critic and nerd and jerk and boy-next-door. Though probably not one of his best or most daring bits (we’ll get to those later), audiences eat it up.

Cummins got funny fast. In seven years, he did what takes some comics 20 — and, indeed, what most people never achieve at all. The good showings at comedy conferences, the steady stream of gigs, the half-hour special.

Besides the inborn traits — a talent for making people laugh, a fearlessness about bombing and what Heather characterizes as superhuman perseverance — Cummins has benefited from strong support and a lack of other options.
In the years before the kids, the choice to do comedy or not wasn’t much of a choice at all.

Cummins remembers the day he walked into the Season Ticket on West Boone for an open-mic night. It was Aug. 3, 2000. “That was the first time I’d ever walked into a comedy club.” Heather remembers it as the week before they got married.

Cummins had held a number of terrible jobs in college and afterward. His gig at the time, personal trainer, wasn’t giving him much satisfaction or money. Seeing how unhappy he was, it was easy for Heather to encourage him to play clubs around Spokane.

After seeing the lift it gave him, it was equally easy to tell him to go travel the shit-kicker towns of the mountain region and the Midwest. “I knew he’d never be happy in a normal job,” she says. “And I was lucky enough to have a good job. We lived in a tiny little apartment — we didn’t have many expenses or anything.” The time was right, she says. “If you’re going to do it, you need to do it now… you know, before we have kids.”

To hear Cummins tell it, the two qualities that got him the first solid gigs in Spokane were 1) a free schedule and 2) a willingness to work for free. (It certainly wasn’t the mullet wig he brought onstage with him.)

Once he broke out of the orbit of Spokane — not a tough feat, considering the lack of comic gravity at the time — he found he had two other qualities that set him apart from the bulk of people traveling from comedy room to comedy room. He had 1) a dependable car and 2) no sexual deviance to speak of.

“There’s so many dirtbags in those rooms,” Cummins says. His relative un-dirtbag-ish-ness gave him a leg up.

“I wasn’t trying to f--- every waitress at these places. I wasn’t getting drunk onstage. I’d drive the headliner.” For those reasons alone, Cummins says, people booked him on gigs touring little desolate loops like Missoula to Butte to Billings to Idaho Falls.

He was no longer working for free, but he might as well have been. In some ways, he was making less than nothing. “He wasn’t even making enough money to pay for the gas,” Heather remembers. “He stayed in some really sketchy hotels.”

Over the course of the next five years, those long, slow weeks — of cutting ever-widening circles through the heartland, the West Coast and, ultimately, the Eastern Seaboard — brought an alternating sense of elation and helplessness. “Every three months, I’d say, ‘I need to quit,’” Cummins remembers. “It wasn’t that good money, and it seemed like such long odds to get somewhere where I could make good money.”

When Comedy Central came calling the first time, in 2007, though, it was partly Cummins' nonstop hustling that attracted them. He had landed a relatively lucrative, but still completely breakneck gig touring tiny little colleges no one had ever heard of. The network liked the inroads he’d been making with what they considered a vital demographic. Comedy Central liked his shtick. More important, Comedy Central liked that 18- to 24-year-olds liked his shtick.

That’s when things really started clicking, both career-wise and in Cummins' own head. After the half-hour, Cummins bought all the way in: “I realized, I can’t imagine doing anything else.’”

Then he realized, too, that he’d been doing it all along. “David Mamet said this thing,” Cummins recalls: “If you want to be an artist you have to take away all other options. If you can do something else, you will.”

That’s where Cummins has been for nearly a decade: a comedian and nothing else.

“My resume says: ‘Standup.’”

Just as Cummins puts out his cigarette, 4-year-old Kyler comes padding around the corner. “He-hey sweetie,” Cummins stammers with a hint of nervous relief, “Good timing.” Kyler, in a brand new Batman costume padded to make his tiny frame ripple with foam muscles, sways impatiently back and forth, barely able to contain his need. The conversation comes quickly.

Kyler: Daddy duh movie tullned awff.

Dan: Did it? OK, you can hang out here for a little bit. Do you want to play on your thing?

Kyler: Uh huh. [The caped crusader marches resolutely to his swingset.]

Dan: Be careful with your Batman suit.

Kyler: Why?

Dan: Uh, that you don’t, uh, get grass stains all over it. Do you want to take it off—

Kyler: Why?

Dan: Because then it won’t look as cool.

Kyler: Why?

Dan: Just be careful with it

Kyler: OK.

The boy runs at his slide.

Though they get twisted and elongated and perverted in his head for maximum impact, Cummins’ jokes stem directly from observation. The exploits of the Cummins brood often come with the absurdity built in. You can see him chewing on the interplay he and his son have, even as he apologizes for the kid’s indomitable questions.

At his swing set, Kyler manages to entertain himself for almost a full minute. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” the boy says, calling out to Cummins until the man stops talking, “Does wah-door stain my Batman costume?”

Dan: No sweetie, water doesn’t stain it.

Kyler: Why?

Dan: Because water doesn’t have any staining properties.

Kyler: Why?

Dan: It’s clear.

Then, as though this were Ferris Bueler’s Day Off 2 (where Ferris gets the kids while Sloane is at work), Cummins turns and begins the commentary. “This ‘why’ thing — I have a joke about it I’m working on — it really is amazing, the non-stop question asking,” he says. “In a car for three hours it’s like, question, answer, follow up question, answer, follow up question, answer, repeat first question.”

And here we’re circling a key reason that Cummins is an effective comic. Technique and practice and latent intelligence and hard-nosed perseverance aside, Cummins communicates best in bits. When he tries to tell a story straight, he sometimes stumbles over it. He rarely, though, flubs a joke.

Talking about what makes a horrible show, he cites two prime examples. The first, at Southern Illinois University, he begins describing as a “Def Comedy Jam kind of audience.”

“It was one of those times I was literally the only white guy in the building,” he says, then immediately furrows his brow. It’s clear he doesn’t like that he’s ascribed the scene in purely racial terms. It’s not really about that. He sets about trying to explain.

“That’s not why it was bad, but it was marketed as ‘Apollo Night comedy,’” he says — which gives a particular kind of feel, “which is just,” he stammers again, “not what I do.”

Then he offers a simile, among the simplest comic tropes, and suddenly everything is clear. He delivers it like a bit, which, in a way, it is:

If you market a music show like, ‘Man, if you like Eminem, and you like Nas and Ludacris, then you’re gonna love this guy.’ And the audience shows up and it’s Jack Johnson.

That is a h-o-o-o-rible mix.

People who show up for hardcore shit don’t want to hear soft surfer sounds.

By way of showing that rich white men hate him, too, he tells a story about performing at a stag party for a bunch of “white, 60-plus, pretentious, snooty, insanely wealthy men. With this big open bar of top-shelf liquor.” The result was almost worse. At least the SIU kids stayed in their seats.

“They didn’t like my sense of humor. I look like this hippie — my hair was longer — I feel like I represented what they don’t like about my generation,” he says, shuddering to think about it. Almost immediately, the blue-haired power brokers left their seats and walked to the bar, leaving in packs of 50 at a time.

“They didn’t understand my sense of humor,” he says. “They wanted Don Rickles.”

Cummins is no Don Rickles.

Which leads us — eight years into a promising young career — to the thing Cummins has realized he needs more than anything: people who get him. Both in life and onstage.

Spokane’s a lonely place for him. None of his comic friends live here. He speaks wistfully of seeing another comic on the road just so he can have one of those mundane water-cooler chats.

Onstage, he’s had enough great nights now to know that he wants to somehow have them every night. His best example of that is another college show, at Christopher Newport University, a tiny liberal arts school founded in the ’60s as an offshoot of William & Mary. His best night, in purely synergistic terms, came there, in the school’s cozy shadow-box theater to a couple hundred kids. The acoustics were perfect and everyone was on the same page.

“So I could do the jokes and they’d work, but I could also riff and talk about things randomly too,” he says, talking about the audience like a hive mind. “It was one of those shows where everybody jells as a unit and you can do no wrong.” He left thinking, “OK, this is what it would be like to perform in front of nothing but fans.”

More than anything, that’s what he hopes to get from the hour-long special. He wants enough people to see him and know him and like him, that when he goes to Tuscaloosa or Poughkeepsie or whatever other weird little town he rolls into, he’s greeted by people who know him and like him.

To take a trip and, for once, not feel alone.

After his show at the Bing this Saturday — after he kills, the way he killed in the half-hour special, the way he killed at Christopher Newport University, the way he always kills when the crowd is into it and interested and on the same page — Cummins may want to spend a little time basking in his accomplishment. Or the brilliant dawning of his potential accomplishment — his stardom, such as it might one day be.

He may be inclined to take stock.

If he does, though, it probably won’t be at home, surrounded by his children. It’ll probably be at a security checkpoint at Spokane International or on a layover at O’Hare. On Saturday, Cummins will step offstage at the Bing and step almost immediately onto a plane bound for Delaware, where he’ll do a show two nights later.

After that he’ll drive. Again. To Kutztown University and Ursinus College and Shippensburg University — which are all real places, despite how unreal they sound.

He’ll do 14 shows in 21 days.

There’s nothing in Cummins’ comedy past to suggest he’s going anywhere but up. Despite the near-constant thoughts of quitting, his career has been a steady — albeit, at times, slow in coming — succession of triumphs.

Except the marriage, which died somewhere in the three years since Kyler came along and Heather says she began to feel like a single parent. It’s a failure that both Dan and Heather express in subtly different ways, but they both talk in voices painted with resignation and faint hope.

It causes Cummins to wonder if it’s all been worth it.

“Sometimes, with the divorce happening this year, I feel guilty with the kids and I feel like, ‘God, what if I could have just been content to have a day job? Maybe things would have worked differently,’” he says.

The drive to create, though, is an inescapable thing he feels. “I wish I didn’t have that. I wish I could have more of a normal life. But I tried that, right out of college, and I was miserable.”

Dan and Heather have resolved to stay friends, for the sake of the kids and the sake of themselves. Cummins is moving to L.A.; Heather’s staying here. But the kids will shuttle back and forth frequently.

Friends is OK, Heather says. “That’s really what we’d become.”

One day, if things go right, Cummins might even be in the movies. God knows that Creative Artists Agency — which represents Steven Spielberg, Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey, and which Cummins will work with when he moves to L.A. — has made less talented people into millionaire movie-star sex symbols.

At the very least, Cummins wants to make enough money off his endeavors to spend half of any given month working — and half a month dedicated to his children.

It’s not a stretch to picture that happening. The future’s pretty bright for Dan Cummins.

Bright enough to warm him as he races through the bluing Upper Midwest cold this December, trying to cover 230 miles in eight hours for two gigs in one day: at the Madison Area Technical College at lunch and, by dinner, at St. Joseph’s College of Indiana, in a town called Rensselaer, wherever the hell that is.

Dan Cummins performs at the Bing on Saturday, Oct. 17, at 8 pm. Tickets: $15. Juston McKinney will open. The evening will be recorded for a Comedy Central special. Visit or call 325-SEAT.

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About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.