Sara Dahms is a comedy superfan who even goes so far as to call herself a comedy nerd. Raised on National Lampoon, John Hughes, Gene Wilder, and Fairy Tale Theatre, her life changed after her older sister showed her Eddie Murphy’s Raw in 1988. Soon after, she found Andrew Dice Clay and became a stand up junkie for life. Eighteen months ago, she took her first comedycation to see Jeff Ross play in Miami on her birthday. Since then, she’s been traveling all over the country checking out the best comedy everywhere, a confirmed comedy addict, and now she’s agreed to share her travels with us. This is her column. In this edition, Sara returns to her hometown of Chicago to talk with one of her comedy heroes- Tony Hinchcliffe.
It’s a Saturday night at Zanies in Chicago. The room is sold out and Tony Hinchcliffe is on deck to perform his third show of the evening. He is brought up and immediately lets his presence be known by using the entire room as his stage. His act consists of master level joke writing, engaging story telling and hilarious crowd work. His personal interactions with the audience allow Tony to flex his wit and ability to think on his feet, find the funny and then fire out joke after joke of freshly written material right there on the spot. “You work as a railroad engineer?” Bam, five jokes seamlessly delivered back to back, on topic. Super impressive! Tony Hinchcliffe’s obvious talent not only won him the room, it kept us laughing with him for the entire hour and 15 minutes he was on stage and most importantly, it kept us wanting more.
The show was over and I was on my way out the door when I ran into Tony. I said “hello” and introduced myself. I mentioned that I had met him in Montreal and had the pleasure of getting to hang out with him a bit when he was in town for the OddBall Festival…and he remembered me! Omg! He was heading outside for a smoke and invited me to join him. What a nice guy! I was dying!!!
We went outside and pulled out our smokes… We both had the yellow pack of Natural American Spirits…Too funny! He had mentioned during his set that he was originally from Ohio. I had been wondering all the while how a Midwest boy made it this big in comedy and figured this would be my opportunity to ask. We smoked our American Spirits and he told me his story. It turns out that he actually received his first helping hand in the form of advice from an unlikely character. He was in full storyteller mode. I felt like a kid at story time in school. As if I should be sitting “Indian Style” on a carpet, looking up at him as he described the events which led him to where he is today, but I did my best to maintain my cool and just listen, absorbing every word he said to the best of my ability. The setting of his story was a diner that he would frequent after moving out West and the unlikely character to offer the sage advice was Jeffrey Craig LaBeouf, the father of actor, Shia LaBeouf. Tony felt the calling to comedy, but had no idea what his first steps should be. He knew LaBeouf also frequented this neighborhood diner and that he had some experience working as a clown, so one day, over coffee, Hinchcliffe took the leap and asked him for advice. Jeffrey Craig LaBeouf told him to “go straight to the top” and to start doing open mics at The Comedy Store. These words are responsible for knocking over the first, proverbial domino and setting into motion a series of events that would ultimately be responsible for helping Tony realize his dream. I was in awe. I know enough about The Comedy Store to understand what amazing advice this actually was…Tony paused long enough for me to ask, “so what’d ya do?”
His answer- He went straight to The Comedy Store and started doing open mics immediately. What drive! I completely respect that he took this advice and went for it with a “go big or go home” type of attitude. With that, our cigarettes were out and we headed back inside. There were three of Tony’s friends from his little league days waiting for him and they were heading to a bar so we said our goodbyes and I wished him well. I decided to head to a local tavern that is just around the corner so I could have a beer and process how cool this evening had been. I went to The Ale House, drank my beer and then headed out to order my Uber home. I lit a smoke and just then I heard someone shout, “Sara?!?!?” It was Tony!!!! He was heading into The Ale House and so was I! Uber cancelled!!!! We took a seat at a table by the window, ordered a drink and finished our conversation.
It didn’t take long for Mitzi Shore and her staff to recognize the overt, natural talent he had, even back then and within just a few weeks, Tony landed himself a job working as an official staff member at The Comedy Store. Holy crap! That is a HUGE deal!!! Think of this as being comparable to getting accepted to the Ivy League college of your dreams. Being a staff member at The Store allowed him constant proximity to all of the biggest talents in the comedy business. He was constantly learning and working on his craft in the presence of this greatness. It also put him in the position to get stage time that wouldn’t otherwise be available to him. “Graduation” occurs if and only if Mitzi Shore’s famed “eye for comedy” were to deem him worthy of being passed into the ranks of the comedic legends whose portraits line her halls and if she decides to make him a paid regular. Tony described how he worked his way up through the ranks and even shared a remark Mitzi had made about him during his apprenticeship on her staff. She said, “Tony is the best phone guy I’ve had since Jim Carrey.” This should give you a small taste as to the awesome level of talent this woman has gifted us with over the years…
Just then a man comes to our table. He’s holding a cooler and is selling homemade tamales. I buy cheese and Tony orders chicken, my treat. Feeding the man is the least I can do to thank him for his stories and his time. Besides, the Italian side of my family always taught me to show love and respect through food! Mangia!
Our conversation continues and I am happy to report that Tony Hinchcliffe is indeed a “graduate” of The Comedy Store. His “graduation” occurred about four and a half years after taking his first job as a staff member and he is now amongst the likes of Jeff Garlin, Bill Burr, Whitney Cummings, Dave Chappelle and is an official paid regular at The Comedy Store! His career has been unstoppable ever since.
I’m impressed with the amount of love and support he received in the early days of his career and he laughingly says, “that’s nothing! I very well may be the comedian with the most mentors in the business!” He then went on to name a few of the people he credits for keeping him on his path and helping him along the way. He said that he is grateful for the support Sam Tripoli has given to him since day one. He also believes his continued success is largely due to the many opportunities Joe Rogan has afforded him by taking him on the road all over the country and having him on his podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience” on a regular basis. Last, but certainly not least, Tony lists Jeff Ross as being a powerful force that has helped the trajectory of his career in a very positive way. Jeff recognized Tony’s strength as a writer and believed in him enough to take him from the road, to the roasts and hired him to be a part of the team responsible for writing the intelligent, side splitting zingers that are consistently delivered at Comedy Central’s Roasts; including “The Roast of Donald Trump” and for that he is eternally grateful.
One of the most beautiful things about the ins and outs of comedy is the “pass the torch” mentality veteran comedians have. They are not threatened when they see a rising star, in fact more often than not, they are excited to be the one to lend a hand and offer them a platform to hone their skills and Tony is no exception. He is happy to help out new talent in any way he can and has even started a podcast solely dedicated to offering feedback to open mic’ers who are looking for exposure and advice. It’s called “Kill Tony”. Tony’s drive and passion is just as strong today as it was the first day he took the stage. He never stops writing and working for this baby we know as comedy. His timing is flawless, his material is cunning and edgy, yet delivered in the endearing, likable package that is Tony Hinchcliffe. I love his style!