Comedy, as a commodity, rarely has primary sourced information detailing the trials, tribulations, nuances and practicalities of its most base byproducts: albums and specials. As information and media becomes more democratized, this is to the detriment of fans, critics and fellow creators. The following is not a promotional vehicle (though it is) and it’s not a vanity project (though it is). Postmortem will—hopefully—shed some light behind the scenes of stand-up releases from the people who know best, the comedians, editors and producers themselves.
Atheist Christmas was released on Stand-Up Records on November 25, 2014. Its audio album component was recorded December 10, 2013 at Punch Line San Francisco; it’s available on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. The visual component was filmed December 7th, 2013 at Sacramento Comedy Spot; it’s available on Hulu, Amazon, Google Play.
It’s remarkable how underutilized my preferred media and mediums are at spreading Christmas cheer. I love video games, stand-up, and pro wrestling. None, unfortunately, are quintessentially festive during the holidays. Minding the gap and filling the void, Atheist Christmas, the latest offering from comedian Keith Lowell Jensen, is a boon: the perfect new tradition for weirdos like me.
Keith is inherently “Christmas”: bright, happy face, flat cap and a cardigan. Onstage, there’s an inherent groove to KLJ’s joke style, a warmth, comfort and consistency. It’s not BOOM BOOM BOOM, KILL KILL KILL. Save that static for pandering jabrons. “Killing”—or the attempt of—ain’t Christmas. It ain’t that syrupy sweetness of hearty nostalgia with a tinge of melancholy. Are you gonna put on Dane Cook at MSG during family time next to the fire, huddled away from the chill of Winter? SuFi’s with GramGrams?! No! Keith is a genuine raconteur and Atheist Christmas is a cozy recliner draped with a Misfits-themed thermal throw. You may not want to introduce this album/special to your grandma though, but I don’t know your grandma. Your grandma could be cool as fuck. Like mine.
Picking up from his last special, Elf Orgy, Keith details the ever evolving nature of parenting a quirky child (“Tiger Tales”); juxtaposes being a comedian (i.e. poor) with being “in charge” of shit (i.e. fiscal security, mental health (“Depression”)); and delivers a trademark anecdote of warped Americana (“Pussy Knee”). Keith speaks fluid, fluent, sincere sarcasm. There’s a gleefulness when he feigns ignorance, knowingly misinterpreting historical memes and societal shorthand. He maybe openly flippant about societal institutions—religion, mostly—but he’s not particularly toxic. His iconoclasm has integrity, avoiding anger or bitterness, illuminating the heart in (explicit) heathenism. I personally enjoyed the slinky, analogy-thick, allusion-chock, satire-steeped tracks “Truther Who” and “A Bad Ass in Whoville”, perfect bookends to the Christmas vibe established in the opening tracks “Reindeer Poop” and “Santa Claus RIP”.
Courting Comedy: So, to get right into it. How did you come up with the name?
Keith Lowell Jensen: I think that the name’s funny. Atheist Christmas. And it’s been weird since it came out, like, most people seem to get it, but an awful lot of people—on both sides, both Atheists and believers—are like, “that doesn’t make any sense. How is there gonna be an atheist Christmas? Christmas is not atheist.” And I’m like, “I don’t know? Maybe it’s a comedy album!?” But, there’s a sincere side to it as well. I like to be an atheist who, you know, I still love my Christian friends and family and friends of other religion as well, very much. I still participate in the traditions I was raised in. I celebrate Christmas with my family; that’s never even been a question.
I don’t know, it’s almost like in Jewish culture that’s accepted; you can be culturally Jewish. And yet, we get weird about that. “Well you can’t be “culturally Christian”. You have to let all that go ‘cause you don’t believe anymore.” And, no! No you don’t. Christmas trees are fun and it didn’t start with Christianity anyway.
CC: Well cool. Lets go into when this was recorded.
KLJ: Last year. I recorded December of 2013. Really wanted to record it during Christmas. Like, we did a 420 comedy special and we didn’t do it anywhere near 4/20. [laughs]. We told the audience, “just pretend”. And that’s something people are willing to pretend because they’ll do that celebrating any time of year. But for this one I really wanted the vibe to be there; I wanted people to be in a Christmas mood. You’ve seen the video right? We put the Christmas tree onstage and the fireplace and everything; did it up. I really wanted it to have [voice gets floaty] Christmas in the room.
CC: Was it natural to have a project “in the can” for so long? Were you itching to get some of that stuff out?
KLJ: Yeah, it was very weird for me to sit on something for a year. I was totally itching to get the stuff out. And in fact I found that it-—this is really unusual for me—it kind of stinted my writing. I didn’t write much during that year , not as much as I usually do. And then I’ve been like a volcano since it came out [November 25, 2014] where I’ve been writing like crazy. The last month’s been fantastic. So yeah, that was weird. My mind couldn’t let go of it because it hadn’t gotten out yet. Now that it’s out, people have the jokes like, “now I write new ones.” [chuckles].
CC: This might be gauche but was there any budget to speak of?
KLJ: Yeah! I’m in a strange place that I have a label [Stand Up Records] that pays for things. I did [comedy] on my own for too long to not think about money, so I try to do everything as cheap as possible anyway. And then you get those surprises where you’re like, “god, I really wanna do this but it’s gonna cost two hundred bucks for this thing…” and the label goes, “that’s fine.” Oh? It is?! Okay! Even, like, the guy who built the set for us did such a good job, and him and I never agreed to any money and he probably would have been perfectly happy not to be paid. In the end, he was actually paid better than he’s usually paid for these kind of things, but him and I are just two buddies: he was just like, “let me build your set!” and I was like, “I would love that…we’ll help you pay for supplies”. Then, when he was done, the head of the label’s like,
“Well, how much are we paying him?”
[And I said] “I don’t know!”
“Well, give him this,” and he hands me a check.
So yeah, it was really weird. There wasn’t budgeting done by me the way that there usually is. I’m sure it was extremely low budget compared to most things.
CC: Did you have any contingency plans or did you just do one recording [for the album]?
KLJ: You know the one time I had a solid contingency plan was Elf Orgy, which, my label will probably hate for me to say this out loud, but it’s my least favorite thing I’ve ever done. I’m really unhappy with it, I hope to do it again someday because I love the material on it. We recorded two nights and they *both* were lame.
KLJ: So, with [Atheist Christmas] we had one night to do video and I had to nail it. And I nailed it. With my first Album, Into the Moon, I really had one night for that material—I did record a couple other nights just to get some alternate material that we didn’t really end up using—but it was like, “tonight’s the main night, you have to nail it.” And with Cats Made of Rabbits, same deal: one night, [you] have to nail it. I think I’m finding out that I just work best that way, that I like the pressure or something. So, we had one night to get video, we got it, and then knowing we got it meant that the night we did audio, if I blew it, it wasn’t a big deal; we had really good video and of course we record audio simultaneously. And as a result—and I mention this in my liner notes, but—as a result, I was really loose. I did jokes I didn’t planned on doing. I didn’t hesitate to have an exchange with an audience member who was kind of being a jerk. So, it was fun!
CC: Can you speak a little bit on your opening acts, your relationship to them, and why you felt confident putting them in the position you did. You know, a little bit praise if you can.
KLJ: Yeah, I’m really careful that they’re people I love a lot, not only as comedians. I’m gonna be in a green room with them [and] I want to be positive to be positive that [recording] night—which isn’t always the case in the green room. [chuckles]. And sometimes being in the green room with someone I that just irks me is great; I’ll go on stage with that anger and it will add some new level of funny that I hadn’t planned. But, for [Atheist Christmas] I wanted people that were like family to me and that’s how I would describe Johnny Taylor and Ivan Hernandez.
So yeah, it was cool. We were in the green room encouraging each other and being really excited. They’re both people that I feel fine about following because they’re good, they’re good to where they get the audience properly warmed up and they also push me a little bit: I won’t go out and be lazy after them. I don’t believe in [the theory] of, like “Oh, that guy’s hard to follow because he’s too good.” I’ve seen people that I honestly think are better than me and I’ve had no problem following them. If anything I benefit from how hard they rocked the crowd. The only thing I struggle with if [the previous performer] is someone that is really LOUD, really high-energy, ‘cause I’m not. I’m a little more soft spoken. So, Johnny Taylor is perfect for me because you don’t get much more “quiet, soft-spoken”. I mean, I am loud compared to Johnny.
Courting Comedy: Do you like hosting?
Johnny Taylor (opening act, host): Not particularly. Most of the time you’re going up cold and in a sense you’re sacrificing your set to work as a sort of hybrid cheerleader/fluffer. Part of your hosting set is making announcements for the club and that’s always kind of a drag. Also, you can’t just leave after your set. You’re there until the bitter end. And trust me, it can be very bitter if it’s an open mic or a long showcase that you’re hosting.
CC: Do you think you’re a good host?
Taylor: I do. I made sure I got really good at it because I knew that it was my first step into working the clubs. So when I was new, I was constantly asking people if I could host their mics, showcases, etc. I knew if I got good at hosting early, that when I finally got an audition somewhere, I would rock it.
CC: Do you pull back at all in comparison to a featuring or headlining set?
Taylor: Material-wise not too much unless I’m requested by the headliner. I’ve worked with people that wanted me to work clean and that’s fine. 99% of the time I just go out and do my act.
CC: What’s your general roadtrip rapport with Keith. Is there a lot of talking/joking/riffing?
Taylor: Well Keith doesn’t drink or imbibe in any way so he drives for the most part, which really works out for me. Most of our conversations is Keith talking and me responding in one or two word sentences. There is a lot of banter about comedy, but mostly we’ll turn each other on to whatever music we’re into at the moment. I’ve learned of so many cool bands working the road with Keith.
CC: You’ve also recorded an album. Have you learned anything from working with Keith about the process? Did they give you any advice?
Taylor: Keith was a huge resource for me. I used his sound guy (Matthew Bouler) and took a lot of his advice on joke order and which jokes to use. He also introduced me to Dan (Schlissel, President of Stand Up! Records) which was a huge step in eventually getting signed by the label.
CC: How do you feel about Christmas in general? Do you prefer a different holiday?
Taylor: I fucking love Christmas and everything about it. Christmas is the best. Fuck what you heard.
Dan Schlissel (Stand Up Records, owner): I’m Jewish. Christmas is a day where everything is closed, all your friends are busy, and there’s NOTHING on TV. It used to be that Christmas started up the day after Thanksgiving, now it is taking up more and more of the calendar. To top it all off, we Jews used to go get Chinese food and then hit the movies on Christmas day. It was a beautiful, quiet day, and rather enjoyable. Now, *everyone* packs both venues ruining the one thing we had as Jews, so even the individualistic tradition we set up for ourselves to make up for being excluded has been stripped from us. Some people complain of a “war on Christmas,” but all I see is the war Christmas wages on everything else while crying wolf.
Courting Comedy: The outfit for the special taping: did you have a wardrobe? I’ve noticed you have a particular style, like, the Keith Lowell Jensen style is a nice flat cap, usually layered and some regular pants. Did you think about the wardrobe at all?
KLJ: Okay, don’t say “regular pants”. You described everything, [yet] you’re so dismissive about the pants.
[Another Big OJ-laugh]
KLJ: I drive for forty minutes to Woodland, CA to go to a western store catering to Mexican immigrants to buy these pants.
KLJ: Yeah, they’re my Wrangler ranchers (preferably in Heather [Grey]).
CC: Do you have a specific cut?
KLJ: Oh, just the standard Wrangler rancher boot cut.
KLJ: Yeah. People always make fun of me, saying I have a “Mr. Rogers” look; that’s why I did that dopey intro. [Note: KLJ begins the Atheist Christmas special in tribute by donning loafers-and-cardigan] I was like, “just go with it”. Recently, someone said that I look like I just stepped out of a Wes Anderson movie, and I said “oh, I was going for more of a Jim Jarmusch thing.”
If You Like “Blank”
Courting Comedy: Okay, gonna try to make this a feature of the [Postmortem] articles going forward, but, it’s kind of like an improv game where I ask you to fill in the blank and the question is: “If you like (blank), you’ll love Atheist Christmas.” You can take this as serious as you want, or as silly as you want, deprecating, it doesn’t matter. So if you like (blank), you’ll love Atheist Christmas.
Keith Lowell Jensen: If you like “sitting on thumbtacks while drinking orange juice with whipped cream”, you’ll love Atheist Christmas.
CC: Another one.
CC: It’s just gonna be [a] rapid-fire thing.
KLJ: No, that was good.
KLJ: Um, if you like “hating comedy”… and that’s not self-deprecating as it sounds ‘cause I often consider that my stuff is for people who don’t like comedy (in a positive way).
CC: (blase) Alright…
KLJ: (mocking) Alrighty…
CC: I mean, if you don’t have anymore gems. This is [the] time to get your jokes in.
KLJ: I’m not an improv guy, OJ.
CC: I’ve heard you on Doug Loves Movies, you’re fucking quick. Don’t…
KLJ: You’ve heard me on what?
CC: On Doug Loves Movies, don’t act like can’t come up with something quick.
KLJ: No, the great thing about Doug’s podcast is that there’s an audience there, so you still have that pressure, [a] sink or swim instinct that I need to do it. Um… if you like “hating Jesus”, you’ll love… [both laughing]. You know what, and this one, this might be delusions of grandeur, but I hope that if you liked A Charlie Brown Christmas you’ll like Atheist Christmas ‘cause I try to, as much as I love Christmas, I also try to accept the dark side of it. And accept that sometimes there’s this odd…nostalgia is a bittersweet thing. I almost feel like you mourn for the past when you’re enjoying nostalgia. Like, you enjoy the warm memories of Christmas past but it’s also something that really solidifies that parts of your life are over. I’ll never be a child at Christmas again; you really feel that. And I remember being aware of that when I was very young, being ten, and [thinking], “this is Christmas, it’s great…it’s not what it used to be.” You know? I feel like A Charlie Brown Christmas, which has been a favorite of mine all my life—me and my daughter have already watched it twice this year, and there will be more screenings of it before we’re done—but I feel like it captures that. It captures both the joy and the ennui of it, which is a really long fill-in-the-blank.
CC: Well thank you. I think we got [“If You Like “Blank”]
KLJ: Thanks for pushing me.
Tech & Specs
Courting Comedy: Can you tell us your how you’ve come to know the artist or how you became involved with Atheist Christmas?:
Dan Schlissel (Stand Up Records, owner): I can’t tell you the year right offhand, but Keith first started talking to me after starting a sketch comedy group and sent me their only CD release.
We’ve been in steady conversation since then, eight years or so. He kept presenting me with things he worked on, and I critiqued them, and gave him some pointers on where I thought improvements could help. He made those improvements, and kept showing me, until we worked together on his third solo album, Elf Orgy.
We’re friends and business associates. Our viewpoints are pretty opposed on a lot of things. Like most friendships, we have difficult periods, times where we misread each other. I think overall, we work together well because we have similar spirit, and we’re both fiercely independent. It’s good to have a close ally that opens up the way you see things, which he does for me more often than I do for him, but I have my moments as well.
Robert Pyne (camera operator, line producer): I have known Keith for years now through family and was excited when he called me to capture his show.
CC: What equipment did you use on this project?
Matthew Bouler (sound recordist): I used a combination mixer/recorder called the Zaxcom Nomad. It’s made for production audio in film/video.
The mics, if I recall correctly, were
a matched set of AKG 451’s for the side crowd,
a Sanken CS3e for the center crowd,
and just a plain old SM58 for Keith.
Mark Swain (film editor): I did all post production primarily on Final Cut Pro X
CC: What makes a successful comedy release? Is it pure sale figures or something else? How successful was Atheist Christmas?
Dan Schlissel (Stand Up Records, owner): Tricky question! Money certainly doesn’t hurt, but it’s not my only measurement. I think, artistically, we hit a lot of the goals. There’s always things that we could do better, but I am satisfied with the final project. During the recording I always think about the things that are not where I want them to be, audience reaction and volume.
I tend to get focused on the negative rather than the positive, so Keith and I had an awkward interaction after the show, where he was focused on positives and I was focused on negatives. I’m not a great fluffer, it turns out. I am working on that.
CC: Was Atheist Christmas more or less costly than a typical release?
Dan Schlissel (Stand Up Records, owner): We pulled it off rather cheaply, actually. We are an indie label. We simply do not have the money to spend that a TV network would be able to bring to bear. Woking smarter is part of our survival skill set. We also come from an indie rock/DIY background, so that spirit helps us keep low to the ground and makes us try to pull things off for a cheaper bottom line than our competition.
CC: How much time did it take to complete your portion of the project?
Matthew Bouler (sound recordist): I was just the recordist for this project so my job was complete after the evening was wrapped and I passed the files on to Stand Up Records.
Mark Swain (film editor): Well the project was over about a 6-8 month period.
CC: How hands-on were you? What tasks did you handle?
Dan Schlissel (Stand Up Records, owner): I am fairly hands-on, but honestly, Keith hired the production team, I just made sure all the pieces were working properly. I flew in for it, and was there. My input was there, but I let the production team do their thing. There’s more to it than that that’s behind the “behind the scenes stuff,” and I came in more there.
CC: When you say there’s something more than the “behind the scenes stuff”? What entails bring all the pieces together?
Dan Schlissel (Stand Up Records, owner): Well, I generally take the audio files, send them off for mixing and mastering. Then I send that back to the video guys to edit video from. I also separately edit the audio. There was a whole bunch of art to coordinate. Photographers, designers, then it’s off to pre-press and press.
CC: Are there any inherent difficulties to working with comedy or comedians?
Matthew Bouler (sound recordist): Oh yes. It’s funny how simple it seems to record a single mic and audience and really it should be. But there are a lot of potential issues when recording a show. Often the smallest shows are the most difficult as things like HVAC hum and dishwashers can be heard over the lower volume crowd.
A large audience and room covers all these things up but, to make a small audience sound big and full in a recording, it’s necessary to gain up the crowd mics and all the stuff in the background comes up with it. I try to mitigate this as much as possible by negotiating with staff to turn off refrigerators, AC’s, etc and bring in transformer isolated splits to prevent ground loops. Also it’s much more difficult to get an even audience spread with a small room. A good crowd recording shouldn’t favor any one voice and that means getting the mics equidistant from as many people as possible. But that can be extremely difficult with a certain stage/room designs. To make things more difficult, mics need to be away and behind the PA speakers to minimize the bleed from the system as much as possible. This is to allow the mixer to bring up audience mics as much as possible while not making the performer sound distant and unfocused from the PA speaker bleed. Even with optimal mic placement, small crowds don’t hide “big laughers” nearly as well as big crowds and that makes editing together different shows/performances difficult and can take attention away from the performance.
Other potential pitfalls include wide speaking/yelling levels, comics using the mic as a prop and taking it away from their mouths, and negotiating w House DJ’s to leave copy-written music out of performer introductions.
Mark Swain (film editor): Yes and No. Mainly you find a pretty good amount of “ego’s” involved with comedy projects and so sometimes they are very sensitive to “what makes the cut” and so there’s a lot of back and forth… I work a lot in Nashville and with a lot of artists and so its really nothing new… but you have to to a lot more to impress artists than the average client.
CC: Did you learn anything in the process of this project (or subsequent projects) that you wish you could have incorporated from the beginning?
Robert Pyne (camera operator, line producer): I think that having our director who was live switching the performance isolated better so that he was able to call out the shots that he was looking for or let us know what camera he was on would have been ideal. Even though we had headsets for the camera operators, the technical director, [Torrey Loomis], was too close to the stage to direct us in anyway without being heard by the audience. When we shot for TEDx, he was able to direct from the control room and let us know what shots he was looking for. At The Comedy Spot, we had to set up right on the other side of a wall from where the audience was and not wanting to distract from the performance we all chose to remain silent.
Matthew Bouler (sound recordist): Really it’s just to preclude as many of the above issues as possible during pre-production and setup. Leave plenty of dynamic range for the comic and the audience, cover the crowd as evenly as possible given the room and resources, and have at least an hour more record time than the comic thinks he’ll need.
Mark Swain (film editor): I wish I could have / would have directed the project from the beginning. The camera angles and the production value would have been a whole lot higher had they brought me in during the production stage. But sometimes as the editor, we have to make due with what is provided and that was the case here.
Dan Schlissel (Stand Up Records, owner): There’s always things that could be better. Lots of little details, where the devil is. Not having beer bottles tip over during the show on a cement floor for instance. Minor things. I wish we’d have had Keith brush off his hat when he got inside the set, so that the fake snow wouldn’t have been on his head the whole show. Having none of the snow fall through the window. Dumb things that only I might notice. The major stuff was fine for the most part.
*Note: Conversation with artist occurred verbally on December 14, 2014. Conversations with cast, crew, producers and technicians occurred between May 13, 2015-December 24, 2015 via correspondence.
Thanks for reading!