A conversation with Adam Quesnell: Despair is the funniest demon

Photo by Kensie Wallner Photography
Photo by Kensie Wallner Photography

Thank the comedy gods for the timely Chicago appearance of Adam Quesnell. Never have we so badly needed to laugh at despair, to mock it and declare it vanquishable. If you agree, and these days who doesn’t, you’ll want to see Adam when he headlines Black Box Comedy at the WIP Theater this weekend.

The title of his album, which soared to #13 on the iTunes charts, is in fact, Can We Afford This Much Despair? The title refers to Adam’s very funny and unexpected take on the cost of engagement rings, where “cost” is interpreted broadly and ingeniously.

Other topics which could be despairing but are actually soul-lifting when tackled by an agile comic mind are the awkwardness of extra mayo, threats from Jimmy Johns, your daddy issues on Xanax, oversharing, corporate icebreakers gone tragically wrong and, dare I say, date-rape. You’ll have to listen. It’s not what you think.

The grasping icy hot fingers of the demon Despair could drag any of us to hell with any one of these issues … but only in a world where Despair hasn’t met Adam Quesnell. Thankfully for his audiences, Adam has Despair’s number and has unearthed (so to speak) his true identity. This from Adam’s web site:

Not your average demon, Despair suffers from severe anxiety disorder and crippling depression. Satan himself even banished Despair from Hell for being a major bummer … Cast out upon the earth in a fiery geyser of lava and tears, Despair landed in the parking lot of a comedy club that was hosting a weekly open mic night. Despair put his name on the sign-up sheet, got on stage, and told his story.

And so it became possible to look Despair in the eye and laugh. And by this I mean literally you can look Despair in the eye and laugh. In addition to his comedy, Adam and his label Stand Up! Records have devised another way to cast some unexpected light. The album is available in the form of an art toy, in an exact likeness of Despair, the Demon comedian himself. Despair comes with a download code for the album.

Photo by Niall Anderson
Photo by Niall Anderson

This uniquely lovable Despair was inspired by Adam’s extraordinary collection of art toys and Japanese Keshi. And it gets even better. Fans in the Minneapolis area where Adam, a Fargo native, now lives can have Despair delivered in person by Adam himself.

Now it’s Chicago’s turn. Adam’s show is at the WIP Theater at 10:00 p.m. both Friday and Saturday nights. Go laugh. Despair is very funny. In the meantime, Adam kindly emailed with me about his life in comedy.

Q: When and how did you know that you wanted to do comedy?

A: I always wanted to try stand up, ever since I was a little kid listening to Steve Martin, Steven Wright and George Carlin, but I didn’t get around to it until I was well out of grad school. I just had to try a bunch of different performance stuff first (acting, writing, music), I guess.

Q: What does your comedy say about you?

A: This is a hard question. Hopefully it says that I’m funny. Or, I’m able to make some weird topics funny.

Q: How did you find stage time in Fargo? What is your advice to comedians who don’t live in a place where open mics and showcases are abundant?

A: Well, I live in Minneapolis now, which is rich with open mics, showcases, and full-time clubs. But yeah, back in Fargo/Moorhead, or other smaller scenes, the best thing I can suggest is for people to start their own shows and get out on the road, make friends in bigger cities. Start planting roots for when you eventually move. But initially, make whatever you can on your own in a small scene. House shows, coffee shops, bars, perform wherever you can.

Q: What inspired you to collect art toys and what was your first?

A: Well, I collected toys when I was a kid, like TMNT and Monster in my Pocket, M.U.S.C.L.E, He-Man, etc… but my first contemporary vinyl toys were Kidrobot Futurama toys because I was a fan of the show. Then I got into Kidrobot Dunnys and started reading blogs. Then I shifted to collecting more hand-made things and picking up on artists like Healeymade, Sucklord, Killer Bootlegs, Disarticulators (too many to name) …

Q: Which of your collection are your favorites and how many do you have? Are there any you’re on a mission to find?

A: I have a few hundred toys but some of them are very, very small. I’m most proud of my contemporary, hand-cast, Keshi Style (Japanese rubber mini-figures from the 80’s) figure collection (Ironhaus, Disarticulators, Zectron, Eric Nilla, Jimmy Rommel). I love those because they are both super original, but also inspired by M.U.S.C.L.E and Monster in my Pocket and Masters of the Universe in all these weird mashups. I’m most recently stoked on larger hand-produced, hand-painted Japanese Vinyl by companies/people like Mutant Vinyl Hardcore, Unbox Industires, Lulubell toys, Paul Kaiju, etc…

Q: I love your Despair figure and his backstory. I would like him to be my guardian angel because unlike other guardian angels who I’m sure would tell me to fucking relax and end up making me more anxious, I feel pretty certain he would understand. How does despair show up in your life and what is the best way to deal with it? How does comedy help or not?

A: I guess Despair is present in my life as just a general recurring depression, but comedy certainly helps. Sometimes the politics of comedy or whatever, can be a bummer, but in general, comedy is lots of fun right now.

The figure was designed by my buddy Terence Brown II and inspired by basically all of my toy collection. We had them prototyped by October Toys, cast in rubber by Niall Anderson, and my buddy Josh Trumbo put the header art together with some of Terry’s art. It’s funny that something called/rooted in Despair has brought me so much joy.

Q: Dobie Maxwell recently said to me that the most talented comedians really dig into a topic and “leave no meat on the bone.” I noticed that you’re great at this! What is your writing process and how do you mine all the diamonds? (Ha! I will never think of diamonds the same way again-that engagement ring bit is an excellent example!)

A: It comes and goes. I write a few lines in my phone’s notebook, then go up and work it out at mics and add beats to it, and eventually, it’s this longer thing (or it isn’t). I have a few heavier topical pieces and some lighter, goofier stuff, and finding that balance, or putting those two sentiments together is what keeps comedy engaging and productive.


Q: Another thing Dobie mentioned is that many of his students and comedians in general have “daddy issues.” You have a great joke about blunting dad issues with Xanax. Would you say “dad issues” factor into your comedy and if so, how?

A: That joke is like, a total fiction! If anything, my relationship with my dad was one of my biggest inspirations in comedy (my mom, too for that matter). We watched stand-up together as a family almost daily from as early as I can remember in the 80’s when comedy was everywhere, to listening to records and making tapes. That Xanax bit was like, “what is something someone would want to forget” and [the dad issues] was the one that I had the most fun with.

Q: You also have a great bit about dealing with comedic impulses at work. Has there been a time where a funny observation worked out well (or not) in that atmosphere or where you had to suppress it?

A: I’ve only done comedy in a corporate environment a couple of times and it was fine, but if I was going to do it more often, I would have to work super hard to get up to snuff with clean material that I would still have fun doing. My last office I worked in was super laid back and everyone had a pretty solid sense of humor. I rarely said anything I regretted.

Q: What is your worst green room experience?

A: I don’t think I’m famous enough to answer this question. I’m still like, “Oh, there is a green room? Great!” It could be an old shower behind a toilet for all I care, and I’d feel like the Queen of France.

Q: What is the best, worst or craziest thing that has happened to you as a comedian?

A: Best Things: Signing to Stand Up! Records, playing their festival in Akumal Mexico, or performing in Fargo with people like Maria Bamford and Kyle Kinane.

Worst/Craziest Thing: When I was first starting out, I was in Prague for my day job, and we were at an Irish pub after hours and I’d been drinking. All of my bosses and bosses’ bosses had been drinking, and unbeknownst to me, they paid the bartender like…way too much money, to let me do 5 minutes between the acoustic band’s sets. I was pretty drunk and I knew very little about comedy at the time. I would cringe if I was in a room and saw that happen today.

Q: What was the most interesting/memorable part of delivering your album in person to fans?

A: Just the fact that so many of my friends and other cool people I know came out to see it at CONvergence [sci-fi and fantasy convention] in Minneapolis. Also, the fact that my buddy Gus Lynch introduced me. [Note: Gus Lynch was a popular Minneapolis-based actor and comedian who died in 2014 at age 42 of injuries from a fall.]

Q: What is a recent situation that will make it into your material?

A: I ate some good cheese-curds recently. They might make it in there!

Q: What are you most looking forward to in Chicago?

A: Every other time I’ve been in Chicago, I’ve had to work at my day job all day while I was there. I’m just stoked to be hanging out during the day. Probably hit up a museum with my buddy JD or something.

Q: Do you have any pre-show rituals and/or something you always bring on the road?

A: Ha, not really. I typically just shuffle through notes on my phone for the hour leading up to when I go up. I listen to lots of podcasts on the road. Oh, and I usually bring cables to hook my laptop up to the TV in my hotel room for watching Netflix and such.

Q: What’s something unexpected about you that the audience might not guess?

A: That I am hilarious.


Adam Quesnell is at WIP Theater, 6670 N. Northwest Highway, Chicago, on Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March 19. Shows are at 10:00 p.m. Tickets are $ 15.

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