A Q&A About Kyle Kinane’s Shocks & Struts

I’ve asked Kyle Kinane for his secret in two separate interviews, one in 2020 and one more recently. He revealed an answer. But I’m still not convinced I actually know how he does what he does on the level he does it. I’d love to figure out how he became a word wizard, a linguistic laureate. As a comedian, he’s like a jazz virtuoso who – effortlessly it seems – composes infinite variations on a theme. Every riff is fresh and unexpected. His latest special Shocks and Struts is the latest example. He somehow continues to exceed himself.

Kyle is an Addison, IL native. He came up in the golden age of Chicago alt-comedy in the early “aughts,” an era of creative liberation described in Mike Bridenstine’s excellent book The Perfect Amount of Wrong which references Kyle thirty-five times. When Kyle left Chicago for Los Angeles, Comedy Central tapped his gravelly voice for its on-air announcements. He has recorded numerous comedy albums and specials, appeared on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Conan, Last Call with Carson Daly, on Netflix’ The Standups and as recurring characters in several animated series. According to his C.V., “he also appeared on Drunk History where unfortunately he wasn’t acting.”

Shocks and Struts’ opening is immediately intriguing. A white van meanders through an empty desert as the Honus Honus tune “Empty Bottle” warbles desolately in the background.  Something lonely or maybe something mad is definitely about to happen. You’ll find out soon enough.

But first, Kyle has something to say about federal investigations into Zoom comedy, GERD (you won’t guess where that joke goes), and the violence of food poisoning. There is also outstanding material about unacknowledged lifesaving heroes. Then brace yourself for the unforgettable, destined-to-become-a-classic polemic about the horrors embedded in your pillow and why you must replace it this instant. Kyle comes up with so many staggeringly creative ways to support his argument, it brought to mind the breadth and genius of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary.

There is, even more unexpectedly, an Anne Frank joke and a bit about the Holocaust Museum. As contemplated by Kyle Kinane’s agile mind, the material hits perfectly, and is probably even more piercing and apropos than when the special debuted this past spring. On the same level is material about vaccines and autism, and gay explorers.

At the end, we discover what’s up with that van in the desert. It’s epic, the comic equivalent of the grand finale of an already spectacular fireworks display. Why is Kyle in the desert? The real question, it turns out, is will he make it out alive? Hopelessness turns to hope turns to hopelessness. In the end, his encounter with an improbable angel leads him to interrogate his own flaws. He is changed and quite possibly, the listener is, too.

Shocks and Struts is available for free on YouTube in both an hour-long and an unabridged edition which became available this fall. I’ve listened to the former three times and the latter once and recommend both. Kyle kindly spoke with me by phone about how the special came together. He also discussed a personal heartbreak and of course, Chicago. I asked him for his writing secret. He told me, but I’m not sure there’s any earthly answer to how Kyle Kinane does what he does.   

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Teme: How did you decide to record Shocks and Struts in Salt Lake City?

Kyle: I had played that club, WiseGuys, before and it kind of surprised me how great of a club it was, just with it being in Salt Lake City. We all have our preconceived notions about that. But everyone likes to laugh.

Teme: How did you decide on the title, Shocks and Struts?

Kyle: I’d gone by an auto shop and I saw that. I thought it was funny word play for fake arrogance. I initially wanted the artwork to be painted on a window of a garage, but I wasn’t able to get that done in time. I thought, “Oh, shocks & struts. It’s like car parts, but it’s also a dumb cocky thing to call a special,” so I went with that.

Teme: How did you decide on the topics?

Kyle: I don’t really decide on topics. I just kind of got enough comedy built up. You get to the point where you can’t perform it all in one show, but you want to get it documented for posterity. The comedy that I respect is always in motion. It’s perpetual. I’m always writing. Otherwise, you lose your energy. You write a new joke, it goes to the set. Then an old joke has to go, and those old jokes get lost, and it’s kind of a shame. So [Shots and Struts director Jonah Ray] and I thought this is the strongest hour to do right now.

Teme: This special and the material felt especially reflective and I was wondering if you felt that way, too?

Kyle: Well, the only thing I’m an expert on in this world is myself, so my comedy is always written from looking in the mirror. Especially if I start to get too much of an attitude or I think I know about something or I think I have this correct opinion, I really have to look at myself like, “Are you sure?” Or maybe it’s a lot gleaned from therapy.

One of my turnoffs with comedy is people that think they have it all figured out, people that think they figured out how the world works from their one little corner of it. Anytime I start speaking that way, I hope I catch myself and put myself in check. “Why do you think so much about this, buddy?” So even if it doesn’t turn into a joke, then at least I am reading and trying to learn more … hopefully, I’m improving myself, even if it doesn’t turn out to be a good joke.

Teme: One of the things I love about your comedy is you’re pretty fearless about taking on hard topics like woke culture, antisemitism, sexual orientation. Are you ever concerned about pushback?

Kyle: Well, I look at who I’m making upset. If it’s somebody wasn’t going to agree with me in the first place, well, whatever. A lot of people love to come out of the woodwork and say, “Your comedy’s bad,” because they don’t agree with it. But is it true criticism or is it just part of the circus?

If it’s somebody like, “I liked your views on this, but I think you might be wrong about it because of this example or that,” I would hopefully see that and say, “Wow, thanks. I didn’t think about that angle.” A lot of my comedy is pretty left, so if it’s somebody who still uses words like “lib-tard” or “MAGA” then I’m like, “Oh, they don’t like me? What have I lost? Have I lost a fan? No.” So that doesn’t bother me.

Teme: One of my favorite things in Shocks & Struts is the Joshua Tree story. You talk about an unforgettable guy named Garrett who is pivotal in a dire situation. One of my favorite parts is when Garrett disembarks from his truck in a really memorable way. The whole story is mesmerizing. What is the secret to that kind of vivid comedy writing?   

Kyle: It’s “show, don’t tell.” Garrett got out of the truck. How did he get out of the truck? What did it look like when he got out of the truck? What was he like? That’s a basic writing exercise that just makes writing better. You need those words to paint the picture for you and it’s the same with standup.

Descriptions, the color, smell, sounds. What’s the environment that you’re in? That’s what storytelling is. It’s not, “I went to the store.” What was the weather when you went to the store? Was the parking lot crowded? There are details everywhere into which you can just keep adding jokes.

That Joshua Tree story is truly two minutes long if you take out all the details and bullshitting that I do with it. The bullshitting is what makes it worth listening to. The punchline can’t be like, “Oh, then that guy pulled out a gun, and we got in a fight.” I’m not living that life. My life is just, “Oh my van got stuck in the sand.” All right, well you can still make it a fun story if you know how to tell a story. Everybody can eat mushrooms and have a crazy day. But how do you not hallucinate and still make a trip to the store just as interesting to listen to?

Teme: Have you heard from Garrett since the special came out?

Kyle: That dude was a like a methed-out angel that came and saved me. I’ve had some people come out of the woodwork who have said, “I’m the guy you’re talking about in that bit” – which has also made me try and do justice by people more, where, “Oh yeah, people listen if you talk shit on them.”

Teme: As the potentially disaster in that story was unfolding, was your brain processing it comedically or did the comedy come later?

Kyle: Well, in the moment it pretty much sucked. But there’s also a lot of, “Alright, well, we’re going to re-live this, and I might have to go and write the funny part.” Like right now, what I’m going through …  we had to put our cat down last week.

Teme: I heard. I’m so sorry.

Kyle: It’s super sad. But I also know there are small bits where I’m like, well, this part’s going to be funny eventually, so I’ll make a little note for when I’m ready to get to it. It’s like where you’re writing interviews. You remember the key parts that are going to be interesting when you have to recount the story. You get those details down. Then when it’s time to start putting it all together, that’s when you do the work and figure out how one part leads to another part. I debuted some of the story last night at a show, but it was pretty choppy. You’re making people sad by mentioning it, but hopefully the jokes are stronger than the will to be sad.

Teme: For all of us who’ve been through the heartbreak of losing a pet, it will be therapeutic, too.

Kyle: We knew our cat was ill. I got the news in Australia when I was on tour. It was tough because half of the show I was doing was the story of how we rescued this cat. It was hard to do knowing the reality that was happening back home. Part of the show business thing is, “All right, shut off your emotions for this hour. You got to tell these jokes.”

Teme: That doesn’t sound easy.

Kyle: I wasn’t good at it. I wasn’t real good at masking it. Standup is not theater. It’s not like, “Well, this is the script.” It’s “I wrote these words, and I can change these words or change what I want to say at any time.” So you feel disingenuous when you’re up there. “Oh, look at me, happy, having a good time,” knowing what the situation is back at home. Some people would say, “Well, that’s part of being a professional comedian.” I’m like, “No, I’d rather have a human experience than bottle it up inside.” I’m from the Midwest and Catholic. I know all about repressing feelings. I try to be not that way anymore.

Teme: I feel like an honest connection with the audience is the beauty of standup.

Kyle: Yes. I think it means a little more because of that, but it’s also easily manipulated sometimes. Things that are purposely written to tug on heartstrings can be a little manipulative. But you can also tell when it’s not, when it’s honestly how somebody processes the world around them. Chris Gethard is a great example of humane comedy, of just a wonderful sensitive antenna that’s also very funny. I need more of that and less of 24-year-old dudes going, “Let me tell you how the world works.”

Teme: I also really want to ask you about your physical comedy. Sometimes it’s really fleeting, like it just happens in a flash, but in those moments, you convey a vivid picture. You actually show how Garrett got out of his, um … unusual truck and it lasts maybe two seconds, but in those seconds we see Garrett. How did you develop that ability for physical comedy?

Kyle: I don’t know if it’s an ability. I think I just saw some tapes of myself standing completely still on stage. I’m like, “Why are people coming to see this live? What’s the point of seeing this live if I’m just standing there not moving?” I thought, “You got a whole stage. Don’t be scared to act out a few things.” I’m not prat falling or humping the stool, but you can add a little seasoning to the mix.

Kyle Kinane/Photo by Ryan Provstgaard

Teme: I loved that you wore a t-shirt from Metro Chicago to record this special!

Kyle: I recorded a special called Loose in Chicago at the Metro a few years back, so that’s my homage to that place. I’ve got an affinity for the Metro, from going to see concerts there from when I was 16-years-old and all through high school.

Teme: What is your favorite memory from your years in the Chicago comedy scene?

Kyle: I’m eternally grateful to Mark Geary who runs the Lincoln Lodge. He used to run an open mic at the Red Lion Pub on Lincoln Avenue. I grew up going there. There were bartenders who were like bodybuilders. You could tell they didn’t have much patience for comedy nights.

I like my ghosts and my supernatural stories, so one night when I was new I was talking to these bodybuilders. There was an underground tunnel that went out to the back. I thought I would be silly, so I said, “I heard this place is haunted.” And both of them were like, “It’s absolutely haunted! We won’t go in that tunnel after dark.” Watching two body builders just dead serious talk about a ghost, I was like, “I think I found my home. I’m around comedy. I’m in a bar and there’s a ghost. I’m going to like it here.”

I have another story about the Lyons Den, which was a legendary open mic on Mondays. Anybody famous that came out of Chicago standup in the last twenty years has some history at the Lyons Den on Irving Park. But it’s no longer.

One night when I was there, there was some guy with an Irish accent who was heckling the comics. All the older comics were saying, “There’s no way it’s him! He can’t be here! There’s no way it’s him.” Then the guy heckling gets up, and he’s got a severe limp, and he hobbles to the bathroom. Everybody was like, “No fucking way!” And it turned out, that a year earlier that same guy with the Irish accent was heckling and yelling at all the comics. Then they all ended up at the Brown Line stop. All the comics were going north, and he was going south. He was on the other side of the platform still yelling at the comics. He was so drunk, he fell on the track. Fucked up his leg. And a year later, he came back to the open mic with his one good leg, got drunk and heckled comics again. I was like, “I don’t like heckling. But that’s some tenacity!”

HAPPY KINANESGIVING

Teme: When will you be in Chicago next?

Kyle: I’ll be doing my “Kinanesgiving” show at Thalia Hall during Thanksgiving week. It will be six years of doing it. I just really like who I get to put on stage for the people that come out. Maybe they see new comics they didn’t know or there may be surprises. Like Hannibal was there one year. Bobcat Goldthwait lives in Chicago now, and he may come down for it. It’s fun to curate and put it on for people.

Teme: Are there any open mics you’re likely to drop into?

Kyle: If I’m around any comedy, I’m usually popping by the Lincoln Lodge to catch Geary and the other old heads that are hanging around there.

Teme: Absolutely anything else we should include?

Kyle: Anyone reading this, go see comedy. Go out. See it live.

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Kyle Kinane’s Shocks and Struts is available on multiple platforms including YouTube and 800 Pound Gorilla.

Find the extended version on YouTube

Kyle Kinane Presents Kinanesgiving: November 20-21 at Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, Chicago. TICKETS

Follow Kyle Kinane:

Kylekinane.com

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