A few years back, Dan Telfer did an offbeat, confrontational stand-up comedy bit about dinosaurs in Chicago. “The Best Dinosaur” finds the young comedian getting increasingly worked up over the course of five-plus minutes, challenging and arguing with the audience over which prehistoric creature earns the titular honor. The clip was picked up by a couple prominent sites around the internet, and has earned more than 400,000 views since, the buzzy success of which blindsided Telfer as he was recognized in public and earned comedy-club bookings in the dino bit’s wake.
Fossil Record, the 2010 EP on which Telfer released “The Best Dinosaur,” includes bits about Voltron, Star Wars, and turducken, but more than just “a nerd-god amongst lesser nerds,” as one iTunes customer put it, Telfer is a man obsessed with finding humor in the “branch[es] of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws.” “Science is like my religion,” Telfer says at the beginning of “Planets,” one of highlights of his first full-length, Tendrils of Ruin. The bit derives its hilarity from his young daughter’s OCD when applied to memorizing the planets and myriad facts surrounding them, but at its core is science, a topic that Telfer mines better and more originally than any comedian going right now.
On Tendrils, Telfer jokes about planets, alternate universes, science-fiction television and meteorology, amongst other topics, and these bits are, more often than not, his best. Whether it’s a four-minute slow burn (“Planets”) or a 30-second setup/punchline format (“Dimensions”), his strongest material hits in the delightfully bookish, “write what you know” territory of the sciences. And when he’s not talking science, he’s often joking about general nerdery, from Batman to Jar Jar Binks, horror movies to videogames.
If there’s a fault to any of these jokes, it’s that they’re cut off too early, not given the time they need to truly unfurl. It’s not that the ideas aren’t there; it’s just that sometimes he abandons them too soon. Of course, this is only his first proper full length, and while it’s an excellent debut LP, his live performance, which he’s honed opening for the likes of Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Paul F. Tompkins and Brian Posehn, is where he truly shines. Perhaps he thrives on the off-the-cuff nature of interacting with a crowd that’s not being recorded, or maybe he was feeling a little nervous on this night, but Tendrils doesn’t quite get across just how great Telfer is onstage.
Like his delightful and sadly not-very-often-these-days Yelp reviews, Telfer is willing to get weird and detailed in his bits, and sometimes that over-dramatizes what might have been a more efficient, simple joke. But when he’s digging into things that he really care about (and this is most of Tendrils), it shows. A simple tale of childhood injury or the fight for a bread company to succeed through branding turns into a life-or-death situation, and the listener forgets for a moment that, really, these stories aren’t epic in and of themselves—they’re just delivered by an excellent storyteller.
Telfer got his start amidst the same embarrassingly rich crop of Chicago comedians that included Hannibal Buress and Kyle Kinane, a pair of soon-to-be-household-names who, like Telfer, left the Windy City when they got too big for it, finding work on the coasts. Telfer will soon join their ranks, and any petty grievances to be lodged with Tendrils are brushed away when you consider the skills he honed in Chicago’s rewarding comedy scene.
Tendrils of Ruin dropping a day after the unfortunate passing of physicist and first American woman in space, Sally Ride, a woman who Telfer unsurprisingly admired greatly, seems somehow fitting. Perhaps the finest Tendrils bit, “Madness,” details the slow unraveling of disgraced astronaut, Lisa Nowak, eventually connecting her hyper-intelligence-gone-wrong to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, a fascinating man very much worth reading about outside the context of this review. Telfer connects these two in only a way a masterful speaker/obsessive can, his point being that we should take better care of those who are breaking scientific ground, elevating them to the level of the vacuous celebrities who “earn” our time, money and attention. You kinda have to think that Ride is out there somewhere, listening to this bit, chuckling to herself, glad that someone who cares so much is bringing these topics to crowds who might not otherwise seek them out. Telfer’s comedy will be sustained on his passion, and if Tendrils is any indication, he’s got loads of passion to spare.