Wear Your Geese with Confidence: An Interview with the Puterbaugh Sisters
“If you’re going to choose a city to be an alcoholic, it’s Chicago.”
In anticipation of their Art It Out show, I sat down and chatted with Danielle and Tiffany Puterbaugh, sisters whose brand of comedy is “experimental ridiculousness.” Before I hit “record,” we talked about how someone broke into their Humboldt Park apartment and stole their 11-year-old computer and their weed; how I heard about El Circo Cheapo Cabaret, where I first saw the duo perform as pill-popping ‘50s housewives locked in a nuclear bunker; our mutual friends, who are all, as Danielle put it, radical females in the Chicago comedy scene; the Exquisite Corpse show I’m curating; drunken/stoned exquisite corpse rounds; and gummy worms combined with society. We also talked about art.
The show—a combination of art, comedy, and performance, with the requisite dance party thrown in—descended upon the world last Thursday night at Reversible Eye Gallery, an interdisciplinary arts space committed to experimental art and performance, outsider art, art from the surrounding Humboldt Park community, and folk art from around the world.
The Puterbaugh Sisters hosted and, in their opening, remarked of the painted-on-jeans- and questionable-facial-hair-sporting masses congregating in the ethnic neighborhood, “This is the part where the Puerto Ricans meet the hipsters. The ripsters.” They continued to rip on the audience through a song with On the Road mentions and lyrics that included “I just cut my bangs in my bathroom” and “My dad’s paying off my college debt.” They were equally self-deprecating: “Artists do art. Performance artists do… whatever they want. And comedians are broken and sad.”
First up were Chris Condren, who played/”played” the keyboard and did stand-up, and Think Tank, who relayed fashion parables and commandments as the Fashion Police. Aptly voted Chicago’s Best Stand-up Comic of 2010 by the Chicago Reader, Beth Stelling followed with impressions that included “the longest drink order ever by a drunk girl.” She and the sisters then launched into The Go Gals, a routine that can be seen at their weekly Entertaining Julia show.
Headlining was DAAN, whom Tiffany insisted I would love, an assumption probably based on my Aladdin Sane necklace and the fact that I’m perpetually cloaked in sequins and glitter (the latter may or may not true). Judging a book by its cover has never been so accurate. The group’s official bio reads, “Imagine a world where Focus on the Family, Westboro Baptist Church, and Fox News were correct in their accusations of an epic homosexual agenda hell-bent on world domination.” That is a world I want to live in. Rapping over abrasive electro beats, crawling around on the floor, and shoving bananas down their throats, the boys got the guests dancing—or, at least, off-rhythmically bopping along to 80s synths.
The night concluded with Danielle as the Industry, who interrupted DAAN in an attempt to compromise their art, and Tiffany as Katy Perry, who somehow managed to avoid setting alight her hair as “Firework” blared in the background. “That was the most amazingly gay thing I’ve ever seen,” said Caitlin Bergh, who has an unwavering affinity for spandex and frequents Berlin so often she’s memorized the playlist and can tell you what song/video comes after Cazwell’s “Ice Cream Truck.”
What follows is my conversation with the sisters on an offensively cold and rainy May evening at KnockBox Café before all of the above transpired, and we covered their beginnings, getting heckled at a nursing home, getting roped into a gig at a teenager’s basement party, how Chicago’s the city for alcoholics, and geese dresses.
Apologies in advance for overusing the [laughter] brackets.
Jenny Lam: How long have you been performing together?
Tiffany Puterbaugh: Technically, we’ve been performing together since we were little kids. We used to put on shows at our grandma’s house for the family all the time.
Danielle Puterbaugh: Father’s Day shows…
TP: We used to dress up and go to malls and perform for anybody who would listen to us.
DP: Which was basically our own version of SNL sketches. We would just stop in the middle of this mall in Ohio and figure that that was the performance area. [laughter]
TP: And then in Chicago: three, four years together.
JL: How did you come up with the idea to put on these vaudeville-influenced performances?
TP: When we first started we were like, “This is what I think is funny,” and we both have a theater background, but also a comedy background, so we just—
DP: We had no judgment of what would work at certain places. I guess we didn’t really care, but we also didn’t know, so we’d just be like, “Hmm, this really outlandish, absurd, ridiculous thing? We’ll just do it!” [laughter] So I feel like after performing in the variety of places that we’ve performed, we’ve gotten a little bit better at knowing what fits. Mostly we just started out in our kitchen, putting on our costumes and being like, “This is funny; let’s do this.” And we wrote a show; we put on a Gorilla Tango Theatre that was the first time we wrote down our ideas and our stuff.
TP: After that, we were like, “We can just do this forever, I guess.” Just like anything else when you’re like, “I don’t know, I think I can probably draw something,” and then you draw something and you’re like, “That’s cool; I’m going to keep doing that.”
JL: I understand completely. You [Danielle] said you were teaching on the South Side right before this interview. What are your day jobs?
DP: I’m a theater teacher for kids. I’m a teaching artist, so it’s like being a freelance artist or freelance whatever, except I’m a teacher so I work with different theater companies or art centers or any place that needs wacky theater teachers to come in and do afterschool programs and stuff. [laughter] But I babysit, and we both do a variety of different here-maybe-I’ll-get-$13-next-August kind of jobs. A lot of odd jobs and stuff.
JL: What or who are your main influences?
TP: Oh, that’s a hard question. I’d say I grew up watching Saturday Night Live, The State, Mr. Show, South Park, Tim and Eric, and stuff like that, but a little bit off the beaten path or not necessarily like, “This is club comedy,” or whatever that is. And I grew up watching Judy Tenuta, Jan Hooks, Nora Dunn, and women who were doing something that was kind of weird or different, and I was always like, “Well, I’m weird; I can do these sort of things!”
DP: Yeah, we opened for Judy Tenuta when the Lakeshore was still around and we almost shit our pants, just like, “Oh my gosh! This is the most amazing…” because we grew up being like, “Oh, that girl with the accordion on TV!” Especially with 80s comedy it was always weird, or it wasn’t like tight six Letterman shows as much as it is now. So when we were young and watching that kind of stuff, like we opened for Judy Tenuta and that was such a big deal to us, and we’d tell people about it, and so many people are like, “Who’s Judy Tenuta?” and I’m like, “Oh, you’re not, like, a gay man; I guess you wouldn’t know.” [laughter]
TP: I’m going to say something cheesy about influences. I think influences aren’t necessarily, “Oh, Zach Galifianakis, I love his comedy.” Two cheesy things that I really feel are like influences are: I think Chicago has an extreme wealth of amazing, hilarious talent, and I think that when you’re performing with people who are that great all the time, it influences you and inspires you to be great.
And I think influences, as far as stuff that you write, is honestly just living your life; life is ridiculous, life is real stupid, and you have to make fun of it or else you’re probably going to cry. [laughter] So mainly, influences that are just what you’ve been through in your life, and things that interest you.
DP: So you mean now in life your influences are more like your performing friends and the people you’re making art with—is that what you’re saying?
TP: That, and the stuff that you write is sometimes off of what you’ve been through in your life. I don’t think it’s like, “There are these nine comics who are performing right now and are huge; that’s who I want to be.” I want to be something different that is quintessentially myself.
JL: Speaking of Chicago talents, what are your thoughts on the Chicago scene? You know everyone I know, and you see the same people everywhere, and my friend who’s just getting into stand-up will sign up for an open mic and then have two hours to kill and just talk to fellow comedians—
TP: That involves a lot of drinking.
JL: Yeah! That’s actually tonight [every Wednesday], the Cole’s open mic.
TP: Cole’s is a great open mic.
JL: Yeah, it’s a really good one. Is the Chicago comedy scene supportive or competitive?
TP: I think every scene you’re in is always going to be competitive, because you’re always comparing yourself, like “What’s this person got that I don’t got?” But I think that it’s extremely supportive and loving, especially being a woman who does comedy. The women who do comedy, I feel, are very loving and supporting of each other, because there are not that many of us, so it’s like, “It’s great that you’re doing that! Oh, you want to tell jokes? You should!”
I think it’s really supportive, and it’s probably less competitive than New York or L.A., where there is industry all the time and you’re going out to be on a late night talk show, whereas in Chicago there’s not industry and you’re performing for your friends—not just for your friends, but you’re performing so you can say, “I’m going to put on mannequin arms and do an act with that because I think that’s silly.”
DP: [laughter] Which actually happened this past weekend.
TP: Which I did do. It’s a catch-22, I would say, because—
DP: You’re making money and you’re like, “Oh, this will be future work,” but in Chicago, there’s just so much freedom to do whatever it is that you want to do, because shows take place in dive bars and in restaurants and weird lofts or wherever it’s at. I mean, it’s like shows being produced by other comedians, and everybody is sort of working—
TP: And that makes it very supportive; everybody’s helping each other get shows because we all run shows. And I would say that some of the most talented people I know—who I love very much, who are my best friends—are people who do comedy in Chicago and people who have gone on and moved to other cities to do comedy. There’s something really amazing about this city, and it’s a great place to start out doing what you want to start doing as far as comedy’s concerned.
JL: What’s been the weirdest venue you have performed at?
TP: I can tell you 49 of them.
DP: Yeah, we’ll be here all day.
TP: I’ll give you the top ten. We’ve performed at a nursing home, where everybody—
DP: Voluntarily, though; that’s what’s hilarious about that. We were like, “No, can we just come do this?”
TP: We were trying to be good-hearted humans.
DP: We were trying to be good people, but in turn it made us feel like absolute hell. [laughter]
TP: I wanted to help old people laugh at things, but what happened was they wheelchaired themselves out of there and heckled us by screaming one-liners from the ‘40s and saying, “I can’t hear you!”
DP: “I guess this is better than Dancing with the Stars…”
TP: Yeah, that’s what somebody said. So it was awful and terrible and made Danielle cry for a long time.
DP: Tiff and I do have the weirdest, most absurd, ridiculous ones even in comparison to my other friends, since we are a duo that is artsier or more—
TP: We’re not “artsier” than other people.
DP: Whatever people want to say—whatever adjectives people want to give us—they think, “It’s kind of not stand-up; this will kind of work somewhere else,” but what they don’t know is that it won’t at all. [laughter]
TP: So top ten. Nursing home. We performed at a battered women’s shelter for battered women and their children at noon, when we were really hungover—did not go well. We performed at a rape benefit where everybody was reading poems about rape, and we had to go up five different times to—
DP: We were the only comedy in this spoken word night at Martyrs’.
TP: We performed at Mortville, which is a South Side warehouse artist loft type of place.
JL: I feel like there are lots of those…
DP: There are lots of those. It was a performance art night so it was just like all kinds of performance art. That’s top five.
TP: Yeah. We’ve performed at an all-hip hop rap show at the Subterranean, where it was all hip hop and then us, because I’m pretty hip hop. And then from that we thought that we got another gig, and the guy who was the booker for the Sub-T show—
DP: He should’ve been performing at the rape benefit, if you know what I mean.
TP: Yeah. So he was like, “My name’s Audacity; I need you to come out to Macomb, Illinois.” So we drive with him for two and a half hours to perform for money, and we get there… and it is a seventeen-year-old’s house party in the basement. And there was a microphone, and he said, “You should get up on this mic,” and I said, “I’m not going to tell jokes there,” and he said, “If you don’t tell jokes, you’re not going to get paid,” and I said, “I don’t need to get paid.” And then he got wasted and tried to feel me up, and I stole his keys and said, “If you want a ride home, I’m either stealing your car to get back or you’re going to live in Macomb, Illinois, so you should come with me.” So that was a great gig. [laughter]
DP: Yeah, let’s end at that one. That was the most—
TP: So I was blacked out, stole his car, drove… like, “I’m getting me and my sister home; you, get in the car—”
DP: We literally got trapped there. In Macomb.
TP: Hardest, saddest… I didn’t have any idea how to get home. We were like, “This is not comedy; this is a seventeen-year-old’s house party! I’m not a rapper at all!”
JL: Moral of this story: never go to Macomb.
DP: [laughter] Never go to Macomb!
TP: Never trust a rapper named Audacity.
JL: Well with a name like Audacity…
TP: [laughter] He sure had some audacity, you know! But we’ve also performed at amazing places, like El Circo Cheapo. With the shitty, horrible places comes the “Oh, this is a circus. Do you want to perform here?” So there are good things too. Those are just the ones that made me cry the hardest.
JL: How do you feel about collaboration as opposed to performing or working individually? Does it help that you’re sisters?
TP: It definitely helps that we’re sisters.
DP: It really helps that we’re sisters. [laughter]
TP: We can yell at each other and—
DP: It’s really great that you can literally go, “That’s not funny,” and go, “OK,” and just move on. Like “That doesn’t work. That’s a bad idea.” “OK, move on.” Instead of “Oh, gosh, really? What do you meeeeeean?” There’s no sensitivity because we’re—
TP: It’s harder in a sense, sometimes, because if you’re telling jokes, then you just write your jokes and you tell your jokes, and the only person you have to answer to or listen to is yourself, so when you’re performing with somebody you have to be a little theater about it, in a way. You have to be present. “What are they saying? I’m listening to you.”
And I can’t be completely selfish to get all the jokes; I need to make sure you [Danielle] get the jokes too, so that you get some lines. So you have to be able to step back and be like, “That’s funny; you take that joke” kind of thing.
Collaboration with us has always been easy, though, because we’ve lived a ridiculous family life, so we’ve always made jokes throughout our whole lives, so it’s kind of always made sense.
DP: Yeah, and we do separate things, or we might do stand-up or whatever, but I guess when we started, we just were like, “Let’s move to Chicago and do comedy,” and we didn’t know how that was going to happen, and it’s kind of evolved into what it is. I’m sure like any artistic outlet it always will continue to evolve. You’ll always be hard on yourself. You’ll always want to do better and more—
TP: You will learn to not do rape benefits and you’ll also learn to not go to Macomb, Illinois. [laughter]
JL: What other words of advice do you have for people who are trying to break in to the Chicago comedy scene?
TP: I would say there are a lot of great people out there and all you have to do is talk with them and—
DP: They’ll be your friends. Drink with them.
TP: Yep, there are lots of people to drink with. There are lots of people to hang with. And don’t be scared and keep doing it, and when you feel like you want to quit, shut up and keep doing it. [laughter] Because everybody wants to quit.
DP: If I had a dance party for every time a comic out there said, “I want to quit doing this,” then we would all be dancing so much.
TP: [laughter] I think Chicago’s a great place for people who want to start doing comedy, because it’s very welcoming, there are lots of wonderful people who are really funny and really fun to hang with, and all you have to do is go to those places and start hanging with people. There are open mics everywhere, there are shows everywhere, and you start going to those shows and those open mics and hang with people.
DP: Yeah, also, when we didn’t do comedy, we just started to go see comedy. You start to go see stuff; you’re an artist, you go and see art shows, and you immerse yourself in that. It’s always been inspiring to me to see comedy. Don’t overanalyze. Don’t think too much.
TP: I would say, do what you think is funny. Stick with what you think is funny. Because that is inherently what—
DP: Will always last.
TP: That’s who you are. Don’t listen to what everybody else says all the time. Listen to what you think is funny, and if you think something is really hilarious but other people don’t, keep trying to find out a way to do that thing.
The same thing with art. I make clothes and stuff so, in a different way, it’s like, “I think this looks cool like this!” And if you wear that outfit and it’s got a giant bird on the side of it but you look awesome doing it, somebody’s going to be like, “Man, that side-bird is sweet. I want an outfit like that.”
DP: I think you’re referring to Björk.
DP: “If you want to wear a goose on yourself, just wear a goose to the Oscars!” Grammys… you know what I mean.
TP: But if you wear your goose with confidence, people will be like, “I want a goose too!” Björk and Lady Gaga both wear geese with confidence.
DP: [laughter] Wear your geese with confidence.
TP: The title of this article should be “Wear Your Geese with Confidence.” [laughter]
JL: Oh it will be. Mark my words. Each caption will have something goose-related.
DP & TP: [laughter]
DP: “Hit as many geese open mics as you can!” “Do your best geese material! It’ll never fail.”
TP: “Make sure to stop and feed the geese if they get hungry.”
JL: Besides Art It Out, what are some things you’re doing in the near future that people can go and check out?
TP: We’re doing a show called Queergasm, and that’s—
DP: This week.
TP: At Hamburger Mary’s on Saturday [May 28].
DP: Our ongoing thing that we always plug to everybody is Entertaining Julia, which is a weekly variety show. Every Sunday, Town Hall Pub, 3340 North Halsted. We run it with Beth Stelling, who’s another female comic, and it’s a fun, big old show that changes every week and has music and comedy and a bunch of other stuff.
TP: We host at Berlin two nights every month. Berlin, Town Hall, El Circo Cheapo…
DP: Reversible Eye.
TP: Reversible Eye. Those are words. [laughter] Those are all words. Tell people to come on Sunday, because remembering things as far as—
DP: Yeah, the weekly thing is the easiest to say because it’s easy to come back to. I’ve always found that it’s harder to be like, “Oh, June 17th!” It’s pretty easy to escape your head.
JL: I’ll link to, like, a Google Doc. “Just download this.”
DP & TP: [laughter]
DP: “Can I have a link to your Google Docs?”
TP: “If you’d like to check out my Geese Show, come with a bag of bread.”
JL: I’m expecting a goose tomorrow [at Art It Out].
TP: I’ll bring a goose for you. I’ll wear my best goose dress for you.
JL: OK good. And if you don’t…
TP: You’ll be mad and write a horrible review about it.
JL: No, I will heckle you in a wheelchair.
TP: [laughter] Actually, I would really like that to happen.
DP: [laughter] I want all my hecklers to only be in wheelchairs.
TP: We have a wheelchair in the gallery, so if you feel the need to get in it and heckle me, I’ll accept that. But you’re not an old person so it doesn’t quite get the same… “I can’t hear you! I don’t like what you’re doing!” Trying to improve somebody’s life, you know?
JL: What is the format of the show?
DP: We’re hosting it.
TP: There’s going to be voiceovers for some mannequin boys.
DP: Yeah, we’re going to pull out some weird stuff due to the fact that it’s—
TP: In a gallery. Beth Stelling’s doing that—
DP: Doing stand-up.
TP: That thing that she does. It’s amazing. Think Tank, which is a sketch comedy group, is going to be the Fashion Police, which is a really funny thing they do where they critique people’s fashion, and then it’s DAAN, which is an electro queer performance art band.
DP: That’s what they said?
TP: Yes. And they asked us to dress up like a business executive and Demon Katy Perry and have Katy Perry’s face melt off at the end of the show. I’m not sure how my face is going to melt off. They honestly do amazing music but they’re also a theatrical performance to watch, and they’re mind-blowing. And everybody who’s in the show is one of my best friends, so—
DP: Yeah, they’re kind of the headliners and there’s—
TP: Drunk, good times.
DP: Then there’ll be a DJ. It’s kind of a full night and we’re going to do some bits in between those other people that are doing bits too.
TP: But then if you don’t even like the show, that’s fine, because we’re going to have a DJ and we can just hang there.
DP: [laughter] And then, if you don’t like anything, you can just look at those boys and beards over at the [California] Clipper across the street.
JL: [looking at the flyer] These are chickens; they’re not geese.
TP: [laughter] But close though! I didn’t even realize that, but it’s all coming full geese.
JL: Just start throwing “geese” into your conversations with normal people.
TP: “We’re starting an underground geese movement. It hasn’t caught on yet.”
DP: “If you see something, geese something.”
TP: Let us know whenever you have a show that you curate or when you have stuff. I’ll totally come and support you.
JL: We have each other’s contact info so that’s—
DP: That’s the main thing that matters.
JL: I have your numbers; I’ll call you every day, ask for a conference call.
TP: [laughter] “You guys, I’m trying on a goose dress. Which one should I get?!”
DP: I always love hearing about publications that cover all the crazy shit that you can’t keep track of in Chicago that’s going on that’s cool.
TP: You always hear about comedy or music—
DP: Or you see the Reader that’s like, “This is at the Metro,” or—
TP: I feel like art’s something that’s really thriving in Chicago that you don’t hear about as much, because comedians and musicians are very “Check out me! Look at me! Come look at me! I’m amazing!”
DP: Right. But an artist is like, “I just happen to… what? No, this? I’m just drawing it.”
TP: “I weave glass. That’s what I do. It’s not a big deal.” There’s a lot of really great art in Chicago. Maybe I don’t see it as much because I’m… too drunk.
DP & JL: [laughter]
TP: Man, Chicago is really the city to be an alcoholic if you’re going to choose a city.
DP: If you’re going to choose some dive bars—
TP: [directly into the audio recorder] “Guys, if you’re going to choose a city to be an alcoholic, it’s not New York or L.A., but it is Chicago.” Choose a city. If you want to go to the industry, I’d go to L.A. If you want to go to the theater, I’d go to New York. If you want to be a drunk, I’d choose summertime in Chicago.
DP: Oh gosh, yeah.
TP: I really can’t wait for summer.
JL: Why is it so cold and rainy? It’s almost June.
DP: I know! I think the world’s ending? I think there’s some weird shit going on.
JL: I think it already ended. The Chosen People got chosen. And we’re still here.
DP: The Chosen People definitely got chosen; there are only thirteen of them.
TP: Maybe we need to do more art. They’re like, “Stay here. The art’s not done yet. The geese dresses have not been made.”
DP: “Your ‘process’ is not over yet.”
TP: “We’ll take up all the other people. They’re boring; they don’t have geese dresses. You stay down here with your geese dresses.”
With Beth Stelling, the Puterbaugh Sisters host the Entertaining Julia variety show at Town Hall Pub every Sunday night. The sisters co-run Reversible Eye with Elena Bracade and Ryan Shuquem.
Jenny Lam blogs at Artists on the Lam. Her Twitter handle is @TheJennyLam.