Here's how it works: Pat McCurdy sings, you laugh
by Kendra Meinert
It's 15 minutes before Sunday's show at Doc's Comedy Club, and Pat McCurdy is sitting in the cluttered office loft talking about how fun it was handing out Lucky Charms, Irish Spring soap and green Hostess snowballs at his St. Patrick's Day gig.
When talk finally gets around to how he plans to open the show at hand, he kicks back in his chair and confesses.
"I haven't got the slightest idea."
Words like that from an ordinary stage performer would be cause for worry. But not from McCurdy, the Milwaukee musician who makes his living with his devil-may-care attitude and off-the-cuff wit. You'd expect no less from a guy started his career on a dare.
When McCurdy, dressed casually with his curly, graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, finally ambles on stage, it's anybody's guess at to what will happen once he picks up his guitar.
Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me, he sings.
That's it — song over. The crowd of faithful McCurdy fans, known as "Patheads," applaud, and it's on to the next one.
Blue, Navy, blue. I'm as blue as I can be, because my steady boy said ship ahoy and joined the Nav-y-y-y.
The crowd sings along in the same sappy voice used by McCurdy, gives itself a hand for being such good sports and waits.
"This is the week I made up Jerry Lewis sings Led Zeppelin," McCurdy says. "Wanna hear it?"
"Yeah!" is the response. McCurdy plays a few chords and then belts out the words "hey lady" in Lewis' grating nasal tone.
Once again, songs over.
"Is anybody having any self-esteem problems this week? Here's a song that will get you through the work week."
I am wonderful. I'm so wonderful. I'm a breathtaking view, a dream that has come true. I am wonderful.
Ask just about anybody who has ever head McCurdy perform, and they'll be quick to agree with those words.
His twice-monthly shows at Doc's Comedy Club and Purcell's often pack the house. His followers are loyal, turning out time and time again to not only hear his trademark brand of comic music but participate as well.
"I have regulars at every place I play. I know most of them by their nicknames. It's excellent," McCurdy said. "The best audiences for me are the ones that are open-minded and say, 'This is Pat. This is what we're going to do. We don't mind singing at the top of our lungs.'"
McCurdy has blurred the lines between comedy and music with his shows, but in his own mind, there's no question who he is.
"Even though people refer to me as a comedian, I'm much more of a songwriter. The songwriting always comes first," he said. "It's like edgy folk music, except thast most folk musicians don't have a sense of humor
"I have songs so I don't have to stand up there and tell jokes, which is very frightening for me. You're defenseless as a comedian. Me, I have a PA system and a guitar."
McCurdy grew up in the outskirts of Milwaukee, not as a class clown but as a kid who dreamed of playing in a band.
His mother insisted her kids learn piano and one other instrument, so it wasn't uncommon for the house to be littered with flutes, harps and snare drums. McCurdy opted for the trumpet but later had a change of mind.
"I realized that if you're going to be rockin' you have to have a guitar, so I pleaded."
All through high school, McCurdy was in a band, usually playing super-charged, wild version of oldies cover songs. He refined his tastes for college, where he was in the band Yipes. The group snagged an RCA recording contract from 1979-81, toured the country with big-name acts and then was dropped by the label.
It wasn't until 1988 that McCurdy played his first solo gig. A Milwaukee club was looking for an act to bring in business on its slow nights. McCurdy took the offer on a dare.
"After that, it just started taking off. People liked the idea of being part of a show."
He performed the same kind of show then that he does nearly every night of the week now. He's become so popular with audiences in Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago and Green Bay, he gets only three or four nights off a month.
In the six years since he started performing solo, McCurdy has made five albums, opened shows for R.E.M., Cheap Trick and The Beach Boys and won more Wisconsin Area Music Industry Awards than he can count. He's recognized as a celebrity when he goes to the grocery store or gas station and constantly gets requests for his autograph.
His next step is to take the success he has found in his home state and introduce it to bigger cities.
"I kind of see me as a real gradual incline. I've maintained my creativity. I'm always working on new CDs. I'm always thinking about tomorrow."
But in the meantime, there are local Patheads to entertain. "Every show has an element of fun for me now. I can't wait until the next one," McCurdy said. "If you're going to pick a job, why not pick one where people applaud you for two hours for something you made up?"
The good, the gross and the goofy
- Age: 30-something or 56. "I never tell. What difference does it make?"
- Hometown: Brookfield, a Milwaukee suburb
- College: University of Wisconsin-Madison; studied communication arts
- Height: 6 feet, 1-1/2 inches
- Pet peeve: "Willing stupidity and talk shows. They go hand in hand."
- Music of choice: Elvis Costello, Dwight Yoakam, Mozart. "I like everything, except I'm not that nuts about speed metal."
- Mode of travel: In a van with his sound and light man, Pipe Jim
- The TV show he never misses: Melrose Place. "That's the best show on TV right now."
- What's in his fridge: "Lots of salad dressings — at least seven — and lots of carry-out boxes."
- Last good movie he saw: The Snapper. "But I liked Guarding Tess, too."
- How he'd improve Saturday Night Live: "They need more older cast members (like Phil Hartman). You know what else bugs me? I'd make them memorize their lines."
- What makes him laugh: The guy on Talk Soup (Greg Kinnear), Beverly Hills 90210, old Saturday Night Live skits, John Candy on SCTV, Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Simpsons
- What doesn't: Home Improvement. "I don't know why." Roseanne. "It's funny, but it's just so formula. I don't laugh at it much."
- On not smoking: "I smoked for a hundred years. I quit cold turkey on Election Day last year. It's the best thing I ever did."
- Three questions he gets asked the most: His age, whether he's married and if his songs are autobiographical