Dave Hill Fuels His Comedy with a Serious Dose of Guitar Playing

June 29th, 2016

This is a feature from the JULY/AUGUST 2016 issue of Guitar Aficionado magazine. For this complete story and more photos, plus features on comedian/podcaster/writer/actor/musician Marc Maron, former Black Crowes guitarist Rich Robinson and his new career as a solo performer and painter, Matt Bruck’s collection of rare and vintage British amps, and much more, pick up the new issue of Guitar Aficionado at your newsstand, or online by clicking anywhere in this text.

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DAVE’S WORLD: Iggy Pop’s apartment, John Oliver, Mexican prisons, and lots and lots of guitars may seem like disparate things, but they’re all part of the wonderful life of comedian/author Dave Hill.

By Mac Randall | Photos by Rayon Richards

Seven years ago, comedian Dave Hill decided to challenge himself. Doing standup in clubs and theaters around the world was getting old. It was time to take his act somewhere a little more unusual. Okay, a lot more unusual: the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York.

“A comedian hadn’t performed there since Moms Mabley in the late Sixties, and I was warned that the inmates can really intimidate people. If they don’t like your show, they’ll make you end it,” Hill recounts over a cup of coffee and a plate of chocolate chip cookies in the living room of his cozy, whimsically decorated Greenwich Village apartment, which takes up the third floor of a 19th-century brownstone and was once the residence of James Osterberg, a.k.a. Iggy Pop. “Because my comedy’s not exactly broad—I guess you’d call it ‘alternative’—it seemed like the worst possible environment I could put myself in. But I wanted to try it, so I thought, what does every man in the world—even a violent felon—respect? Guitar solos.”

And so, when the time came to head for the big house, Hill brought along one small part of a guitar collection that numbers about two dozen: his 2007 Gibson Firebird with flame maple wings, signed by the Allman Brothers’ Warren Haynes (the signature was the product of a chance airport meeting on the way back from the 2009 Bonnaroo festival). Before saying a word, he plugged in, turned up, and launched into “Eruption” by Van Halen. “I was scared shitless,” he says, “but it worked. The guards were saying to each other, ‘They respect him.’ And then I talked for an hour and a half, and they let me do it. The guitar playing bridged the gap.”

Hill—who appears regularly on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Inside Amy Schumer, Comedy Central’s @midnight, and the public radio program This American Life—upped the personal challenge a few years later when he visited a prison in Saltillo, Mexico, that was essentially run by a crime cartel. “They’d murdered the warden,” he explains, “and the Mexican government said, ‘Okay, looks like you guys got this one, we’ll just keep our guards on the outside.’ It was like Thunderdome. I thought, well, I had a great time at Sing Sing, and this sounds way crazier!” Once again, Hill’s guitar prowess served him in good stead…but you can read more about that in his hilarious new book of autobiographical essays, Dave Hill Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

All of this illustrates that well before Hill was a comedian or a writer, he was a guitar player. And not just for laughs, either. The alt-rock bands he’s toiled with over the years include Sons of Elvis, whose “Formaldehyde” got decent exposure on MTV in the mid Nineties, and the critically acclaimed Cobra Verde (for whom he played bass). It was only after he moved to New York from his native Cleveland in 2003 that his talents as a humorist came to the fore.

“I got into comedy because of music,” Hill says. “I formed a band called Uptown Sinclair, and I was reluctant about being the singer, but I did it, and then I found that I really enjoyed talking onstage in between songs. If someone broke a string or an amp blew up, I’d be like, ‘Cool, I can talk for five minutes.’ That part became as fun to me as playing.”

Eventually, Hill was invited to do a standup set at the Parkside Lounge on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, during which he read semi-randomly from entries in his journal. “Within a year and a half of that night,” he says with a level of bemusement that suggests he’s still processing it all, “I was filming my own TV show [The King of Miami]. This whole thing just grew, and it was because I had no expectations. The way I saw it was, ‘I’ll make you the best spaghetti I can, but ultimately I don’t give a shit because I’m not in the spaghetti business.’ I basically felt zero pressure to accomplish anything, and that freed me up.”

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