Drinking with Comedian and Musician Dave Hill

Comedian and musician Dave Hill straddles an odd balance of near-celebrity and cult persona. Here, he talks with Kenny Herzog about messy rockstar nights, his new Steve Carell-produced comedy and affection for Islay scotch.

Inside Lederhosen, a Bavarian beer hall in Manhattan’s West Village, a poster of Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde hovers over comedian Dave Hill like a guardian angel of goulash.

Hill, who lives right around the corner and has regular status here, introduces me to owner Dirk Martin, who shares Hill’s passion for heavy metal. In fact, the two are conspiring to start a metal night at Lederhosen, and a visit to Hill’s Twitter feed features his face painted like Danish genre god King Diamond. No surprise, given his occasional sideline as host, critic and interviewer for Web series “King of Metal” on Metal Injection.

His sincere predilection for speed and thrash might be more surprising to fans of his mid-’90s alternative band, Sons of Elvis, who scored a minor hit with “Formaldehyde,” which they even performed on the Jon Stewart Show (that’s Hill on bass). But Hill is hard to pin down to just one pastime.

Yes, he still moonlights as the singer/guitarist for power-pop outfit Valley Lodge (whose “Go” you may recognize as the theme song for John Oliver’s HBO series Last Week Tonight) and the sometime touring guitarist for Quicksand/Rival Schools frontman Walter Schreifels. But in the couple decades since cashing his first music-industry paycheck, the Cleveland native has successfully transitioned into his foremost occupation—idiosyncratic comedian and actor—while moving fluidly among mediums.

Despite such ubiquity, Dave Hill has fallen a bit shy of mainstream acclaim, probably owing to a willful oddness that straddles a line between Steven Wright’s plainspoken wit and Andy Kaufman’s, “Is he fucking with me?” meta-performance. However, that might change with the debut of Hill’s next book, which is still in the works, and a hush-hush, Steve Carell-produced pilot he’s writing and starring in for NBC-Universal with Mighty Boosh comedy troop regular, Richard Fulcher.

If you live in New York, you may have heard about, or bore witness to, his Dave Hill Explosion residency at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, a gonzo late-night talk show whose guests have ranged from Amy Sedaris to Dick Cavett. But those hailing from elsewhere might recognize him from the bizarre vignettes he produced for HBO with the Williams sisters, or as star of MOJO Network’s strange, short-lived coming-of-age travelogue King of Miami (you’ll notice a pattern of quasi-patriarchy emerging). Or, simply performing standup around the globe with other comedians like Janeane Garofalo. All of this even translated to a published memoir-cum-advice tome, Tasteful Nudes.

Despite such ubiquity, he’s fallen a bit shy of mainstream acclaim, probably owing to a willful oddness that straddles a line between Steven Wright’s plainspoken wit and Andy Kaufman’s, “Is he fucking with me?” meta-performance. However, that might change with the debut of Hill’s next book and a hush-hush, Steve Carell-produced pilot he’s writing and starring in for NBC-Universal with Mighty Boosh comedy troop regular, Richard Fulcher.

For the moment, though, Hill’s content to drink his 16-plus ounce mug of Schlenkerla Rauchbier in relative peace. The brew’s wood-fired ingredients are a natural compliment to Hill’s spirit of choice—peaty single-malt scotch from Islay, home to Ron Swanson’s (of Parks and Recreation) beloved Lagavulin distillery.

“I like Lagavulin, but I swear it makes me a little scrappy,” he says, preferring instead a Laphroaig 10-year cask strength. Hill doesn’t abide by the reductive older-is-better philosophy that leads so many scotch pursuers down a rabbit hole of needless expense. “I feel like its charms are lost on me,” he says of the pricey Laphroaig 18-year. “It’s fine. I mean, I’d be thrilled to have it now, but I’m a 10-year man.”

To be sure, Hill’s had his fill of soused adventures, whether traveling with bands or making folks laugh overseas. He immediately conjures whatever memories remain from one particular UK comedy jaunt two summers ago with the aforementioned Garofalo (who herself doesn’t drink). In the week preceding their dates, he went on an epic bender with friends as part of prolonged wedding revelry. Upon sobering up for their trek, he was humbled and humored to realize that, “This place has got a lot to offer besides pubs.” 

Nowadays, Hill’s far more likely to commiserate with his fellow elder suds-men at a tavern à la Lederhosen or over a glass of wine with his girlfriend than to search for lost, wasted nights. But befitting his dueling on- and off-stage personas, he’s still prone to living it up. Or, as he describes it, “I still have nights where I go off the rails, but usually not by accident. I’ll be like, ‘Tonight, I’m going to see my friend’s band, we’re gonna stay out afterwards, and I’m gonna lead the rock ’n’ lifestyle and smoke and drink with these guys until they take off.’ I’ll know when I leave the house that that’s what’s happening.”

And though he’s moved on to his third beer, the Köstritzer Schwarzbier, Hill doesn’t foresee this being one of those evenings. He’s got a show later on in Brooklyn and, to the best of his reminiscence, can “count on one hand” the number of times he’s performed way too under the influence. In fact, he’s virtually abstained from inebriated comedy after one exceptionally unraveled gig in April 2008 as an emcee at Brooklyn’s now-defunct Glasslands venue. A Weezer cover band was headlining, and word spread ushering in an unexpected swell of bridge-and-tunnel onlookers to the typically arty, underground space. The crowd never quite glommed on to Hill’s low-key persona and grew antagonistic. According to Hill, one individual pelted him with a solid object. Hill, in return, doused those up front with beer before snagging a random guy’s hat and dashing out the exit and down the street.

“In my drunken mind, just coming from playing in bands and going to shows where beers are thrown in the audience, I genuinely did not think it was that big a deal,” he says, laughing, but resolved to compartmentalize his inner adult and outward rebel.

At this point, it’s time for Hill to head off into a cab and entertain the good people of Bushwick. We settle our tab and announce our mutual need to use the facilities. I can’t help but inquire if, for all Hill’s revelry and rambunctiousness, he’s experienced the personal infamy of inadvertantly urinating before quite making it to the toilet.

“Knock on wood, but I [haven’t] peed myself since college,” he recalls, before contemplating and then adding, “But give it time. I’ve got a long way to go.”

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