By Jacob Calle
As the saying goes “Those who can’t do, teach” and in this case it’s “He who can’t comic, draws.” Cleveland artist and gallery owner Alex Kelly has done just that. He is taking “sketch comedy” and taking it to a literal sense and sketching their portraits. These outstanding renditions of his favorite comedians are quite remarkable and have been getting quite the notoriety. We all have unique ways of expressing our emotions and talents and at times it may take time, but here’s a Cleveland local delicately dirtying up paper as he connects it with his pencil of honest portraits like a camera. Alex Kelly welcomes you “Sketched Comedy”.
Jacob: You’ve got Chelsea Peretti, Hannibal Buress, Carrie Brownstein, Reggie Watts, Amy Poehler, Aubrey Plaza, and even Houston’s own, Harris Wittels writer of Parks and Rec. This is taking the term “sketch comedy” to literal sense. How did this project come about?
Alex: Sketched Comedy was definitely an unplanned brainchild. My wife and I hadn’t taken a trip in a while so we headed from Cleveland to Chicago to Detroit to see Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! Tour. I’ve been listening to the podcast since it started as the Comedy Death Ray podcast and have listened religiously since then. On our way back I thought it might be a fun project to make a poster with some of the guests and characters from the show. Once I got home I remembered that I hadn’t drawn or painted a portrait in years, so I just started with some practice sketches. My second sketch was of Kulap Vilaysack (co-host of the Who Charted? Podcast), and wouldn’t you know it…she retweeted it. I then realized that I had a chance every day to connect with another comedian or fan of comedy. I’m too shy and anxious to approach some of these people after a show, so these drawings have really just been a goofy way of saying “Hi” and “Thanks” for doling out all of the free laughs.
Besides you drawing them, what is your relationship with comedy? I see that you’re a big fan of The League and Parks and Rec.
I came from a funny family. My dad’s side is a huge Irish family that likes to argue and laugh, usually in tandem. And my dad put a lot of Peter Sellers and Bill Murray movies in front of me as soon as I popped out. My mom had great taste in comedy and was always willing to bypass normal mom-instincts when it came to laughing. I remember really early on, like 1st grade or so, she’d recite Carlin’s “7 Words” to get me cracking up. I was mostly just laughing at the shock of her saying “bad words”, but it was both of their influences that got me to realize just how intelligent and brave comedy could be at a young age.
Do you do stand up or write yourself?
God, I wish I could do stand up. Aside from my debilitating fear of public speaking, I’m more of a visual thinker, so funny ideas I have usually don’t translate into words very well, unless they’re part of longer story. I also never head home after a Kung Fu movie and try to smash bricks with my head. You have to leave some things to professionals.
Tell me a joke.
Harris Wittels, Bruce Lee, and myself walk into a bar… Punch line. Get it? You can’t have Punch line without Pun, Punch, or line in it! That’s why I draw instead of saying things.
Keep drawing Alex, but it’s nice to see you three “dude stormin” with a boys night out at the bar. So this project was started in October of last year. That was just a few months ago and you’re already up to 80 comics. You’ve been featured on many various blogs and also USAToday. Where do you see this all going?
Honestly I ask myself that every day. For now, I still enjoy the thrill of seeing how people react to certain drawings. You can tell by Likes and Favorites what some people’s tastes in comedy are, so there’s kind of an anthropology aspect to tracking things like that. I’d love to do a book. Specifically I’d love to do a book of comedian portraits paired with their views on the fine arts, especially if they think that any art is funny, or how an artist should approach humor in a visual sense. I also had the pleasure recently, of doing a poster for James Adomian, who for me is one of the best comics around. I’d really like to do more projects like that.
Perhaps display them in your gallery, Proximity that you and your wife own?
Yes…Proximity. My wife and I have been running a gallery for 4-5 years now in downtown Cleveland. We don’t show our own work though. We’ve essentially been paying out of our own pockets to show work from artists that we support and respect. It’s been a labor of love since the beginning, but unfortunately we’ll be shutting down the gallery this year so that we can pursue our own artistic efforts. We both work full time jobs already, so finding the time for the gallery and our own work has been really difficult. Once I get to the 365 or 500 mark I’d love to get a show together where some comedians can perform. Maybe an LA or NYC gallery, but who knows.
I know that Harris seemed to have loved his piece. Have you got any feedback with any of the comics that you’ve sketched besides he and Kulap?
Yeah, that was really great. I love Harris. I get really anxiety ridden just before I post any of my portraits, so when Harris responded positively and reposted the drawing I was really relieved and incredibly flattered. I actually just saw him in L.A. at another Comedy Bang! Bang! Show. But to answer the question, yes. More comedians have replied to me than I would have ever expected, in fact some of them have actually started following me on social media. I don’t think any of them know just how much that affects me, but it does. I’m getting a confidence I didn’t have before, so it’s deep and personal for me when that admiration is reciprocated.
Finding the perfect photo to draw must be difficult right? These sketches seem as if the were made for your project. Have any of them sent you pics for you to draw?
No…and this is actually a big issue for me. I don’t sell any of these drawings in any way. I’m using pictures I find on the internet, or still frames from videos of them. In order to do a book or poster, or anything that a fan of these people might want to buy, I need original photos to work from. Even participation from a photographer who traffics in the comedy community would change the game. So any future incarnation of Sketched Comedy would definitely require participation from comedians and photographers. If I can get to that point, I’ll be in it for the long haul. Until then, it’s just for fun.
And what comics have you got planned ahead?
Ha! I actually tried to write down a list of 365 comedians/writers/actors that I think would be right for the series. I got to 550 or so before I gave up. One area I need to start working on is the local comics around Cleveland (see Ramon Rivas, Ryan Dalton, Jimmie Graham, etc…) . They’ve been really supportive and whether they are famous or not doesn’t matter. If you make me laugh I want to draw you.
And what about the late greats such as Hedberg, Carlin, and another Houston classic, Bill Hicks?
Oh man. I want to go way back. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Johnny Carson and Vincent Price. I look up to some of these people like royalty or even gods. Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and Bill Hicks pretty much top the list. I remember driving back from a book store with a bunch of friends in the car after I bought Bill Hicks’ Rant in E-Minor. I had to pull the car over because I was crying from laughing so hard and couldn’t see the road. It’s an artwork that could put your life in danger….that’s how good he was. There are also some not-late greats I haven’t gotten to like Bill Cosby. I want theirs to be special in some way so I’m holding off for now.
Amazing, Buster Keaton is one of my top favorite comedians in history! You’ve put a lot of time into these and you’ve done so many. How long does it take for each portrait?
I work a full day, spend time with my wife, hang out with my dogs, then I spend that last 2 hours of the night watching TV while I do a sketch. So, 2 distracted hours. But you’ll notice that I’ve done a few paintings in color of some of my favorites like Sarah Silverman, Bill Burr, and my absolute favorite comic alive Paul F. Tompkins. Those ones can take around 8 hours total. Spoiler Alert: Number 100 will be Scott Aukerman, who is the first sketch I did. I just didn’t know it would turn into an elaborate series at the time, so I feel like I owe him a big painting. I do have the Comedy Bang! Bang! Logo tattooed on my arm, after all. And the last one, whether it’s 365 or 500 or 1,000 will be Bill Murray. I have a cat named Bill Murray. Only so that my neighbors get confused when I scream, “Goddamnint get off the furniture Bill Murray!”. I wish he was my father…and I’m pretty sure my dad would be cool with that. If I actually got to sit with him for picture and interview, I could die happy.
Amazing, you’re an artist with true ambition and that’s a rare find these days when you’ve got faces shoved into Instagram, any last words to the artists who are trekking through mud?
Sure. Some people give really bad advice to creative people, like “do what you love”. That makes sense in a movie but it’s not realistic. “Do what you know” is also kind of stupid, because people hate it when you know more than them. I’m an artist who really wishes he was a comedian, but I’ve settled on drawing them instead. So, I say “Do what you can”…it doesn’t sound great but it’s honest and it might surprise you where it can lead.
Thanks Alex! A wise humble man you are.
Thank you Jacob!
Follow Alex Kelly’s work here: