When the King of Comedy Posters Set His Surreal Sights on the World of Rock 'n' Roll

September 4th, 2021

Meltdown poster, February 4, 2015, by Dave Kloc.

Meltdown poster, February 4, 2015, by Dave Kloc.

The multiverse of movie posters is so vast, so inexhaustible, that one collector can choose to focus exclusively on monster movies from the 1930s, another can specialize in Westerns from the 1950s, and a third can decide to go deep on French New Wave cinema from the 1960s, and all would be said to collect movie posters. Equally enormous are the galaxies of vintage circus posters, railway posters, and travel posters, each offering collectors scores of worlds-within-worlds into which they may happily get lost.

Nothing close to the same can be said about comedy posters, which isn’t even a genre (thanks Rudy!) in the same way that movie, circus, railway, and travel posters are. But if comedy posters were a thing, comedy-poster completists would almost certainly try to get their hands on all 310 posters designed between 2010 and 2016 by artist Dave Kloc for “The Meltdown.”

“If you give me more time, you’re going to get a lot more ink.”

“A friend of mine named Jordan Vogt-Roberts invited me to a comedy show in the back of a comic-book store,” Kloc tells me over the phone. “It turned out to be the first ‘Meltdown’ show. It wasn’t like a typical comedy club, a two-drink-minimum kind of place,” Kloc says of the 175-seat NerdMelt Showroom behind Meltdown Comics on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard. “It had a very different vibe. I went up to one of the hosts, Jonah Ray, and said, ‘This feels like an old punk show. You should do some posters.’ He said, ‘Do you do posters?’ I didn’t, but I knew how. So I said ‘Yeah,’ he said ‘Great,’ and after I figured out where to get paper and stuff like that, I did roughly a poster a week for more than six years.”

Meltown poster, March 16, 2016, by Dave Kloc.

Meltown poster, March 16, 2016, by Dave Kloc.

For three of those years, the performances at the NerdMelt Showroom were taped for Comedy Central. “They would shoot eight episodes over the course of two or three days,” Kloc remembers. “They would do a bunch of shows in a row. It got so hectic that for three months toward the end of the last Comedy Central season in 2016, I reached out to artists I really admired and asked them to do ‘Meltdown’ posters for me. They would send me the art, which I would print and sell at the show. Then I’d send them their money and a stack of posters. I got a lot of my dream artists to do ‘Meltdown’ posters—Jay Ryan, Dan McCarthy, Ryan Duggan, Renee French. That was huge.”

As hosts, the names of Jonah Ray and Kumail Nanjiani appeared on most of these posters—sometimes just as “Jonah and Kumail,” a mark of the audience’s familiarity with the show’s main stars—as did the names of such marquee performers as Wyatt Cenac, Bobcat Goldthwait, Marc Maron, T.J. Miller, Kristen Schaal, Sarah Silverman, and Ali Wong.

Meltdown poster, August 27, 2014, by Dave Kloc.

Meltdown poster, August 27, 2014, by Dave Kloc.

“There were a lot of burgeoning comedy careers there,” Kloc says. Soon, he was designing posters for rising comedy stars who were getting booked into bigger venues—Carnegie Hall!—including improv specialists Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz, stand-up comedian and SNL writer John Mulaney, the cast of “Letterkenny,” the trio known as The Lonely Island, and many other acts. Outgoing by nature, Kloc got to know them all.

Kloc’s training for his prodigious output of the early and mid-2000s began in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. “My dad was a freelance photographer,” he says, “and my mom worked at my school in admissions—I was there from age 4 until graduation; my older brother started a year later. It was a multi-grade private school called Roeper, founded by a couple who had fled Nazi Germany. They started the school to teach people to never repeat our past. There were no parts of history that were glossed over. We learned everything in depth.”

Roeper was small—“The whole high school part of the school was just 125 kids”—which had advantages and disadvantages for students whose parents worked there. “If I did something in class, 10 minutes later I would walk by my mom in the hall and she had already heard about it,” Kloc recalls with a sigh.

Middleditch & Schwartz at Carnegie Hall, February 22, 2019, by Dave Kloc.

Middleditch & Schwartz at Carnegie Hall, February 22, 2019, by Dave Kloc.

Like a lot of artists, Kloc was one of those kids who always doodled, even when he was supposed to be taking notes. “I’d write down the word ‘Napoleon’ and then draw eyeballs in the O’s. The eyeballs were always more fun. I loved to draw, but I never forecast any kind of career in it.”

Outside of the classroom, Kloc studied the illustrations on Magic cards and read books like “How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.” He also went straight to the source. “I would buy comic books by the pound,” he says, “and then just sit and trace them to learn the techniques, like, if this line goes here, then it looks like the guy is facing that way. That sort of thing.”

Kloc’s self education would eventually be supplemented by formal art instruction at the University of Michigan, but before he headed to Ann Arbor, Kloc took a year off after high school. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I enrolled in a program in which you move to a city and go on interviews for internships and apprenticeships based on your interests. The program doesn’t get you a job, but it does get you a certain number of interviews.”

The Black Keys at Little Caesars Arena, October 5, 2019, by Dave Kloc.

The Black Keys at Little Caesars Arena, October 5, 2019, by Dave Kloc.

Kloc’s stated interests at the time were music, hockey, and art. “I interviewed with a guy in Worcester, Massachusetts, named Mike Myers, who painted hockey helmets,” he says. “Now, I’m from Detroit, so hockey is basically in my blood. My favorite tattoo is the word ‘Hockey’ in real big letters on my leg. I’m always thinking about hockey.”

For his part, Myers was apparently always thinking about music. “My interview,” Kloc remembers, “was to go to his studio, show him my sketchbook, and then walk over to his wall of CDs and pick out five. I picked out some Iron Maiden stuff and he said, ‘You’ve got the job.’ I worked there the whole year.”

Music had been important to Kloc since at least the age of 15, when he joined his first band. “I played bass,” he says. “I wasn’t very good, but I had some really talented friends who taught me my parts. I promised to practice at home and never be late for rehearsals. After I graduated from college, I was in a band that was offered a record contract, but my bandmates said it wasn’t a good deal and turned it down. It wasn’t like I was the brains of the band, or anything, but I thought, ‘If we’re turning down record deals, this isn’t going places.’ So I did an inventory of where I was at to figure out what to do next. My brother had just moved to L.A. When I asked him how he liked it, he said, ‘It’s great, it never snows,’ and that’s all I had to hear. Basically, I moved to L.A. with nothing on the horizon other than less winter. A lot of people from Michigan end up in L.A.,” Kloc adds. “I’ve met more people in L.A. from Michigan than I met when I lived in Michigan.”

Wilhelm Scream tour poster, October 2016, by Dave Kloc.

Wilhelm Scream tour poster, October 2016, by Dave Kloc.

That was in 2008. After a possible gig with a friend fell through—the same friend who would take Kloc to that first “Meltdown” show in 2010—Kloc started touring with bands he’d crossed paths with during his rock ‘n’ roll days. “I was the tour manager and merch guy,” he says. “It was consistent work because you’d go on tour, meet other bands that were also on the road, and then tour with them. I got passed around a lot. I don’t party too hard, which is the basic requirement for being a tour manager at that level—last to sleep, first to wake. I managed tours for Wilhelm Scream, Streetlight Manifesto, The Swellers, and a few other bands for a couple of years.”

While the work was steady, it was not 52-weeks-a-year steady, which meant Kloc would find himself at loose ends between tours for weeks at a time. “One time after I got off the road,” he says, “I went to a concert at a little gallery called Nomad’s, which also turned out to be a screenprinting shop. It was the coolest place.” Kloc made a deal with the owner, Damon Robinson, to tidy up around the shop and generally help out in exchange for learning how to screenprint. “He taught me the ins and outs of screenprinting,” Kloc says of Robinson, “and I helped him print a lot of gig posters.”

The last Meltdown poster, October 19th, 2016, by Dave Kloc.

The last Meltdown poster, October 19th, 2016, by Dave Kloc.

Kloc’s experience with Robinson was the reason he found himself saying “yes” to Jonah Ray at that first “Meltdown” show when Ray asked Kloc if he made posters. In turn, Kloc’s experience as the poster guy for “Meltdown” eventually allowed him to make a few gig posters of his own.

“I still had all the contacts I’d made from years of touring, I still talked to those guys,” Kloc says. “As I got better at making posters, it became reasonable for me to ask if they needed one for an upcoming tour.”

They did. In fact, by the time of Kloc’s last “Meltdown” poster in October of 2016, he was already pivoting to a second career as a gig-poster artist, printing his work from a windowless janitor’s closet in an apartment building near downtown L.A. “It was just a piece of wood clamped to a table,” Kloc says of his makeshift press. “It would be 90 degrees outside, which in L.A. is not uncommon, and 110 in the closet. Between screens, I’d stand outside with my shirt off to cool down, questioning every decision I’d ever made in my life before going back inside to face the heat and humidity. If I needed 30 good posters, I had to print 50. It was awful, but I printed posters there for years.”

The Sword at the Brooklyn Bowl, May 17, 2016, by Dave Kloc.

The Sword at the Brooklyn Bowl, May 17, 2016, by Dave Kloc.

In retrospect, the fulcrum of Kloc’s pivot from comedy to music may have been a 24-by-36-inch screenprint for The Sword’s May 17, 2016, concert at the Brooklyn Bowl. Unlike Kloc’s work for “The Meltdown,” which were one-week sprints from idea to design to printing to merch table, this assignment offered him a luxurious window of three whole weeks. “Once I hit the seven-day point, my brain was like, ‘You have to turn this in today!’ But I had two more weeks. If you give me more time, you’re going to get a lot more ink,” Kloc says. “That poster was heavy.”

More ink means more detail, time being the giver of both. That’s why Kloc’s work for “The Meltdown” is typically light and loose, with plenty of air framing simple, often surreal elements—a horse in a hoodie drinking a cup of coffee at a counter; a van with wings; one hand, two hands, many hands (I counted 13 hands in one poster from 2015); a pair of LEGO Minifigures, each holding a comedian’s microphone; and frequently, a generic, rounded humanoid Kloc calls Lumpman, which made its “Meltdown” poster debut on May 6, 2012.

By comparison, Kloc’s gig posters—which are produced for Kloc by such esteemed printers as End Hymns and The Half and Half—are packed to the edges. That 2016 poster for The Sword, for example, features several naked teal giants laying waste to a terracotta-hued city, as somber blue smoke billows into an inky sky. As he would do to varying degrees in numerous other posters, the faces of these giants appear to be unraveling in thick, M.C. Escher-like peels, revealing hollow cavities—or depths, to use a Roeper word—where muscles, bones, and organs should be.

The Foo Fighters in Birmingham, Alabama, October 26, 2017, by Dave Kloc.

The Foo Fighters in Birmingham, Alabama, October 26, 2017, by Dave Kloc.

A Foo Fighters poster from 2017 is even more complex, although, at its core, the composition is more straightforward—a boy and a girl facing each other outside the front door of a rather plain home. The children are equally plain, attired by Kloc in the sort of T-shirts their parents might have picked up for them during the family’s annual back-to-school shopping trip at Walmart. In the boy’s hands is a small potted flowering plant, which he holds out to the girl. And that’s when Kloc’s penchant for the surreal takes over. Ignoring the boy’s offering, she has apparently just grabbed his head in both her hands and removed it from his shoulders, unleashing an explosion of letters spelling out the words “Foo Fighters” amid roses, calla lilies, and other flowers, all of which appear to have gushed forth from the hollow cavity of his young body, where, as with the teal giants, muscles, bones, and organs should be. If you look carefully, you can see that a snake with markings that could be those of a boa constrictor has also escaped the boy’s shell, its tail resting on a rose where the back of the boy’s neck had been, its head somewhere inside the plain house. And marked on the side of that house is the information that makes this surreal composition a proper gig poster: “10.26.17 | Legacy Arena at the BJCC | Birmingham | Alabama.”

The children in the Foo Fighters poster are somewhat atypical of Kloc’s work, although the surreal natural of the scene is not. For the most part, Kloc shies away from recognizably human forms in favor of those he can easily animate. The Lumpmen of his “Meltdown” years were favorites because a tweak to their blank eyes or a shift in their posture was all it took to change their expressions or imbue them with emotions—fear, surprise, determination, etc. Plus, of course, they took no time to draw.

Primus at Edgefield Amphitheater, August 17, 2021, by Dave Kloc.

Primus at Edgefield Amphitheater, August 17, 2021, by Dave Kloc.

Animals take more time, but they are easy to animate. “Animals inherently look great, and you can pose them in your mind however you’d like,” Kloc says. “The rippling muscles of a horse are so much more interesting than a human forearm. You can do anything with animals, and if you make an animal smile, you’re immediately into surreal territory. The scale of animals has also been something I like to play with,” he adds. “I did a Primus poster once with a really big rhino, impossibly big. You can do anything with animals. It’s success from the jump.”

In fact, Kloc has designed a number of posters for Primus that feature animals prominently—a mechanically assisted flying elephant for a 2018 concert in Avila Beach, California; that aforementioned gigantic rhino for a 2019 show in Salem, Virginia; a menagerie of two-headed lions, giraffes, and king cobras for the band’s 2021 tribute to Rush in Troutdale, Oregon.

The decision to fill these posters with a Noah’s Ark of animals is all Kloc’s, but when it comes to Sleep posters, their uniformly trippy and intricate look and tone is as much a product of what’s in the artist’s mind as the band’s.

Sleep tour poster, summer 2019, by Dave Kloc.

Sleep tour poster, summer 2019, by Dave Kloc.

“Sleep is far and away my favorite client,” Kloc says flatly. “Nine times out of 10, when you work for a band you don’t work with the band. I’ve never met the Foo Fighters. I’ve met someone who’s maybe also never met the Foo Fighters. With Sleep, I talk directly with Al Cisneros, the band’s singer and bassist. We’ll talk on the phone for hours until we get to a point where we agree on the elements involved, the direction. Then I send sketches; his notes are always good. In the beginning, I thought I was only going to do one Sleep poster, but now I’ve done eight. And when I get to the point in a Sleep poster where I put the Sleep logo on there, I get chills.”

For Kloc, one of the many fun aspects of doing a Sleep poster is the band’s unapologetic obsession with weed. “They love weed, all the paraphernalia, everything about it. If you look carefully, you’ll see that many of the buildings in my Sleep posters are basically bongs and pipes. On the ground are lots of weed-looking items, little harvesting machines, a really rich universe. Sleep fans, who are the coolest, love that stuff.”

Another band with a passionate fan base is Phish, for whom Kloc has designed three posters—one for the band’s lead guitarist, Trey Anastasio, in 2018, a second for the band itself in 2019, and a third for the group’s first post-COVID-19 show in 2021. “When I started doing posters, I had no idea that Phish was the top of the mountain,” Kloc confesses. “The scale of each print run is huge and the reception is massive. ‘Intense’ is underplaying the Phish collector-base’s enthusiasm.”

Trey Anastasio in Ithaca, New York, February 9, 2018, by Dave Kloc.

Trey Anastasio in Ithaca, New York, February 9, 2018, by Dave Kloc.

That Anastasio poster from 2018 is a good example of how far Kloc is willing to take a visual element, in this case the ribbons or peels seen in the poster for The Sword from 2016. For Anastasio’s February 9, 2018 show at the State Theatre in Ithaca, New York, Kloc draped a two-dimensional black outline of a man’s head, shoulders, wrists, and hands in teal and olive ribbons, which begin as a solid fabric at the figure’s fingers but then start to unravel as they reach the wrists. Around the shoulders, the ribbons are so loose that the black void beneath them is prominent, and by the time our eye has found its way to the figure’s hair, the ribbons seem in danger of blowing away entirely, leaving us to potentially gaze upon the figure’s voided core, empty save a pair of penetrating eyeballs. It’s an arresting, surreal sight, showing off Kloc’s simultaneous facility with color, pen and ink, and graphic design.

By comparison, Kloc’s first Phish poster is conservative, if that’s the word for an airborne island of octopus-infested speakers supporting a wood-frame, dual-chimney building and its companion lighthouse, whose beacon high above the southern shore of Long Island projects or reveals (it’s difficult to tell which) the band’s name on a passing cloud. The poster is a vision of blues and greens, the colors of sky, forest, and sea. In this way, Kloc grounds us in the hues of natural reality, making the composition before us all the more whiplash-inducing.

Phish in Rogers, Arkansas, July 28, 2021, by Dave Kloc.

Phish in Rogers, Arkansas, July 28, 2021, by Dave Kloc.

The setting for Kloc’s most recent Phish poster, sold at a July 28, 2021, concert in Rogers, Arkansas, is even more fantastical, although it was a bit of a journey to get there. “I had sent eight different concepts to the person who runs the Phish poster program and was getting no traction on any of them. I was kind of floundering until she said, ‘Let’s look at the history of that area.’ We found out that there is this lore about some nearby caves where Spanish conquistadors were supposed to have hidden their hordes of gold. I knew she liked my Sleep posters, so I combined that look with the gold lore—and lots of gold ink.”

In the end, Kloc’s is an unlikely arc—from hand-printing 11-by-17-inch flyers in a stifling janitor’s closet for standup acts performing in the back of a comic-book store, to gold-inked gig-posters, screen printed by the best in the business on seriously fancy paper in editions of 900 for the greatest jam band on the planet. Still, Kloc knows how he got here.

“Everything that’s ever happened to me was because I went up to someone and said ‘Hi,’” Kloc says. “If I hadn’t gone up to Jonah Ray at that first ‘Meltdown’ show, and if he hadn’t said ‘Yes,’ I probably wouldn’t be doing posters at all.”

(All images courtesy of Dave Kloc.)


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