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Wednesday, July 2, 2008 01:01 am

The Bush farewell tour

Will Durst to appear in Mason City next week

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Untitled Document Will Durst makes his living skewering politicians and showcasing the folly and hypocrisy that are rife in party politics. He does so prolifically through a wide variety of outlets: online, on the radio and television, in print, and in front of live audiences.
Durst’s driving passion is not to further the agenda of one party over the other’s. He refers to himself as “an equal-opportunity offender,” taking swipes at Republicans and Democrats alike. Nor does he see it as his mission to keep the voting public informed or to expose injustice. “That might be underlying,” he says, “but my main purpose is to make people laugh — on purpose and against their will.”
Durst is a standup comic, and politics is his straight man. “When I graduated from high school, in the ’70s,” he says, “everybody was into politics — Vietnam, Watergate . . . it just seemed natural to me.”
That career choice — focusing on governmental inanity — has worked for Durst. He’s never short of material, or an audience — especially during an election cycle. “I have a career every four years for six months” he jokes. Actually, Durst does better than that. He has appeared on Late Night with David Letterman, Comedy Central, HBO, and Showtime and is a regular commentator on NPR, CNN, and      C-Span. He has performed at events featuring Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Al Gore. And this July 11 and 12, he is performing in Mason City. Yes, that Mason City — population 2,800, at the intersection of Routes 29 and 10 in central Illinois — home to the Mason City Limits Comedy Club. Durst isn’t the only headliner to include this out-of-the-way little club, open since March 2006, on his tour. Standup fans will recognize Tim Cavanagh from Comedy Central; Todd Yohn from HBO, Showtime Comedy Central, and VH-1; and Mike Armstrong from A League of Their Own, all of whom have appeared at Mason City Limits. Dak Rakow (Comic Relief 2, MSNBC with Matt Lauer) is appearing there at the end of July. Mason City Limits is owned and operated by comedian Chris Speyrer of Dayton, Ohio. A standup performer for 20 years, Speyrer has performed in 39 states and has appeared on the nationally syndicated Bob and Tom Radio Show. In 2004, Speyrer, approaching his 40th birthday, realized that he was tired of touring the country 40 weeks of the year. He loved comedy but wanted to settle down. Speyrer dreamed of having his own comedy club. “I thought about L.A. or New York,” he says, “but after one week in those places I was ready to get out of Dodge. I’m more of a Midwest sort of guy.”
Speyrer had a friend from the comedy circuit: John Means (a.k.a. Dr. Gonzo). Means is a Mason City native, and when he retired he returned to Mason City and opened first one and then a second restaurant. Speyrer saw the work Means put in to renovate two of the town’s older downtown buildings, and the success of the restaurants (Jack and Jo’s Steakhouse and P.J.’s Pizza and Pasta). A Mason City booster, Means set out to convince Speyrer that the small Illinois town was the place for his own new venture.
John’s brother Curt owned the building right next to the restaurants, Speyrer recalls. “John told me, ‘Hey we’re about to sell this building. It would be great to have a showroom right next door to the restaurants.’ I knew what was possible, because John had done it.”
To be a success, the club would have to draw customers from outside the community. Speyrer believed that it could happen. “People say this is the middle of nowhere,” he says of Mason City. “I correct them: We’re in the middle of everywhere. There’s Bloomington, Peoria, Springfield, Havana, Pekin . . . . We’ve been drawing from all those places.”
So how does Mason City Limits book the big talent, like Durst? “It’s a big help that I’m a comedian,” Speyrer says. “I’ve done what they’ve done. I’m not just a club owner. I know what comforts are important.
“When [the comics] get here, they don’t have to worry about anything. John feeds them at night; I feed them breakfast. Everything is in walking distance.”
Comics are provided a free place to stay, upstairs over the comedy club, where Speyrer himself lives. After a show, they may cross the street to relax at Stupid’s, where — given the state of politics in Illinois right now — someone like Durst might not have to buy any of his own drinks.
Connections help Speyrer book talent, too. Having worked with many of today’s standup comics, he can call them directly instead of going through a booking agent. Durst remembers working with Speyrer and Means. “Means was one of the grunts with me in the front line of the comedy wars in the early ’80s. Chris [Speyrer] came on later, but he was also fighting that same war. So we’re war buddies.”
Asked how he feels about working a small venue like Mason City (the club seats about 100 people), Durst says, “I’m looking forward to it. You can actually talk to the audience more — you don’t have to give a presentation. There’s a lot less pressure.”
Of the show he will put on, Durst says, “This is my George W. Bush farewell tour. Whatever you think of Bush politically, in comedy terms he was the gold standard. I’m just one little cog in his No Comic Left Behind program.”  

Will Durst performs at Mason City Limits (114 E. Chestnut, Mason City) at 8 p.m. Friday, July 11, and 7:15 p.m. Saturday, July 12. Reservations can be made at mclimits.com or by calling 217-482-5233.

Larry Crossett of Lincoln is a frequent contributor. His profile of Dr. Earl Loschen, “A career in caring,” appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of Illinois Times.
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