Remembering Dan Mer: The tempest of the Tempe Improv

Dan Mer wanted nothing to do with me at first.

What’s in a name, anyhow?

I moved to Tempe, Ariz., at the end of June 2001, into an apartment only a few blocks from the Tempe Improv and all of Arizona State University. Found out the day I moved in that the following day, July 1, was the Improv’s once-a-month Sunday open mic, and the only way to get on would be to show up after noon and sign up in person. So I did. First on the list. Mer wasn’t happy, because he had issues with another Sean McCarthy  — whom most of the Arizona comedy community confused me for at first, too, thinking I’d moved back from Los Angeles when that wasn’t me at all. Mer realized, too, after seeing me go up onstage immediately after the headliner, John Pinette. Yes. Mer sadistically set up his club’s only open mic immediately following a full headliner-feature-MC show, with the MC telling audience members they could stick around, then introducing the first of a dozen or so open micers. Thank God I went first to get a full house. Thank God even more that I was funny.

That’s how I got to meet Daniel Brandon Bruce Mer, who died a year ago during Memorial Day weekend. He was 53.

Mer’s official obituary from the funeral home in his hometown of Rockford, Ill., said Mer died in his sleep. I don’t know the official cause of death, and I don’t care what any comedian has to say about it. Even his obituary described him as “equal parts brilliant and entertaining and frustratingly larger than life.”

Condolences from the likes of Bill Burr, Alonzo Bodden, Paul Rodriguez, Pablo Francisco and Craig Shoemaker, plus locally-based comedians such as Paul Kozak and George Kanter only hint as to Mer’s influence.

I can testify personally to Mer’s equal parts brilliance, charm and frustration. He was such a seminal part of my life during a heartbreaking and life-altering period of it. He shared the same birthday as my father, but Dan was only 10 years older than me, and looking back on it now, he was the big brother I never had as an only child. For good. For bad. And even for ugly situations.

Dan didn’t become intrigued with me as a friend and ally until a month after our first encounter, when I received a huge promotion at The Arizona Republic. They had hired me in Metro to work on the obit desk (the paper called it “A Life Remembered,” and I’d essentially go through the obits and death notices looking for people’s stories who needed to be told in grander fashion). About a month later, they offered me my own column in the weekly entertainment tabloid section, covering the burgeoning nightclub scene of Phoenix, Tempe and especially Scottsdale. I’d be replacing humorist Laurie Notaro, who I hope and trust got over that by writing a series of best-selling books.

Suddenly I meant something to Dan Mer.

Because Dan loved to work in trades. Dan gets you access to comedians, and what can you get for him? Mostly more Patrón tequila than an army of Mexicans could drink, and certainly much more than Dan should have drank. As for the other rumors and tales bandied about by comedians who swung through Tempe? Dan never let me see him abuse any other substances, although he did let me see him sweat. And so much more.

I was going through a divorce in a new city just as my new employers were telling me to go out as much as possible so I could write with authority about what the Valley of the Sun had to offer when the sun went down. So Dan was the ideal drinking buddy.

Dan gave me my first weekend emceeing while we were getting drunk on a Thursday, saying he’d fired the first emcee (who worked at the club) and needed someone to do what he needed down to the letters of the cocktail napkin headliner Judy Tenuta had written on for her very specific intro. The feature that weekend was a brash great young kid named Daniel Tosh, and we spent the following two nights cockblocking each other in the Improv lobby, the bar at the end of the strip mall, and the comedy condo across the street.

Dan gave me my first full weekend emceeing the next month in September. When the 9/11 attacks happened that Tuesday, the headliner couldn’t fly in, but Dennis Regan had stuck around after featuring for his brother, Brian, the weekend before (which included a night that club caught on fire while Dan and I and the Regans and staff members drank at the bar at the other end of the Cornerstone Mall). So Dennis Regan headlined. Michael Loftus drove over from L.A. to feature, and we still put on a show that Thursday. To maybe a quarter of that cavernous great theater space of 420-plus with a high balcony, but still. That space.

Dan took great pride in how many stand-ups called the Tempe Improv the best club in the country. Dennis Miller filmed his “Black and White” special there; David Spade’s “Take The Hit,” John Pinette’s “I Say Nay Nay,” Artie Lange’s “It’s the Whiskey Talkin’,” and the 1995 HBO Young Comedians Special hosted by Dana Carvey with Ray Romano, Judd Apatow, Janeane Garofalo, Bill Bellamy, Andy Kindler and Nick DiPaolo. Scenes from Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian documentary. Half of those specials can be traced to Dan and how he ran that club.

It also helped that he showed them a great time afterward. Still an aspiring stand-up comedian myself in 2001 (I thought I wanted a spot on Letterman, when really all along, I’d realize I only wanted to be Letterman), I loitered in the back of the showroom by the sound booth just about every weekend whether or not I hosted. Absorbing comedians. Taking it all in. So my unspoken trade with Dan involved me driving him and the headliner and/or feature act from the Improv afterward north up Scottsdale Road to wherever the action might be that night. And then wherever the afterparty might be, whether it be some speakeasy, quiet house or even some pricy mansion in North Scottsdale or Paradise Valley.

Other times, though, the only people heading to North Scottsdale (and in later years, Paradise Valley) were me and Dan as I ferried him safely back to his house. Where he’d surprise me by drinking even more tequila, turn on TV to find some comedy and talk business with me until I either sobered up or passed out from exhaustion. Several nights, we talked about creating an American Idol for stand-up comedians (Last Comic Standing would steal our thunder). Another night, Dan kept me up late helping him deliver a list of places and people for Dave Attell and his Insomniac crew to talk to when they filmed in Phoenix (there’s cutting-room floor footage of Attell ripping on me and Dan as I’m wearing a leather jacket in an upscale Scottsdale cocktail lounge). Another late night, he convinced me last-minute to buy a ticket to Aspen to attend my first comedy festival.

Dan grew up in the same Illinois town as Cheap Trick, and we went to see them perform in a Tempe club one night. Dan had an even deeper affinity for Bruce Springsteen and The Rolling Stones, and knew both Nils Lofgren and Ronnie Wood personally.

Dan went to Northern Arizona University, but initially got his love of comedy from places like the hungry i in San Francisco — at least that’s what he always told me inspired him in trying to create just the perfect space for comedy. Dan ran the Improv in San Diego before moving to take over Tempe’s Improv in the late 1990s.

His homes were always frigid from air-conditioning on blast, decorated with giant framed posters from movies and musicians, and dominated by Mexican folk art — sculptures of animals in all shapes and sizes adorned the place.

Dan introduced me to nightclub owners and porn stars alike. Dan introduced me to guys who didn’t tell me what they did, although they did a lot of drugs and carried a lot of weapons. When I fell afoul of the law, Dan introduced me to his lawyer, and later, my first sponsor. Dan stuck up for me when Jay Mohr reportedly was furious for adding a local MC to his weekend lineup (which already included Ralphie May and K.P. Anderson). So thanks to Dan, I got to meet Nomar and even befriended Shawn Marion. Dan let me host one rare night when David Spade was making a surprise drop-in at the club — although Dan proceeded to call every nightclub owner and strip club in town to leak the surprise and pack the joint, then didn’t let me do any jokes until right after Spade’s set. Worst I ever bombed.

Then again. He ran that club with iron fists, and if you crossed him, watch out. But he also was fiercely loyal to his friends.

Dan got me White Stripes tickets for my birthday one year. Another year, he let me MC with Tom Rhodes, and had the staff bring out a cake while I was onstage to serenade me.

Every so often, Dan and I would head to a nearby Paradise Valley resort and sneak into their pool and sunbathe.

When I lost my newspaper job in Arizona, Dan gave me extra weekends and paid me to become an extra publicist.

When I had to give up my Mercedes, Dan took over my car and its lease.

The week before I left for Boston and a new newspaper gig, Dan took me to Flagstaff to learn how to snowboard.

For a couple of years, Dan was my closest friend, and still, he’d order some new kid in the box office to call me by proxy: “Dan Mer is on the line for you!”

We lost touch when I moved to Boston, and then New York City. I ran into him in Aspen in 2007 at the last HBO comedy festival. I heard a few years later he’d had a falling out with the Improv, and sought revenge by helping open a different comedy club in downtown Phoenix (StandUp Live), and the Tempe club even closed in 2012 (and Dan’s former business partner died soon thereafter). I wonder how he’d feel knowing the Valley now supports several full-time comedy clubs today.

I found Dan on Facebook two years ago, after searching him out every so often — his number wasn’t working, or he wasn’t answering — and eventually found Daniel Mer (no profile photo) one day, with very few “friends,” but those he had were actual people I knew who actually knew him. We became Facebook friends in May 2014. Exchanged messages once or twice. He gave me his number after I wished him a happy birthday that August. But I never called. I wish I had.

My Dan Mer memories and experiences are my own, but they’re not unique. Just ask anyone else who felt the lasting impact of Dan Mer’s mentorship or management.

Troy Conrad was one of the first people Mer introduced me to. Conrad told me:

“I met Dan in 1995 when he was running the San Diego Improv. I moved to back to Phoenix in 1996, and a year or two later the San Diego club closed and Dan moved to town to run the Tempe Improv. Dan and I were friends. He loved Rockabilly music, the sun, and was passionate about comedy. I worked for him as a comic, and he was great to me. In 2002, he asked me to be the club’s publicist. I said yes.  Working for him was the most tumultuous time of my life. We had previously got along very well, but as a boss he was often maniacal and tyrannical. He made lots of people miserable, including me. However, if it weren’t for Dan, I would not have moved to LA when I did. He motivated me to get out of Phoenix, and that was what I needed. I’d like to think he knew that. He also knew how to run a club, even though he left wreckage in his path. Dan Mer demanded perfection and settled for nothing less. I recently saw the movie Whiplash, and I couldn’t help but see some parallels in J.K. Simmons’ character. About a year after I moved to Los Angeles, I had much more perspective on the business. I called Dan to thank him for all he’s done for me, and let him know that everything between us was good. I’m glad I did that. Despite the trauma of working for him, he helped shape my early years as a comic and now as a producer. R.I.P. Daniel Mer.”

Phil Provencio said Mer “worked tirelessly” to make Phoenix as important to comedy as NYC or LA and put the city on the comedy map.

“I owe some of my fondest memories to him from my time working there. Meeting, photographing and working with then-rising stars like Louis CK, Bill Burr and Jim Gaffigan was incredible. From late-night post-show hangs at Gus’s Pizza across the street with Daniel Tosh, Jeff Ross birthday roasting staff members at dive bars, to gathering staff to personally thank Jimmy Fallon just weeks before taking over hosting duties on NBC, it was all thanks to Mer and the talent he would bring into Tempe.

“One particular weekend Nick Swardson had signed on for a weekend of shows to record his new album for Comedy Central. Mer comes into the evening just beaming…he later confided in me that Adam Sandler was on his way to surprise Swardson at the club. Sure enough, up rolls a car and who gets out but Adam Sandler, Kevin James and other Happy Madison crew including David Spade that same night. I’ve never seen Mer so happy, it was like Christmas (he might be Jewish) for him. He pulled me away from any work I was supposed to be doing at the time and gave me his camera to stand at the end of the greenroom hallway in an effort to try and get a picture of him and Sandler together. I got the shot, Mer got his Sandler photo and everyone was happy.”

Reeta Piazza got her start as Mer’s assistant some 20 years ago. “I was his assistant for a very long time, and he is the only reason I found this path in life.” Piazza’s list of Mer memories?

  • Dan Mer made me stamp 10,000 VIP passes one by one to trade a dealership for a new Honda Del Sol.
  • Dan Mer insisted I clean the disastrous comedy condo every Monday my first 2 years on the job.
  • Dan Mer hid all of Jeff Dunham’s Walter dolls from him on a blasted sold out weekend and made me handle the situation all by my lonesome.
  • Dan Mer also paid my rent for months after my mother was paralyzed in a car accident in 1997.
  • Dan Mer also taught me how to manage one of the best God damned comedy clubs in the entire nation: Tempe, Arizona.

He was kind to me; when it truly mattered. He may have been one of the most unpredictable people I have ever worked for, but underneath it all, he was a very gentle and sweet man. I know because I was there.
Now 20 years later, I find myself in a career loving and living for one of the most influential comedy clubs in the world.
Thank you, Dan Mer. Rest In Perfect Peace”

Piazza wanted to acknowledge all of Mer’s complications add up to something special. And she’s right. Mer’s complications helped those who survived serving under him move on to bigger and better things.

Piazza runs the Hollywood Improv, while Adam Eget started as a server in Tempe and now books The Comedy Store. Provencio is making a name for himself in New York City as a photographer of comedians and other artists. Conrad created Set List: Stand-Up Without A Net (live shows in multiple cities now, with a TV series in the UK and webseries via Nerdist), and has a current exhibition of wildly popular #HallSeries portraits of “Paid Regulars” at The Comedy Store.

That job I had when I met Dan comes in handy now, because Dan Mer definitely lived a life worth remembering.

Thanks for everything, Dan. You are missed.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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