In August 1987, Brian Potrafka was on a National Guard excursion in Wisconsin when he got into a fight with a civilian in a bar. "My sergeant tried to break it up," he says. "I took a swing at him that put his tooth through his upper lip. We were in the alley, and I stumbled away. Later they found me passed out in the bushes in front of the police station." Two months later "they'd had enough of my nonsense," and he got the boot, albeit with an honorable discharge. He went back home to Decatur, where he spent a year living with his parents and "floundering." During that time he wrote his first "book"--a photocopied 119-page collection of poems, rants, short stories, and cartoons called Songs and Praises From the Land of Love, which he passed out to friends.
Potrafka moved to Denver in 1989, landing a job as a telemarketer selling trash bags to benefit Vietnam veterans. His coworkers included "retarded people, drunks, drug addicts, people on work release, transvestites, everything," and he began dating the high school student who delivered the trash bags. "She was pretty normal," he says. He eventually took some computer courses and got a job in a hospital billing department.
He'd sent his book to friends in Chicago, and one of them passed a copy along to a coworker. After reading it, she asked for Potrafka's phone number. "She called me up and said, 'Do you want to come out here? I'll pay for your ticket,'" Potrafka says. "I thought my friend was playing a joke on me until the very end."
Potrafka and the woman hit it off and spent their first night driving around, trying to find a poetry reading. They ended up at Estelle's, where he met poet and rock-club denizen Thax Douglas. He stayed in touch with the Chicago woman and moved here in September 1992. They're still together.
He self-published a couple books and continued to do readings, but he was increasingly disenchanted with the poetry scene. He started to perform at comedy open mikes at bars like the Red Lion and the Lyons Den, where he says they're more receptive to his offbeat, sometimes offensive material. "There seem to be smarter people than at a comedy club, and it doesn't matter if you suck because nobody paid anything to get in." A fan of Andy Kaufman, he prefers "anticomedy"--such as long jokes with no punch lines "that go on forever." For his audition at this year's Chicago Comedy Festival, he acted like a "standard black comedian," delivering a list of nonsensical differences between blacks and whites. It won him a gig at a black comedy club.
"It seemed like there was nowhere to go with poetry," he says. "At least with comedy there's a possibility that you can be a working comedian and get an HBO special." Earlier this year he returned to Decatur to play the Holiday Inn, and last week he auditioned for Montreal's prestigious Just for Laughs comedy festival.
This summer Potrafka published Thax Douglas's only book of poetry, Tragic Faggot Syndrome, under his Rienstquienth International imprint ("the most torturous word I've ever invented"). And a few weeks later he published Small and Wrong, another collection of his own poetry, cartoons, and comedy bits, including "Eulogy for Gene Siskel" ("At first he scared me, with bushy hair and moustache, cackling at me from the Today Show every morning"). It cost just over $4,000 to publish 1,000 copies of each book, and Potrafka says he hopes to put out a compilation of his earlier pieces as well as more work by his friends. "It's not entirely altruistic," he says of his association with Douglas. "This will give me some credibility--it will make my books seem less like some hokey vanity press kind of thing. Thax is known and respected."
Potrafka will read with Douglas this Friday at 8 at Quimby's, 1854 W. North. They'll be joined by comedians Kyle Kinane, Dwayne Kennedy, Dan Kaufman, Mike Olson, and Shappy, as well as the bands the Geezers and Redneck Exorcist. It's free. Call 773-342-0910.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.