Making It: Ian Rans

Rob Callahan looks into the scrappy, varied career of Ian Rans, former art director at Cake Magazine and creator of the cult-hit show "Drinking With Ian" and Triviasco, in this funny, candid conversation about brushes with fame, the hangover of near-success, and how to work the long game

1Ian Rans. Photo courtesy of the artist

Twin Cities history is riddled with artists who probably should have been huge in their times but didn’t quite fit with what their respective industries wanted. Think the Replacements or Rob Callahan. Folks who, one way or another, brushed hard enough against the big time to pick its pockets, but stumbled and fell back instead.

Ian Rans has a similar story. These days, you’ll find him celebrating the tenth anniversary of Triviasco, his unique take on bar trivia, but his personal brand is broader and more varied. He’s worked for Cake Magazine and published his own zine, called Toast, designed covers for Stand Up! Records, rebooted karaoke and seventies-era game shows as bar entertainment, and he’s developed and hosted too many live events to list. If you’ve been in town more than a few years, you probably know about him from Drinking With Ian, a raucous talk show that used to tape at First Avenue. Then again, maybe you don’t know about him at all.

Although he’s had a few near misses with greater fame, most of Rans’s career has been one of niche notoriety, appealing to a small subset of the local scene but appealing hard. Think of him like the first Velvet Underground album: Maybe only a hundred or so people heard it at the time, but man did they ever hear it.

Getting in with Ian

So I says to Ian, I says, “Ian, how about I write you up for the ‘Making It’ series?”

And Ian tries to talk me out of it. Several times, in fact. That’s because Ian Rans isn’t the type to sit around considering himself especially noteworthy or interesting.

“Whenever I get approached for this,” he told me, “I always shy away because I assume none of it will reflect positively on me. One time I was approached by the Star Tribune and asked, ‘How did you get that sweet job?’ And I’m like, “I live in poverty. What ‘sweet job’ could you possibly be referencing?”

At the time, the sweet job in question was as host of the Twin Cities cult television show, Drinking With Ian. For over seven years, he got his buzz on and documented punk and/or rock’s ever-evolving urbanity in and around Minneapolis, promoting up-and-coming bands and picking the brains of some of local music’s living legends in the process. It never paid well. In fact, it never paid at all, and when years’ worth of hard work and artistic passion’s inevitable letdowns began piling up on Rans and his crew, they threw in the bar towel and dried up their act once and for all.

Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles on Drinking With Ian

When it was on, though, the view from outside made the job with Drinking With Ian look pretty sweet indeed. To the casual observer, Rans was a high-roller deep inside the Minneapolis entertainment scene, and he was living the dream; interviewing rock stars, discovering new bands, having a drink or two with several hundred of his closest friends, and being showered in near unanimous acclaim by his music and culture writer contemporaries.

More on that later, though. One does not simply step off the bus in Minneapolis and suddenly get dubbed “Minneapolis’s favorite talk show host” by City Pages in its prime. Not overnight, anyway. The journey from Rans’s hometown of Muncie, Indiana to his place within a greater found family here was longer than that — it was more complex, and it was as tangential as a June day is long.

Outrunning origins

“I think that after you graduate high school, you should throw a dart at a fuckin’ map and move,” Ian says. (NOTE: If you’re unfamiliar with Rans’s body of work, now’s a good time to tell you there’s some casual cursing ahead.) “Because otherwise, you’re dragged down with everybody who knew you when you were 13 and a moron. You really need to cut and run, and make a fake persona or just come up with something that isn’t the jerk that you’ve been trapped into being since birth.”

Rans threw that dart and landed in Minneapolis back in 1994, in what he dubbed the Era of Fancy Ray, and immediately noted the dramatic difference between here and back home. He recalls thinking, “This place is just nuts.”

“And then,” he remembers, “it slowly kind of died off. Then I was looking at public access, and nobody was doing anything on public access, and I’m like, ‘Well, fuck. I was sold a faulty bill of goods here, and where’s the weird shit?’ Then I realized, ‘I guess I gotta do weird shit.’ So that’s what I ended up doing for the next… well, you know. Until today. ‘Til right now.”

Rans went deep into the Twin Cities music scene after he saw someone reading a copy of Cake Magazine on the bus. He already knew about Cake, but it wasn’t until that moment that an epiphany struck him. That was when he said out loud, “You know what I want to do?” And then he answered, “Some day, I want to be an art director at a magazine.” 

“That’s my big dream when I’m like 18, 19,” he recalls, “like my big, huge, aimin’-for-the-stars dream, and I went after it.” Within two years, he was Cake‘s art director, a position in which the outward glamour was often belied by behind-the-scenes squalor: Rans was living in a basement at the magazine, which he describes as, “Unheated, no windows, no nothin’.”

“Back then I was mostly held together with hangovers and nicotine,” says Rans. That’s easier to do when you’re young, but the brighter you burn the quicker, “and I was runnin’ down the candle on that one very quickly.” It was an experience that did much to prepare him for a lifestyle that would come to balance a high profile among the scene’s premiere movers and shakers precariously against the continuing struggle to pull in minimum wage at what he was doing.

Rans also admits, “I was a horribly green designer. I had no business being there, but they needed somebody and I needed that gig.” Post-Cake, he fell into a gig doing PR for First Avenue. Which, looking back, he admits was an awkward fit. “It was good,” he remembers, but adds that he doesn’t remember being very good at it. After two years, the venue let him go and he was left wondering what to do next.

“My termination came, and I was like, ‘What do I want to do?’” He says, adding that he soon decided to try hosting something. “So I hosted Punk Karaoke, because that was still a novel concept at the time, so I was like, ‘Look at me, I’m cornering the market on this,’ because I had a computer with an mp3 programmer. If I hit Command-K, it would get rid of the vocals.”

While hosting Punk Karaoke, Rans was building a personal brand and a team of talented friends who would join him when he leaped from the lion’s head. A year into the gig, he started making plans to take his crew and his act to the small screen. “I was waiting,” he says, “while hosting a crappy karaoke night in Northeast Minneapolis, for someone to come and realize how brilliant I am.”

“But maybe,” he realized, “I need to come to them. Nobody’s gonna put me on TV, if not me. And luckily some of the regulars at Punk Karaoke actually did video production.”

That was how Drinking With Ian began, and Rans says now of the show’s conception, “I happened to hodge-podge something together, and then that ended up running for seven years, and ended up doing quite well. By accident, though.”

The show was initially recorded on First Avenue’s smaller stage in the 7th Street Entry before it moved to the more spacious Mainroom. According to Rans, there was nothing awkward about returning to the venue that had fired him before. “They wanted to have me there ’cause they knew I could do it,” he says. “They also wanted me to host events there. Even when I was working there, they liked me on a mic, so when I started the television show they were the first people I was talking to about it.”

“First Avenue lost so much fucking money on Drinking With Ian it’s not even funny,” he says. “They booked us when they could’ve… I mean, theoretically, at First Avenue every show could be sold out with a $50-dollar ticket, and they could be laughing all the way to the bank. That was never the case. They took hits on us that they never should’ve taken.” Rans chalks the show’s success at First Avenue up to management’s enthusiasm for a television show happening on their stage, and on the unique nature of of the show. “It wasn’t just me making dick jokes for half an hour,” he says. “It was me making dick jokes for like 15 minutes, but then there were bands and guests.”

Rans now looks back on the show and sees it as something that, if nothing else, will end up at a library or in a vault. Something that will be a slice of the Twin Cities entertainment culture as it was during the Twenty-First Century’s first decade, something that will perhaps serve as reference material when someone down the line wants to know what it was like in Minneapolis during that specific handful of years. “There’s this video document of some of it,” he says, “not saying that we covered most of the bases, if any of them, but I mean here’s some live recordings of bands, here’s people talking that doesn’t exist any other place.”

“I turned down being in a band that sold millions of albums just because I was like, ‘Aah, this pop punk thing’s over! I got this television show I’m gonna go do.’ But I don’t think there’s any shame in that, because who wants to be on somebody else’s ride? I’ll just come up with my own dumb idea and either it’ll work or it won’t.”

The long, dark hangover of near success

Drinking With Ian attracted some fleeting attention from national producers, but that interest was short-lived. Its local following grew, though, and with that growth came the impetus to expand, adapt, and experiment. In 2010, the show entered a season in which it would no longer be pre-recorded. They were going to broadcast every episode live, and they were going to do it from a new venue. “We did one half-season that was live,” he says. “It was Donny Dirk’s. They did a great job at screwing us over, like 12 hours before we were to go live on television.”

When asked if he’d ever consider rebooting the show, Rans gives a quick and dismissive no. When pressed, he gets more thoughtful. “Honestly, it’s such a strange thing to even consider because nobody’s even sniffed around,” he says. “It’s not like I’m going, ‘Oh, that offer isn’t good enough.’”

“It wasn’t held in high regard,” he adds. “I mean, by a handful of people it was, but it was just a thing that we did that I don’t think got the traction it should have, nor was it taken as seriously as it should have been, if for no other reason than the amount of work that went into it.”

“And that’s why I’m always kinda gunshy about a lot of this stuff. There’s a lot of blood that went into it, there’s a lot of very, very hard work that went into it, and after it’s all said and done, you feel like you’re kind of trying to throw something back into the ether.”

The duality of Rans

At some point, after you’ve spent years learning to peacock your way into a public persona with a high visibility factor, you start to feel like you’ve got a secret identity. On one hand, you’re serious about what you do, and you pour your heart and soul into doing it better all the time, like Batman. On the other hand, you’re running around turning heads, clowning and pomping, drawing public interest which you hope to parlay into support for your private passion, like Bruce Wayne. “You have to put on the plumage,” says Rans. “There’s no way around it. If you’re going to have a microphone in your hand, you have to be ‘KISS Alive 1’ — that’s the only way you can pull it off.”

You pull that persona off via a lot of schtick. You’re a bit of a man behind the curtain, a live-action running gag, even a perpetual bit. It’s a duality to which one can have trouble adjusting, but Rans sees it as a more common aspect of the human condition. “Everybody has a lie and a schtick every time they go to work,” he says. “Everybody has a lie and schtick every time they talk to somebody… You know, when you talk to your grandparents. You’re presenting yourself in very specific ways. And that is no different than anything else.”

The trick, he says, is not just to fall into a role, but to fall into the best role you can. “You have to find the good parts about you. This takes time, though. It’s one thing just to be big and over-the-top, but you actually have to figure out the right part.” Rans recalls both his successes and failures in finding his role, remembering an anecdote from when he was about twenty. “I wanted to be in stories people would tell. I remember one time I met Morris Day, and the person I was with told me, ‘I will give you 20 dollars to ask him what time it is,’ and I was like, oh god, I can do that. And I’d be legendary in my group of friends, but no, you’d also be the world’s biggest fucking asshole.”

That’s the sort of schtick Rans advises avoiding, cautioning that just being legendary for legendaryness’ sake is what leads to being divisive. “You have to be really careful how you tread, like: how do you present yourself the best way to the most people, without pissing off 49% of the people who you’re probably aiming at?”

Rans mostly denies his personal duality as roundly as he denies the possibility of a Drinking With Ian reboot, admitting that he just doesn’t find himself interesting enough to have that kind of dichotomy. “But if I did,” he admits, “it’s that I’m arrogant as part of some sort of self-defense mechanism, as my own personal broken personality. But when it comes right down to it, I don’t understand how anybody would know who I am. I really think that this is all fluff and bluster, mostly.”

The long game

Rans ran his television show for just a couple years shy of a decade. His regular hosting duties at First Avenue events and at other shows around the city don’t look to be slowing down, and Triviasco just reached the 10-year mark in February. In fact, Rans had a notable impact on the way bar trivia is run in Minneapolis. As an entertainment form, pub quizzes have long served as a modest source of income for entertainers who haven’t yet made ends meet in other fields: comics, teachers, authors and musicians often find their ways into these gigs. Dessa hosted a night in town for years, and so did some unknown sci-fi writer, but Rans predates them both and, although he won’t likely admit it, he was a game changer right out of the gate.

Pub quizzes were — and in plenty of cases, still are — a strange amalgam of superficial specialization and base, mass-produced background entertainment. Rans’s brash approach reset the stage for other big personalities to follow his lead, and for those personalities to thrive in a scene that had long had as its cornerstones bored hosts reading cue cards, little to no crowd interaction, and content that feels like the product of some generic trivia mill’s haphazard churnings. Post-Rans, a sub-genre formed around the idea of the pub quiz as improv, audience engagement, and spectacle.

Triviasco started when Rans, still broke from doing a show that payed solely in exposure, set about looking to transform his modicum of fame into a modicum of income. Taking what he’d learned from Punk Karaoke, he honed his hosting skills and his familiarity with crowds in bars, combining the two to forge a new style of quiz, which originally ran at Pizza Luce. “I was in abject poverty from doing the show,” he says, “and a quick couple of bucks from Pizza Luce was a huge help. I wanted to subvert the normal bar-goer experiences. [I figured] people are used to trivia, but I’ll do it with this slant. It’ll be louder, and more obnoxious, and, you know… dumb.”

Next Sunday A.D.

Statistically, someone from a scene is going to break into the big-time sooner or later. Stick around long enough and it might be you. Then again, it might just as likely be a bunch of other scenesters with whom you happen to be friends. There’s a uniqueness to the feeling you get watching people you know become hugely successful. It’s a sense of pride in their success, mixed with a sort of self-deprecating admission of regret over the opportunities you’ve personally missed, for whatever reason. The longer you’re involved, the more you’ll likely experience this sort of thing. And Rans has been involved for quite some time now. “That’s the thing about living in a market like Minneapolis,” says Rans. “You think you’re looking up to other people, but that’s just an optical illusion. You’re pretty much on the same level the entire damn time.” He also jokes that it’s not a bad thing to have successful friends, because you never know when you’re going to get sick and need someone to headline a benefit for you, or when you’ll need somebody to bail you out of jail.

All joking aside, though, Rans looks back on his career with a realist’s sense of snark. “I think that the meat grinder of history just kinda chops a lot of stuff up, and unless it is a huge mainstream success, I think it’s largely forgotten.”

Now creeping up on his forties, Rans isn’t above trying new things or hoping those things will set the stage for someone else’s future success, just as he rewrote the rules on bar trivia, although it hasn’t happened for him yet. At least not in any way he sees as measurable:

“I thought I would invent things that younger people — my younger analogues — would want to end up doing, and kind of get their start, and it just never happened. I never ended up getting anybody kinda climbing up and going, ‘Hey, I’m 19, I don’t really know how to do this, but I’ve got time, and I’ll give it a shot.’”

But he keeps going, because ‘Making It’ isn’t always about shooting the moon. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of keeping your head near enough to the clouds that you stay comfortable there. Sometimes, at just the right altitude, you get a better look at that proverbial moon. You compare the number of people who beat themselves up over missing their mark to the number who’ve hit it, and you just go on doing you and refining your aim. Which, if you think about it, is still just as statistically likely to pan out for you as it is for someone else just doing them.

“I’ve got gold records on my walls from people I grew up with,” he says. “I turned down being in a band that sold millions of albums just because I was like, ‘Aah, this pop punk thing’s over! I got this television show I’m gonna go do.’ But I don’t think there’s any shame in that, because who wants to be on somebody else’s ride? I’ll just come up with my own dumb idea and either it’ll work or it won’t.”

Related links and information: Ian Rans’s show, Drinking With Ian, is available in its entirety on the Stand Up! Comedy channel on Roku device. You can see Ian in person hosting Trviasco, every Tuesday at Club Jager in Minneapolis.

Rob Callahan

Rob Callahan started working as a journalist back in the Twentieth Century. He took a break for a few years to write novels, then came back in 2009 as an arts and culture writer. His work in journalism has garnered a Marconi award, Associated Press awards, and recognition from the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. His next novel, Duplicity, will tell the story of an underachieving young professional temping for the Devil, who’s accidentally promoted to project manager over the impending …   read more