“This is gonna be a great club when they finish it,” says comedian Jeffrey Ross in the first minute of his act at Zanies in Chicago. The club’s been open for thirty years.
His eyes appear a tad bloodshot, as if he’s intoxicated, but that may be because he’s staring head-on into six spotlights. He casually meanders in front of a sellout crowd, awkwardly working with a stage half-filled with a piano and keyboard. “I ask for a piano, and they got two pianos… ‘And if you could put it right in the middle so that I can’t walk around it all, that’d be perfect.’ We’ll have a little limbo contest with the piano later.”
“Last time I was here that speaker fell on somebody,” he says, pointing to the speaker directly above the front row, then laughing to himself. “All right, I guess I’m done making fun of this shithole.”
Within thirty seconds, he’s back for more—Zanies is too easy a target. “Such an honor performing in the room Anne Frank hid in from the Nazis,” he says. “How many years was it? Five years? Wake up Annie, war’s over.”
“Change, change is happening everywhere, except for the décor at Zanies. Some things will never change. Sam Kinison, still pissed off about it,” he says while gesturing to a colorful painting of Kinison on the wall, then notices the outlets and electrical knobs on stage that appear to have not been replaced since 1978. “Oh, we’ll have an electrical fire any second. This is great.”
The audience eats it up; some clap in agreement, some hide their blushing face within their hands and others hold their stomachs to keep their intestines from bursting open. Obviously, Ross—the current “Roastmaster General” for the New York Friars’ Club—is just doing his job, which is to insult the most beloved of society’s institutions, even Chicago’s favorite stand-up club. “I love this place,” he says later with as much earnestness as you’ll hear from a comedian in character.
The scene really hasn’t changed too much since November of 1978, when Zanies first opened its doors at 1548 North Wells. Back then, people came looking for a couple of laughs and now, thirty years and thousands of comedians later, Chicagoans still look to Zanies (and its more recent incarnations in the suburbs and in Nashville) for an outlet away from their troubles, to spend to an evening with just their significant other, a couple of drinks and someone who can make them forget how much their job blows.
There is one thing about tonight’s scene that’s different, though. In the back of the room, next to the side exit, there’s a small space where Bert Haas used to stand—and if he were present, he’d probably smile at the beating Ross was laying on his club and take pleasure in knowing the audience was erupting at every second of it. But God bless his soul, Bert Haas is no longer with us… he had to leave early because he’s still recovering from knee surgery. A shame, right?
Alive and well, Haas, the executive vice president of Zanies (“The reason that it’s ‘executive vice president,'” he says, “is that it gives the impression there’s more than one vice president.”) spends most of his time booking comedians, both up-and-coming new talent and established headliners and spreading the good word: his belief that Zanies is the “hottest club in the country.”
“One of the reasons we’ve succeeded for thirty years, it doesn’t matter who you see at Zanies, you’re gonna laugh,” Haas says. “That’s my guarantee. I will say that to anybody. You may not laugh at every joke, but you will laugh, and at the end of the show you will have enjoyed yourself. If you don’t, call me and I will give you a refund.” He claims no one has ever taken up the offer.
Opened in November of 1978 by the sole owner, Rick Uchwat, Zanies started as an all-around entertainment club—improv, stand-up, music, etc.—before focusing purely on stand-up in 1980 and capitalizing on the comedy boom in the early eighties, having since survived economic recessions and the perception of Chicago as an “improv town” (not to mention the rise in popularity of Andrew Dice Clay). Bill Maher, Sam Kinison, Emo Phillips, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Gaffigan, Drew Carey, Dave Chappelle—these are simply a random smattering of the comics who have performed within Zanies’ tight confines.
Certainly, Zanies’ track record indicates Haas and Uchwat have an impeccable eye for fresh talent, having spent the last three decades booking relative no-names who, lo and behold, emerged as megastars.
“If you had gone to Zanies in 1982 you would’ve seen Jay Leno, you would’ve seen Jerry Seinfeld, you would’ve seen Richard Lewis,” Haas says. “If you would’ve gone to Zanies in the nineties, you would’ve seen Sarah Silverman and Lewis Black and Doug Stanhope and Dave Attell. And now in the 2000s, you’re going to see the next crop of comedians, whether it be Michael Palascak or Hannibal Burress.”
Seeing the stars of tomorrow—today! A nice concept (especially when not involving Ed McMahon or Simon Cowell), but Zanies takes the novelty to another level, offering to see these future icons in a tiny comedy club with a little bit of that rickety, old-school storefront atmosphere.
“[At larger venues], the comedian tells the joke, and the joke goes out to the audience almost as a wave, which means that people at different parts of the room hear the joke and respond to it, so then the laughs come back in a wave,” Haas says. “Whereas at Zanies in Chicago, the room is so small, the laughs explode. And the whole room responds at once. And the result is just an explosion of laughter on a hot joke.”
Ask anyone who’s been to Zanies—comedian or audience member—and the word that will come out of their mouth: “intimate,” an apt description for a venue that seats only 160. Make no mistake, they pack em’ in. A quick glance of Ross’ sellout crowd looks like a tight assembly of heads, bodies, tables, beer bottles, pizza slices and a thin aisle for apron-donned waitresses to skirt through. Jackets stay on, as there’s a slight but steady draft that filters through the room. But the desired effect is achieved: you can’t help but laugh when you’re that cramped.
“David Letterman keeps his studio I think at sixty degrees when he tapes his show,” Haas says. “People complain all the time, they wear winter coats in his studio. It’s to keep the audience cold so they’re alert and paying attention. If it’s warm, then they get groggy and they don’t pay attention.”
The stage may not be large, but it rises higher than normal, and a small ledge coming off of it serves as a place for the front row to put their drinks, although the comedian could kick the bottles back in their face if they wanted to.
“If you have some sitting in the front row, sometimes you feel bad because you’re like, ‘Did I clean my shoes enough?’ says Chicago comedian and frequent Zanies performer Patti Vasquez. “You know because sometimes they’re staring at your feet, that’s how high the stage is.”
The relatively small capacity of the crowd—along with the typically cheery spirits of a comedy-club audience—has an interesting effect: you feel like you’re in this together. Couples who were strangers five minutes ago now feel like they’re, at the very least, distant cousins. “Yeah, the economy is in the tank, but, dammit, tonight we’re gonna laugh our asses off,” seems to be the mood. There’s almost a family-reunion feel to it all, and the comedians can sense it.
“What I like about Zanies is the Chicago atmosphere, and for the Chicago comedian, it’s coming home,” says Chicago comedian Tom Dreesen. “It’s like, to me, you’re performing in your living room. It’s like you’re performing for your family, like performing for people in your backyard, your neighbors.”
“You go to another club, you have to be on your best behavior, and there I can pretty much do or say what I want, they’re not going to get rid of me,” says Larry Reeb, another Chicago stand-up veteran. “It’s the security, I guess.”
Vasquez shows up even when’s she not performing. “I’ve headlined all over the country, but it just feels like it’s my place to hang out sometimes,” she says. “I probably come across as a little bit crazy when I walk in there and no one knows who I am if they’re not from Chicago. But it’s my favorite place to perform.”
Haas admits that Zanies, like any other comedy club, has their fair share of hecklers and that the late-show Fridays can get a little testy because the audience is usually “tired and/or intoxicated,” but the comedians seem to feel that an intelligent Chicago crowd finds the perfect balance between crowds in New York and L.A.
“You get all different kinds of audiences, I would say the best audiences in the country, really,” Vasquez says. “Because Chicago doesn’t have that sort of ‘make me laugh’ attitude that New York does, and they’re not as laidback as L.A. They’re very smart and fun.”
“There’s no other city in America to me that supports their entertainers like Chicago does,” Dreesen says. “Chicago’s not spoiled, it’s not New York or L.A. Chicagoans pull for you, they cheer for you, they want you to do well.”
And then, after rising through the ranks from emceeing to featuring to headlining, Dreesen says Chicagoans will support comedians to do one more thing: get the hell out of here. And be nationally successful, of course.
“Chicago’s a great city to start out in, it’s very supportive, but at some point they’ll want you to leave, and show the rest of the world they were right about you. They want you to go out and be nationally known,” he says. “I make the analogy [that] it’s like your family. If you leave your family at 19 years old, you’ll break their hearts. But if you come back a success, they adore you at 24, 25. Stay with your family till you’re 35 years old and see how much they adore you.”
Many comedians who’ve graced the stage at Zanies have since moved to bigger and better things, but in a way, they’ve never left, and not in that corny “their spirit still resides within these walls” fashion. An incredible collection of framed, signed press photos of hundreds of comics who have worked there fills up virtually inch of the wall, a visual spectacle that demonstrates just how expansive the Zanies’ lineup has been over the years, not to mention how bewilderingly bad some of their hairstyles were (a captivating number of mullets are on display).
Todd Barry’s balding head shows up multiple times, as well as a very serious, clean-cut shot of “Full House”’s Dave Coulier, and a picture of Jimmy Fallon that looks like he’s about ready to audition for the Backstreet Boys. One could spend hours trying to read every message written on these photos, but here are some favorites:
“Rick, let me explain why I suddenly look like Bobby Darin.” —a young and innocent-looking Tim Allen
“I’ve never worked here.” —Jerry Seinfeld
“After I’m done signing this I’m going to do wild, convoluted-like dances around the club. Because I feel like it.” —Jeff Garlin, from the late 1980s (guessing from the photo)
“Who you laughing at, Butthead?” —Tom Wilson, better known as Biff from “Back to the Future”
“Thanks for getting that coleslaw from my throat! (I’ll buy you a new buzz saw).” —Emo Phillips
When the comedians sign them, there’s a name that shows up on a hefty number of photos; here’s one reference: “Bert, you suck balls. XO,” from Chelsea Handler. Haas’ name, followed by some well wishes or some sarcastic insult, is a common theme. And for good reason.
“He’s probably, without question, one of the best, if not the best, comedy-club manager in the country, because he’s been doing it a long time,” Dreesen says. “He knows the comedians, he knows their skills, he also knows how to treat them like human beings, and he also knows how most of them are all nuts, so he knows how to deal around their idiosyncrasies.”
“Bert’s like my brother, really,” Reeb says. “We used to live together, we used to room together for about a year. And then I got married, and he hates me for it because then he got married. We should have stayed together. I’m like, ‘Why didn’t you stop me?’ But he didn’t.”
A sociable fella with a penchant for traditional punchline/payoff comedy, Haas came oh-so-close to not even landing in this profession. His original plan in 1980 was to go to a German college for grad school in economics, but taking a waiter job at Zanies for the extra cash to send him there unknowingly changed his life.
“One thing led to another. I was the waiter, then I was the floor manager, then the manager, and then I never went back to Germany,” Haas says.
That’s lucky for comedians, who seem to love the guy. His wife included: squeaky-clean Chicago comedian Sally Edwards, who met Hass while he was an aspiring manager and she an aspiring comedian. (“We like to think of ourselves as the first couple of Chicago comedy,” Haas says.) But the way comedians describe their own kind, it seems like it would take extra effort to figure out how to best suit their needs.
“Comedians are a rare breed,” Dreesen says. “This is an observation of forty years of being in the business—eighty-five percent of all stand-up comedians are insecure, neurotic, sometimes psychotic, love-starved wrecks. And the other fifteen percent are gifted, confident people who say, ‘This is what I do. I know how to write a joke, I know how to tell one. And I can get up on the stage and be as comfortable on that stage as I am in my living room.'”
“There’s a certain amount of narcissism and self-hatred that’s involved in comedy,” Vasquez says. “Because it can be very painful to expose what you’re thinking, what your take on life is, whether it’s your philosophy or what you think is funny, and it doesn’t always work, and to be judged so immediately on that. Bert is very good at supporting comics and giving them a safe place to work.”
When asked about comedians and their sometimes-erratic tendencies, Haas shrugs it off. “Comedians have this terrible reputation of being ‘Oh he’s neurotic, he’s crazy, he had a bad childhood,’” he says. “I think we all have our baggage to carry, and I have to say that out of the thousands of comedians I’ve met in my career, I can name two or three that I would prefer to never have to meet again. Two or three out of a thousand.
“Are they neurotic? Yeah. But there’s a lot of ego involved in what they do,” he continues. “Most people, if you ask them what their number one fear is, it’s speaking in public. These guys do it for a living every night.
“I used to drive Jay Leno around in my Mazda, I used to take him to press gigs,” he says, to emphasize how deep-rooted some of his relationships are. “I knew Jay, I knew him as a person, so I don’t really get impressed with celebrities anymore.”
“My friends don’t know what Zanies is,” quips Hannibal Burress, in his feature-act routine for Jeffrey Ross. “I was like, ‘Yo, I’m doing Zanies tonight.’ He was like, ‘You need to leave those pills alone.'”
For those with enough knowledge to know that Zanies exists and the curiosity to wonder what goes on behind its kooky, crooked-lettered sign, there’s certainly been plenty of stories to tell when they stepped out. Just one example, from Tom Dreesen, who picked this one from his memory of favorite Zanies shows:
“One night, there was some noise out in front of the venue when I was performing,” he says. “It got a little bit louder, so I took the microphone off the stage and went out in the street while the audience stayed where they were, and I began interviewing people out on the street. [I’m] getting huge laughs inside because Harry Caray was coming over to see me, and Harry happened to be on the sidewalk, trying to get in, going, ‘Hey, How do I get into this goddamn place?’ not knowing that we were on live. I had this microphone in my hand, but he still didn’t put the two together that I was on stage.
“One of the things I said is, ‘Harry, my biggest fear when I go on is everybody notices you, they’ll be looking at you, they won’t pay any attention to me.’ ‘Aw, that’s bullshit.’ I said, “No, I’m telling you Harry. You know how they love you here in Chicago.’ Anyhow, when he went inside they gave him a standing ovation, cheering and everything, and by that time I was on stage, I said, ‘What’d I tell ya?’ You know, it was one of those magic moments that you look for in comedy.”
Sometimes these magic moments fall from the comedy gods onto an unsuspecting crowd at Zanies and it’s the unpredictability of comedy that has helped keep Zanies afloat for so long. When asked what’s made him enjoy stand-up comedy so much to stay in the business for this long, Haas says it’s partly because he also likes, of all things, westerns.
“You know there’s something about the one-on-one of stand-up comedy that I think is so cool,” Haas says. “It’s kinda like the gunslinger, you know, the ‘High Noon’ aspect. With stand-up comedy, it’s just the performer, it’s the one guy or girl, with a microphone and the audience. There’s no sketch material to fall back on, there’s nobody else to fall back on. It’s just you up there.”