Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

Dark Humor: The Ups and Downs, and Downs, of a Chicago Comedian’s Struggle

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Photo: Elle Metz

Photo: Elle Metz

By Elle Metz

On a bright stage in a dark room at The Annoyance Theatre in Lakeview, two men, bouncing slightly on their toes, peer into the audience. Seventeen people—mostly young and casually dressed—gaze back. One woman sips a light beer. A goateed man sits up straight in his chair. The two performers, Derek Shoemaker and Blair Britt, ask for a suggestion to start their improvisation.

“Cadaver,” someone calls out. Shoemaker and Britt immediately step back to the middle of the stage, facing each other like sparring partners.

Shoemaker has a round face framed by a dark brown buzz cut and perpetual two-day scruff. Tonight he wears maroon slacks, a short-sleeved, blue-and-white-checked button up and red Vans sneakers—a typical performance uniform for him.

In this first scene, Shoemaker plays a police detective and Britt a medical examiner. They’re trying to solve a difficult murder case. Shifting their weight forward and back, the men discuss the case and gesture toward an imaginary body lying on a morgue table in front of them. Britt rants that he can’t find anything wrong with the body. A knowing look crosses Shoemaker’s face.

“We know about your gift,” Shoemaker says. “We know that you can touch bodies…”

“No, I’m not doing that again, alright,” Britt replies. “I’m not!” Read the rest of this entry »

Funny Future: Looking For the Next Kevin Hart at the Break Out Comedy Festival

Comedy, Festivals, Improv/Sketch Reviews, Improv/Sketch/Revues, Recommended Comedy Shows, Stand-Up No Comments »


By Loy Webb

When I was younger, my two sisters and I shared a room. One of our many Saturday rituals was flipping through magazines to find pictures to decorate our walls. Most of the pictures consisted of our favorite members of an R&B boy band called B2K (pretty hot in the early 2000s).

But my younger sister, I kid you not, cut out a picture of Kevin Hart and put it on the wall. She was in elementary school at the time mind you, and nobody knew who he was. He hadn’t had a major movie, a comedy special, let alone the title he has today as one of the world’s top comedians.

And if you walk into our house today, on that wall, between the old pictures of Kanye West, Destiny’s Child, Usher and Jamie Foxx, is a picture of a young Kevin Hart with a blurb on the side that reads “up and coming comedian/actor.”

I remember asking my sister why she put that picture up. She shrugged and said she thought he was cute. But maybe, just maybe, she saw his star potential. I know that’s pretty deep for an elementary school kid, but hey, a child shall lead them right?

Watching the two-day “Break Out Comedy Festival” presented by NBC Universal and Second City this weekend, I felt like my younger sister. I was not just bearing witness to the next generation of comedic talent, but the next generation of comedic stars with futures filled with blinding brightness. Read the rest of this entry »

Big Laughs: The Chicago Women’s Funny Festival Returns with Seventy Shows

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Liz MacArthur and Jill Valentine

Liz McArthur and Jill Valentine

Comedy has come a long way. In the old days, many male comedians believed with all of their hearts that women just weren’t funny. The comedy world was once filled with barriers for female comedians. Times have changed and while many of those barriers still exist, many women have taken their rightful place in every echelon of the comedic world. To celebrate this welcome change, the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival (CWFF) was created.

Festival founders Jill Valentine and Liz McArthur—both veterans of the Chicago comedy community who worked on the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, another of Chicago’s big comedy extravaganzas—saw an opportunity to create a festival that focused on women. By applying their experience and expertise, they created the CWFF in 2012.

Now for the third year in a row, the CWFF takes to the stage to celebrate women in comedy. Unlike many other comedy festivals that focus on a specific genre of comedy such as sketch or improv, the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival features every type of comedy, from stand-up to burlesque to musical comedy; if it’s funny, it has a place at CWFF. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show/About Face Theatre and Silk Road Rising

Recommended Shows, Stand-Up, Theater, Theater Reviews 1 Comment »
Fawzia Mirza and Damian Conrad/Photo: Michael Brosilow

Fawzia Mirza and Damian Conrad/Photo: Michael Brosilow


This gal’s got some real balls. Is that too blue for you? Sorry, I just couldn’t resist such a nice opening. Oh, she’s got one of those too.

Lest you think I’m being too irreverent, be advised that the protagonist of “Brahman/i: A One-Hijra Stand-Up Comedy Show” is frequently in your face about the uncommonly dual genitalia s/he possesses. Portrayed by actress Fawzia Mirza in a commanding and at times fierce near-solo turn in About Face Theatre/Silk Road Rising’s downtown production, the titular character delights—like any good comedian—in confronting the audience. If you’re squeamish about anatomy or gender designations, be forewarned. And if you’re British, be prepared to bear the brunt of an increasingly fiery assault on your imperial history that surpasses even the abuse heaped upon Brahman/i’s sidekick, a hapless but sympathetic (and sympathizing) bass player who commits no less a sin than daring to sit, uncommitted, partly in the dark and partly in the spotlight reserved for the star.

It’s Brahman/i who really straddles the line between dark and light, and so many other borders as well—at times making a case for understanding and tolerance, and at other times venting with a self-assured righteousness befitting one named after supreme, infinite reality. Also like the Hindu concept of Brahman, our hero in this play escapes gender classification. S/he flirts with such designation—and with some of the audience as well—but don’t expect any easy answers. Read the rest of this entry »

Hot for Laughs: “Performance Anxiety” Pairs Comedy and Sex, the Way Nature Intended

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By Jenny Yoon

It’s a breezy, idyllic summer night in Roscoe Village. The sleepy, family-oriented neighborhood that houses pretty moms in yoga pants has fallen silent by 8pm on a Monday. It’s hard to imagine walking into an establishment in this neighborhood that doesn’t have a kid’s menu. Just north of the Paulina Brown Line station, however, exists a strip mall, barren except for a lone storefront: The Pleasure Chest. Its floor-to-ceiling glass windows aren’t modest, and they expose red-drenched walls displaying dildos and vibrators to anyone who passes by. My companions and I tiptoe to the back of the shop, late and bashful, feelings that turn into mortification at the realization that the last open seats are in the front row. Read the rest of this entry »

Live at the Moviehouse: Taking in Open Mic Mondays at Logan Theatre

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Photo: Brooke Herbert Hayes

The newly rehabbed Logan Theatre, renovated in March, has unveiled a theater with surround sound, a fully stocked bar and organic fare. Screening a variety of films from independent world premieres to classic noirs to cult hits, the Logan also features an open-mic night on Mondays—the first movie theater to do so in Chicago.

At this event, comedians huddle by the bar in the chrome-accented lobby before the start of the show, sipping on five-dollar PBR tallboys—Monday night’s drink special. At 8:30pm, the crowd moves to the lounge, separated from the lobby by a scarlet velvet curtain. Dimly lit, with dark mahogany chairs and vintage movie posters on the wall, the lounge is a veritable time capsule. A waitress takes drink orders, which come with a complimentary basket of popcorn. Read the rest of this entry »

Review: Jeff Garlin in No Sugar Tonight/Steppenwolf Theatre

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Photo: Robert Trachtenberg


At some point in Jeff Garlin’s free-wheeling stand-up comedy routine, he announces, “I’m the world’s most comfortable comedian. Not the world’s funniest, which is what you want, but the most comfortable.” That’s about right. Garlin’s show is less “show” (as he makes pains to point out more than once), and more like hanging out with him, at a dinner party or something. He tells stories—vignettes drawn from his life as comedian, TV star and, most significantly, someone with an eating addiction. (He’s also diabetic and new medicine, on opening night, led to spontaneous burps that he managed with reasonable grace.) Most hinge, not on punch lines, but on ironic turns or, often, just in his way of telling, in his timing. He bounces from story to story, as if he’s making it all up as he goes along, starting a tale, getting distracted, telling another and circling back, occasionally consulting a “set list” he’s got stashed behind his plastic jack-o’-lantern filled with water. His stories are not political, or connected to current events at all, and he’s careful not to lean too heavily on his experiences on Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is smart, since I imagine most of the audience members, like me, are fans of the HBO show and in doing so he keeps us hungry for more. Read the rest of this entry »

411: Raising the Red Bar

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Once upon a podcast, comedians Mike David and Kyle Lane morphed from DIY radio hosts to successful comedy club owners in one quick year. On Friday, the pair toasts the first anniversary of their Red Bar Comedy Club with a nice ol’ roast. Local comics and friends will unleash the rollicking truth (and perhaps some falsehood) of David and Lane in a free show at the club’s Ontourage home. “Hand-picked by us,” says David, “these are the best comics of the year.”

As host of Red Bar Radio, David has been broadcasting comedy over Chicago’s airwaves for nine years. Lane joined him in 2007, when the duo noticed a gaping hole in the city’s comedy outlets.

“For a city this big, there is no reason there should only be one club,” David says, naming Zanies as the only unequivocal standup venue. Underground comedy abounds, but many of those shows are organized by comics who have little resources for polished presentations, explains David. “We found a different way to do it: we share space with a nightclub that’s been around for years. We can charge a little without worrying about spending.” (Friday night’s show is free, but Red Bar charges a $10 cover with no drink minimum for regularly scheduled shows.) Read the rest of this entry »

411: Cancer Laughs

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Lisa Pederson's hoot of a Halloween costume, a year after mastectomy

For thirty years, ever since she was a teenager, Lisa Pedersen has been told that she should do comedy. After surviving cancer, she finally decided to give it a shot and started performing at the “Your Sunday Best” open-mic at Schubas.

“I’m trying to spread the word about cancer,” she says. Pedersen wants people to remember that it’s out there but if we remain positive things will get better. “I had a lot of surgeries and pain but I always maintained my sense of humor,” she says.

Starting June 5 at 11pm and running Saturday nights through June 26, Pederson will be performing her one-hour standup-comedy act “Laughing in the Face of Cancer” at Gorilla Tango Theatre, 1919 North Milwaukee. Pedersen plans to donate her proceeds from the $10 tickets to the shows to Imerman Angels, an organization that connects cancer fighters with cancer survivors.

Cancer is a sensitive subject; Pedersen hopes her act will help people feel more comfortable asking questions.

“I expected someone to say that’s inappropriate and wrong but that’s not been the case,” she says of her show. “People who are struggling want to be laughing and enjoying life,” Pedersen says. “Things happen but we have to keep moving forward.”

This is not just a show for cancer survivors: Pederson promises that everybody will be able to appreciate her humor because everyone’s life has been touched by cancer in one way or another.

“The humor will hopefully remind people that they are not alone and it’s okay to laugh—it’s okay to laugh at yourself.” (Ashley Abramowicz)

What Time Is It?: It’s time for the King of Pot Comedy

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superhighWhat better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon than with a bunch of potheads listening to a pothead make jokes about pot. Today at 4:20pm, during a special single-matinee performance, a giggling crowd actually has something to laugh at. Upon entering the lobby, smoke-machine fog billows out of the theater doors.

Doug Benson may be best known for his appearances on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” and various pop-culture commentary shows like “Best Week Ever” on VH1, but to a different audience, he is the proclaimed King of Pot Comedy. Besides his spoof on the feminist spoken-word series “The Vagina Monologues,” appropriately titled “The Marijuana Logs,” Benson has parodied the documentary about eating nothing but McDonalds for thirty days, making “Super High Me.” Benson did nothing but smoke pot for thirty days straight and functioned just as good if not better than usual.

Benson recently received the opportunity any “stoner comedian” would trade his best bong for, getting to share the stage with cannabis culture icon Tommy Chong during a tour of the “Marijuana Logs” shortly after Chong was released from jail. Read the rest of this entry »