It’s Friday night, and comedian Tony Sam stands outside the Lincoln Restaurant in a turkey suit. He’s got a mic in his hand and a guy with a camera is filming him for a “Man on the Street” bit. The cord from the camera runs back to a screen in front of a live audience inside the restaurant’s back room. Sam yells at taxis as they go by, trying to get someone—anyone—to talk to him.
Nobody does. A pair of guys with foreign accents walk by, but even as Sam tries to engage them in conversation, they chuckle and walk past him. The turkey suit, it seems, is only for comedic value. Finally, in an air of desperation—Sam has one of those Jerry Lewis comedian’s voices that pitches into almost a whine—he turns around to the windowsill, where he’s placed what looks like a small whiteboard. On the board is a map of—Chicago? “Now,” he says into the mic, “it’s time for the weather report,” and you can see there are a few numbers on the tiny hand-drawn map. “Ooh, the high is fifty-eight—that’s nice,” Sam continues. “And down here, we have a new record low.” He says what he’s illegibly written on the board as he turns up to look in the camera. “Shitting in the cat’s litter box.”
The joke plays perfectly inside the back room. Laughter fills the small space, and Sam hears it, even from outside the restaurant, and slightly grins. “I just had to go,” he hams. “It’s OK, I just scooped it out.”
Sam is a stand-up comedian. He loves performing, and it shows. But he’s from Chicago. And Chicago, as Sam will tell you, is not a stand-up town.
Robert Buscemi has been telling jokes on stage here for five years (which makes him “an elder statesman” of the underground scene), and he’ll say straight out that when people think of comedy in Chicago, they don’t think of stand-up. “This is the improv capital of the country,” he says. “Some people say it’s a theater capital also, but nobody would say this is the stand-up capital of the country. Nobody, not even us stand-ups.”
And yet they still perform. You could see stand-up in Chicago every single night of the week. In the back rooms of bars and the side rooms of restaurants, comedians are getting up on stage with just a microphone and telling jokes that make people laugh. And just recently, within the last year, stand-up is modestly flourishing again in Chicago. A glance at the event listings in the newspaper shows dozens of open mics around town, sometimes as many as five a night. New showcases are popping up like mushrooms as comics who’ve honed their craft underground for years are making a name for themselves. And while the best comics are still often forced to leave town to be successful, Chicago stand-up comedy is finally returning to the spotlight. As Tony Sam says, “it’s slowly becoming cool again.”
“Two years ago,” Sam says, “the scene was kind of in this really floundering state. There was one good show, the Lincoln Lodge, and the Elevated was the Wednesday show that was just hit-or-miss at the time as well, and we really wanted a good show.” He was running an open mic at Bad Dog Tavern in May of 2005, and when another bar asked him to do another, he declined. “We were like, ‘No, why don’t we do a book show that’s really put together really well and can be something great?’” Two years later, in addition to his own stand-up around town, he now sends five or six comedians up on stage every Tuesday in the back of the Beat Kitchen as Chicago Underground Comedy, and his room is quickly becoming one of the two best places to perform in Chicago.
According to Sam, his comedians’ work is “offbeat, and smart and edgy,” and that they are “going to do the unexpected. That’s what the Underground’s based on. It’s based on breaking away from the traditional mold of stand-up comedy. You’re supposed to go there and expect the unexpected. It’s all about turning stand-up on its ear and maybe it’s not a traditional formatted joke, like premise, setup, punchline. Maybe it’s a short story, maybe it’s a song, maybe it’s just some letter you got in the mail and you want to comment about it.” One of Sam’s jokes on a Tuesday night consisted of a dramatic reading of an invitation he’d gotten to attend Trump University—his ticket to a workshop of fame and fortune.
Mark Geary runs the other big showcase in town, the Lincoln Lodge, which has been in existence for over half a decade now (which easily makes it the oldest underground room around). Geary is from England, came to America about ten years ago, and started doing stand-up after he saw a how-to book about it in Borders. But when he started doing open mics, he was amazed at how poorly run they were, and decided to produce them instead. “They were all horrendous. Now, open mics tend to be horrendous by definition, but they were more horrendous by the fact that they were run so badly, so amateurishly, so slapdash, that after a while my natural arrogance kicked in and I was like, ‘There’s got to be a way to run these things where at least they run correctly.’”
After a few iterations on his own, he teamed up with promoter Thomas Lawler, and installed the Lincoln Lodge in the back room of the Lincoln Restaurant every weekend from September to May. (It’s so much work for them to put together, says another comedian, that the break is “needed.”) Geary agrees with Sam in saying that Chicago stand-up is more experimental, but he points out that it’s not necessarily by choice. “Most people get into stand-up to get out of stand-up,” he says. “If you’re in L.A. or New York doing stand-up, you’re being seen by TV people and film people all the time. There’s this constant thing that, ‘Hey, someone in this room right now could get me a million-dollar contract.’” But in Chicago, without film and TV to snap up talent, comics don’t focus as much on the business side of things. “In Chicago, there is no industry there, so that commitment level and that willingness to stay sharp all the time and constantly be on your game isn’t so much there. That’s a big weakness, but on the other hand, it’s also a big strength in Chicago because no one’s bullshitting for a TV executive. They’re all experimenting.”
One of those experimenting comics is Buscemi. One of his best jokes is about penguins, and how they don’t seem to have “innards”: “Doesn’t it seem like you go in there and it’s just more penguin? Like an eraser, really.” He agrees that the comedy scene in Chicago actually benefits because it is so underground. “The underground scene in Chicago, it builds on mistakes and risk and ugliness.” The fact that Chicago’s stand-up is so unseen makes it better. It’s “ugly, daring. That’s what I like. Because I’ve seen greatness come out of that.”
One of the reasons for Chicago stand-up’s re-emergence in the past year is a local blog called The Bastion (at thebastion.org), started in July of 2006, that covers all comedy in Chicago, including stand-up. Kristy Mangel is one of the two writers there, and says that Chicago’s status as an island in the comedy industry has actually helped the quality, if not the coverage. “Because Chicago doesn’t have those scouts and those agents out there looking for fresh new blood, the people that are doing comedy in Chicago are doing it because they love comedy.” But, she says, that’s “good and bad because they’re not going to get hired to be in a TV show, but at the same time, the quality is completely there.”
More traditional comedy clubs, Buscemi says, “want an elm tree, to look at it in a certain way. I’m willing to watch forty plants, nineteen and a half of which freakin’ die. And you know, I’m a plant in the middle of its growth with an uncertain future, so I just relate to the guy at the bottom.”
But there’s a flip side to being in an out-of-the-way scene, and it’s that to really succeed, you’ve got to leave it. Chicago has famous comedians coming up, but they’re not getting famous in Chicago—they’re getting famous in L.A. and New York. Josh Cheney is a very funny comedian who is originally from Chicago and has been at it since 2001, and in July, he’s moving to Los Angeles to look for work as a writer. “Chicago is definitely a stepping stone,” he says. “Nobody stays here unless they’re a working road comic and this is just where they’re based. There aren’t enough comedy clubs, there’s not enough work in this city that you can do it nearly as often as you can do it in L.A. or New York.”
Tony Sam has already had a few of his Underground comedians leave town for greener pastures, and as a Chicago native himself, he’s already wrestling with the fact that he may have to leave home to do what he loves professionally. “I’m proud and I feel fortunate to be able to say that, ‘Yeah, I’m from Chicago,’ and I’m what I consider to be successful and talented and I’m proud to be able to perform here and with what we’ve done with the Underground especially being here.” And in the next sentence he stutters a little bit on the word “home”: “But I realize that if I want to take the next step I have to leave, and that’s upsetting, because this is my home.”
There is one place you can make a living doing stand-up in Chicago. Or, as Josh Cheney says, “there’s only one comedy club in this city. There’s only one where if you turn on the lights, you go, hey, this is a comedy club,” not just a sports bar that has an open mic in the back. And that’s Zanies.
Bert Haas is the executive vice president there (he worked his way up from starting as a waiter many years ago). If, at almost ten years old, the Lincoln Lodge is the old man of stand-up in Chicago, then Zanies is the grandfather. They’ve been putting comedy on stage in Old Town since 1979. Haas brags that they are “the third oldest club in the country in the same location.” Zanies has seen all the other big rooms in downtown—the Improv on Wells, the Elevated, the Lyons Den—come and go.
Haas says the secret to Zanies success is that they take people’s money, and then, quite simply, make them laugh. “Zanies is a comedy club in this sense: it doesn’t matter who you see, you will see a great show.” Where Chicago’s underground stand-up scene builds itself up on being different, Zanies succeeds because it’s all the same. “People don’t go to Zanies to see a specific act, they go to Zanies to see comedy. What we’re selling is not a particular act or named performer—what we’re selling and what you’re buying is ninety minutes of laughter. And that is really how we survived and what differentiates us from some of the other rooms in this market.”
You can’t argue with Haas. He might not be interested in experimenting, but he’s the one making money while experimental comics like Sam are working day jobs and hitting five open mics a week. “They’re just playing a different game,” Buscemi says. Like all of the underground comics, he makes it absolutely clear that he has nothing against Zanies at all—in fact, he’s performed there (at a few open mics and “alternative comedy nights”), and Haas often will let him into the club for free just to see the acts coming through. But there’s a divide, and the reason for it, according to both men, is that Buscemi and the underground comics want to be different. “He said to me,” says Buscemi of Haas, “‘I can’t really have you MCing because you’re just such an unusual act. Keep after me, because to feature you I would want you in a particular kind of show, but keep after me, we’ll see what we can do.’ He said that. And that is very frank, and it shows a very profound understanding of his own market needs and his concerns for my development, because that’s a pretty damn accurate assessment of me as a comedian. It is. I do have a narrower tightrope to walk then those people.”
There are no TV execs in the audiences, but both because of, and in spite of, that, Chicago stand-up is good stand-up. You can tell Tony Sam is impassioned when he talks about why people should come see what he’s doing. “People need to realize that there’s so many talented people here right under their nose. And they’re not going to even know what they missed because they weren’t thinking that Chicago’s a stand-up town, or if the local talent—why are they here, why aren’t they in New York or L.A.?”
And then he stops, again, and a realization comes over him. “I love this city. I love it. There’s that fear of leaving. But there’s a naive part of me that thinks that I can stay and make stand-up a real force here in Chicago.”