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.
Upon sitting down to the laughter incited by comedian and host Rhea Butcher, we are faced with a trio of bare buttocks behind the slender woman. The photograph bears one caption: “Anal August.” We brace ourselves. The makeshift stage consists of a lone microphone, Creamsicle orange amp, and a deep red shag carpet. I can’t decide whether or not The Pleasure Chest is hosting a comedy showcase or about to shoot a porn flick about amateur stand-up comedians. Either way, my friends and I are chuckling before I can dwell further on the thought. The jokes pair well with the environment that we’re in, whether or not they speak of Internet porn usage (“my web browser pages stick together”), a college love story gone awry due to being both “a closeted gay and a closeted vomit licker,” or “gettin’ real materialistic” on the ever-venerable OkCupid.
The evening ends on a high note with three stalwarts of Chicago’s standup scene: Will Miles, Megan Gailey and Dan Telfer. The three have the longest stage time, and for good reason. Miles offers a unique perspective on race with a simultaneously funny and cringe-inducing anecdote about auditioning for a voiceover role as a “ghetto squirrel” and being a guy eating the “breakfast of champions: a blunt, honey bun and coffee.” The always-perky Gailey speaks of being “Indiana rich, which is like being Joliet hot” (a sentiment that doesn’t sit well with an audience member), and running straight down the center of the road when she exits her car at night as a bizarre way of deterring potential rapists. By the end of the show, the weedy Telfer has the audience doubled over with stories of his complete lack of athleticism, discovering a “shame capsule” full of porn in a “concrete, dystopian prairie” and being a “masturbation piñata” on a homemade zipline. In the back of a sex shop on a Monday night, a roomful of strangers can’t help but feel oddly united as we clap and hoot to the brave folk behind the microphone.
“Performance Anxiety,” helmed by comedian TJ Miller, came to Chicago as part of the Just For Laughs Festival in June. A standup showcase that used the talent of comedy veterans and newbies alike, the show was well received in Los Angeles. The Pleasure Chest leapt at the opportunity to house the event in Chicago, now occurring the third Monday of every month (with observance and rescheduling for national holidays).
Host Rhea Butcher says “A comedy showcase in a sex shop is a unique perspective. Comics were looking to pick up this branch, and [Performance Anxiety] gives people a space to work things out.” As with most questions on Chicago and its relationship to comedy, Butcher was quick to speak fondly of the environment in which these performers work. “The thing that’s great about Chicago—it’s a training ground for comedy with a tight-knit community.”
“Performance Anxiety” at The Pleasure Chest, 3436 North Lincoln, free, 18+, 8pm. Held the third Monday of each month, the next show is Monday, September 24.