Ever since The Second City opened its doors in December 1959, Chicago’s reputation for comedy has been rooted in having the best improv scene on the planet. But the city has also spawned a rich stand-up history, and the first-ever 312 Comedy Festival will add to it by bringing more than twenty major shows to clubs and theaters throughout the Chicago area from October 27 to November 5.
Kicking off with Mexican superstar Franco Escamilla at the Allstate Arena, the fest will also feature superstar Nate Bargatze performing six shows at the Chicago Theatre, and hosts the comedy-funk hybrid band Craig Robinson & The Nasty Delicious, as well as the king of roast comedy Jeff Ross at the Park West (as well as two major roast events at Zanies).
The hugely popular podcasts “That’s Messed Up” (featuring Chicago’s own Liza Treyger) and “Gals on the Go” will have live shows at the Park West. Meanwhile, Canadian-Indian star Russell Peters will add international flavor at the Rosemont Theatre and some of the biggest comics on Chicago’s NPR standby “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” will assemble for a special event at the Riviera. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Chicago is more than ready for its first comedy fest in more than a decade, says Andrew Farwell, VP for lead producers Outback Presents. Building off the efforts of the Chicago Comedy Festival from 1998-2001 and the Just for Laughs Chicago fest in 2009-2010, the 312 fest’s strong corporate backing from Outback and concert-promotion behemoth JAM Productions will guarantee a strong foundation.
“We’re partnering with JAM Productions, which is located in Chicago, and its legendary promoter Jerry Mickelson. We’ve been working with him for years on other events, and we were a big part of the Just For Laughs fest here,” says Farwell. “Outback has been producing comedy festivals, regional comedy festivals across the United States, specifically ten years and running with the Nashville Comedy Festival.
“We did the Minneapolis Comedy Festival, the Green Bay Comedy Crawl, the Charleston Comedy Week and for years we’ve been trying to get back to Chicago. Now is the time, people are buying tickets and comedy is hotter than it’s ever been.”
Farwell realizes that Lollapalooza leads Chicagoans to think of festivals as having several stages in one central location. The 312’s concept is to use many of the Chicago area’s beloved venues, stretching even to include Joliet’s Rialto Square Theatre for a November 3 show starring John Crist.
“Since JAM owns the Park West, Vic and Riviera, it’s just a great opportunity for us to take over as many corners of the city as possible and we are coming to the people,” he says.
But even more important than spotlighting the city’s impressive array of venues was the effort to book a highly diverse slate of performers. Among the eclectic array of other acts are the comedy collective of top Black stand-ups 85 South; popular Emmy-nominated host of Netflix’s “Nailed It” Nicole Byer; conservative comic Jamie Lissow fresh off Fox News’ late-night talk show “Gutfeld!”; and Christian comic Crist.
”That’s something that we’re really careful about when we’re programming, because a lot of people think that comedy is just a middle-aged white guy with a microphone, and that’s not what comedy is anymore,” says Farwell. “There’s still plenty of great acts like that, but comedy now gives an opportunity and a voice to so many different groups of people because there are so many different audiences.
“The great thing is that comedy isn’t just a broad genre. There are so many different demographics and different audiences. A city like Chicago with so many different groups of people gives us an opportunity to get really creative with some of these opportunities for these comedians to give them a voice on this bigger platform.”
Perhaps the hottest star of the fest is Nate Bargatze, who is known as “The Tennessee Kid”—but the Nashville native began his career right here in Chicago on the city’s thriving alt-comedy scene of the 2000s. Fresh off of setting a record for having the largest audience in the history of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, Bargatze is excited to now be headlining multiple shows at the Chicago Theatre—the venue of his dreams when he moved here more than twenty years ago.
“I moved to Chicago in 2002 with a buddy, took some classes at the Second City, and then in 2003 I took a comedy class and did lots of shows at the [alt-comedy hotspots] Lyon’s Den and the Lincoln Lodge,” remembers Bergatze. “I was with Hannibal Buress, T.J. Miller and Pete Holmes before we all followed Pete to New York.
“Any time I go to Chicago, it’s crazy. It’s always been one of the first cities that I would always sell the most tickets. They got on board with me a bit earlier than other cities, and having started here certainly plays a large part of that. This fest is special because I saw the Chicago Theatre when I was first starting out and I don’t’ think I even knew you could even play it. That meant I was so new and didn’t know what was going on. So now it’s unbelievable to reach that stage.”
The 312 Comedy Festival runs from October 27-November 5 at venues across Chicago. Visit 312comedyfestival.com.