March 5, 2013

Why We're F*cking Special - By: Joe Fernandez

Every so often, a Chicago stand-up comic does few shows out of town. Regardless of where they go, the one thing they always say is, "Yeah it was fun and all, but I really missed our scene. It just made me realize how good everyone here is and how great a community we have."

Now whether that’s a bias towards our own scene I don’t know. I’ve never spent an extended period of time in any stand-up scene other than Chicago. Talent wise I’ve seen less than one percent of what other towns have to offer. And the Chicago comics who are going out of town have to have similar if not identical experiences to mine. But when I leave, no matter what town I’m in, I feel the exact same way. I think the reason is because of these factors, in no particular order of priority.

Originality: When it comes to Chicago comedy, hack comedy is frowned upon like pedophilia. If you’re someone doing a joke about shake-weights, R. Kelly, or Snooki, you put yourself on the outside. If you’re talking about out-of-date topics because your Steve Irwin bit was so good and you don’t want to let go of it, you won’t fit in here. If you’re a comic who does jokes that anyone can write such as ‘Why are they surprised a killer whale killed her? It’s called a ‘Killer Whale?!,’ or an even more egregious offense, ‘I’m saying nigger or talking about rape because I’m edgy! There’s no joke here, but listen! Nigger-rape! Crazy huh?! I’m going to go drink my own piss now!’ you are not tolerated here.

In the Chicago comedy scene, artistic integrity is held in very high regard. That’s why being considered a comedian other Chicago comics respect, means so much. I think every Chicago comic wants to make the other comics laugh just as much as they want to make an audience laugh. And because of that respect, it makes our scene amazing because we have so many comedians who are able to make the audience laugh while still staying true to themselves and not giving in to cheap jokes they know would work.

Work Ethic: Sometimes people say the Chicago comedy scene is cliquey. I feel like those are the people who are not at two or three Open Mics a night, and that’s after having performed at a showcase or two. The reason these tight knit groups form is because these are the people who are at each of these mics, seeing each other for 8 hours a night. They give and get rides trying to get to the next place to do a miserable four minutes and see if one of their jokes gets a smile from the tired, poor audience member that really could care less.

Treating comedy like a hobby and expecting something more back from it is not what our scene is about. In Chicago, you’re not going to catch a lucky break. This isn’t where you come to get famous. This is where you come to get good.

I understand it’s difficult to get out, especially if you have a job. But I know myself along with a multitude of other comics who get 8 hours a sleep once every 2 or 3 months. That’s why Chicago comics are a very close-knit group and don’t let just anyone who’s been doing it for a short amount of time in. We are war buddies. We’ve been through the shit. The Underground Lounges, the Gio’s, the Amps and Lucky Number Grill’s. The road shows where the TV’s are still on in the bar and the crowd is angry you’re ruining their dinner. The fundraisers where people have their conversations interrupted briefly to hear you introduced only to turn their heads and resume their conversation as you begin your 20 minute set. The shows or open mics where the microphone becomes a decoration because you’re doing your set to two fellow comics and a bartender and the only sound in the room is your voice coming through the microphone. And worst of all, the nights of a packed house, ready to laugh, and for some reason that night, you didn’t have it. Everybody who’s a legit Chicago comic has had these experiences 10 times over. And yet we still do it. That’s what makes us tight knit. Which is the next reason Chicago comedy is special.

Community: When I’m done with a show or an open mic, I should go home. I’m tired, I have work early, I’ve got errands to run and bills to pay. But I don’t leave. Instead I go out with a bunch of degenerates who have as little a sense of responsibility as I do. But it’s awesome every time. Nights like the last night of Riot Comedy, a local Chicago showcase that ran for two years, shows how much of a group we are. Damn near every comic in Chicago was there to support the show’s final night. Riot was a show that epitomized the community feeling of Chicago. A show that put up the newer comic who had been doing well at mics and deserved to go up in front of a crowd and get their feet wet. And on Thursday nights, it was a staple for hanging out. After any open mics or out of town shows that were going on, the Chicago comedy scene would converge on Chicago Joe’s and drink copious amounts of alcohol until we were kicked out. Then it was off to the Oakwood to drink until later hours until we were kicked out of there. Then it was whoever’s apartment we are off to so that we could piss off that comic’s roommate for making noise at 5 in the morning.

Certainly there’s some psychosis involved here that we all don’t want to go home. But the camaraderie in the scene is intense and amazing. I won’t forget the night that I performed at the Just For Laughs auditions at Chicago Underground Comedy and the feeling I had in the back of the room looking around at the other comics. The first feeling was respect and admiration for all the people I was performing with. The next of a nervous feeling that this wasn’t going to go well followed immediately by the comforting thought that ‘Well I have friends in the back who won’t let me bomb.’ All the comics laughed at jokes they’d heard a thousand times before. After sets, every comic went up to whoever just finished, shook their hand and said ‘Awesome job man, you killed it. (Except Adam Burke. He said ‘Splendid job. Absolutely marvelous. There is a complete lack of superlatives to describe the magnificence of your sagacious witticisms.’) That was an example of what the Chicago scene is about.

 No Ego: Stand-up comedy in Chicago is the ugly step-sister. Everyone comes here to do Second City, iO, or some form of improv and people flock from all over the country to try and get into these places thinking that’s their path to Saturday Night Live. Now that’s not to say that every person that goes to iO or Second City is like that, but certainly these comedy institutions have been diluted by the delusional. People who want fame and think that going to those places simply puts you on the fast track. That said, audiences flock to these places as well, seeing pictures of John Belushi, Chris Farley, and Bill Murray. Meanwhile stand-up showcases fight to stay alive and keep giving stage time to truly talented people in front of a real crowd. Stand-up comedy in Chicago is the ugly step-sister. But because of that fact, that’s what makes it as innovative as it is.

If you’re in Chicago doing stand-up, you know you’re not going to get famous here. Or if you are you’ve been misinformed. When you come to Chicago for stand-up you should know this is not the fast track. The fast track is in LA and New York. If you’re doing stand-up in Chicago you won’t get famous, you’re just going to get better.

Everyone that has achieved fame and success that’s from Chicago has moved in order to achieve that fame and success. But not before they reached their full potential as a Chicago comic. This is where people come because they love it. And as frustrating as it is not doing comedy for a living or not getting booked or what have you, the thing that makes it tolerable is the fact that you know when you do leave, you’ll be ready. And watching the other talented people in the scene who are better than you doesn’t create jealousy. It creates inspiration. You want to be that good. You appreciate that person and then think ‘I need to keep working. I want to be at that level. I gotta hit more mics.’

And because there’s no industry here, it’s not as though someone is going to catch a break you didn’t. Someone gets something else, awesome! That’s good for Chicago cause then it makes people aware of us. That’s the mentality. And because of the community feeling we know that with every person that goes onto bigger and better things, the more the industry is going to start coming to us and then we won’t have to leave a place we love. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing I don’t know. The one fear I have is people coming here to do stand-up to get famous. Right now, people are here to do it because they love it. And they love seeing talented people go up because A) It’s enjoyable and makes them laugh, and B) It inspires them to get better rather than angry because they’re not that good yet.

Opportunity: When new comics arrive on the scene, they ask ‘Where is a good mic to go to?’ Instead of listing off all the open mics in Chicago, I grab a pen and a napkin and write down every single one I can think of. I then tell them to go to all of them. If they do that, they will have a better shot at getting better and therefore getting booked. If they say, ‘You mean like at Zanies or the Improv?’, I never talk to them again.

In Chicago, you can go to a number of open mics and be seen by those in charge of well-run local comedy showcases. After seeing you a few times, if you bust your ass and don’t bail on a set regardless of how many people are in the crowd and whether or not they are paying attention (and of course if you’re funny), they will give you an opportunity to perform in front of a real crowd. You can then be seen by comics who run other showcases that can recommend you or help you get to another stage. Or will recommend you to a road club like Madison on State Street.

Comics here are willing to help and there’s plenty of stage time to make a name for yourself so you can become part of the group. In other cities, those opportunities are limited. I remember when I was in Milwaukee there were two open mics total. Two. Here, you can get on stage a number of times on any given night. That opportunity is not available anywhere else. Or if it is available, it will cost you. Literally. Like $5 for 5 minutes or something insane like that. And in bigger scenes the only way to do a showcase half the time is to bring 10 audience members and then say ‘Thank you sir may I have another?’ with no promise of anything other than the prospect of being exploited a few more times.

The Chicago comedy scene is special for all these reasons and honestly when I think about it, it reminds me of when I hear of Boston’s comedy hey-day back in the 80’s. The only thing missing is the popularity of stand-up comedy but that’s what makes our scene work even harder and try and get better. We want to be part of this thing that may make people turn their heads away from improv and sketch and realize that what’s happening now in stand-up in Chicago is something they’re going to want to see and be a part of. Think of how lucky people were to see Second City when Gilda Radner and John Candy were there. The opportunity to pay $5 to see someone coming into their own, on their way to eventually being great (Which is the way I feel about a lot of stand-ups in Chicago) is an opportunity that shouldn’t be passed up. A lot of talent Is migrating away, but there’s still plenty left and on the horizon.

Contributing Writer
Joseph Fernandez