CHICAGO HAS PRODUCED some of our greatest comedians, and only New York rivals the breadth of Chicago’s comedy scene. Whether you’re looking for standup, sketch comedy, or improvisation, you can find it here, and most of it’s reasonably inexpensive.
CHARNA HALPERN Called the “Comedy Mother” by former student Adam
McKay, director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights, Halpern has nurtured the careers
of countless comedians as the manager of I.O. (formerly ImprovOlympic), which she
founded in 1981. Halpern and the late Del Close revolutionized improvisation in 1983
when they developed I.O.’s signature long-form technique. Her latest book, Art by
Committee, which came out this summer, details advanced improv techniques.
MICK NAPIER Founder of Annoyance Productions, which has brought a dark edge
to Chicago improv, Napier worked for years as a director of main stage shows at Second
City, and as a director and teacher is one of the community’s most influential members.
JONATHAN PITTS Back in the 80s Pitts wrote and distributed what’s become a
legendary improv guide, An Improvised Almanac, which is chock-full of pithy maxims
like “Don’t deny” and “Heighten the reality.” He’s the cofounder and executive producer
of perhaps the country’s biggest improv event, the Chicago Improv Festival,
which returns in April.
BRIAN POSEN A veteran writer, director, and teacher, Posen produces the
January festival Chicago SketchFest and has helped keep Chicago comedy fresh and
internationally vital with his terrific programming. He’s also a member of the talented
Cupid Players, an all-musical group that performs Saturdays at I.O. | RH
Megapopular stand-ups like
Margaret Cho and Dane Cook tend
to play large venues such as the
Chicago Theatre (175 N. State, 312-902-1500) and the Allstate Arena (6920 N. Mannheim, Rosemont,
847-635-6601 or 312-559-1212),
but some established comics
appear at comedy clubs along with
up-and-comers. Old Town’s intimate
Zanies (1548 N. Wells) is the
city’s oldest and best-known club,
with shows every night, and it regularly
attracts national headliners.
See Richard Lewis there October 4
or Chelsea Handler October 18 and
19. The Improv, of New York and
Hollywood fame, opened in
Schaumburg (Woodfield Mall, Golf
Road at Rte. 53, 847-240-2001) in
June. It’s worth the trek to see the
likes of Jamie Kennedy and Darrell
Hammond; Tommy Davidson plays
there November 16 through 19. For
a schedule comparable in range
and quality to BET’s excellent
Comic View, check out Jokes and
Notes (4641 S. King Dr., 773-373-3390), and for the most diverse
lineups and crowds in the city, stop
by a Mikey O show at Joe’s (940
W. Weed, 312-337-3486).
To catch locals working on their
routines in a nonclub atmosphere,
try the north side’s “New Faces”
show at Kitty Moon (6237 N. Clark,
312-927-5844), the “Elevated”
showcase at Cherry Red (2833 N.
Sheffield, 773-477-3661), “Chicago
Underground Comedy” at Gunther
Murphy’s (1638 W. Belmont, 773-728-0746), or “The Lincoln Lodge”
at Lincoln Restaurant (4008 N.
Lincoln, 773-251-1539). And for
local stand-up peppered with stripping,
there’s “Star and Garter Burlesque” at Fizz Bar & Grill (3220
N. Lincoln, 773-348-6000). Look
out for Robert Buscemi, Prescott
Tolk, Jared Logan, Andy Ross, or
C.J. Sullivan at one of these shows.
If you’re itching to throw some
punch lines yourself, here’s a list of
places with open mikes, all free
unless otherwise noted: Sundays at
Bad Dog Tavern (4535 N. Lincoln,
773-334-4040), Cosmicafe (1944
W. Montrose, 773-728-2233), and
Lilly’s (2513 N. Lincoln, 773-525-2422); Mondays at Gunther
Murphy’s and Mix (2843 N.
Halsted, 773-528-7569); Tuesdays
at Cork Lounge (1822 W. Addison,
773-728-2233); Wednesdays at
Jokes and Notes ($10), McDunna’s(1505 W. Fullerton, 773-929-0944),
and Cigars and Stripes (6715 W.
Ogden, Berwyn, 708-484-1043,
$3); Thursdays at Pressure
Billiards and Cafe (6318 N. Clark,
773-743-7665). There’s also Mikey
O’s monthly “Local Locos” open
mike at Joe’s ($5).
John Belushi, Bill Murray, Mike
Myers, Vince Vaughn, Tina Fey,
Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris, and
Stephen Colbert were all trained in
comedy in Chicago, and primarily at
one or both of the city’s two most
famous comedic institutions:
Second City (1616 N. Wells, 312-
337-3992) and I.O. (3541 N. Clark,
ImprovOlympic. Second City, often
considered the originator of improv,
had its roots in a University of
Chicago student group called the
Compass, whose core members
founded Second City in 1959. Since
then it’s become synonymous with
improvisation, though what you
find on its two main stages is more
often sketch comedy.
Legendary improv guru Del Close
taught at I.O. in the 80s and 90s,
and improvisation still takes center
stage—particularly the long-form
variety, which stresses the development
of characters and themes over
the quick, gamelike style. You’ll find
that at ComedySportz (777 N. Green,
312-733-6000), though it also has a
long-form show, The Hot Karl.
If you see one sketch show all year,
see War! Now in Its 4th Smash Year! at Second City. It’s worth the $18-$24
ticket. If you see one improv show,
go to T.J. and Dave at I.O. It’s been
running late on Wednesdays for over
four years now, for $5. Dave Pasquesi,
half of the duo, can also be seen on
stages such as the Goodman and
Steppenwolf and recently appeared in
the movie Strangers With Candy.
But those aren’t your only options
for sketch and improv. Here’s a short
list of venues featuring regular, consistently
solid shows: Playground
Theater (3209 N. Halsted, 773-871-3793), Cornservatory (4210 N.
Lincoln, 773-865-7731), Stage Left
Theatre (3408 N. Sheffield, 773-342-3575), The Spot (4437 N. Broadway,
773-728-8933), and Annoyance
Theatre (4840 N. Broadway, 773-561-4665), where on Thursdays you
can see one of the city’s most accomplished
performers, Susan Messing,
in Messing With a Friend. Lots of
colleges feature student sketch and
improv groups, notably the
University of Chicago’s Off-Off
Campus and Northwestern
University’s Titanic Players.
Last but not least, watch our listings
for two big annual comedy festivals:
Both offer loads of sketch and
improv from local groups and
troupes from around the world.
For more check the Reader’s
comedy listings in Section 2 for
prices, locations, and what’s