A few weeks ago, on one of the first chilly nights, I sat in the grass wearing a mask and watched my first live comedy show in over six months. It was like a light was reignited in my body and in my face—real laughs from real people! It was clear the audience around me felt it too; even if not all the jokes landed, there was barely a silent moment in the crowd, which spanned from a spacious Logan Square backyard to the boulevard.
Appropriately, this show is called the Stoop Comedy Show and the organizers have put on weekly open mikes since August—it’s one of several in-person comedy shows that have sprung up in the last few months. Comics are done with virtual open mikes and after brooding inside like everyone else, are creating new, safe, and creative shows to keep the laughs going and blow off much-needed steam from this hellscape of a year. From big comedy clubs to DIY outdoor shows, the comedy scene is alive again and ready to take on whatever the pandemic throws next—including winter.
“Neighbors want to be able to see each other and comics have not had a reason to hang out unless we are at a show,” says comic Caitlin Checkeroski, one of the producers of Stoop Comedy. Thanks to the Lincoln Lodge, which donated professional speakers, Checkeroski says the show has gained momentum. With chairs, stoop lights surrounding the stage, two mikes that are disinfected after each use, and signs encouraging people to buy tickets ahead of time, Stoop Comedy feels like a normal show.
But after the open mike got shut down by the house’s landlord at its most recent show, Stoop is in limbo. The all-female crew is looking for other yards or rooftops to run Stoop and keep it going through October.
Under the state’s Phase 4 reopening plan, outdoor gatherings with adequate social distancing, mask wearing, and surface-disinfecting are allowed, and indoor venues can operate at 50 percent capacity with seats six feet apart, but those that also serve food and drink must operate at 25 percent capacity.
Like other indoor venues, comedy club owners are taking every precaution to make sure safety comes first. Earlier this summer, comedian D.L. Hughley tested positive for COVID-19 after collapsing onstage during a performance in Nashville, and New York comedy clubs are currently fighting to reopen under the same restrictions as restaurants. The hope for Chicago comics is that by putting safety first, people who feel comfortable being outside will support the open mikes and comedians, many of whom have not performed or made any income until now.
Over in Lakeview, Rodescu Hopkins II had a similar idea. The cofounder of Trigger Warning Comedy, an open mike show that ran at the Sedgwick Stop until the pandemic hit, started the Backyard Sessions series September 18 in his backyard with cohost Ed Towns. Eager to reawaken the comedy scene and seeing big comedy clubs reopening, the duo felt it was the right time to gather in a socially distant way and provide live shows before the winter hits. They plan to host shows every other week for the next three months with a capacity of 22 people, but if the wheels keep turning then the show might go until there is snow on the ground, Hopkins says with a laugh.
Each Backyard Sessions show features a gallery space—the backyard fence walls—for select artists to show visual artwork. At the first show, local photographer Katia Jackson featured her photos from recent protests. “Everyone needs a relief,” Hopkins says. “We are bottled up and frustrated. When we don’t have a place to let off steam and laugh, you see how it happens, the world goes nuts.”
Hopkins says putting on the shows feels like exercising a muscle that’s been dormant for too long. To attend this open mike, tickets must be purchased ahead of time and everyone’s temperature is checked at the gate to ensure safety.
Backyard Sessions by Trigger Warning Comedy
Every second Friday 8 PM, Lakeview, (location disclosed with ticket)
10/17-10/31: Sat-Sun 5 PM, various locations, instagram.com/comedypickup, free.
Lincoln Lodge show with Deanna Ortiz
Fri-Sat 8 PM, Lincoln Lodge, 2040 N. Milwaukee, thelincolnlodge.com, $10.
Sun 10/11: 5, 7, and 9:15 PM, Zanies, 1548 N. Wells, chicago.zanies.com, $40.
Social Distance Comedy with Sarah Perry
Fri-Sat 7 PM, Laugh Factory, 3175 N. Broadway, laughfactory.com/clubs/chicago, $30.
Perhaps one of the most innovative comedy shows to come out of the pandemic is the Comedy Pickup, a traveling stand-up show in the bed of a pickup truck created by Donovan Strong-O’Donnell and Ryder Olle. The two started the show at the end of July, driving around the city to parks, secluded street corners, zoo parking lots, and even partnering with Taylor Street Tap for to-go drinks. After seeing the success locally, the comics embarked on a nationwide road trip in that same pickup to bring outdoor comedy to Baltimore, D.C., New York City, Boston, Denver, and more.
“It’s been exciting to see what local comics have shown interest, on the road as well—every city scene has been supportive to us,” Strong-O’Donnell says.
With portable speakers and amps, the sound system has attracted more than 100 people to shows, he says, which has also helped the comics build their network and experience new cities. The tour has produced more than 45 shows in ten cities and put nearly 2,000 miles on Olle’s pickup. To close it out, there will be several hometown shows in the last three weekends of October.
Ollie says the tour has attracted people who might not ordinarily like comedy and makes it accessible to those on their daily outdoor activities. “Part of the issue sometimes with the exposure of stand-up is it seems so mysterious and dark to most people that the idea scares them, but [with Comedy Pickup], people get to come out and have a really good time at something they would never see,” Olle says.
Indoor comedy has started to fill seats again too, with social distancing regulations, safety protocols for comics, and fewer shows and audience members. Deanna Ortiz, the lead comic at the Lincoln Lodge shows, remembers when the Logan Square spot reopened to the public in June. “To go back and do stand-up for the first time in months, there was energy there,” Ortiz says. “On our first show back, we had 30 people in a room that sat 200 and it was electric.”
Like many creatives, she was not happy to turn her attention to virtual shows during the height of the pandemic but says that time helped her keep the juices flowing, practice new work, and stay engaged as an artist. With a rotating cast of 12 comics plus guests and a cap at 50 people, the Lodge shows are starting off bare-bones with just stand-up, but Ortiz says the crew hopes to bring back its popular variety and character shows.
Sarah Perry, host and comedian at Laugh Factory, says recent unrest, combined with looting and the pandemic, made it feel like comedy was never going to return. But once the Laugh Factory reopened August 1—with plexiglass everywhere, chairs spread six feet apart, and all the servers wearing face shields—comedy was back. She says the audience was timid at first but once she helped them loosen up, laughs were everywhere. “People that are here really want to be here and support live comedy,” Perry says. “People want to literally laugh at anything and talk about anything other than COVID.”
However, she says the pandemic inspired some of the best jokes she’s ever written, and yes, they include coronavirus-related material as well as a slew of personal experiences that made her new 15-minute set sing.
Zanies Comedy Night Club downtown also opened with only 50 seats and a heavy set list of nearly 30 shows for fall. The downtown club opened July 9 and the Rosemont location plans to open October 9, says Bert Haas, executive vice president of Zanies. He admits that booking shows at both clubs has been stressful and some comedians are still wary of performing in person, but he’s excited for several upcoming shows. Highlights include comedian JP Sears, rising stand-up comic Dan LaMorte, Ms. Pat, and the all-Spanish show by Nacho Redondo.
“We keep adding shows and hopefully we will get to seven days a week,” Haas says. “In times of stress and duress, people need comedy.” v