Stand-Up! Stand-Up! Fight! Fight! Fight!

Heard the one about the two comedy festivals? One guy starts an annual event from scratch, gets the talent, builds an audience, and, after a few years, has it on a roll. Along the way he manages to disappoint a few people. One of them is a comic who runs a weekly local showcase. This guy says he was screwed out of a reward for volunteering–a ticket to an Eric Idle performance. Worse yet, when he complained, someone left a message on his answering machine along the lines of “You fucking retard, good luck with your career.” The comic, also a freelance journalist, sees the news value of this and feeds his version of the story to a local newspaper. Then he teams up with another showcase producer to hold his own festival on the same weekend as the original.

Not funny? New City, which ran the item and had to correct it, wasn’t amused. Neither was Chicago Comedy Festival founder Dan Carlson, who says the comic’s story was “completely fabricated.” A suburban Chicago native and former stand-up comic, Carlson founded his event four years ago after concluding that older festivals in Aspen and Montreal, catering to what they thought the entertainment industry wanted, weren’t using the funniest people. “Having done the road, worked with a great many funny performers, I knew a lot of people were being overlooked,” Carlson says. “I thought the basis of a comedy festival should be to showcase the absolute best talent.” Thanks to great word of mouth, a lot of money, and four years of effort, he says, the Chicago Comedy Festival, running at ten Chicago venues this weekend, is right up there with Aspen and Montreal and is the festival “comics most want to perform at.”

Carlson has more than 60 comics in his lineup this year, headed by Don Rickles, Eric Bogosian, and Judy Tenuta. He scouted the world, sat through hundreds of live auditions, and reviewed 700 videotapes to find the best, he boasts. But he’s equally proud of the industry attendance the fest commands. “We have all the film studios coming in, all the networks, a lot of cable networks, large management companies and agencies.” For the comics, most of whom perform without pay, it’s the exposure to this audience of career builders–the chance for a big break–that makes the fest a desirable gig. Carlson says it’s also the reason the new festival landed on the same weekend. “The industry is coming because of our reputation. They’re trying to exploit that to their benefit. When you have success, then you get parasite festivals.”

The upstart is the Year-Round Chi-Town Comedy Celebration, created by offended volunteer Carl Kozlowski (an occasional Reader contributor) and fellow comedy producer Cayne Collier. Kozlowski, Aaron Foster, and Dana Kennon run a year-round, “intentionally integrated” weekly showcase, Chicago Comedy Works, at the Beaumont bar on Halsted. Collier’s five-year-old showcase, the Elevated (“Taking humor to a higher level”), plays in the back room at Philosofur’s on Sheffield. Kozlowski doesn’t want to make an issue of last year’s disagreement, though it was the catalyst for his own “celebration.” (He doesn’t want to call it a festival either.) Collier had already decided to pull his show out of the Chicago Comedy Festival when Kozlowski approached him about starting their own. Collier’s main complaint: they raided some of his best performers to showcase elsewhere in the festival, leaving him with only part of a lineup. “I felt like, why not just let us do our show and highlight us? The show that’s been around all these years?” Collier says. “We keep this scene going; if none of these rooms existed, where would the performers go?”

Kozlowski and Collier point out that only 30 percent of Chicago Comedy Festival performers are Chicagoans. “We can serve the rest,” Collier says. “The whole point is for the performers to have the outlet.” One of those performers is Jessica Halem, whose group, the Hysterical Women, will bring four lesbian comics to the Kozlowski-Collier lineup. Halem performed in Carlson’s show the first year, opening for Bob Smith in a sold-out gay comics show at the Apollo. After that she was told she wouldn’t be back, she says. “The excuse was they weren’t having a gay-themed night.” Now, she adds, the Chicago Comedy Fest “seems to be pretty heavily dominated by white straight men,” mostly from out of town–Judy Tenuta notwithstanding. “Judy Tenuta’s great,” Halem says, but “she’s been great for the last 25 years. It baffles me when I meet folks who don’t see the incredible talent here in Chicago–alternative in so many ways, really pushing the envelope. When I see people schlepp in folks from all over the country, I’m sort of shocked.” Fortunately, the former New Yorker adds, “The unique thing about Chicago is this is a town where you can take it upon yourself and put together your own thing and it can actually make a huge impact.”

Kozlowski says the Year-Round Chi-Town Comedy Celebration, at the Beaumont and Philosofur’s, will have nearly 40 comics in five shows, including Mike Toomey, Shay Shay, Tony Scofield, and Tim Joyce. Former Chicagoans “flying in on their own dime” to perform in the rooms where they got their start include Bridget Smith, Jen Kirwin, Amy Crossfield, Scott Vinci, Alan Olifson, Scott Perlman, and John Schaffer. In future years, Kozlowski and Collier say, they’ll stage their event on a different weekend, so as not to look like they’re competing with the original fest. “The Chicago Comedy Festival is doing a good thing for the city of Chicago in that it is raising awareness,” Collier says. Seriously, folks: “The goal is to have it all work together.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.