Credit: Zach Freeman

Last June the comedy open mike at Cole’s Bar in Logan Square—widely considered to be the best comedy open mike in the city—celebrated a decade of consistent weekly shows. Due to stay-at-home orders across the state, Cole’s is currently closed and cohosts Alex Kumin and Carly Kane know they are unlikely to celebrate the mike’s 11th year on the stage in the back of their favorite dive bar. But they’ve found a new outlet for gathering the Chicago comedy community together to try out new material in front of eager audience members on Wednesday nights: Zoom.

Bar owner Coleman Brice came up with the idea after watching one of his kids use the technology for school. “I noticed that in my daughter’s class, the teacher was able to control maybe 60 six-year-olds on a Zoom,” Brice says. “So just seeing that, I was like, ‘This is kind of the perfect model for an open mike.’” After a beta test of the concept with a small group of family and friends, Brice, Kumin, and Kane went live on April 8 with a virtual open mike that included an impressive lineup of current and past Chicago comics, former hosts (including a surprise set from founder Cameron Esposito), and even Brice’s own mother (with a killer bit about her mustache hair).

“We had a lot of people interested in doing it,” Kumin says. Unlike the in-person show, which is famous for its marathon length, the virtual mike ran from 9:30 PM to 12:30 AM, so getting a spot in the lineup was even tougher than usual, especially when the outlets for delivering live comedy to an audience are so limited. For most of those three hours, the Zoom boasted triple digit viewership. “The numbers were pretty strong the whole time,” Brice says. “There were 279 total participants, and there were always about 100 people at a time. I think half the people came earlier and half the people came later, which is kind of always the dynamic of the live open mike.”

I was one of those participants for two hours and throughout the whole experience—which included learning how to express appreciation of a joke visually, because everyone except the comedian currently performing is muted—I was struck by how enveloping and surprisingly emotional it was to be able to enjoy live entertainment with other people. Kumin heard a similar sentiment from a number of comedians. “This was one of the first times since the quarantine that I felt some semblance of normalcy,” she says.

Even in the best of times, comedians help the rest of us process the world. And right now there’s a lot to process. While every comedian had a unique voice, the current quarantine popped up frequently. Esposito joked about leaving her car running in a hospital parking lot for an hour and being thankful no one was around to steal it, Rima Parikh pondered the merits of cutting her boyfriend’s hair herself, and David Drake admitted that he didn’t take advice to stock up on food seriously and ended up in a grocery store facing empty shelves.

And, as with any live event, there were some hecklers. Twice during the show someone took control of the Zoom and started displaying pictures of naked men. Brice wasn’t phased. “It’s not that different from what we do live,” he says. “There’s always some trolls live that we have to kick out every Wednesday night. That’s part of having an open and public space.” Kumin agreed. “Getting dick bombed on Zoom is the equivalent of getting heckled at the real mike,” she says.

Performing a set live from your living room is a new experience for most comics and everyone is learning as they go. But Kumin also knows it’s a new experience for audience members. “I just give so much credit to our audience,” she says. “It was really cool just to see people really engaged and enjoying it and taking it in as we would hope an audience would take it in live in person.”

“If I had to show what Chicago comedy meant to me, and had one night to do it, I’d send them to Cole’s on Wednesday,” says former Chicago comedian Ian Abramson, who was part of the lineup. “This virtual mike, somehow, took me back there.” For the foreseeable future, anyone can get a healthy dose of Chicago comedy streamed straight into their living room every Wednesday night.

Cole’s Virtual Open Mic is every Wednesday night on Zoom starting at 9:30 PM  v