Standing on a street corner in the Old Irving Park neighborhood on a Sunday night in August, it was impossible to tell where the Shithole might be. “Message for details,” advised cryptic stickers that promoted the comedy show on newspaper boxes, light poles, and walls throughout the city. A Google search lead me to a Tumblr page that included the Shithole slogan, “You just got to find it,” and an e-mail address to request more info. Having sent a note seeking details, I received a phone number I was to call at a specific time while at the specific northwest-side intersection. “Call when you get to the corner,” the message read. With some trepidation, I dialed the number, glancing around for signs of life, imagining this as an elaborate ruse for a kidnapping-murder ring. After I was sworn to secrecy about the address I was being led to, the voice on the other end of the phone directed me to the rear of a nearby house. When I finally arrived in the backyard of a three-story building, I was greeted by the smiling faces of the four twentysomethings who run the place and was extended a can of PBR.
“Welcome to the Shithole!” said Zach Bartz, the roving underground show’s cofounder. Chafing under the creative constraints and financial demands of gatekeeper clubs like the Second City and iO Theater, he and his comedic partner/roommate Kevin Gerrity, both members of the improv group Gnar Gnar Shredtown, started the Shithole as a challenge to the traditional notion of what constitutes a performance space. Over the past two years more than 200 Shithole shows have been held in garages, attics, backyards, and office spaces, featuring everyone from multidisciplinary comedians to performance artists to mind readers. It has become a cult phenomenon, one of the most highly regarded of a number of avant-garde comedy productions that have been recently popping up in DIY spaces around Chicago.
The Shithole principals admit that the underground mystique partly serves to get people interested and in the door. But more importantly, the secrecy helps preserve the sanctity of performing to an audience who really wants to be there. The Shithole is not a place just any casual comedy fan can drop into; you have to make an effort to show up.
Having found the place, I was taken on the grand tour by Bartz, Gerrity, sound engineer and Gnar Gnar Shredtown member Dan Wilcop, and graphic designer/photographer Loren Egeland, who together make up the Shithole brain trust. On first glance at their untamed hair and scraggly beards, one could easily mistake the quartet for a garage rock band rather than a team of comedy producers; on this particular evening all of them were wearing tank tops. They weaved through the crowd of 20 or so people that had gathered in the house’s backyard for the preshow party, stopping to greet each person and inquiring if drinks were full.
Stepping into the house where the night’s show was to take place felt more like entering an SAIC undergrad’s apartment gallery than a comedy club. Abstract paintings line the walls of the narrow staircase leading three floors up to an attic, the Shithole’s current performance space. Much of the art is by Bartz, who began selling pieces just to make room on the walls; anything hung with a thumbtack is up for grabs, while the stapled pieces are part of the permanent collection. At the top of the stairs, amid piles of knickknacks, left-behind items, and technical equipment, is a small refrigerator packed with cheap beer for the assembled audience.
“Shut up and have fun!!!” begins the show’s code of conduct, scribbled in Sharpie and hung on one wall. Shithole performers are encouraged to try any kind of material they want, and, thanks to the code, feel supported and respected by everyone in the room. “This is a safe place to explore and experiment with your art,” it reads. “Whether you are a performer, visual artist, director, etc., the Shithole is for you. Please come back, donate, or just tell a friend.”
Within minutes, the attic was packed. People rushed to grab chairs while supplies lasted; eventually the seatless resigned themselves to standing shoulder to shoulder at the back of the attic. It was steamy that summer evening, so organizers distributed hand fans and bottles of water. Once the show got going the combination of the energy onstage and the crowded room turned the Shithole into a sweat box. But that did nothing to dampen the mood of the audience, which laughed and cheered through the heat for a range of material, from entire scenes being performed from the floor to a ritualistic reading of the oath like something out of the Church of Satan.
Every performance ends with a set by the house troupe, Gnar Gnar Shredtown. Bartz and Gerrity perform on stage while Wilcop inserts sound effects or music to change the direction of each scene. Gnar Gnar doesn’t follow the rules of the Harold or any other improv technique, resulting in a show that pushes the rules of comedy while still getting big laughs.
Bartz and Gerrity started doing improv at Columbia College in 2009; working together, they fine-tuned a style of experimental improv that they found wasn’t welcomed on Chicago’s major stages. In September 2013, a few months after graduating, they hosted the first show in their Logan Square apartment for several friends. The scatological name was strategic: “We’re not called the fucking Comedy Castle,” Bartz explains. “With ‘Shithole’ you’re absolved of all expectation.” It gave them total freedom and a sense of gratification they weren’t finding from performing in bars and clubs such as the Comedy Bar and Second City.
“We’re doing a show, and it’s under our rules,” Bartz says. “If we can’t be happy doing this at the Shithole, then we’ll never be happy doing it. So here we just have to do it—not for an audience, not for a resumé, not to succeed, but to make it work.”
As the Shithole grew through word of mouth and interest in the mysterious stickers, it wasn’t long before it started drawing crowds of a few dozen to shows held in garages and backyards with lineups of as many as 15 comedians, musicians, poets, artists, and writers. At an outdoor performance in February, loyalists endured harsh winter weather to see the show. “I have pictures of everybody exhaling at the same time, just a fog,” Egeland says. “It was -8 degrees, and there were like 50 people bundled up and stoked to be there.”
While everything about the show feels DIY, from the walls cluttered with mismatched artwork to the motley collection of chairs to the dark curtains stapled to the wall behind the stage, the guys behind the joint actually run a very tight, professional operation. Each week anywhere from one to seven shows take place. Lineups are booked months in advance, and great attention is paid to the lighting and sound.
“We want it to look very punk rock in here and relaxed, but we’ve done 200 shows in two years,” Bartz says. “It’s not a fuck-off project by any means. All we have in here is tech and etiquette. We change spaces, but the things we always have are good tech, things to trick people into thinking they’re in a theater anywhere, and the behavior that we can bring to all the different shows.”
“There is a lot to be said for opportunities with no strings attached, devoid of the business aspect or agenda outside of the creation of work for its own sake.”
—Alex Honnet, creative director of the iO and founder of the late Andersonville comedy club Upstairs Gallery
Participation is prized over all else at the Shithole. Those who sit in the front row are rewarded with swag such as branded T-shirts, buttons, and skullcaps. In the Shithole’s current iteration, before and after shows and during intermission there is a TV and a Nintendo 64 in one corner set up for games of Super Smash Brothers. Markers, pieces of paper, and other art supplies spread out on tables are an invitation for patrons to create their own work to add to the Shithole’s already crowded art collection, which includes vandalized bar signs, doodles of the performers, even technically precise paintings. The show is always free, but audience members who opt to duck out early are asked to pay what they can—whether it be a small monetary donation or a piece of art.
What most sets the Shithole apart from other comedy shows is that it isn’t just a comedy show; it’s evolved over the last two years into an artistic collective, with each of the founding members also working in mediums outside of comedy. For instance, Egeland, originally the Shithole member doing the most in the realm of visual art, bought the quartet matching sketchbooks to encourage everyone to explore drawing as a creative outlet.
“Why not stretch yourself in as many ways as possible to learn and grow?” Gerrity says. “I feel people get hung up on themselves and what they’re doing and they keep ramming that thing out. Sometimes you just have to step away and work other muscles out.”
The Shithole also serves as an incubator. Stand-up Cleveland Anderson says he owes his comedy career to the Shithole. Rooming with Bartz, Gerrity, and Wilcop at the house where the first Shithole performances took place, he was hesitant to get onstage after a few unpleasant open-mike experiences. Eventually he began cutting his teeth in the more convivial environment of the apartment shows, and now he hosts the Pilsen stand-up showcase “Hooray for Me.”
“I tell Zach all the time, ‘Thanks for doing the Shithole, because if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t have gotten back into [comedy],'” Anderson says. “You can just be yourself and be weird, and that’s punk.”
Ariel Atkins had a similar experience. A regular performer and attendee of the Shithole, she says it’s where she found her artistic voice, thanks to the show’s open-ended format and spirit of encouragement. The 24-year-old graduated from Columbia College with a degree in musical theater, and while figuring out her next move, she started writing poetry. Friends urged Atkins to read some of her work at the Shithole; it was a laid-back environment in which she was confident she wouldn’t be critiqued in the ways she might be at certain poetry nights or live-lit shows. “Getting up there and doing it in front of that audience and hearing the support made me keep writing,” says Atkins, who currently edits the Shithole zine. “Now I’m trying to get into a [creative writing] master’s program . . . and I’m trying to get stuff published.”
There’s been an uptick in the emergence of underground comedy-centric shows in Chicago, particularly in the last year. The Ice Cream Joint, a five-month-old variety show, is run out of a private residence. Established collective Kill All Comedy is starting to perform in DIY spaces instead of traditional venues. The nearly one-year-old experimental open-mike show “All Effin’ Night” goes down in a Roscoe Village living room. “We Still Like You” is a monthly storytelling show featuring comedians that has been held in various apartments for almost two years. And that’s just to name a few. While there’s not a single reason why these shows began outside of the traditional club circuit, they offer a common comfort to comedians: a pressure-free zone to test material and hone their craft.
“I just think that there is a lot to be said for opportunities with no strings attached, devoid of the business aspect or agenda outside of the creation of work for its own sake,” says Alex Honnet, creative director of the iO and founder of the comedy club Upstairs Gallery, which shuttered its Andersonville space in August 2014. “What the Shithole really is is the blurring of the lines between comedy culture and artists and punk rock. [At the Upstairs Gallery] we were very much of the comedy world and trying to create our own version of the comedy world. These guys are just trying to create their version of what they want to see in general.”
A longtime supporter of the city’s experimental shows, Honnet has received some flak for “selling out” and taking a job with an established comedy institution in Chicago. But from his point of view, the energy in today’s upstart DIY comedy scene isn’t so different from the impulse that begat the likes of Second City and iO, both of which were alternatives in their own right when they got started. It’s only a matter of time, Honnet says, before a Shithole performer’s career takes off and it will come to be regarded as yet another avenue to comic stardom. “If they’re doing good work and a job comes out of it, it becomes the type of place where that kind of thing happens,” Honnet says.
For now, Bartz and Gerrity are enjoying the Shithole’s rising popularity. Comics from Brooklyn have gotten in touch to perform in the show because they’ve heard great things through the comedy grapevine. Audiences have included international tourists hailing from as far away as Shanghai who’ve gotten word of the show.
“I see a show at the space, and I’m so jealous and proud at the same time that they have it to the scale now where they can do whatever they want to do with it, and that’s really the dream,” Honnet says. “I’m excited to see which way they grow things and how it all turns out. Man, I wish there were more shows like the Shithole.”
“There’s no ulterior motive,” Bartz says of the Shithole. “We’re not trying to open a training center or a building, we’re not trying to make a brand out of it or compete with anything. We’re just dudes doing it.” v