“I wrote this thing that I was convinced was brilliant,” says the comedian J. Michael Osborne, a producer-host of the shame-based storytelling show We Still Like You. “It was like, [about] Jesus, but it’s in the modern day, Fox News commentators don’t like him very much, isn’t that interesting? I was sitting in the middle of this party and was like, I have to get this down. Then one of the guys that lived there asked me what I was writing on, and I flipped it over, and it was a newspaper clipping of this old guy, I didn’t know anything about him, and he was like, ‘Oh that’s the last [existing] photograph of my dead dad, and that’s the only copy that I have.’ And then I kept it. I was so convinced my story was so good I had to keep it.”
It’s a story Osborne’s told onstage before, and it’s a favorite of the other producers and hosts of the show. As he casually retells the story to the four others on the team, they’re all laughing so hard they’re gasping for breath, some wiping away tears. The group has reached a level of trust where they can share anything—they know each other’s deepest darkest secrets, and they can laugh about them. Once a month they invite members of the public to join them and share their own shameful secrets at We Still Like You.
It began five years ago when Danii Gallegos, Dan Sheehan, and Tyler Snodgrass were new to Chicago comedy and wanted to start a performance series of their own. At the time, many people in the community were complaining about an oversaturation of comedy showcases. Gallegos, Sheehan, and Snodgrass decided to combine their shared love of storytelling, house shows, and wallowing in shame to create something that stood out from the crowd. The first year they used pizza and beer to bribe audiences to come to their shows in a Buena Park apartment. Now We Still Like You is regularly selling out shows at the 50-seat Storefront Theatre in the Flatiron Arts Building in Wicker Park and has offshoots in Denver, Louisville, and LA, where Sheehan now lives. The Chicago team has grown to include host-producers Gallegos, Snodgrass, Osborne, Erin Grotheer, and Jesse Betend, who also produces the eponymous podcast featuring stories from live shows across the country.
“Shame means something different to everyone, and I think our show does a really good job of representing that,” Gallegos says. “It’s building a sense of community on a shared feeling that we’ve all felt, and then also releasing that tension of feeling deeply guilty about the things you’ve done.”
Each show features five or so performers telling embarrassing stories. Each tale is followed by a public moment of forgiveness as the crowd shouts, “We still like you!” Afterward, members of the audience can ask questions or pry for further details during a Q&A. And after every performance, there is more often than not a rowdy party, which the producers consider a chance for everyone to live out a We Still Like You story for a future show. During the four-year anniversary show last February, Snodgrass presented an illustrated slideshow of the most embarrassing moments that have happened over the course of We Still Like You.
The producers don’t accept just any story for the show. The submission form includes some guidelines, like “do not humblebrag” and “do not send us stories about pooping/peeing.” The hard-and-fast rule is, performers must feel real shame. Where the story goes from there is anybody’s guess.
“In one of my all-time-favorite moments from the show,” Osborne says, “Cody Melcher told a story about his grandmother dying and that he felt like he hadn’t connected with her and he had slighted her and ignored her and didn’t get a chance to say all those things. Not a dry eye in the house, just weeping. And then right after him was a story from a guy named Matty Ryan, and the story was about a jellyfish stinging his dick. That moment still to this day encapsulates my favorite thing about the show: it’s a space where both of those things can exist right alongside each other.”
Every show is recorded for a podcast, but all performers are given the option of having their name or the names of anyone else in the story edited out or for the story not to be included at all. The producers are still surprised at what people allow to be broadcast, like the guy who stole a car, crashed it, then set it on fire to destroy the evidence.
“I’m a lawyer during the day,” Grotheer says.”I hear stories sometimes and I’m like, I’m going to take my lawyer hat off for a bit.”
Even after five years of stories, the producers are still shocked by the terrible things that happen to people as well as the terrible things people do.
“There is a great Chicago comedian who’s told a story about how while at church he masturbated to a picture of a girl in a church quarterly magazine who was a victim of the Columbine shooting,” Snodgrass says. “I still can’t believe that one.”
There are plenty of others: The guy who butt dialed 911 during his first make-out session. The white woman who read a story she wrote when she was eight years old from the perspective of a black girl who just doesn’t understand the appeal of Martin Luther King Jr. The drag queen who got blackout drunk and had to break a window to get into her house on Christmas Day—in full Mrs. Claus drag. And the hosts are certainly not immune to feeling shame of their own. They share stories every week. (Most of those don’t end up on the podcast.)
Goals for the future include bringing We Still Like You to more cities, both through touring and setting up more permanent chapters, and opening it up to other members of the Chicago performing scene, not just comedians. Anyone who has recently been publicly embarrassed has an open invite.
“We want to get any of the Fyre Fest guys,” Gallegos says, “except Billy McFarland and Ja Rule, because you have to be capable of shame to do the show.” v