Female comedy group the Kates got their name from the unconventional venue in which they debuted, Kate the Great’s Book Emporium in Edgewater. At the time, it was just stand-up comedian Kelsie Huff running the operation: she recruited her female friends to perform comedy (mostly stand-up, but occasionally improv and sketch) and tell stories at indie bookstores across the city. Now, nine years later, they put on regular events at the Book Cellar, have hit more conventional stages like the Laugh Factory, and have built up a roster of more than 500 women who are involved both in front of and behind the scenes, including a core unit of nine female producers.
A typical Kates production features brash, unapologetic female comedians and storytellers, sometimes with a few variety acts thrown in. One of the objectives of the Kates has always been to encourage all-female collaborations. This year they’re expanding that framework beyond the comedy scene by conducting pop-up performances at women-owned businesses, starting with an event at Koval Distillery on Friday, September 16, that includes a whiskey tasting.
“Not only is Koval co-owned by a woman, [Sonat Birnecker], but there are a lot of women in the office,” Huff says. “So many of them had seen the Kates before or did sketch and improv—one of them actually took my stand-up class. Secret Kates are everywhere.”
Other potential venues currently on Huff’s radar are Women & Children First and Story Studio, as well as places outside of the north side. The Revival, a Hyde Park improv and comedy theater, while not female owned, will soon serve as a hub for the Kates, a place for workshops and stand-up classes (Huff currently teaches Feminine Comique, stand-up classes for women, at Sheil Park in Lakeview).
And as the group expands, they’re also looking beyond Chicago: they hope to send their act to bookstores, warehouses, and other unconventional venues in towns that don’t have positive and supportive performance environments for women.
But don’t expect the Kates to be preachy. “People have this big idea of what comedy with a message or inclusive comedy means, but at the end of the day it just feels like a party,” Huff says. “We literally have a dance party in our show.”
Huff acknowledges the sexism and harassment that women have been facing in the comedy scene; recruiting performers and keeping them involved can be a challenge. That’s why she wants the Kates to start appearing in more places than ever.
“Yes, there’s been some real serious pushback, but that shit’s not going to stop us,” Huff says. “We are taking up more space, and there are more of us. The only way to move forward is to stand up and stand together, and I think that’s one of the powers the Kates will always provide.” v