Scott Adsit improvises two shows with fellow iO alum Jet Eveleth on Wed 8/18. Credit: Getty images

Named for wobbly stage chairs, iO’s first annual Bentwood Comedy Festival runs August 10 through 19. Much comedy awaits; here are the Reader‘s top picks, each of which has been vetted by our critics over the years.

Scott Adsit, best known for his work on 30 Rock, performs with Jet Eveleth Sat 8/18 at 7 and 9 PM. Eveleth’s patient style remains the perfect foil for Adsit’s cerebral, zippy improv. Even in his earliest Chicago days, Adsit played the jester, as Brianna Wellen wrote in 2017:

In the early 90s he spent his days wandering around Roscoe Village with comedy writer Dino Stamatopoulos (Late Night With Conan O’Brien, Moral Orel, Community) and a guitar in tow. The pair would find al fresco restaurants and pretend they worked there, then offer to play original tunes to diners until management eventually kicked them out.

With the improv group American Dream and the vaunted Late Night Late Show, Jordan Klepper strayed from expectations. Rather than follow a standard Harold improv format, each of American Dream’s performances were framed by a new style, crafted seconds before show time. They once snagged a bag of clothes and wore oversize shirts, tight pants, and other sundries that inspired each scene. As Klepper told me, the group occasionally lampooned its own members:

“We did a show once after Piero [Procaccini] had worked a double shift and was exhausted. So we said, “Piero, you’re going to sleep onstage. Literally.” So we did a show that was really quiet. We whispered. The audience raised their hands instead of laughing.”

The Late Night Late Show played every Saturday at midnight at iO’s former home in Wrigleyville, and quickly garnered cult status for its madcap, absurd humor. Klepper played its cocky and overconfident host, and the rest of the cast included a sarcastic piano player, a whip-smart sidekick, and a slew of eccentric guests:

“When we had Jason Williams from the Chicago Bulls as a guest, we did the show like a basketball game—a halftime show, a scoreboard. We created a mascot called Desky that danced around. We also had Mr. Skin on at one point who was, um, a purveyor of celebrity nip slips. So we were making a smart, thoughtful show.”

Klepper has cobbled together a team of Chicago’s best improvisers to join him onstage Fri 8/17 at 8 and 10:30 PM.

T.J. & Dave, the legendary improv duo of T.J. Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, has performed all over the world, and for many years held a residency at iO every Wednesday night—the only show iO students weren’t allowed to see for free. Shows are fewer and farther between these days—likely because Pasquesi appears on Veep and Jagodowki (alongside another Veep veteran, Peter Grosz) remains a staple in Sonic commercials. The duo reunites at the festival Wed 8/15 at 10 PM.

Before he was considered half of the greatest improv group on the planet, Jagodowski struggled with a mysterious version of stage fright he admits might have been psychosomatic, which manifested itself while he was a member of the Second City mainstage cast:

A few months after opening night, he was onstage when the illness that would change his life first hit. “Everything I was seeing flipped through the bottom and back through the top, sucked back to a pinhole, and then zoomed back forward,” he says. “From then on, there was just this constant sense of rocking back and forth.” Between acts he went to the hospital. “They diagnosed it as vertigo, which should last six to eight weeks, and they put me on this souped-up Dramamine. It didn’t do anything.”

The full 2008 Reader story by Anne Ford outlines the steps he took to overcome this hiccup and details what continues to draw Jagodowski to improv comedy.

Sarah Sherman, aka Sarah Squirm, hosts a one-off production of <i>Helltrap Nightmare</i> on 8/19.
Sarah Sherman, aka Sarah Squirm, hosts a one-off production of Helltrap Nightmare on 8/19.Credit: MATTHEW SCHWERIN

Though it doesn’t fit neatly into the normal confines of an improv set, the Helltrap Nightmare variety show induces a similar chaos. Dressed in garish and glittery costumes, comedian Sarah Sherman, who goes by the stage name Sarah Squirm, invites performers who stray from expectations or, in most cases, good taste. Once Nicky Martin strapped a Roomba across his midsection with duct tape, then read graphic erotic fiction about making sweet love to said Roomba. Many guests utilize Powerpoint to display graphic imagery of groins. Sherman has them all beat; she produces videos that feature pubic hair and lots of oozing. As I wrote in a profile of her earlier this year,

She formulates bodily fluids from recipes she has devised and perfected. She makes come from chunky cottage cheese blended with milk. She stuffs chili, chocolate, and hairs from wigs into diapers that later burst in a geyser of poop and pubes. She purchases fake blood—she prefers the kind from Party City for its “syrupy and bisque-ness” qualities—and occasionally mixes it with ketchup. Once she dyed mayonnaise with green food coloring to simulate slime, then shot a video segment in which the substance dripped out of her mouth, eyes, nipples, and vagina. “It was burning my face,” she remembers.

Sherman works as an illustrator by day, and her show Sun 8/19 at 8 PM will ideally include many of her hand-drawn oversize tampons hanging from the backdrop.

The hosts of the podcast Hello From the Magic Tavern (Tue 8/14, 8 PM) approach improv, an intangible art form intended to be enjoyed only once, with microphones and recorders. Everything on the show is completely improvised except for the conceit: Arnie Niekamp stumbles upon the magical land of Foon and in each episode he, Usidore the wizard, and Chunt the shape-shifter discuss the goings-on of this fantasy world. Because listeners can revisit old content, the banter between the three hosts transforms into Foon canon. As Janet Potter wrote in 2016:

One of the by-products of this format is that anything made up on the show immediately becomes part of the inexorably burgeoning history and tradition of Foon. At this point, Foon is a weird and wonderful place where “Wi-Fi” stands for “witches’ fight”; “open mike night” is when a guy named Mike turns his body inside out and does stand-up comedy; Chunt organizes a blood drive to feed vampires called, Chunt for the Red October; people who die while hungry turn into “hunger ghosts” who are hungry for eternity; there’s a popular fantasy role-playing game called “Offices & Bosses”; and everyone’s favorite delicacy is a raw potato rolled in spices.

3Peat is also best known for its recorded content. The group formed in Chicago and is made up of performers of color, each of whom was sick of representing the token minority perspective in other shows. They have produced videos for Comedy Central online, including this playful spoof of horror movie conventions:

YouTube video

Join them Wed 8/10 at 8 and 10:30 PM for a glimpse behind the camera.

The full schedule outlines each day’s shows and offers the opportunity to purchase a full-fest pass for $50.