Central Kitchen & Tap

It started with a window display on Milwaukee Avenue that might have been the work of a very young David Lynch: an amateurish, vaguely disturbing mannequin slumped against a window, and a hand-drawn sign telling you to try the Schwim Schwam Burger at Central Kitchen.

That was enough to make me curious. A moment of Google established that Central Kitchen & Tap was a diner, kind of divey-retro-hipster, on the northwest side.

But the Schwim Schwam Burger? That was more of a mystery. Besides Central Kitchen’s menu, the only result for “Schwim Schwam” appeared to be a Web comedy show, which proved to be surprisingly resistant to the efforts of anyone interested in viewing it. Only its opening credits could be found on YouTube, and its Twitter account explicitly said not to follow it. But one clue did ring a distant bell: the name of one of its creators, John Maloof. Wait, wasn’t that the name of the guy who . . .

YouTube video

Could the serious-looking photographer who found and brought to public attention one of the Chicago art world’s recent outsider-art sensations be the same as the guy behind this goofy-looking comedy show with a cheeseburger named for it?

Yes, he could.

The total publicity for The Schwim Schwam Show.

The Schwim Schwam Show is the project of Maloof and his friend Phil Calato, with whom he grew up on the northwest side. “We’ve always been making comedy shorts since we were very young,” Maloof says. “We both have a sense of humor that we like, and that nobody else . . . seems to like in our sphere. So we just do things for ourselves that amuse us, and that’s how that show came about.”

Complicatedly meta, The Schwim Schwam Show is mostly about their efforts to make the show itself, and often uses settings and businesses around the northwest side as part of their sketches. The Six Corners Sears went along with them doing “National Draw a Picture of A Bird Day” in its parking lot one Easter; another episode involved performing a sketch in Polish (a language neither of them speaks), which got them an interview on Polish TV.

In typically convoluted fashion, they got a 45th-Ward Arts Alive! grant to do the window display, but they were really interested in having a burger named for them somewhere, so they figured they could trade some promotion in the window display in return for the burger. (All of this is in the episode below.) Central Kitchen was the first place they asked. “Most of the show we did by just asking people, ‘Hey, do you mind if we hang a bird from your ceiling fan and film you swatting it with a broom in your bakery?'” Calato says. This is, they agree, pretty much how the northwest side of Chicago is: “Nobody up there does anything or asks for anything,” Calato says. “They don’t expect it like they would in bigger, more-populated-with-younger-people areas like Wicker Park.”

So what is the burger? Maloof describes it as “a perfect analogy of our show—a vat of Cheez Whiz, an onion ring, and a bunch of bacon” on a ciabatta roll. Their intention was to make something over-the-top, though considering some of the exotic burger combinations to be found in more foodie-oriented parts of town, the result seems downright unassuming. It’s a true burger for the northwest side, where even excess lives modestly and keeps its lawn neatly mowed.

The Schwim Schwam Burger at Central Kitchen & Tap.

After I explain how difficult it was to actually track the show down, they point me to its online presence, which is at Vimeo, not YouTube. Although they had a premiere at the Hungry Brain, they recognize that they never really did the “telling the world” part of making an online show. “We put a lot of work into this, really, for nobody to really see it,” Maloof says. “We wanted to do everything against the show succeeding, for some stupid reason.”

“And we accomplished that,” says Calato.

So, I ask, doesn’t that make it kind of the Vivian Maier of sketch comedy shows, waiting for someone to find it in a trunk and discover it for the world? “I guess,” Maloof laughs. “We actually did use that analogy, thinking maybe somebody’s going to find them ten years from now and think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.'”

“And, ‘Boy, you guys had a lot of time on your hands,'” adds Calato.

Schwim Schwam Show Ep 5 – Meeting with 45th Ward Arts Alive from Pretty Much Probably Productions on Vimeo.

Central Kitchen & Tap, 4800 N. Central, 773-853-0150, centralkitchenandtap.com