In the late 80s and early 90s, Chicago was in the midst of a comedy-club turf war. Zanies, the Funny Firm, Catch a Rising Star, the Improv, and All Jokes Aside, to name only a few, fought dirty. “Sources say that since that tidal wave of openings, club managers have increasingly been forced to turn to free passes (‘papering’) to fill their many seats, while counting on drink tabs to cover operating costs,” wrote the Reader’s Lewis Lazare in 1990. Bert Haas, the executive vice president of Zanies, was quoted as saying, “Pretty soon I predict every Chicagoan will receive a free pass to a comedy club.” Around that time, a Funny Firm employee called Zanies itself and offered Haas six complimentary tickets.
This year Zanies celebrates its 40th anniversary, but it’s the only remaining comedy club within city limits that programs stand-up seven nights a week. (Zanies also owns clubs in Rosemont, Saint Charles, and Nashville, Tennessee.) Its vibe, however, remains trapped in the 80s. Most shows cost $25 but stipulate a two-drink minimum. Shows follow the old-school format of host, feature, and headliner. Signed head shots of Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, and other past performers adorn the walls. The club is cramped, able to withstand 120 people. And though the occasional “name” comes through—Jeff Garlin is slated for two shows on Sunday—Haas relies on the audience’s good faith. “If you ask people at the end who they saw, they don’t have a clue,” he says. “They just know whether it was a good show or not.”
Haas is celebrating Zanies’ birthday on Monday with a ridiculous proposition: 40 comics, one night. Other Zanies employees are putting together the lineup; he wants to be surprised by who drops in to perform. Working Chicago-based comics like Dwayne Kennedy and Larry Reeb are likely suspects. It doesn’t matter; the show is already sold out.
A slot on a Zanies lineup remains a brass ring for local talent. Unlike shows in bars or most theaters hosting improv and sketch as well, the audiences at Zanies are comprise mostly noncomedy people who don’t frequent clubs—some are tourists, some are locals on a night out. Plus, Zanies pays its performers.
They can afford it partially because of the two-item minimum, which is a head-scratcher of a policy. Why not do away with it and raise ticket prices? After all these years, Zanies remains committed to the Spirit Airlines business model: many tiny charges on top of ostensibly reasonable basic ticket prices. As evidenced over 40 years, Zanies will do what it can to avoid papering Chicago.
40 Comics in One Night Mon 4/9, 8 PM, Zanies, 1548 N. Wells, 312-337-4027, chicago.zanies.com, sold out.