Chicago 101: Comedy | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

Chicago 101: Comedy 

Where to go for a laugh

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Mikey O, host of the Cultural Madness Comedy Jam at Joe’s

Mikey O, host of the Cultural Madness Comedy Jam at Joe’s

CHICAGO HAS PRODUCED some of our greatest comedians, and only New York rivals the breadth of Chicago’s comedy scene. Whether you’re looking for standup, sketch comedy, or improvisation, you can find it here, and most of it’s reasonably inexpensive.

CHARNA HALPERN Called the “Comedy Mother” by former student Adam McKay, director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights, Halpern has nurtured the careers of countless comedians as the manager of I.O. (formerly ImprovOlympic), which she founded in 1981. Halpern and the late Del Close revolutionized improvisation in 1983 when they developed I.O.’s signature long-form technique. Her latest book, Art by Committee, which came out this summer, details advanced improv techniques.

MICK NAPIER Founder of Annoyance Productions, which has brought a dark edge to Chicago improv, Napier worked for years as a director of main stage shows at Second City, and as a director and teacher is one of the community’s most influential members.

JONATHAN PITTS Back in the 80s Pitts wrote and distributed what’s become a legendary improv guide, An Improvised Almanac, which is chock-full of pithy maxims like “Don’t deny” and “Heighten the reality.” He’s the cofounder and executive producer of perhaps the country’s biggest improv event, the Chicago Improv Festival, which returns in April.

BRIAN POSEN A veteran writer, director, and teacher, Posen produces the January festival Chicago SketchFest and has helped keep Chicago comedy fresh and internationally vital with his terrific programming. He’s also a member of the talented Cupid Players, an all-musical group that performs Saturdays at I.O. | RH

Megapopular stand-ups like Margaret Cho and Dane Cook tend to play large venues such as the Chicago Theatre (175 N. State, 312-902-1500) and the Allstate Arena (6920 N. Mannheim, Rosemont, 847-635-6601 or 312-559-1212), but some established comics appear at comedy clubs along with up-and-comers. Old Town’s intimate Zanies (1548 N. Wells) is the city’s oldest and best-known club, with shows every night, and it regularly attracts national headliners. See Richard Lewis there October 4 or Chelsea Handler October 18 and 19. The Improv, of New York and Hollywood fame, opened in Schaumburg (Woodfield Mall, Golf Road at Rte. 53, 847-240-2001) in June. It’s worth the trek to see the likes of Jamie Kennedy and Darrell Hammond; Tommy Davidson plays there November 16 through 19. For a schedule comparable in range and quality to BET’s excellent Comic View, check out Jokes and Notes (4641 S. King Dr., 773-373-3390), and for the most diverse lineups and crowds in the city, stop by a Mikey O show at Joe’s (940 W. Weed, 312-337-3486).

To catch locals working on their routines in a nonclub atmosphere, try the north side’s “New Faces” show at Kitty Moon (6237 N. Clark, 312-927-5844), the “Elevated” showcase at Cherry Red (2833 N. Sheffield, 773-477-3661), “Chicago Underground Comedy” at Gunther Murphy’s (1638 W. Belmont, 773-728-0746), or “The Lincoln Lodge” at Lincoln Restaurant (4008 N. Lincoln, 773-251-1539). And for local stand-up peppered with stripping, there’s “Star and Garter Burlesque” at Fizz Bar & Grill (3220 N. Lincoln, 773-348-6000). Look out for Robert Buscemi, Prescott Tolk, Jared Logan, Andy Ross, or C.J. Sullivan at one of these shows. If you’re itching to throw some punch lines yourself, here’s a list of places with open mikes, all free unless otherwise noted: Sundays at Bad Dog Tavern (4535 N. Lincoln, 773-334-4040), Cosmicafe (1944 W. Montrose, 773-728-2233), and Lilly’s (2513 N. Lincoln, 773-525-2422); Mondays at Gunther Murphy’s and Mix (2843 N. Halsted, 773-528-7569); Tuesdays at Cork Lounge (1822 W. Addison, 773-728-2233); Wednesdays at Jokes and Notes ($10), McDunna’s(1505 W. Fullerton, 773-929-0944), and Cigars and Stripes (6715 W. Ogden, Berwyn, 708-484-1043, $3); Thursdays at Pressure Billiards and Cafe (6318 N. Clark, 773-743-7665). There’s also Mikey O’s monthly “Local Locos” open mike at Joe’s ($5).

John Belushi, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Vince Vaughn, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Amy Sedaris, and Stephen Colbert were all trained in comedy in Chicago, and primarily at one or both of the city’s two most famous comedic institutions: Second City (1616 N. Wells, 312- 337-3992) and I.O. (3541 N. Clark, 773-880-0199), formerly ImprovOlympic. Second City, often considered the originator of improv, had its roots in a University of Chicago student group called the Compass, whose core members founded Second City in 1959. Since then it’s become synonymous with improvisation, though what you find on its two main stages is more often sketch comedy.

Legendary improv guru Del Close taught at I.O. in the 80s and 90s, and improvisation still takes center stage—particularly the long-form variety, which stresses the development of characters and themes over the quick, gamelike style. You’ll find that at ComedySportz (777 N. Green, 312-733-6000), though it also has a long-form show, The Hot Karl. If you see one sketch show all year, see War! Now in Its 4th Smash Year! at Second City. It’s worth the $18-$24 ticket. If you see one improv show, go to T.J. and Dave at I.O. It’s been running late on Wednesdays for over four years now, for $5. Dave Pasquesi, half of the duo, can also be seen on stages such as the Goodman and Steppenwolf and recently appeared in the movie Strangers With Candy.

But those aren’t your only options for sketch and improv. Here’s a short list of venues featuring regular, consistently solid shows: Playground Theater (3209 N. Halsted, 773-871-3793), Cornservatory (4210 N. Lincoln, 773-865-7731), Stage Left Theatre (3408 N. Sheffield, 773-342-3575), The Spot (4437 N. Broadway, 773-728-8933), and Annoyance Theatre (4840 N. Broadway, 773-561-4665), where on Thursdays you can see one of the city’s most accomplished performers, Susan Messing, in Messing With a Friend. Lots of colleges feature student sketch and improv groups, notably the University of Chicago’s Off-Off Campus and Northwestern University’s Titanic Players. Last but not least, watch our listings for two big annual comedy festivals: Sketchfest ( in January and the Chicago Improv Festival ( in April.

Both offer loads of sketch and improv from local groups and troupes from around the world. For more check the Reader’s comedy listings in Section 2 for prices, locations, and what’s playing where.

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