Solo sketch comedy
Can a go-it-alone mentality thrive in Chicago’s group-think comedy scene?
At the diminutive Upstairs Gallery in Andersonville, a scrappy, third-story performance space where comedians are gathered for a live recording of the monthly Kill All Comedy solo showcase, Gary Richardson offers an awkward apology from the stage to show producers Steph Cook and Joey Dundale. He’s just gotten back into town after attending his grandfather’s funeral and doesn’t have the right props to do his bit. He instead offers to read aloud from the diary of his grandfather who, according to Richardson, was the first black man to be admitted into Yale. Richardson cracks open the book and in a husky, avuncular tone begins reading.
“I might as well have been sucking my own dick,” he says. “Meaning to say, I was extremely bent out of shape, so bent out of shape that I could suck my own dick if I wanted to. But I didn’t want to, I had just came.…”
Richardson, 23, is destroying it. His performance is stuffed with joyous filth and he’s nailing every unexpected profanity with deadpan precision. The scene is one of many in an evening of experimental comedy that features other promising young up-and-comers like Jared Jeffries, Anthony Oberbeck and Jo Scott, comedians and producers who are discovering their voices through solo sketch performances—and in turn circumventing Chicago’s traditional, ensemble-oriented pathway to comedy superstardom.
In solo sketch, not to be confused with stand-up, a lone comic assumes the role of one or multiple characters onstage. Lately, the scene in Chicago has exploded. Not only does the annual TBS Just for Laughs fest feature a showcase at the Playground Theater called Alone: Chicago’s Best Solo Acts (launched in 2009, it has since been replicated at the flagship festival in Montreal), but fans can also get their fix at the raunchy Holy Fuck Comedy Hour Fridays at the Annoyance and at Give Me 5 every Wednesday at the Playground. Full-length solo shows are everywhere these days: at Upstairs Gallery, iO, Chemically Imbalanced Comedy, the Annoyance and, increasingly, the Second City’s UP Comedy Club.
Social media has helped fuel the trend. “With people putting videos up more and throwing their own point of views out there more, there’s a little more of a feeling of control of the individual to carve their own path in what they’re doing,” says Annoyance founder Mick Napier. “They don’t feel as much that they have to be a part of an ensemble or wait for that Second City shot or whatever.” Second City executive vice president Kelly Leonard agrees. “There’s definitely something in the zeitgeist that is bringing [talent agents] to Chicago,” he says. “I think social media has a little bit to do with that now.”
Solo sketch has been a part of the city’s comedy scene for years. iO owner Charna Halpern says 2004 was the last year that Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels requested to see improv-only showcases, saying that sketch would be the best way for him to see character work and writing ability. Since then, Halpern’s showcases—special shows that are open to the public but designed to give industry scouts a glimpse of iO’s finest talent—have included solo work. But the buzz that solo sketch could win performers a shot at instant stardom started, according to the comics I interviewed, in 2009. That year, Chicago comedian Michael Patrick O’Brien was tapped to write for SNL after auditioning his solo material in front of an iO crowd that included Michaels. (Halpern says when SNL came to Chicago, O’Brien told Second City Mainstage he was going out of town so he could make the iO set.)