Solo sketch comedy
Can a go-it-alone mentality thrive in Chicago’s group-think comedy scene?
The trend grew the following year when Vanessa Bayer and Paul Brittain, who played icky character “Sex Ed Vincent” at iO, joined SNL’s cast for its 36th season after being seen at one of Halpern’s showcases, and was cemented this September when Michaels picked Chicago comedian Cecily Strong to become one of SNL’s newest featured players after seeing her at iO.
“Paul and Vanessa getting hired changed a few things,” says Tim Baltz, a sketch comedian and improviser who recently departed Mainstage. “It clued Chicago in even more to how the audition process at SNL works. If you have five good minutes, you might actually get consideration.”
The result is that newcomers to the scene are creating solo material straight out of the gate. “It sort of feels like a requirement where everyone’s like, ‘Oh, great, you’re taking a level-one class, you got a tight ten minutes that you can do?’ ” says Jeffries, 28, a coproducer of the Kill All Comedy album and two-time director for solo shows from scene regular Farrell Walsh.
Adding fuel to the fire, Halpern started hosting a Thursday showcase at iO last fall where improvisers could hone their solo craft in hopes of performing in front of Michaels. She agrees the road to SNL no longer runs directly through the Second City. “Lorne wants to see character work and brings his writers with him to see who is inspired to write for these characters,” she says. “At the iO audition you showcase what you do. At Second City, you are doing what’s best for their sketch show.”
But Halpern’s insight brings up an interesting conundrum. By its nature, solo work puts the individual first—a concept that’s counterintuitive in improv-heavy Chicago, where a group-mind ethos rules. “The whole thing with improv is group effort,” Scott says. “But then there’s a part where you have to market yourself and it feels unnatural.”
One of the finest recent practitioners of solo material is Conner O’Malley, 25, who created the Holy Fuck Comedy Hour to experiment with solo work alongside his peers. A nutjob onstage (he once hosted a show entirely in character as Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich), O’Malley understands the newfound excitement—his girlfriend is recent SNL hire Aidy Bryant—but also is wary of it. “You realize that the solo material is just kind of a tool and now in Chicago people think it’s the end-all and be-all of getting that job and it’s not,” he says. “This SNL stuff, there’s a lot of blood in the water and it’s making people go crazy.”
O’Malley says comics should immerse themselves in group work, where they will discover and develop their voice, before venturing out on their own. Veteran Baltz offers his own words of caution. “If people out there think they can just show up acting like a comedy animal, and the comedy zookeeper at each theater is going to corral them and make them a star, that’s just naive.”
Napier, meanwhile, always has been an advocate for a me-first mentality, especially within an ensemble format. “All I’m seeking when I direct is [an] individual point of view to apply to an ensemble,” he says. “That’s what’s going to stand out, whether people like that or not. The [comedy] community, and us included, would like to spend a lot of energy and time creating what one should or should not do in order to do this or that, but it’s all a myth and it’s all bullshit because it is just true that you could create a video on YouTube and it could become noticed and you could get an SNL audition from that and the next thing you know you’re on Saturday Night Live.”
That might be reassuring to a comedian like Oberbeck, 29, who killed it at Just for Laughs this year by stripping down to his briefs and playing a variety of weirdos—by himself. “I like the loneliness,” he says. “I’m just wired that way.” Oberbeck has performed on improv teams at both iO and the Playground, but he isn’t counting on either getting him discovered by industry scouts. “At this point I’m still holding onto the blind faith that I can make people come to me,” he says.