Kitschy Lincoln Lodge provides an unlikely home for top-notch comedy
When T.J. Miller moved to Chicago to hone his stand-up act, he paid his dues the same way all aspiring comics do: He scrambled for stage time in front of indifferent audiences at open mike nights.
The Washington, D.C., transplant vied for the crowd's attention night after night, battling noisy television sets and drunken softball teams. All the while, he dreamed of landing one of Chicago's top gigs.
He wasn't necessarily focused on Zanies, the city's biggest name in stand-up. Instead, Miller had his eye on scoring stage time at the Lincoln Lodge, a little-known weekly show in the back room of the North Side's old-school Lincoln Restaurant.
"It's the Second City or Improv-Olympic of stand-up," he says. "When I felt that I had ten minutes of solid material, that's when I approached the Lincoln Lodge. It was one of the places that I looked to and thought, 'I really want to perform there.'"
The brainchild of comedians Thomas Lawler and Mark Geary, the Lincoln Lodge began to take shape six years ago when Lawler was eating dinner at the Lincoln Restaurant and he swore he heard banjos playing. Wanting to make sure he hadn't stumbled into a Deliverance remake, he snuck a quick peek into the restaurant's kitschy back room. There, he was stunned to see 15 banjo players entertaining a small, rapt audience.
"I was struck by the vintage quality of the room—the wood paneling, the Naugahyde, the carpet," Lawler says. "It was so uncool that it was cool."
The funky spot fit perfectly with the pair's plans: Geary had been producing an enormously popular open mike night at the nearby (and now defunct) bar the Lyons Den, and the two wanted to branch out with their own showcase featuring handpicked comics (unlike at an open mike, where the joke tellers just show up and hope to get on stage).
Inspired by the tacky room, the duo invented the myth of "Hairy" Heggenberger, a shady lounge owner from Muskegon, Michigan, who disappeared mysteriously just days before his restaurant burned to the ground in 1976. According to the legend, a Chicago comedy aficionado found some yellowed remnants from the original club and honored Heggenberger's dream by re-creating his variety act in a place where he imagined ol' Hairy would feel right at home.
Lawler and Geary invested in curtains, a folding stage, a soundboard and a lighting system. But even these professional accoutrements couldn't hide the truth: "When we first started the show, it was bloody awful," Geary admits.
Over their five-year history, they've refined the production to include an array of audiovisual gadgetry, including a live feed from a camera outside the restaurant that they use for a running "man on the street" gag.
Now, Geary says the high production values separate it from similar shows across the country.
"In comedy, there's a whole subculture of the one-nighter rooms," he says, noting Luna Lounge in New York and the Un-Cabaret in Los Angeles. "But a lot of those rooms are run with very little production value. It's just performers goofing off. We said, 'Yes, the Lincoln Lodge is an avant-garde room with semiprofessionals, but it will be run like a business.'"
Any given night at the Lincoln Lodge will find at least one "joke guy" who does straight-ahead bits, some experimental talent and a host from the Lincoln Lodge "repertory," a group of well-respected local performers who have earned regular stage time. Other acts might include magicians, poets, musicians and anybody else with stage-worthy talent.
"There are some people who don't like stand-up comedy—the form's really been downgraded with overexposure and TV," Lawler says. "And this city's all about improv. We wanted to build this whole experience that's much richer than seeing three comics doing stand-up for a few minutes each."
The Lodge attracts more than just fresh-faced locals breaking free from their open-mike shackles. Fred Armisen did time there during his pre-SNL days, and Emmy-winning Chicago native Tom Agna, who's written for Late Night with Conan O'Brien and The Chris Rock Show, takes the stage whenever he's in town.
The level of established and up-and-coming talent regularly gracing the Lodge's stage has earned the show bragging rights, according to Miller.
"It's hipper, edgier, smartercomedy—it's the A-room of the Chicago comedy scene," he says. "If people know about it and go there, they won't be disappointed. People will walk away feeling like they got their money's worth."
The Lincoln Lodge comedy nights run Fridays at 9pm.