A stand-up comic unlocks unconventional funny with keys and the right combo.
Twelve seconds into the interview, Hannah Gansen is apologizing. Seems that after working the March Madness shift at a North Side bar, the 25-year-old comic is taking a much needed day off—which means sleeping in. It’s 11am on a Friday when we give her a ring; Gansen swears she’s been awake for an hour, though her voice doesn’t help her cause. “I’m sorry, I haven’t talked to anybody yet cuz I live by myself. It’s not like I wake up and talk to myself,” she says. “I’ll sound like Barry White for four more hours at least.”
Her guttural tones sure clean up nice: At the end of her sets, the local stand-up (and member of the all-female comedy group SpitFire) bangs out an original comedic song on her 1989 Yamaha keyboard, and has the powerful pipes to back it up. The songs carry the same comic voice as her jokes, which typically involve making fun of stupid people and taking audiences on wild logic leaps. (“So, when you’re shopping at Aldi, does anybody else feel like they’re in Communist Russia?”)
Music—piano, specifically—has been a part of Gansen’s life since she was six, but comedy is a relatively new development. While attending Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, Gansen found herself about to deliver a presentation about cabaret theater and was ill-prepared. Rather than attempt something legit, Gansen decided to tempt fate and mock the topic instead. The teacher was surprisingly not angry, but instead impressed with Gansen’s comic timing—so much so that he secretly signed her up for a local stand-up open mike. “I told him I didn’t have any material, but he said, ‘That’s fine. Just talk like you normally do,’” she recalls.
From there, Gansen was hooked. She began working on bits during her side job as a janitor. No, seriously. “Other girls wanted to be a ballerina. I wanted to be a janitor, specifically for that magic dust—the sawdust for vomit,” she says, citing her two older janitor brothers as influences. She dropped the job like a bad habit postgraduation, and moved to Chicago to enroll in I.O.’s improv-training program and hit the stand-up open-mike circuit.
After a few years of performing at Chicago Underground Comedy and the Elevated showcases, usually dressed elegantly in some sort of fancy dress, Gansen landed a spot in A Demon Who Never Appeared. As the story goes at this monthly sketch/talent show, a demon tries each time to ruin the variety night hosted by Dr. Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani), Maestro Hannah (Gansen) and Colonel Wigsplitter (Josh Cheney). Luckily (and comically), the demon (Jared Logan) is nothing more than a booming voice—hence, the title. Gansen’s character is not unlike Gansen herself: She plays silly piano songs, calls attention to the characters’ mishaps and graces the stage in a wedding gown.
It just goes to show that Gansen doesn’t have to play a wild character to stand out. Her sharp wit and laid-back persona nicely rounds out showcase lineups across the board—and she doesn’t have to change a thing about her act. “You don’t have to be all up in people’s faces to be energetic,” she says. “You can have energy and not be jumping off the stage doing flips.”—Steve Heisler
Hannah Gansen appears with A Demon Saturday 7.