Will a spate of new stand-up nights deliver laughter to downtown Chicago?
Joe Piscopo has just struck comedy gold—and he probably doesn’t even know it. The SNL alum is slated to host a new Chicago-based variety series for TV, After Dark, featuring musicians, actors, filmmakers and comedians. In December, Piscopo held a sold-out talent search for comics at River North jazz lounge the Joynt, where the show will be taped. But he no longer needs to ask Chicago comics to travel downtown. As of late, they’re already there.
Downtown’s comedy scene has long struggled. A half-dozen permanent clubs like the Funny Firm went belly up ages ago. The Comedy House at Timothy O’Toole’s Pub expired a few years back, and an open mike at Jake Melnick’s Corner Tap recently ended. The list goes on. But in just the last six weeks, a spate of new shows have opened in Streeterville and River North: The Red Bar Comedy Show every Saturday at Ontourage; Comedians You Should Know (CYSK) at Timothy O’Toole’s; Razzmatazz, a stand-up showcase hosted by Edge Comedy at Cafe Wha Who?; and a stand-up night at Garrett Ripley’s (the latter three on Wednesdays). While all the groups aimed specifically for downtown, their motivations differ.
Dave Odd, who runs the Edge Comedy Club at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts (CCPA), hopes his new open mike in River North will lure comedy fans to CCPA’s no-man’s-land location at Green and Halsted Streets. “If you like what you see here, six blocks away from Michigan Avenue,” Odd says, “come 12 blocks away and see this other show.”
Meanwhile, Michael Sanchez, one of eight comics behind local-talent showcase CYSK, says their show hopes to grab coveted tourist dollars while upping Chicago’s stand-up cachet. “We want hip people from out of town to know who we are,” Sanchez says. “Places like Zanies and Second City do cater to tourists. People come here, they type that shit into Google, those are the first places to come up. We don’t think those are the best comics that should be up.”
Most ambitious perhaps is the new Red Bar Comedy Show, created by Mike David and Kyle Lane, who host the thrice-weekly Red Bar Radio podcast, which they say attracts more than 22,000 listeners. Red Bar aims to be a Vegas-style stand-up night with permanent-fixture status. “[Chicago] being the third-largest market, it’s important to me that we have one of everything in the downtown area,” David says. “I’ve been going out to see comedy show after comedy show in the city, and no offense to these other shows, but I don’t think anyone is trying hard enough.” David aims to rectify bad sound and lighting, uncomfortable seating, long-ass running times and two-drink minimums common at other venues. The weekly Red Bar will host three comics in the span of an hour for $10 and offer $5 well drinks as well as state-of-the art sound and lighting (courtesy of Ontourage). “The audience is kept in mind during the entire show,” David says. “We want to make sure they’re comfortable and all they have to worry about is laughing.”
But given that Chicago is still considered an improv town and that most comedy still happens on the North Side, the big question is whether the public will show. These guys aren’t worried. Says David, “We’ve talked to a lot of hotels to see what people coming in from out of town are asking for, and they always go, ‘We want to go see comedy.’” Adds Odd, “I don’t feel like comedy fans give a rat’s ass where our show is at.” Piscopo, it’s your lucky day.
Catch The Red Bar Comedy Show every Saturday and Comedians You Should Know, Garrett Ripley’s and Razzmatazz on Wednesdays.