The art of laughter
The world's tiniest comedy club opens at the MCA.
Most stand-ups prefer a large audience. But when Bernie Circuits played the 8'?x?8' comedy room Club Nutz at Art Chicago in May, he didn’t seem to mind its Lilliputian size. Of course, Circuits doesn’t have much opinion on venues. He’s a 7-foot robot and hack comic created by artist Ben Stone—originally for the purpose of officiating Stone’s 2004 wedding. “Circuits was a huge hit,” Club Nutz cofounder Scott Reeder says, adding that audiences responded well to the robot’s pairing of standard jokes with bits about taking over the world.
Circuits will make another appearance when Club Nutz stakes out a home in “Here/Not There,” a monthlong exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tuesday 6 through July 11. Club Nutz, a.k.a. the world’s smallest comedy club, fulfills the exhibition’s participatory mission of making the viewer, rather than the artist, the focus: At the comedy club, visitors can try their hand at an open mike. Other “Here/Not There” offerings include dining at a temporary free restaurant, creating art at a mock studio and participating in a live theatrical event.
Club Nutz was created by artists and brothers Scott and Tyson Reeder, 35 and 38, respectively, along with Scott’s wife, Elysia Borowy. The three divide their time between Milwaukee and Chicago, where they soon will set up shop permanently. In Milwaukee, they ran a gallery called the General Store and, currently, Club Nutz at the Green Gallery West, an artist’s collective. Club Nutz springs from the trio’s interest in interactive art. In 2005, they created Drunk vs. Stoned, a saloon fashioned with old bar wood and a swinging door that was attached to a gallery space. “We noticed that everybody started hanging out in there because it was darker,” Tyson says. “I guess [Club Nutz] is kind of a continuation of that.”
A transportable space outfitted with a stage, DJ booth and faux brick wall, Club Nutz offers more than robot comedy: At various Club Nutz incarnations, amateur and professional comics man the mike, DJs stage dance parties, and serious art lectures are delivered. “We don’t want it to be just a giant whoopee cushion all the time,” Scott says.
But it’s the comedic elements in Club Nutz that speak to the trio’s interest in challenging expectations. “Where does art and comedy end and something else begin?” Scott asks. He cites the late comedian Andy Kaufman’s blending of fact and fiction as an influence. “The art world is ripe for playing around with the blurring of boundaries because there’s a certain expectation people have at an art fair or a museum.”
Scott and his collaborators have discovered that the diminutive space (which holds up to a dozen people) encourages interaction. “We’re interested in this idea of anybody participating along with established artists,” Scott says. “A small space lends itself to that. Somebody who might be intimidated to get up onstage at a big comedy club, this is a way for them to try things out.” Tricia Van Eck, MCA associate curator, agrees: “[It] provides a familiar yet creative platform for encouraging the visitor to perform within a communal setting within the museum,” she says via email.
As for the ridiculous name, it’s meant to evoke old-school comedy clubs. “The bar is low, that’s the message in that name,” Scott says. “That goes along with the idea that we provide the sound effects and laugh tracks. Even if there’s some drunk person rambling, if you put the right classical music behind it, it can be funny.”
All of which begs the question, will Chicago comedy aficionados take note? The Reeders and Borowy think they will. “From what I hear from younger or alternative comics, there’s definitely a grind to just do your five-minute slot at a conventional comedy club,” Scott says. “Comedians are hungry to immerse themselves in different contexts.”
Club Nutz opens as part of the MCA’s “Here/Not There” exhibition.