Sidetrack expands its format to include live comedy. Come again?
On any given Thursday night at Sidetrack, Halsted Street’s bustling video bar, you can watch Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho and other comics perform their very best stand-up on one of the bar’s multiple TV screens. But what if you could see them do it live? For the first time in the bar’s 28-year history, it’s aiming to do just that by hosting a weekly live stand-up show called Laugh Track, debuting Thursday 16, that will bring in local and national comics including touring headliners.
At Sidetrack, a Boystown fixture since 1982 and one of the most recognized gay bars in the world, formula works. The bar launched its successful Show Tunes Night back in the ’80s and is now known worldwide for its Sunday and Monday devotion to the Great White Way. Other themed events, including Thursday’s aforementioned Comedy Night, have also become successful staples, and the bar is known for annual galas like the Celebrity Pie Toss and Night of 100 Drag Queens that benefit Equality Illinois. But it has never produced a weekly live show. “As far as I know, this is the first time they’ve changed their programming in several decades,” says stand-up comic Adam Guerino, who will co-produce Laugh Track along with Sidetrack bartender Brad Thomas. So what gives?
Co-owner Art Johnston says it’s an opportunity to get its existing Thursday night fans into the bar a little earlier. Laugh Track will transform Sidetrack’s front room into a comedy club complete with cabaret seating and a stage carved from the main bar. Guerino and Thomas will take turns hosting a night of comedy that features two stand-ups. While not shy about calling it a gay-oriented show, they’re interested in cultivating both queer and hetero audiences and turning it into a bona-fide room that competes with other stand-up nights around town. Gay comics Cameron Esposito and Bill Cruz will headline opening night, but straight comics like Joe Fernandez and Beth Stelling are also slotted for September.
At Entertaining Julia (Stelling’s night of comedy at Boystown’s Town Hall Pub), queer crowds are common, but that’s the exception to the rule. Popular rooms like the Lincoln Lodge in North Center, Red Bar Comedy at Ontourage and Chicago Underground Comedy at Beat Kitchen have a harder time drawing an LGBT following. Laugh Track aims to remedy this by bringing those top-notch comics to the ’hood. “It’s at a gay bar, it’s hosted by gay people,” Guerino says. “It’s held at a very safe place.”
But how will straight comics and their fan base mix with Sidetrack’s patrons? The bar was concerned: “I can’t imagine anything more scary than somebody representing your bar with a microphone,” says Guerino, who adds that Laugh Track’s mission statement encourages comics not to assume its audience is gay. “Don’t talk about how much the audience enjoys butt sex,” he says. “Talk about how much you enjoy butt sex. That’s kind of our way to get them on the same page.” Adds Fernandez, “You shouldn’t have any jokes that will be offensive in front of certain crowds. All my jokes that are gay themed are making fun of homophobia. I’ll probably do those jokes at Laugh Track, but I do those jokes everywhere.”
For Sidetrack’s part, it welcomes the notion that its predominantly gay male clientele might rub shoulders, if only for a couple of hours a week, with lesbians and straight audiences. “It would be great if we were able to attract some new folks as well who are open to LGBT-related humor,” Johnston says. “After all, a good joke is a good joke.”
As for celebrities popping in, any Sidetrack devotee knows that already happens. Cho, Bea Arthur, Jackie Hoffman and Leslie Jordan are just a handful of the comedians who’ve graced Sidetrack in the past. Says Guerino, “Sidetrack has national acts come in often; now they’ll have a home.”
Laugh Track cracks us up Thursday 16.