What's so funny about Schaumburg?
The suburbs are stealing the show when it comes to the local stand-up comedy scene. Here's why.
There’s some good news and bad news in the Chicago comedy world. The Improv—a national chain of 25 stand-up clubs—opened in Chicagoland last month. Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock and Robin Williams all started at the Improv, and the local outpost is already sporting an impressive slate, with comics such as Caroline Rhea, Christopher Titus and David Alan Grier.
REMEMBER THE TITUS Comedian Christopher Titus makes light of his dysfunctional childhood at The Improv in July.
All good, yes? But here’s the catch: The Improv is in Schaumburg. “There used to be a city Improv in the late ’80s, but it was a poorly managed affair that closed,” says Tony Baldino, owner of the new franchise.
“This new Schaumburg club, though, is professionally run, with a focus on bringing comedy to where people live and work.”
On a recent visit, the crowd—sitting in the immaculate mahogany room—chowed on prime rib and orange-almond-chicken salad. This swanky scene is a far cry from the city’s indie circuit and its few small, full-time clubs. We overheard audience members comparing previous weeks’ shows—evidence that the suburban location has already garnered repeat customers.
But the locale hasn’t been quite as big of a hit with the talent: “They told me I was booked in Chicago, but this might as well be Kentucky,” comedian Daniel Tosh spouted during a July visit. “Is it risky in Schaumburg? The only risk I see is being fucking bored.”
Years back, it would have seemed absurd that Schaumburg would beat out Chicago as the site for a new club. In 1988, there were as many as 16 full-time rooms operating in the city. But stand-up saturation, both in clubs and on newly popular cable TV, resulted in most of them being shut down. Today, Chicago stand-up comics can make more money by working in the suburbs. Why? The suburban clubs are bigger because there’s simply more room—and that means more paying customers. More customers means comedians can make bank thanks to a higher flat rate or a cut of the door.
Keeping a comedy club open in Chicago isn’t easy, either. “Lots of clubs close due to high city rent and taxes,” says Bert Haas, the vice president of Zanies Comedy Clubs in Chicago, St. Charles and Vernon Hills. “Not to mention summertime events—street festivals, the Taste, beaches—that we compete with. Bars and restaurants can capitalize on outdoor fun, but it’s hard to get people inside to see shows, and to find a desirable, cost-effective location to do so.” Instead, city comedy has thrived at showcases like the Lincoln Lodge and Chicago Underground Comedy, where there’s less overhead so the alternative scene can get away with taking chances on unknown comics.
Other clubs have successfully carved out a niche in the ’burbs, away from the city hubbub. Waukegan’s year-old Juz’ Jokkin’ Comedy Club books some of the same talent as Bronzeville comedy hub Jokes and Notes. Tickets at Jokes and Notes run $20 for weekend shows, while tickets at Juz’ Jokkin’ can go for as little as $10 if you purchase in advance.
Similarly, Riddles Comedy Club in Orland Park offers up some uniquely suburban amenities: lower prices, more space and, due to recent ordinances, the option to light up. “Our audiences like to relax, spread out and smoke,” says owner Brant Flores.
But Zanies’ Haas says he’s not worried about clubs like The Improv muscling his 28-year-old Old Town spot off of the scene. “Rarely do people travel out to our clubs in the suburbs, since we book the same talent in the city,” he says, adding that the two clubs occupy different niches: “We take chances on hot young comics, rather than always going for the name.”
At least for the time being, The Improv is sitting pretty as the only area club consistently booking national headliners. Its tickets are comparable to Zanies’ prices (around $20), so the chance to see Bob Saget won’t cost much more ($26), but it’ll take you outside city borders. We’ll take the commute for now—after all, we can pick up some cheap Swedish furniture while we’re there.
Bob Saget plays The Improv in Schaumburg Aug 10–13.