The Aristocrats' comedy maven ushers stand-up theatrics onto the Chicago stage.
If anyone has earned the right to be a comedy snob, it’s Paul Provenza. The director of 2005’s comedy-insider flick The Aristocrats travels the world looking for top talent: China, Australia, Kuwait, you name it. His knowledge of American stand-up is almost unrivaled; and starting Wednesday 28, he’ll broadcast his discerning taste as a consultant for the Lakeshore Theater’s new edgy comedy programming.
“Chicago has vibrant improv and theater worlds, but there aren’t a lot of stand-up comedy venues for people to work in an artistic way,” Provenza says. “Today’s clubs don’t necessarily call upon the highest in comic artistry.”
Instead, Provenza will steer the East Lakeview theater’s bookings toward comedians with polished performance pieces—more theatrical, provocative, subversive stand-up. The 2007 season kicks off with TheMarijuana-Logues—a mixed bag of cannabis-themed stand-up and sketch comedy—and continues on an almost weekly basis to include versatile comics like Mike Birbiglia, Julia Sweeney, Maria Bamford and Doug Stanhope. Birbiglia, who brought his groggy-style stand-up to Zanies last November, will perform his narrative one-man show Sleepwalk with Me when he plays the Lakeshore next month.
This isn’t the first time the Lakeshore has branched out from standard theater. Six months ago, the theater’s artistic director, Chris Ritter, partnered with the Empty Bottle’s Bruce Finkelman to offer musical acts an alternative to a smoky, crowded club. It took some persuading to get bands into the sit-down space, but strong musician word-of-mouth led to increased bookings. Iceland’s Amiina will play on Friday 23 (see Music, Top live shows), and four similar shows are slated for April.
Provenza’s affiliation with the Lakeshore began just under a year ago, when he met Ritter at a Lakeshore screening of his flick Chasing Robert. The pair connected at the bar afterward, and the conversation turned to Ritter’s ideas for expanded programming. After producing a wildly successful Demetri Martin comedy show, Ritter knew firsthand that alternative comics could pack the house, but feared there wasn’t enough quality talent for regular slots. Provenza put his mind at ease. “Ten beers later, we had a new mission,” Ritter says. “We want to broaden the way comedy is viewed.”
According to Provenza, no other theater in the country pursues stand-up comics exclusively with a theatrical scope to their work. When all is said and done, the Lakeshore, and Chicago as a whole, stands to be on the forefront of a new movement. “Most people think of stand-up as pop music,” he says, then continues the metaphor. “But there are people who don’t want to listen to Britney Spears on the radio. We’re responding to that cultural shift.”
As the Lakeshore cements its presence in the comedy scene, local alternative stand-ups—comics who struggle for mainstream recognition— may experience some fringe benefits. “The Improv and Zanies don’t seem to be looking for anything ‘different,’ ” says Tony Sam, founder of the weekly Chicago Underground Comedy showcase that encourages stand-ups to try experimental material. “Performing [at the Lakeshore] is something comics who push the limits can aspire to.”
The Marijuana-Logues light up Wednesday 28.