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Improv Wed Jul 09 2008

Prodigal Daughters, Part I: Anticipation

The prodigal daughters return, hometown favorites who came back to step their game up. The comics and regulars who file into the Beat Kitchen on Belmont stop to welcome back Brooke Van Poppelen and Joselyn Hughes. The greetings are warm, congratulations and curiosity instead of envy, or spite. The two are here to take the stage for Chicago Underground Comedy, one of the most innovative stand-up shows in the city. Hughes and Van Poppelen both moved to New York City in 2006, and their return visit, they insist, is not a defeat but a strategic retreat before launching a new offensive.

"We just refuse to surrender," Joselyn tells me in between sips of Amstel, her light eyes fixed and sincere, looking through me. "New York City does try to beat you down. I hate to admit it, but it does."

"Everybody has a breaking point," Brooke breaks in. You know they are natural comedy partners, because Joselyn doesn't take issue with the interruption; rare for a stand-up. "But our reaction to the challenge was to put this show together, and to keep creating and refining."

The show they have created ("Macho"), is an ambitious two-woman sketch show directed by beloved Second City alumna and member of the improvised musical Baby Wants Candy Deb Downing-Grosz. Van Poppelen and Hughes will premiere the show this Thursday and Friday at the Lincoln Lodge at Lincoln, Damen and Irving Park. The Thursday show is at 8pm and the Friday show is at 7:30 with another at 9:30 (both $10). The highly wonderful Fay Canale opens on Thursday; and Nick Vatterott, one of the most unique stand-ups still local, opens on Friday.

The transition to pre-written sketch comedy from years of grueling stand-up--Van Poppelen founded Chicago Underground Comedy with Tony Sam in 2005--seemed natural for the pair.

"We were hosting a room in New York, and would talk, tell stories, go into characters on stage," Joselyn recalls, "and people would tell us it seemed really natural. Like well-written material. So we asked each other, 'Why not?'"

Hughes and Van Poppelen represent a bittersweet fact about Chicago's richly diverse and raw stand-up comedy: the wilds of Chicago can make you a stand-up, a writer, and a performer, but you cannot become a capital-s Stand-up, a capital-w Writer, or a capital-p Performer unless you move on. Brooke, an aggressive and varied stand-up, shows all the strengths of somebody who had to start her own show in order to work on her craft: her comedy can be alternately daring, thought-provoking, sweet and mindless. Those skills come from a permissive but tough comedy environment where stand-up plays not second fiddle but third...uh, banana?...to improv and the established sketch shows.

Brooke's grudging love of New York City is clear, but she gives no ground. "Chicago comics tend to do well in New York, because you have to learn all of the different genres--writing, performance, theater, improv, all that. And that's something we wanted to bring to Macho. We believe in the Chicago style of using a director, for example. There's a real potential for a Chicago-New York hybrid style."

"And," Joselyn breaks in (it really is unique to have stand-ups willing to be interrupted), "there is nothing about comedy, even stand-up comedy, that says it has to be selfish. The collaboration makes it strong. Everybody benefits." Her sweet sentiments are well received as prologue to a set that spends quite a bit of time mocking midgets, a series of nerds she's forced to date, and serial killers who come bearing puppies.

The show promises to showcase strong and unique characters developed from personas the pair have developed over years of exploring their own psyches--and those of their families and friends--for years. Sexually repressed cops, a possessed teenage twin, and rock n' roll are in the playbill. The experiment in stand-up/sketch is not brand new (the formerly local duo Team Submarine experimented similarly) but the range of the two as performers and writers, and the polish offered by having a director, suggest real potential for a more thematically unified and hilarious show.

So why bring their show back to Chicago to premier? They've left us behind to make their fortune. Why premiere Macho here?

"We miss Chicago. Chicago is great. Seriously--don't take it for granted," Joselyn urges. "And here, in Chicago, the atmosphere for comedy, stand-up is accepting. We have friends here."

"And," Brooke adds, "People whose opinions we trust and respect. It's not that Chicago crowds are easy. They're sophisticated--they're acclimated to different types of comedy."

New York, they say, is known more for the technical proficiency of the stand-ups than their expansive creativity. This follows logically; the financial incentive is so strong in places like New York and Los Angeles, the competition is more acute; and, like natural selection, acute competition creates highly efficient killing machines. New York comics must kill, or die.

Brooke explains: "Confidence is critical in New York. The crowds are unbelievable. People are texting through your shows--'Give us something funny, let's go, I got thirty other places to be tonight!'" Her tone is not beaten though; she leans forward, spoiling for a fight.

More confession than interview, Joselyn tells me a story about paying $25 for car service from her Brooklyn home to an audition in Manhattan, "and they had me mime picking up and moving a chair."

Welcome home, ladies. Now, make us laugh.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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