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Feature Tue Nov 11 2008

"Prescott Tolk Unlimited" November 11 @ Beat Kitchen

Prescott Tolk August 15, 2008 at Chicago Comedy Series, Apollo TheaterPrescott Tolk is one of those guys in a creative scene who binds the rest together by setting a strong example through his own professionalism and natural giftedness, and by actively encouraging up-and-comers. His laid-back manner, on stage and off, belies his powerful comedic work ethic, which, after years of refinement, has yielded a solid and confident comic, who clicks with audiences sometimes before he's gotten the first joke out. His relaxed banter fools you into thinking maybe he's just being who he is, and just happens to be on stage. But make no mistake - Prescott Tolk is a exceptional comedian.

Tonight, Tuesday, November 11 at 9:30, Chicago Underground Comedy (ChUC) presents a special free show, Prescott Tolk Unlimited at the Beat Kitchen (2100 W. Belmont).

The special show spotlights Tolk in a rare extended stand-up set and CD release show for the Chicago comedian's debut album "I Can Complain." Thick with incisive one-liners and sometimes painfully honest anecdotes about the post-graduate pratfalls of a slacker, the album showcases the sharp material that earned him a spot on Comedy Central's Premium Blend, the Critic's Choice in The Chicago Reader, and a "Don't Miss" in Time Out Chicago.

The usual disclaimer: the author of this post is inextricably intertwined with Chicago comedy. Think of her as a wartime embedded comedy journalist who probably couldn't be 100% objective if she tried, but who sincerely vouches for the creative talent of the people she writes about.

Tolk describes his comedy as heavy on the attitude and wordplay (video clip here), and acknowledges the influence of people like Todd Barry, Dave Attell, and Woody Allen in his act. "I like talking about the things that bother me in my own life," he explained. "They are simple things: parking tickets, chores, neighbors. But they really bother me. Often times my own inadequacies are the things that bother me most. Half the time I do what I do and the other half of the time I wonder why I did that."

Tonight's free show will not be a live version of the CD release, rather, Tolk will be unveiling his newest material. Prescott Unlimited will also feature two favorite Chicago comics: James Fritz (ChUC, Your Sunday Best) and Mike Sheehan (Comedians You Should Know).

A founding member of ChUC, Tolk is a national headliner who has contributed a great deal to the Chicago stand-up comedy scene. He was a founding member of the popular comedy web site and has co-produced and hosted Your Sunday Best at Schubas, the city's most esteemed open-mike. He was also nominated for the Best Male Comic in Chicago in 2007.

Tolk is bucking tradition by making a conscious decision to continue pursuing his comedy career here in Chicago rather than moving to Los Angeles, or back to the East Coast, where he grew up. And that means the younger comics have a sort of graduate student to look up to and model themselves after.

Fritz, who spends Sunday nights with Tolk at what might be the comedians' favorite open mike, Your Sunday Best, knows lots of comics appreciate Tolk's influence here. "I'm glad he hasn't left, like so many others have. He definitely could if he wanted to. I think he's really found a place he loves here, and a place that gives him the freedom to go do college gigs, festivals, and comedy clubs. He's really got it figured out. I'm sure a lot of the younger comics look up to him and think 'I can be a comic and live in this city.'"

So what's with the unorthodox choice of building a professional stand-up career from Chicago and not New York or LA? Has that ever been done before, or will he be the first? "I genuinely love living in Chicago and being part of the comedy scene," Tolk explained. "The comedy scene here is sincere, experimental, and, most of all, approachable."

One of his career goals was to headline clubs in the Midwest, which he's done over dozen times in the past year, and is only getting busier. Whether or not he can continue to develop professionally while staying in Chicago is yet to be seen. In the meantime, the younger comics appreciate his presence on the stand-up scene here.

Chicago Underground Comedy producer and fellow writer and comic Dan Telfer speaks well of Tolk's high standards. "He's very, very professional," Telfer said. "And he enjoys being professional because he's a good guy. Performing with him, no matter where, you're guaranteed to feel like you're in a classy joint and doing the right thing with your life."

Telfer also admires Tolk's ability to stay on his toes, deftly bantering with an audience. "He frames even his written material around audience response and perspective. Comedians spend a lot of time 'writing' their bits or crafting them to perfection, but they often forget the audience will change night to night, and that connecting with them is important. Especially here in Chicago, where everyone performs out of love of the craft but few people are paid. But he uses the audience seamlessly, and you feel like you're at the kind of comedy show you watched on television as a kid when he talks directly to you and offers his point of view with a twist."

What makes comedy worth the effort? Where's the joy? In the payoff, Tolk says. "Killing in front of a big crowd at the Lakeshore Theater is never going to get old." And as he explained, sometimes it's the little moments. "Last week we closed a long evening at Schubas with Kyle Paris prancing around like a twisted mime while playing Lionel Ritchie's 'All Night Long.' He brought up his own CD player and speakers and put it on a stool. It was ridiculous. It went on for a while. I think the song's title is referring to the length of the song. But his childish enthusiasm was infectious and I sat on a bar stool completely sober and enjoyed it. If you're constantly thinking about what is the funniest thing ever and what gets on television and so forth, you kind of lose out on the fun of just being a part of a craft that revels in absurdity."

Writer, actor, and comedian Mike Bridenstine, who now lives in Los Angeles, met Tolk in 2004 when he began doing stand-up in Chicago. In 2005 they both became founding cast members at Chicago Underground Comedy, and in 2006 the two also became part of the Blerds, a collective of Chicago comedians who continue to perform and make short comedy films and other projects together. Members of Blerds and their close comedy cohorts boast collective credits on sitcoms, David Letterman, Saturday Night Live, MadTV, and the odd summer blockbuster. To hear Bridenstine tell it, "Prescott has a mind-boggling ability to find a joke. He's a really good writer."

Several years ago, Bridenstine and roommate/fellow comedian Mike Holmes hosted Sunday joke writing-gatherings in their Chicago apartment, pulling random topics out of a hat as a writing exercise."No one was as good as Prescott and finding jokes -- solid, useable jokes - about whatever the topic was. Prescott would always have 6 good jokes he wrote on the spot right on target with the topic, which was very impressive."

Bridenstine also recognizes that Tolk's strong comedy voice is an excellent example to young comics. "I was always impressed that Prescott had a defined voice on stage. In Chicago, where most people are just starting out, that's what people wanted. They want to force their minds to think in set-up/punchline, and they want to figure out what their style is going to be, which sounds simple but is the hardest thing about stand-up. Prescott already had both of those things right off the bat and he takes new comics to school every time he does a set. If you're in Chicago and you want to learn how to do stand-up comedy, watch Prescott. Figure out what he's doing."

Bridenstine also expressed gratitude for Tolk's influence on his professional development. "He inspired me to do more non-stand-up writing, and now I have a writing job," Bridenstine said. "He encouraged me to do more acting, and now I have a commercial agent and am going on auditions. I never really expected to do either of those things."

While some would be happy being one of the top tier talents in a vibrant comedy scene, performing top-notch stand-up to appreciative audiences nearly every night of the week, Tolk is eager to take on new creative challenges. He seems proud of his new comedy CD "I Can Complain," and sees it as a way of retiring classic material and moving on the new territory.

"I am a meticulous writer," he said. "It takes me time to groom bits so that they have a certain rhythm and pitch. When I realized that I had an hour of material that fit together, I wanted to crystallize it so that I could move on from these bits."

And as for his ultimate comedy goals? Anything and everything. Television, movies, books, stand-up -- "as long as it involves making things funny."

For more glowing words from Prescott Tolk's comedy colleagues than we could reasonably fit into this article, read on!

Comedian David Angelo: "Prescott can't help but be supportive to his fellow comics. He's just a likable guy. There's no pretense or facade or veneer. He brings honesty to his act, and I think people appreciate that; balancing reality and emotion with humor."

Comedy blogger and stand-up scenester Kristy Mangel: "I appreciate Prescott's very, very cool, laid back sense of delivery, and his impeccable storytelling skills. I find that style very enveloping and warm. As a person, he is quite humble and a great cheerleader of others. He could rest on his laurels, but instead questions and prods and encourages, and steps down to let others show what they've got and what they're capable of giving. I think audiences appreciate his view of the world, and the way he easily conveys the mundane in a way that is hilarious and unexpected. Who hasn't experienced a six-point intersection in Chicago and feared for their life?"

Comedian Sean Flannery: "I think the Chicago comedy scene some times confuses a lack of preparation (a bad thing) for improvisation (a good thing), with comics nearly going out of their way to show the joke is being performed for the first time. Prescott often jumps out from the other comics at a show because 1) he has polished, professional material and 2), when he is being spontaneous, it's confidently delivered and amazingly quick."

Comedian Chad Briggs: "As a comic, I appreciate the confident subtle intelligence of his material. You can tell he's really intelligent and it comes through without gratuitous and obscure 'intellectual' references. Sure, he has the lazy stoner persona that is a big part of what he does onstage, but if that wasn't coupled with great writing, he'd be just another stoner comedian. I like talking to him because he's smart and humble."

About the Author

Elizabeth McQuern grew up the youngest in a big crazy Catholic family in Indiana. She's a writer, producer, photographer, and video whiz who is knee-deep in the Chicago comedy scene, whether she likes it or not. She loves Chicago, kittens, pizza, and her boyfriend Bryan, who, like Elizabeth, is equal parts sporty, geeky, and silly.

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Jamison Yoder / November 12, 2008 8:25 AM

Great article. Prescott's act is everything you've described and more. Glad to see he's finally getting the recognition he deserves.


Susan's Guide / June 10, 2009 9:22 AM

Nice article to read. I wonder how often we get to read this type of information.

Mr. Solar / June 13, 2009 9:13 AM

Nice article! Did you know that solar power is by far the Earth's most available energy source, easily capable of providing many times the total current energy demand?

Toronto SPA / June 15, 2009 10:12 AM

Really cool, you took a good interview and shared to everyone. Thanks for that.

Toronto SPA

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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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