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Feature Fri Jan 14 2011

Laugh Quest: A Week at Chicago's Comedy Open Mics

Comedians killing time

This story was submitted by Emerson Dameron. Photos by Erin Nekervis.

"It would be pretty cool if mermaids were real, because I could stop fucking all these manatees."
-Kevin Hogan

3159 N. Southport
First Sundays of the month, 8pm sign-up, 9:30 show

"You're not funny," says the skinny, lisping frat spud. He breaks into my birth control joke. This guy is not a comedian. Normally, open-mic comedians love "civilians," real audience members who show up just to watch. Civilians are few, and they're a better litmus test for material, for many complex reasons, than fellow comedians.

But this drunken asswipe has been antagonizing us all night. I first noticed him downstairs, after I signed up and during the long wait before showtime. His voice carried as he shouted at his friends about "bitches." Now, he's breaking into everyone's set and refusing to leave or shut up.

And after he breaks into mine, everyone else finally wants blood. Another group of civilians lays into him about his striped shirt and wallet chain. He offers a fist bump, as though it's all good and we're all buddies. His fist bump is declined. Another comedian tells him to go choke himself. It is now the heckler versus everyone else in the room. I've lost the room's attention. My set is totaled.

When I tell people I do stand-up comedy, I usually get one of two responses: "Tell me a joke" or "How do you deal with hecklers?" The first is so irritating, on so many levels, that I'm tired of mocking it. To the second, I say that I rarely get heckled. It's just not particularly common, and it's usually the work of drunks who think they're helping. When it happens, it's vital to go off-script and somehow neutralize it without being too cruel and alienating everyone.

I have about half a second to do this at Schubas, and I miss my window. The prick leaves, but any momentum I had is kaput, and the balance of my set is pretty much ignored. I fall asleep thinking about how I could have schooled the dude.

As of a couple of months ago, I'm temporarily back in Chicago after living in Los Angeles for three years and immersing myself in stand-up. In LA, I became a fixture at open mics, rewarded with camaraderie and the occasional booking. The stand-up scene in Chicago is an alien landscape, one I'm determined to navigate. So I'm starting over from scratch.

"Black people over here. White people over here. It's like the 1950s. Every time this happens, Obama smokes a cigarette."
-Todd Massey

The Shit Show at Shambles
2050 W. Division
Mondays, 7:30 sign-up, 8:30 show

The first "Best Joke" award of the night, as determined by an audience chant, goes to Bridget, a relatively older "Christian comic" with a teenaged daughter "on the verge of whoredom." She receives a bottle of Winking Owl, the store-brand wine from Aldi.

Rasa Gierstikas founded the Shit Show in October 2009. Turned off by the austerity of much open-mic sausage making, she aims for a fun, convivial vibe. She created an "applause" sign (which comedians can hoist if they feel a solid performance is tanking for no good reason) and awards cheap prizes to new comedians. (After my first set at Shambles, I got a "Beware of Dog" sign that remains on my desk.)

As in most cases, the hosts do a minute or so between each comedian. Co-host Ever Mainard has an odd, gradually mesmerizing onstage persona. She never really finishes a... thought, she just... kind of... trails off and... then, finally hits you with... ... ...a killer punchline.

Ever Mainard

I do all right. Passably. I call back another comedian's premise and get a laugh. My new year's resolution joke gets a laugh. I have a bad chest cold and my voice is shot, but in a friendly environment, I can plow through it and get a few chuckles before four minutes expire.

"When I first moved here, I'd walk up to people on the street and say words to them. Now, if someone comes up to me, I don't care who it is, I just say, 'No!'"
-Aaron W.

2401 N. Western
Mondays, 9pm sign-up, 10pm show (maybe)

Open mics draw many sorts. There are young comedians working out raw ideas, some of whom vanish, some of whom flourish. There are seasoned performers experimenting with new bits and honing their chops for their next booked gig. There are "local characters" doing unstructured monologues, getting some attention. And there are outliers -- performers who are so strange that it's hard to figure where else they might fit in.

Thomas Harty is, at least for now, an outlier. He's only done stand-up for a couple of months, and his comedy career could go any number of ways. But right now, he's an outlier. And the open mic at Quencher's is his wheelhouse, his place to unpack his more complex ideas.

Most comedy open mics allow three to seven minutes, rarely more than five. The Quencher's mic focuses heavily on music, and since musicians get three or four songs per set, averaging about 15 minutes, comedians also get 15 solid minutes. The Q sells $1 Blatz cans and $2 cherry vodka shots, in case that helps.

Tonight, Harty doesn't hit many hard punchlines, but he does expound on the etymology of "karaoke," the inner workings of the Church of Scientology, the Pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus, and how he got a CIA t-shirt. It's the most informative stand-up set I've seen in a while.

After Harty's set and the kalimba stylings of Matthew Sheldon, I do about nine minutes, including a lot of ad libbing, crowd interaction, and unfiltered stream-of-consciousness rambling. I get almost no laughs, but that's OK -- it's a sedate, crunchy crowd, and I don't expect the ovulation joke to go over. (I'm cutting it out of my set after this, anyway. If it dies three times in a row, scrap it.) It's not my favorite tape, but there's some stuff in there I might be able to expand on.

"I'm kind of a hoarder. My friends make fun of me. But I'd rather have a dead cat and not need one... than need a dead cat and not have one."
-Samuel Wilbur

Toilet humor at Cole's

2338 N. Milwaukee
Wednesdays, 7:30pm sign-up, 9:30 show

Samuel Wilbur started doing open mics three years ago in Minneapolis, and is now one of the sharpest new talents on the Chicago circuit. His favorite mic is Wednesdays at Cole's in Logan Square, which has "probably the smartest crowd in the city." But he hasn't always struck oil here. The first time he went up, "I was like the thirtieth comic to go, and the crowd had winded down quite a bit, so I thought I would try and get their attention by leading off with a child-porn joke. It fell completely flat -- who would have thought! -- and I completely lost the audience after that. I jumped into some of my more polished material, but there was nothing I could do to win them back. So as I got off stage, I told the audience to go fuck themselves."

The crowd at Cole's

Among local stand-ups, Cole's is apparently the most popular open mic in Chicago, and not the least controversial. The sign-up sheet has appeared as early as 7pm, it fills up fast, and it's sometimes almost 10pm before the start of the show proper.

"We've tried to start the sign-up later," says relentlessly enthusiastic co-host Cameron Esposito, a familiar act at booked shows around town. "Folks made their own lists. We scrapped those and folks got mad. Then we tried taking attendance of the people there at the start of the mic and giving those people priority. That was a mess, too. So we are sticking with the imperfect system we've got now because it seems to have led to the least backlash."

Cameron Esposito

"Also," she adds, "there is a point at which comics kind of just have to suck it up and wait their turn."

If it's an introduction to the arbitrary, cutthroat business of show, it's at least a festive one. Proceedings begin a bit after 9pm with the house band Foz the Hook, featuring the Tom Waits-inspired shtick of pianist and Cole's regular Bjorn Skaptason. Foz inevitably closes with the signature anthem "Drunk Astronauts." Then the comedians get up.

Foz the Hook at Cole's

Esposito hosts one half of the show, sprinkling in personal anecdotes and spurring the audience to cheer; righteous drinker Adam Burke hosts the other. Sets are usually short. The bar in the front gets packed and thunderous. Antsy comedians chat amongst each other as they wait their turns, talking over performers. It's a good exercise in vocal projection.

I do, once again, all right. Nothing great; nothing shameful. Very briefly, I riff with an older comic I saw earlier, who sang the Pussycat Dolls' "Don't Cha" in the styles of Dylan and Sinatra and turns out to be a prick. The Blue Line drowns out one of my weaker punchlines. I roll my eyes, turn around and get a laugh. Writing effective jokes is a precise art, but even with solid material, the worst danger is being afraid to veer from the script. The greatest skill is calling situations as they go down.

"If I were more creative, I could come up with better reasons to kill myself."
-Rachel Kaboff

Adam Burke

The Big Fancy Open Mic
777 N. Green
Thursdays, 8pm sign-up, 8:30 show

The "talent" may be debatable, but the show runs like a Swiss watch. Organized and hosted by scene veteran/gadfly Dave Odd, the show consists of strictly timed three-minute sets, The lineup order is determined (as at most of the better known open mics in Los Angeles) by a drawing. It's held in the Chicago Center for Performing Arts, and it's one of the few venues for unknown Chicago comedians that isn't a bar.

Dave Odd

Odd openly antagonizes the local comedy establishment and prides himself on promoting unrefined new talent. He does a polished set at the top of the show and then never reappears, letting the comedians introduce each other to keep things on schedule and, with luck, wrap before the CCC's 11pm curfew.

I get the impression that Rachel Kaboff is, on her good days, an entirely competent stand-up. Tonight, however, she is an outlier.

She opens with an insomnia joke, fumbles it, and gets thrown off. Badly. The next three minutes consist of protracted silences, bitter self-recrimination, suicide references and painful, painful awkwardness. None of this appears intentional; if it is, it's the most dangerous sort of performance art. More likely, it's a regular stand-up set that has spun out of the performer's control.

Having frequented open mics for years, I find myself caring less and less about the performer's intentions. I think that "bombing," a collapse of the performer-audience feedback loop, is, whatever its cause, always its own form of performance art.

I can only speak for myself, but comedians strike me as a generally unhappy bunch, gravitating to comedy for lack of a more dignified calling, attempting to make sense of their frustrating lives and spin shit into gold. I look to comedians to make me laugh at my own depression and fear, but sometimes witnessing depression and fear in their raw form can be just as affecting. While she admittedly fails at stand-up for tonight, Kaboff creates the evening's most powerful theater.

"I like your socks!" someone says. The audience claps in encouragement.

I don't do anything memorable with my three minutes, and I forget to hit "record" on my Dictaphone, so I can't go back and overanalyze. I don't get many laughs or any big ones. But I'm as energized as I've been all week. I'm getting back into the rhythm of this. For now, it seems well worth a trudge through the snow.

"The best form of birth control is a shitty personality."
-Grant Ryan

Lucky Number Grill
1931 N. Milwaukee
Fridays, 8:30pm sign-up, 9:30 show

The Lucky Number open mic, hosted by the affable, impeccably dressed Justin "J-Dub" Worthington, is another one with a liberal policy on time -- essentially, if you're doing all right, you can go until you're done. So it's another good place to experiment and work out the kinks in fresh material.

Well, often it is. Tonight, however, the Bucktown restaurant is packed with civilians, ingesting grease and Pabst and chattering loudly. Dan Sharp, a friendly comedian I've just met, pores over his notebook and anxiously reconsiders his entire set list.

I go up. I project. I believe. I sell my punchlines. I riff with the crowd and ad lib fluidly as I go. Nuts to you guys. Don't laugh. Ignore me. Talk to each other. It matters not. I am on tonight. One guy doesn't want to riff with me? It's all good. This other guy seems to think I'm funny.

My laughs are few and far between, but eight minutes feels like three. I step off, still juiced, and cross a couple of lines out of my notebook. J-Dub breaks out his acoustic guitar and plays a mock Lite-FM ballad, in the execrable style of John Mayer, with explicit lyrics. It kills.

If you'd like to check out some open mics for yourself, Bad Slava is a good place to start -- it is the least unreliable national directory of comedy mics. But, in this weird little underworld, all bets are off. Obey Slava's catchphrase is "call before you haul," always.


This feature is supported in part by a Community News Matters grant from The Chicago Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. More information here.

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billy / January 24, 2011 8:02 AM

comedians strike me as a generally unhappy bunch, gravitating to comedy for lack of a more dignified not sure if thats one or two sentences,but now in this little box it seems like a paragraph and im not evan sure what a paragrahe is.that being said;thats exactly wher i find myself in life right now.ive done stande up quit a few years ago in colarado[denver[co.springs .area].now after 13 more years of gathering more material or as you put it :lack of a more dignafied ready to make this c o me d y my reside in misouri at this time.but me and my good freind robert,who is also a writter,and knows the difrence between a sntence and a peragraph ,have this crazy idea for a documentery that for now i call 2 4 1.were headeding to your fine city the secant week of feb.and thanks to google search and your site i know what i will be doing four of thoughs thank you.ive never been to cicago .my freind robert is from maybe if your not to busy we could meet up if not just for the fact you seem prety would also help me with that stranger in a strang land feeling.cuase after all iv got a whole suit of insecurits.thats were most of my material comes from.and if you refuse i mit just be your next drunk heckler.

keep wruting and il keep reading.

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