The Chicago festival landscape is like the backdrop of an old “Flintstones” cartoon, a picture of repetition — street fair, street fair, music festival, street fair, street fair. So it was a disappointment when, in late 2013, after five years of mostly fun programming and many sold-out shows, the Montreal-based Just For Laughs comedy festival yanked its Chicago edition, citing changes in the “current marketplace” (i.e., money issues). The result was that Montreal still has a comedy festival and San Francisco still has its wide-ranging SF Sketchfest and New York its superstar New York Comedy Festival. But the Second City? Birthplace of too many funny people to name here?
Since 2001, there has been the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, which bills itself as the largest sketch-comedy festival in the country. But where is our Lollapalooza of comedy?
If Josh Modell, editor-in-chief of the A.V. Club, gets his wish, the foundation for a vast comedy tradition is already being built. The Onion and A.V. Club's cheekily named 2nd Annual 26th Annual Comedy Festival begins its second year Tuesday, pointedly stepping in to improve upon what the Canadians took from us. Albeit modestly — expanding slowly and thoughtfully. Last spring, the festival, in its inaugural year, stuck to the Athenaeum Theatre and had three shows. This year, it's up to seven venues and a dozen comedy acts.
“We wanted to mostly dip our toe in the water with this,” Modell said, “and program what we wanted to see. And because there are not as many comedy festivals out there as there are music festivals, there's also a lot of room to do something unique here, to reflect our own sensibilities — to, say, both screen ‘Cabin Boy' and do huge shows with John Mulaney.” Indeed, for Mulaney, a son of Lincoln Park, the two Chicago Theatre performances are being shot for a future Netflix stand-up special.
Modell and Co. made a wish list, and though not everything worked out (they couldn't land Dave Chappelle or the creators of the cult MTV series “Wonder Showzen”), they ended up with an idiosyncratic snapshot of contemporary and classic comedy, from “Weird Al” Yankovic-hosted screenings of his midnight masterwork “UHF” to a panel featuring the writers of The Onion and “The Simpsons” to a Thalia Hall show (sold out) with Chicago stand-up Kyle Kinane. “The idea is to do something even bigger next year,” Modell said. “I would really like to see this get to the point where people are traveling to Chicago for this festival, even if it's not quite in the air just yet.”
What follows are edited transcripts of casual conversations with a handful of the performers at this year's festival. The festival is Tuesday through Saturday. For more information: www.26comedy.com.
Some fun facts about Ellie Kemper. She is a writer, a smart one, contributing humor pieces to McSweeney's (“Some Relatively Recent College Grads Discuss Their Maids”) and headlines to The Onion. She is a daughter of a Princeton graduate and a bank CEO, and raised in St. Louis, where Jon Hamm was one of her high school theater teachers. Her breakout role was as the naive Erin on “The Office”; then she was the sunniest bridesmaid in “Bridesmaids”; and more recently, the naive, sunny lead in Tina Fey's Netflix series, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”
One more fun fact: Kemper, who also attended Princeton (and the University of Oxford in England), is a seasoned improv comedian, having studied in New York with the Upright Citizens Brigade. She is doing four (sold-out) improv shows this weekend at the Up Comedy Club. Oh, also: She's an uncommonly good talker.
Q: If you're from St. Louis, why skip past Chicago and go to New York to study improv?
A: My friend Scott Eckert, who is also performing with me in Chicago, he and I were a year apart and went to college together and were in the same improv group, and I remember having this conversation with him about where to go. We thought we should move to New York or Chicago. And we literally made a pros and cons list. Chicago was the most logical step, the improv hub, and he and I had spent the summer before in Chicago taking classes at ImprovOlympic. In the end I don't know why we picked New York. I think we thought there would be more opportunities to do stuff there in addition to improv, to help pay the bills. I also think maybe we thought we would know more people in New York. But when you really haven't been to either place, it's hard to make a decision. If we had to do it again, it probably would make more sense to be in Chicago. Improv is different in Chicago. They teach the kind of improv I love, and certainly UCB took that to New York, but … I'm nervous performing in Chicago. I think “Oh, Chicago, you can't fool them with improv.”
Q: What's the difference?
A: My sense is that in Chicago — and I took classes with TJ Jagodowski — it was all about listening and responding, and in New York I think the emphasis is on patterns, on being, which is also good, but I think I enjoy just working within a situation and listening and responding, which is the simplistic way of putting it.
Q: Are you still writing?
A: I have been trying to write more recently. For the three months I am going to just be writing. The seeds of a book, but also some magazine pieces. And do you ever feel this way? “AHHH, I'm no good!” It's so hard. I am just a sea of self-doubt. … I didn't know what the Onion was until I saw the physical newspaper in Chicago that summer. I loved that the headline was a joke but then the article would be just as funny, which is admirable because it could just die off fast after a great headline.
Q: What was your first headline?
A: “Grapes Big Hit at Area Picnic.”
Eric Andre, of “The Eric Andre Show” on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, destroys the set of his show in each episode, often just before the talk show itself begins. He leaps through a bookcase, crashes through his desk, murders the band and eats dirt out of the set's potted plants. The details of his rampage are new every week; but then he calms himself, a new desk lowers from the ceiling, his sidekick (Chicago comic Hannibal Buress) walks in calmly and the show starts. He's done this for three seasons now, not metaphorically blowing up the late-night talk format so much as blowing stuff up, falling asleep during interviews, inviting on sketchy-looking people and introducing them as George Clooney and Beyonce.
Andre, who moved into comedy after graduating from the Berklee College of Music (he studied upright bass), has a stand-up show at Thalia Hall on Thursday, and he will not be murdering anyone.
Q: Do you consider the talk show host a character?
A: Yeah, in a way. It's like my id. I'm doing an impression of myself and Hannibal is doing himself. He has been in the mix since day one. The first draft of the show I wrote in 2006, he was in. We were both doing stand-up in New York at the same time and dirt poor. When I was trying to think of a perfect co-host for this I thought it would hilarious to have Hannibal, because the guy is so low-energy.
Q: On your show, do the guests, the real celebrities, do they know how it works?
A: Here and there some do, but 98 percent of them have absolutely no idea what is going on. By the time we started Season 3 I wasn't even talking to them before they got out on stage, so the first time I am meeting them is right then, on camera. Some of them come to the show not knowing my name or the name of the show. Vivica Fox, we had her do a promo, and she said the show was “The Hannibal Andre Show.”
Q: And yet I think because they are pulled from their routine, you get a truer picture of the person.
A: I think that's a happy accident, a byproduct of the spontaneity and because I am being so wildly inappropriate they might feel more comfortable being real. Lauren Conrad walked out, and her publicist tried to have the interview not air, like get Adult Swim banned from her agency. “How dare you, blah, blah, blah!” Yelling at my agent, at everyone at Adult Swim. The typical you'll-never-work-in-this-town-again speech. And then a few days later we had Jimmy Kimmel on the show, and he cc'd his publicist to schedule (the appearance). And it was the same company as Lauren Conrad, and they ate their words: “What time would you like Mr. Kimmel to arrive?”
Q: The unspoken thing here is that someone is not doing their research, I think.
A: Actually Lauren Conrad left because I vomited during the interview, and she started looking sick, so then I started to slurp the vomit back off the desk and so she walked out. And her people are like, “You didn't tell us there would be vomit,” but if they had watched the show, they would have known I puke all the time.
There's a good chance you have no idea who Adam Resnick is, but there's an even better chance Adam Resnick is perfectly fine with this: He has no Twitter or Facebook account and is famously shy — at least “famously” to the people who believe he should be famous. Those people include Jon Stewart, Bob Odenkirk and David Letterman, for whom Resnick served as a key writer during the peak years of Letterman's late-night NBC show. Resnick found a simpatico voice there in Chris Elliott and the pair went on to co-create the short-lived Fox series “Get a Life” and the 1994 Disney bomb “Cabin Boy.” But then a funny thing happened to Resnick: His dyspeptic, absurdist voice grew in stature, his 2014 memoir “Will Not Attend” gathered a quiet reputation as unheralded masterpiece and even “Cabin Boy” never lost its small, devoted following.
On Tuesday at Lincoln Hall, Resnick will show and discuss the film. Just don't ask him to watch it, too.
Q: Do you remember what the expectations for (“Cabin Boy”) were?
A: Not high. It tested so badly. I remember a night in Pasadena where it was put in front of an audience, and I thought it was kind funny and thought Chris was great in it and maybe it would be OK. I was very naive, having come out of the sheltered world of Letterman's show. We were not about Los Angeles or Hollywood and very much in the mindset of just being ourselves. And the funny thing is, this was not a film I set out to do. Tim Burton was a fan of “Get a Life” and was doing a Batman sequel and wanted to do a small movie after, and we came up with this parody of “Captain Courageous” and Tim was supposed to direct, then he pulled out at the last minute and offered me the chance. I turned him down at first, and the funny thing is, even after the budget was slashed to nothing, the script never changed. So the film has this cheap artificial world, and that's half out of design and half necessity. We would get to the set and the sets … the sets …
Q: Looked bad?
A: Oh yeah. There's a scene on a raft and the (water) tank was built too close to the backdrop and the backdrop had a seam down the middle. People thought it was intentional, but we never wanted it to look that cheap. It was painful when it came out, and I think some of the fans of the movie now are too young to remember that people hated this movie. It pissed them off. All the Pauly Shore movies of the '90s would come and go and “Cabin Boy,” which I will go to my grave never understanding, was a huge joke. I think it probably has damaged Chris to this day. And Disney was not supportive, not even publicly supportive.
Q: And you looked up to Letterman and he has a cameo. Did that bother you?
A: Absolutely. It was the hardest call I have ever made, after that first screening. Dave continues to be important in my life and he gave me my first job. He is a great guy, the guy I want to impress the most. And writing for him was hard. He was very picky. But if you wrote something he liked, it felt great. Anyway, I called him and said, “Look, the screening was a disaster.” So he would joke about the movie on the show, but the joke was about his big-screen debut, not the movie. He became my psychiatrist for a while. I was very upset, and he would invite me up to his office and tell me to take the gun away from my head. He saw the film for what it was, a peculiar, imperfect thing. But the studio treated it as the worst thing ever created.
Q: Worse than “Song of the South”?
A: Wherever they buried “Song of the South,” “Cabin Boy” is 20 feet deeper.
Vanessa Bayer, who is performing a stand-up set Friday at Thalia Hall, is the one with the big smile. That's the fast, crib-sheet-y way of separating her from the rest of the cast members on “Saturday Night Live,” many of whom look familiar but aren't yet household names. Not so long ago in Chicago, she was a familiar face in the improv scene; elsewhere, she is Miley Cyrus, Jacob the Bar Mitzvah Boy and, this summer, in the Amy Schumer comedy “Trainwreck,” the Confiding Romantic-Comedy Friend.
Q: What's your live show like?
A: Well, I do a lot of live shows, but mostly stand-up, stories about my life. Mostly, it's storytelling. I started doing stand-up in college (at the University of Pennsylvania) and when I lived in Chicago, besides doing improv and sketch comedy, I would try to do stand-up. Zanies was nice to me, they let me go up a lot. Now, when I am able to make the time for it, I do different stand-up showcases in New York and some college shows when I have a break from the show (“SNL”). I talk a lot about jobs, the jobs I held while in Chicago.
Q: Which were?
A: I worked at a production company and for a couple of years at an ad agency. A lot of the college students I talk to want to go into comedy, and so I try to make sure to get across that those experiences were a big influence, to not feel so bad if they find themselves doing day jobs and comedy. You have to have material that is relatable and draw on experience, so though there were very different people who worked with me at the ad agency, people I work with now — there are similarities, and materials comes out of that.
Q: How easy was your transition from Chicago to “SNL”?
A: I was pretty sad, actually. I had so many friends in Chicago and relationships there, it was sad. But at the same time it is of course exciting, and the people in Chicago were very supportive. Also, I had spent a couple of summers in New York during college as an intern (on “Sesame Street” and “Late Night with Conan O'Brien”) — which is also when I started doing stand-up — and my brother lives in New York, so it wasn't as difficult as might have been for other people. What was hard was not being with my Chicago friends.
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