The TBS Just for Laughs comedy festival has wrapped for another summer in Chicago, having played out in venues changing from the Chicago Theatre to Stage 773. Here are reviews from select shows over the weekend; check back Tuesday for a report on Bill Maher. (Find more at justforlaughschicago.com.)
Seth Meyers at the Chicago Theatre: Chicago has offered a remarkable vantage point from which to ponder the rise of Seth Meyers, from boyish off-Loop sketch artist to stand-up at the Vic Theatre to, on the cusp of his assumption of the "Late Night" throne, a besuited headliner at the Chicago Theatre. And the reasons for that ascendancy were clear Friday night before a house filled with Meyers' notably broad demographic: Meyers represents a flight to quality. The head writer at "Saturday Night Live" knows how to pen a smart gag, and he has brainy staffers who can help. As in past shows, Meyers ended the night with modestly racy gags from his "Weekend Update" springboard that did not pass muster with the NBC censor. But the rest of the set was a deft blend of the personal and the political, the international and the local ("I want to see some of your public schools before they close.") with a newly emergent note of middle-age otherness, allowing Meyers the crucial remove that gives him authority and that goes nicely with his increasingly chiseled good looks. He knows not to overplay his new A-list status, delivering a hilarious account of his embarrassing himself in front of President Barack Obama and, during a hapless Wrigley Field vocal performance, Cubs fans. Onstage, he paints himself more as a regular, eternally post-collegiate guy in a New York apartment with a girlfriend made madder by the lack of a marriage proposal, rather than the comedic power broker he has become. Meyers has enough gravitas to help you feel you did not waste your time on minutiae. He's ridden the fake-news bandwagon, sure, but the classy Meyers is a far more accomplished live performer than many of his peers, with a verbosity and intelligence that made many of his nerdy fans shake their shoulders with laughter from start to finish.
Todd Barry at Stage 773: Midway through Friday's set, a loud female laugh came briefly through the thin walls of this black box space and everyone, stand-up included, stopped and listened. A moment later, there was a clank — an armrest fell off a chair. Both were poignant interruptions — if only because they broke the spell that Barry, a longtime, severely underappreciated stand-up (a comic's comic, a you've-seen-him-but-can't-place-him character actor, from "Flight of the Conchords," "Louie," etc.), had cast, reminding you for a moment that a Todd Barry performance is an inner monologue made public. And when something intrudes, Barry raises his head and squints, as if tapped on the shoulder, wakened from a mumbled rant. The material (coffee-house manners, ordering egg salad in restaurants, Yelp reviewers) is unremarkable, the jokes closer to dry observations than setup-punch line laughs. But Barry tells a joke like no one else, full of long pauses, deliberate word choices, in a sonorous whisper — coming out of a potbellied, middle-age, balding, cynical leprechaun of a man. The disconnect between his cool-guy confidence and slouching reality may be the crux of Barry's persona. But in a hectic, climb-into-your-lap comedy culture, his patience is radical.
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— Chris Borrelli
Bob Newhart at the Chicago Theatre: What should we expect from Bob Newhart now, at 83? His perplexed, gentle delivery? (Check.) A Saturday show more comforting than fresh? (Check.) Nostalgia? (Triple check.) That's more than fair. But relevancy? Big laughs? As pleasant as it is to see the Just for Laughs festival pay homage to its roots — and there are half a dozen comics in this festival whose timid bewilderment would be unimaginable without Newhart's once-revolutionary buttoned-down modesty — Newhart's show had the dustiness of a Branson, Mo., revue. Newhart, of course, is from Chicago: He told stories about coming to the Chicago Theatre as a kid to see Danny Kaye and Jack Benny; he talked about working (his first TV job) on Chicago ABC network affiliate WBKB-TV, the precursor to WLS ("I was a different guest every day"). He was backed by a 10-piece big band and showed clips of his beloved sitcoms, dug into his landmark albums and performed his signature driving-school instructor routine
— Chris Borrelli
Kumail Nanjiani at Stage 773: Kumail Nanjiani might just be one of the most affable stand-ups working today. You could feel the energy change in the room when he took the stage after Todd Glass, whose restless, nettled energy provided fascinating contrast to that of Nanjiani. Glass' unfettered stream-of-consciousness was sharp as ever, ending with a killer bit that spun out from the premise: "Everybody has an internal voice for their dog." But something shifted in the air when Nanjiani came out. I don't want to say he's luminous — that's such an odd word to use when describing a guy, let alone a comedian — but there it is. Pakistan-born and formerly of Chicago, his return to the city prompted this bang-on, sartorial observation about the chilly days of June: '"You guys love to force the shorts." His material veered into the disgusting in all the right ways, specifically his derision of urine-slicked public restrooms: "Look at me," he implored to a woman squirming in the audience, "Don't close your eyes!" Nanjiani is becoming increasingly high-profile thanks to appearances on "Portlandia" and the like, and he has a co-starring role in the new Mike Judge HBO comedy "Silicon Valley" (along with former Chicago comics Thomas Middleditch and T.J. Miller) which begins shooting this fall. For now, though, Nanjiani is happy to leave the alpha-male posturing to others; a self-professed beta male, he had the audience in the palm of his hand.