The Steamroller's best of 2013

My favorite part of doing this website is getting to spotlight the work being done by the most talented people in the hugely exciting and talented Chicago comedy community. I reached out to a bunch of these people and other friends of The Steamroller to share their top five favorite people, places, and things from Chicago comedy 2013. Check out a huge list of top fives, as well as my personal list, below!

Matt Byrne

Favorite thing: The Late Live Show

This shouldn't be a shock to anyone familiar with The Steamroller. The Late Live Show was the best comedy show of any kind in Chicago, and now it lives in L.A., where Real Actual Famous People are guests (like Mad Men's Rich Sommer and Freaks and Geeks' Samm Levine). The final run of shows earlier this year at iO were some of the funniest, most well-executed nights of comedy I've ever seen; it was so exciting to see a collective with such a strong, specific comedic voice come into their own in front of packed houses week after week. They're coming back next month for a handful of shows at iO and SketchFest, and I couldn't be more excited.

Favorite festival: A Jangleheart Circus

I can't believe how perfect A Jangleheart Circus was. On paper, a three day festival of improv and sketch from over 100 (mostly local) independent teams and performers might sound well intentioned but ultimately unrealistic. In real life, it was electrifying proof of the power of Chicago's underground improv comedy scene. Endless congratulations are due to the festivals' organizers, Alex, Walt, and Caitlin, the folks responsible for making the Upstairs Gallery the palace of comedy it is. Jangleheart packed an unbelievable number of friendly, clued-in comedy people (performers and fans alike) into one venue, filling out shows on three separate stages, distilling everything that's cool and energizing about SketchFest into one no bullshit Summer weekend.

Favorite one-off/concept show: Henry Soapfloats' Funeral/HIJINKS November (tie)

I've written a whole bunch about both Hijinks (the monthly show produced by Two Bunnies Eating Flowers and Sovereign at the Public House Theater) and Henry Soapfloats' funeral (organized by local standup Ian Abramson) on here, so, again, this should come as no surprise. Ian Abramson's Funeral For A Prop Comic was a delightfully absurd, fully realized vision put on in a death trap of a basement, featuring some of the funniest, strangest up-and-coming standups in the city flexing their solo sketch muscles.

I posted a breathless wrapup of The HIJINKS Trolley Show earlier this month, and want to reiterate one last time that it was one of the most delightful things I'd ever seen, made all the more special considering of the pitch-black darkness the two teams behind HIJINKS are generally known for. It felt like one of those shows that, in 15 years, 300 people will talk about as if they were there. They weren't.

Favorite internet thing: Garfbert

Yes Yes Garfbert Yes!

Favorite audience member: Fard Muhammad/Katie McVay (tie)

Fard and Katie are two of the biggest assets to any audience in Chicago. The effect of Fard's tremendous, purely delighted laugh, which can be heard soundtracking most, if not all footage from the Late Live Show (normally punctuated by Andrew Smreker's shrieks of joy), is amplified tenfold by his unwavering proclivity for grabbing a seat in the (normally vacant) front row at every comedy show.

It goes without saying that Katie's one of my favorite comics working in Chicago right now, with perspective that perfectly vacillates between crippling self-consciousness and a total lack thereof. As an audience member, she's often struck by fits of boisterous laughter so ridiculous and sincere, that fellow audience members are enabled to comfortably indulge in their own unhinged enjoyment, which is an incredible thing to watch happen.

First Annual Steamroller Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award: The Lincoln Lodge

Had the window for best of submissions not closed a few days before it was announced that The Lincoln Restaurant was closing and thus The Lincoln Lodge was suddenly cast out into the void, in search of a new home base, most of the lists below would look a lot different.

I'm working on a longer thing about The Lodge's enduring influence and continued greatness, but for now, I'm going to have to speak for all those on this list and beyond: The Lincoln Lodge was (and is, it's not dead) an incredibly important, reliably awesome home for weird, interesting comedy in Chicago throughout the 21st century. Lodge Papa Mark Geary, along with his myriad cast members, worked to create something wholly unique and good. I'm confident that they will find a new home and continue to support and create great comedy well into the future.

Read More

The Year in Review

Now that the year is (almost) officially over, I figured a wrapup of some of my favorite things from 2012 would be something worth writing. The Steamroller was launched in September, but I've been a fan of the folks featured on this site for much longer. What follows is a list of Chicago comedy-related things that were great in 2012.

Best local comedy podcast
This one is a tie. My jealousy of the brilliantly simple concept behind the Standup Mixtape is on record in the Chicago Tribune and continues to this day. Co-producers Cameron Esposito and Justin Schwier brought comedy into the recording studio, Good One style, for great sounding half-hour sets from some of my favorite local acts to be podcasted and sold as limited run cassettes. They just recently wrapped up their first season, hopefully we'll see another run in 2013.

Shortly before James Fritz left Chicago for the greener pastures of Los Angeles, his podcast You Could Be Dead was regularly topping itself with each episode. The show's threadbare concept (Fritz and a couple friends riff on a handful of current events and news items) occasionally devolved into insane bits of transcendent silliness. The show's on hiatus for the time being, but there are some real gems worth checking out from the couple dozen episodes produced. Some personal favorites include episodes from 9/28/12 (with The Puterbaugh Sisters), 9/10/12 (with Chad Briggs), 7/16/12 (with Jet Eveleth & Erin Foy),  and 7/11/12 (with Joe McAdam and Danny Kallas). Though some of the topics discussed may be old news at this point, the bits make it totally worth it.

Best new standup album
Look, another tie! Adam Burke's Universal Squirrel Theory and Beth Stelling's Sweet Beth were two of my favorite standup albums without qualification this year. That these two are from Chicago speaks volumes for the depth of talent working in this city.

I'm sure we can all agree that the concept of "nerd comedy" is pretty repellent on its surface. That being said, Universal Squirrel Theory is comedy written by an uncompromisingly smart person, with highbrow references and turns of phrase free of any self-congratulation, making for a sort of best case scenario nerd humor. Burke's charm and smarts are unrivaled in Chicago comedy, and we're lucky to have him.

While Beth Stelling is technically an L.A. resident at this point, this record's too strong to go without mention in this piece. Sweet Beth showcases her endless likability and short form storytelling chops. The album's perfectly capped off with ten minutes of riffing with her former Entertaining Julia cohosts, The Puterbaugh Sisters, making for a charming close to a very strong debut record.

Best trend that should continue into the new year
2012 has seen a ton of new shows in nontraditional venues. While shows like The Lincoln Lodge and The Kates have been carrying the weird venue torch for years at this point, there's been a slew of awesome standup showcases popping up in places that aren't bars throughout Chicago.

The folks behind Congratulations on Your Success, The Funny Story Show, Performance Anxiety, and Creative Control (which I help produce [full disclosure]), have taken to bookstores, tea lounges, sex shops, and record stores, respectively, producing donation based, BYOB shows that are generally free of aggro douchebags and bar minimums. Keep it up, everyone.

Best festival that local club owners & talent buyers should learn something from
While Chicago is second-to-none in creating, developing, and fostering comedic talent, it's not exactly known for bringing through a lot of huge names after they've blown up. For two weeks in June, Just For Laughs approximates what it'd be like if Chicago clubs were actually interested in regularly booking unique, creative comedy shows.

If a character based panel show hosted by a conspiracy-obsessed Jesse Ventura (James Adomian) can sell out The Hideout with essentially zero advertising or promotion beyond the JFL website, there's no reason live podcast tapings and other idea-driven shows from medium-famous comedy folks wouldn't do just as well at venues like Lincoln Hall or Up with the proper promotion.

While I understand that a lot of these shows happen in NY and LA because the folks producing them live there and don't necessarily have to make a boatload of cash from each show, Just For Laughs has proved there is a base of comedy fans in Chicago willing to pay to see their favorite comedians (as well as unfamiliar faces) perform in nontraditional shows.

That is not to discount the work already being done here in the city; it's absolutely great that weird, conceptual shows like Impress These Apes, Shame That Tune, and The Late Live Show exist. They help local performers stretch their muscles in ways open mics and showcases don't and are generally a shitload of fun.

The folks from the Tomorrow Never Knows festival are leading the charge in 2013 for more nontraditional live comedy shows from recognizable names, by welcoming back the Delocated Witness Protection Program Variety Show after a ridiculous JFL show, as well as a Low Times Podcast taping and a straightforward standup show featuring Kurt Braunohler and Cameron Esposito. I, for one, am planning on hitting up all three. Maybe I'll see you there.

Interview: Congratulations on Your Success

Congratulations on Your Success is a new showcase at Logan Square's Uncharted Books. After an overwhelmingly positive response to the show's first edition last month,  their second show is tonight, December 6, at 8pm. I talked with three of the show's six producers, Sonia DenisRebecca O'Neal, and Charlie Rohrer about the show's background and where they hope COYS will go in the future.

The Steamroller: A used book store isn't the first place my brain would go when looking for a place to do a standup showcase, how did you end up at Uncharted Books?
Sonia Denis: Rebecca was really in charge of finding the venue. She was adamant about having an unconventional space for the show that wasn't a bar and hadn't yet been used for a comedy show. I didn't get why until our first show.
Rebecca O'Neal: I contacted Uncharted while I was looking for a new venue for my old Friday open mic (Happy Medium at J Bar). Ruth, the events coordinator, wasn't interested in doing a mic, but was receptive to hosting a booked showcase. I knew her writing from the internet and was familiar with the space and somehow convinced them our show would be a good fit.
Charlie Rohrer: Uncharted is a great space. At first glance you might wonder how we could fit a comedy show in there but the owner's have a lot of experience with various types of shows so they knew exactly how to set it up and make it comfortable for our audience and for us.

TS: There's a pretty large group of producers on this show. How'd you all start working together?
RO: Once I nailed the venue down, I knew I'd need help. Promoting a show would take work to get an audience and put it together so I wanted to work with people whose company I enjoyed and whose comedy I respected. So naturally, I asked ALL of my comedy friends to co-produce with me, which was an awesome decision.
We all have different strengths (Charlie is an artist, we all design a bit, I have a background in writing and PR, Bill Bullock is the DETAILS guy, Justin Covington keeps us sane and organized in meetings, Sonia did our promotional video this month, Odinaka Ezeokoli can pull off a scarf no matter what the temperature) and we rotate hosting and performing duties every month.
SD: Prior to starting stand up, none of us really knew each other that well. But we all were and still do go to open mics 4-5 times a week. When you're starting out open mics are very intimidating because there are all these people who've been doing it for months or years and they all know each other, but at some point everyone eventually finds a group of friends.
I think we all gravitated towards each other because we had similar senses of humor and were all clearly dedicated to stand up. Our showcase has 6 producers, which is unusual, but it works because everyone brings something different to the show. 

TS: What sort of process do you go through when organizing a lineup other than just putting up acts that you personally enjoy? Is there an ethos or motivation in the back of your heads when putting together this show?
CR: Right off the bat we all agreed that the show should mostly feature other comedians through the city with one of us hosting, one of us opening, and then 4-5 local comedians. On top of wanting to mostly show people outside of our group, we wanted to show newer comedians. A lot of us are relatively new to the comedy scene so we know how hard it is to get booked when you first start.
RO: To get the venue, I told Uncharted that we were a "diverse and literate" bunch, which is true for the most part (ha!). So I keep that in mind while we're booking at least the first few shows. Diversity is very important to me and the rest of the CoYS producers, I think it makes sense for the show to reflect everything the scene has to offer. We also have a spreadsheet of people who make us laugh broken down into openers, features, and headliners.
SD: A big thing for us is having a diverse line up. That applies not only to gender and race but also to style of comedy. We also try to book newer comics as openers. Which sounds sort of ridiculous coming from a group of people who on average have been doing stand up for less than 2 years. But we remember what it's like to be starting out and how getting booked on a showcase means everything.

TS: Are there any local shows that you drew inspiration from when talking about starting up COYS?     
CR:
 I suppose we drew inspiration from all local showcases but I don't think there is one in particular. It seems pretty intimidating but you attend these showcases and they're great and you realize that they're just in the back of a bar with folding chairs.
SD: 
Stand Up Stand Up always makes it point to have an interesting and diverse line up. I think they've been doing a show at Crocodile for less than a year but already they're one of the best showcases. Creative Control at saki was also one we thought of when we started CoYS because it's in a record store, it's BYOB and the shows always have a really fun weird vibe. 
RO: I liked that Double Shot in Evanston booked underage comics because they weren't a bar. Uncharted is a bookstore, so we plan on doing a fair share of that. There are a number of comics under 21 who you see at ComedySportz and the Second City mic who definitely would get booked tons more if not for their age.

TS:Were your expectations of what you'd hope the show to be met during that first edition last month? Was there anything you learned from the experience?
SD: 
The first showcase was terrifying. Our expectations were very low. If people showed up then we won comedy. But not only did people show up, people none of us knew showed up. One thing we should have done is ask these people how they heard about the show. We'd campaigned online with event pages and promo videos on YouTube, we'd covered Chicago with our flyers, posted on Craigslist, Reddit, etc. So we weren't sure if one or more of these methods worked or if people just happen to be walking past Uncharted and decided to see a show.
RO: I was genuinely shocked at the turnout of the first CoYS event... especially when we asked all of the co-producers and performers who brought whom and figured out that none of us knew the majority of the audience.
CR: Every seat was filled and we had people standing in the back. Everything felt perfect. Then, of course, during and after the show we noticed all the things we hadn't thought of. We had no music playing before the show or in between comics and we were scrambling to make a donation bucket while comedians were performing. But some little flaws aside, the show was still amazing and we learned from every little mistake.