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.

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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: Danny Kallas

Danny Kallas recently announced he's planning to record his first stand up album in March of 2013 here in Chicago. Kallas is a guy like few others, he's intensely self-aware and a relentless champion of the local scene as one of the producers of Comedians You Should Know, not to mention one of the funniest, most capable performers in the city (and the subject of a fascinating episode of Wrestling With Depression).

I talked to him over email about his plans during these next few months leading up to his impending recording. You can catch Danny headlining tonight (Monday, October 29) at The Comedy Evening at Ace Bar, and should probably go to CYSK more than you already do.

The Steamroller: How long have you been performing standup?

Danny Kallas: My first set was in March of 2004 at the legendary Lyon's Den, which is now Globe Pub. I performed three more sets that month and quit for two and a half years until performing again in August of 2006 at Hoghead McDunna's, later known as McDunna's, and now Ace. That night is when I tell people I started performing stand-up. So, a little over six years.



TS: What led to the decision that it's time to start working on a record?

DK: I have been on the road 12 of the last 16 weeks and I'm not able to do all the material I want to do because not one person is there to see me. Not being able to do all the material I want to do becomes frustrating. I get the job done most times, but it makes me feel miserable inside. So, getting more fans is the only way to get to do all the material I want to do. Because I have no interest at the time of acting or podcasting or murdering a Kardashian, recording an album seems like the best way of getting those fans.

TS: A lot of people view their first record/special as a sort of best-of from their first several years of material, is that the approach you plan on taking or are you looking to write a lot of new material between now and March?

DK: I always said I would never record a full-length album unless I could go out the next night and do a headlining set (45 minutes) without using any of the album's material. Currently, I have 60 minutes I'm confident in and plan on burning about 35 minutes on the album. That leaves 25 minutes. So, I set the goal of recording in spring of 2013 with the main purpose of writing new material so I have enough left once the album is done. Writing 20 minutes in five months is easy. Writing 20 minutes that not only you like but most of your audience likes is not; however, I'm up for the challenge. 

Besides writing new material, I plan on really tightening up old material. Adding tags, more act-outs, dropping a line or even just a word that isn't needed, etc. Anyone who knows me knows I'm very honest with myself about my material. If I don't like a bit or can't get the audience to respond to it the way I'd like them to, the bit doesn't stay in my act and it most definitely ain't going on my album, which will be made up of 35 minutes I wrote from about a year into performing to the day before the recording.

TS: Are you planning on independently releasing the record or are you working with a label?

DK: We've talked about starting a CYSK label but at his time it's up in the air.

TS: Are you looking to some of your favorite records/specials as reference points?

DK: I honestly don't watch or listen to enough comedy specials/albums but to get some reference points, I definitely will within the next few months.

TS: Adam Burke recorded his first album at Comedians You Should Know earlier this year and it sounds great. Are you planning on recording yours there as well?

DK: Yes, I plan on recording at CYSK. The room is not only my favorite room in the city (and many others), but it's also my favorite room I've ever set foot in. The low stage, low ceilings, intimate setting, it's everything a comedian wants in a room and the most ideal place for recording.

CYSK has made me develop my act tremendously. We started the showcase in January of 2008 and I was a year and a half into performing stand-up and would go to shows at The Lincoln Lodge and Chicago Underground Comedy and watch comedians like Nick Vatterott and T.J. Miller and Brady Novak and think, man, they're really funny and their material was a little out there and I didn't think my material was weird enough to work in those "alt" rooms. Then I'd go to Zanies and see someone like Michael Palascak and think, yeah, he's really funny and has mass appeal and I didn't feel like my material had enough mass appeal to work in the clubs.

So, I really didn't know where I fit. CYSK (the showcase) was started by my comedian friends and me with the purpose to produce the best weekly showcase possible. We never wanted it to be considered "alt" or mainstream, we just wanted to showcase the funniest comedians in Chicago. We've built an audience that gets that funny is funny is funny, which is why a comedian so out there like Junior Stopka does just as well in our room as a comedian who has mass appeal like Sean Flannery. (Note: In no way was this an insult to any comedians I mentioned. I love all their acts and they're all better than me.)

Five years after starting CYSK, I still don't know where my comedy fits. Some alt crowds find me too mainstream while some mainstream crowds find me too alt-y. I guess I'm a "CYSK comedian" and I'm fine with that. We have proven there is an audience for that. Without CYSK, I probably would've quit doing stand-up years ago, go back to my dead end job, moved to Palatine, married some broad I hate, and have ugly kids.

42 x 42 #2

The folks behind the Two Hour Comedy Hour, a weekly showcase at the Gallery Cabaret in Bucktown, are hosting a second round of their insane 42 x 42 showcase, which offers 42 comics the chance at 42 seconds of stage time. I love this idea, it's like a handpicked open mic night that puts the performers in a really strange position, forcing them to adapt or completely reinvent their sets to fit into this narrow time frame.

The full lineup is far too long to list here (check the Facebook event for that), but includes some Steamroller favorites, including Anthony McBrien and Katie McVay from Yell You Better, Joe McAdam and Charlie Bury from The Late Live Show, and Caitlin Bergh from The Funny Story Show.

The count will be bumped up to an even 50 by the evening's hosts and co-producers, Emily Lake and Andy Fleming, and the five headliners, Chad Briggs, Danny Kallas, The Puterbaugh Sisters (they count as two) and Katie McVay, each performing for a less ADD-friendly amount of time.

The show is next Saturday, November 3rd at 7pm and has a $5 suggested donation.

Here's 5 shows worth checking out

There's a lot of great shows coming up in the next handful of days. These are just a few of them:

Tonight (Wednesday October 10th)

Comedians You Should Know (James Fritz, Drew Michael, Clark Jones, David Drake and Danny Kallas, plus a special guest)
Timothy O’Tooles. 9pm. $5 advance/$10 doors.
CYSK is probably the most professionally run and consistent weekly standup show there is. This is Fritz’s last week in town before moving to Los Angeles to become a very famous standup comedian (Kallas, the evening’s host, had a solid point about this phenomenon) and the promise of a special guest is not to be ignored, they’re known for rolling out surprise national acts on the regular.

Tomorrow night (Thursday October 11th)

The Funny Story Show: The Bro Show (Shannon Cason, Mikey Manker, Anthony McBrien, Jason Earl Folks, Goodrich Gevaart, Daniel Sharp, Zak Baker, Michael Ortiz, and Caitlin Bergh)
Looseleaf Lounge. 7:30pm. $5 suggested donation.
Produced by Caitlin Bergh, The Funny Story Show is a place for folks from the storytelling and standup comedy scenes can come together to share true, personal stories. Bergh’s an aggressively honest comic, whose storytelling chops are unmatched on the standup scene, which makes her the perfect person to run this sort of show. Cason, the evening's headliner, is a Moth GrandSLAM champion and a staff writer for WBEZ's Paper Machete show

The Lincoln Lodge Industry Showcase (17 local comics)
The Lincoln Lodge. 8:30pm. $5.
This is what it’d be like if open mics were more like showcases. 17 very funny people will perform a hot 5 minutes for a room full of agency scouts and regular folks. Consider this local comedy speed dating, it’s a perfect way to get exposed to a lot of personalities at once, a few of whom will probably get some very good news as a result of this show!

Friday night (October 12th)

Urlakis & Cusick: Questionable Lullabies (Dave Urlakis and Sean Cusick)
Stage 773. 8pm. $15.
Two-man sketch troupe Urlakis & Cusick returns to Stage 773 after last year’s self-titled revue, which was praised for its relentless, cerebral dark humor. Both dudes have a strong sketch background, having worked, directed, and taught at The Annoyance, Second City, ComedySportz, and WCIU-TV. The show runs weekly through November 16th.

The James Fritz Reverse Hello Show (James Fritz, The Puterbaugh Sisters, Joe McAdam, Junior Stopka, Chad Briggs, Mike Lebovitz, Danny Kallas and more)
ComedySportz. Midnight. $10.
As mentioned before, James Fritz is moving to LA next week, and this show serves as a final farewell to the best comedian and podcaster on the scene. Produced by ComedyofChicago.com, this late night show has one of those lineups that will look INSANE to a specific type of nerd in three to five years.

Listen to Danny Kallas

TJ Miller's new Comedy Central show, Mashup, premiered last night. It's a novel concept that's reinforced by really strong comics, many of whom have roots in Chicago. Danny Kallas is a producer of Comedians You Should Know and an incredibly hardworking and down-to-earth (as well as funny) dude.

Here's a thing Danny wrote before the Mashup premiere last night, which had folks proclaiming him the "Mayor of Chicago Comedy."

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