Interview: The Lincoln Lodge's Mark Geary

The Lincoln Lodge kicks off its fourteenth season this weekend with a series of shows featuring the brilliant Eddie Pepitone. With a brand new cast featuring fresh faced up-and-comers and well-loved scene vets and plans to bring in several national headliners in the coming months, the Lodge is on track to have another successful season of independently produced comedy in a charming, no-bullshit room.

In anticipation of this weekend's shows, I talked over email with The Lodge's founder and producer, Mark Geary, about the Lodge's roots as an anarchic variety show, the Chicago scene's volatile landscape, and their back-to-basics plan for the new season. 

The Steamroller: You have been directly involved in the Chicago comedy scene for longer than most, how did you first find yourself here?

Mark Geary: I started open miking in 1997 and quickly realized that open mikes were by and large run abysmally with little structure or effort made to build an audience. So I started running one myself at a bar called Red Lion on Lincoln and worked really hard for two years to build an audience there before handing it to somebody who killed it within 3 months!

In 1999 my friend Tom Lawler approached me about helping him start what would become The Lincoln Lodge. Within 6 months of starting it the Lodge had consumed so much of our time and energy that both of our performing aspirations had been pushed to the back seat and from then on we stopped co-hosting the show and switched full time to production and marketing.

TS: What are some of your most memorable moments from the early days of the Lincoln Lodge? 

Mark: When the show first started, it was a mess in terms of the direction of the show. At the time it didn't feel like fun at all but looking back some of the insane stuff we did like producing a Dean Martin style roast of Jesus, incorporating karaoke contests into the show and being the first comedy showcase anywhere to add short films to the mix really did set us apart and help create a style of show that had not really been done before but has been mimicked ever since.

TS: The Lincoln Lodge showcase is entering its 14th season, what sort of things have changed since the Lodge first began? Were there any sort of watershed moments in the show's development that stick out as influential on the Lodge as it is today?

Mark:  As I mentioned above we had total anarchy for a while and in a 'market' where the Chicago public was used to stand up being mainly fat middle-aged white men in sports coats waxing lyrical about 'the deal' with things it was very hard to reach a large audience.

We wanted to keep the innovation and inventiveness of the show but also reach a proper audience. We fixed this by really throwing out all the dead wood from the booking roster and focusing in on comedians we knew were committed to the room and wanted it to grow just as much as we did. From the middle of Season 2 through Season 8 we were posting up double digit percentage increases in attendance figures every year and the show finally became what you see now.

Even though the informal 'concept' of a cast was evident in the two other important Chicago shows that preceded the Lodge (The Elevated and Midnight Bible School) it was The Lodge that in Season 4(?) really formalized the whole thing into the model you see virtually every room in Chicago using now.

The enterprise had become far too big for Tom, myself and our partners to carry and luckily for us we had comedians coming up and saying "how can I help you guys run this thing?" So we sat down and really came up with how it would work. I think that system has turned Chicago comedy into what you see today.

TS: You recently unveiled the Season 14 cast, which features some of my favorite up-and-comers as well as a few well-respected scene standbys. What is the casting process like? What sort of characteristics makes a standup a potential fit for the Lodge cast?

Mark: One of the big mis-conceptions is that the cast is chosen and the show is booked by me. I want to clear up the fact that I have been involved in neither choosing the cast or booking the show for probably over 6 years now!

Typically cast members will stay for a couple of years so new incoming cast members are actually chosen to replace the outgoing ones by whatever cast remains from the previous season. We used to just informally approach people and offer them membership but about 5 years ago we decided to introduce a proper membership application process in order to expand the talent pool that would be available to us.

I think the first year we did that we got about 20 people apply and it grows every year; this year we got 80 applications.

The landscape of Chicago comedy has changed significantly over the last few years. When there were no clubs or work in town the scene really only attracted folks who were about 'the art' (groan). But with people now recognizing that the vast majority of American comedy talent over the last few years has come out of the independent Chicago comedy scene the 'blood is in the water,' so to speak, and the sharks are circling.

The result has been a change in the collective mindset in the community from where the comics used to be really vested in the success of the rooms that gave them stage time to one more of focusing on their own career progression.  

For the average open miker graduating to a showcase like the Lodge used to be a big deal and they would therefore help the room by promoting it and helping build a 'buzz' about the show.  Now the comics tend to just view it as a stepping stone to working a 'real' club and focus on that goal.

The unfortunate side-effect of that is that the indie room producers are now having to build their own audiences with little assistance. If you had told me as recently as 3 years ago that I would have to spend money for on-line advertising I would have laughed it off but now if I go on Facebook on a Friday afternoon I may likely see that half the comics on the show that night haven't even mentioned the Lodge show and are trying to give away comps for The Laugh Factory show they are doing after it. 

So where the fuck is this leading us? Well, the big change we made to cast membership this year was to seek out people we felt would be focused completely and solely on The Lodge so that we can get back to building our own audience from grass-roots buzz and not have to lose money paying Mr. Google thousand of dollars to sell tickets!

TS: What can folks expect in the future from the Lincoln Lodge? Any plans for special events or one-off shows in the coming months?

Mark: We want to get back more to our roots of innovation and having the acts we feature totally and completely immersed in the show and what it is doing. Last year we got severely effed on special events and had two people we thought were confirmed bookings bail on us to play a festival instead. Learned from that one!

We are going to start the ball rolling with Eddie Pepitone and we already have Joe DeRosa booked in November and what I might call 'confirmed intent' from 4 other national headliners through the rest of the season. Of course you can never be sure of people's integrity until the ink dries but I think having learned what we did last year we will be able to start announcing those towards the end of 2013.