Chicago comedy has long been known as a training ground, a place to grind out relatively unnoticed before heading to either coast in an attempt to grow a career. While this seems like an inevitability to most (myself included, a lot of the time), there are many folks in Chicago working towards developing new models of content production and distribution, utilizing the internet and a bit of organization to foment a sort of scene wide explosion of high quality projects and performers that aren't dependent on big budgets and gatekeepers.
The Curator of the Unnamed Comedy Network, a recently launched collective of standup showcases, open mics, and web pages, is one such person. I spoke with him over email (he requested his identity remain a mystery for the time being, so as not to distract from the collective as a whole) about the Network's mission, the problem with the Mass Exodus, and their long term goals.
The Steamroller: How would you describe the Unnamed Comedy Network?
The Curator: The Unnamed Comedy Network is a collective of Chicago's finest independently produced stand up showcases, open mics, and content creators. Our mission is to become a main resource for anyone, comedian or comedy fan, who wants to find something incredibly entertaining and impossibly inexpensive to do any day of the week. There's a whole host of hidden treasures around the city that not too many folks know about just yet, and we want to change that.
TS: Why did you go about setting it up in the first place?
TC: UCN is an idea that's almost two years in the making. We had reached out to a handful of shows and mics to see if anyone wanted to team up, and while there was some pretty distinct bewilderment at first mention of such an idea, everyone was on-board after a short pause for thought.
It almost felt like administering a test of how strong the scene and community really is, and Chicago's comedy folks pass with flying colors every time. That's one of the main reasons this is 100% worth doing. Chicago comedy is a very special thing, especially right now. The people involved are so extremely kind, helpful, intelligent, and innovative and it's been that way for quite a while. It can get pretty dog-eat-dog on the coasts, but here... it's just so wonderful. Folks need to know about that, and we want to take that message as far as we can.
TS: You've chosen to downplay your identity when building the network, what was the reasoning behind that?
TC: There was an evening at Cole's about 3 weeks before the network launched. I was out having a smoke just after the mic ended with some folks when a comedian said something in my general direction that resonated with me on too many levels not to take seriously: "There are too many people out there who are in it for themselves."
I'm still not sure if he was referring to anything specific, or if he was just being a silly goose (probably the latter). Either way, that quip hit home in a big way. People will figure out who I am eventually, but I'm not important. The shows, mics, and creators are important. I'm just the facilitator.
TS: There are a lot shows, websites, and other elements under your umbrella, what qualifies something for inclusion in the UCN?
TC: This was the most difficult part. We had to find a criteria that used quantifiable information to keep it fair and without bias, and that's tough to do in such an abstract environment. In extremely simple terms: the most highly attended, well established shows with the most consistently hilarious lineups make it on the network, and it doesn't hurt to have something uniquely cool that adds to the show's appeal, either.
There are an almost uncountable number of shows popping up everywhere all the time in this town, and while we'd love to have everyone who asks for a tile to join up, it would get too crowded pretty quickly. We have a slot system in place to keep overflow at bay. Capacity is 4 shows (2-3 weekly, 1-2 biweekly/monthly) & 3 mics on any given day. Any show looking to submit a request should also be aware that we do not accept shows without original logos/posterwork. Mics are a bit different, but you should still have something original.
As far as websites go, The Nicest Guys In Town was such an obvious choice for us. You can see most of the funny people and producers for shows on UCN doing podcasts, videos, blogs, and webcomics over there every single day, and there's no end in sight to the stream of incredible content being generated. And then there's Comedy of Chicago, which has been around for many years documenting what's poppin' on the scene every week.
If you're heading to a show on the CTA and need something to do, this is UCN's recommendation: Head over to Nicest Guys and pop on a podcast, read an article or two on The Whiskey Journal (Chicago's most newsiest news source), browse some high quality show photos on Comedy of Chicago, and read some stories on The Steamroller. Whatever you end up doing, just know that there's always something online waiting for you if you know where to click.
TS: What sort of goals do you have for the network in the long term?
TC: Ah, the meat of the sandwich. As previously stated, Chicago is a wonderful place filled with talented, hardworking people in comedy. About 3 times a year, an incredibly terrible thing happens to our city. Some folks (don't) like to refer to this travesty as The Mass Exodus, wherein about 5-10 of the city's best comedians take their leave for the coasts to further their careers in comedy.
There's been a lot of talk about how "this is necessary," or "I can't get better if they don't leave," or "there's no money here." Fie on such nonsense, and a pox on anyone willing to sacrifice more of our best just so you might get booked more. Those very reasons are why this network needs to exist. Here are a few more.
Wouldn't it be wonderful if you didn't have to leave your home, your family, and your friends just to start from square one in another city after years and years of hard work establishing yourself here? We want to make it so you don't ever have to.
Unnamed Comedy Network is a show of Chicago's might. It's our best foot forward. It's a way for all of us to come together and say to the people with deeper pockets, "We've got the best burgeoning talent, and you should come here!" We want to help put Chicago on the map as a comedy mecca like New York and Los Angeles and get our people paid what they deserve for their efforts. Chicago has been a farm team for stand up far too long. Why would anyone want to be the Ice Hogs when they could (and should) be the Blackhawks?
Chicago has been stuck in a sort of adolescence in the comedy world. We want to be Chicago's pituitary. This is a great place for growing and honing skills, and some people think it can't be like that anymore if the scene gets driven up a few notches. We think that's completely wrong. If we became a major player, it would raise the bar for everyone here. Talent would just compile and refine itself until you have a team of champions, including your would-be 3rd, 4th, and 5th lines. You can go to the coasts and pick any name out of a hat of 100 and win no matter what, and we want to help cultivate that here without losing our best players.
We aren't trying to speak negatively about anyone who took that step and left, by the way. Take a look at the Los Angeles and New York scenes right now; Kyle Kinane, T.J. Miller, Beth Stelling, Cameron Esposito, and Hannibal Buress are all becoming household names, and they had to leave here to do it. We lost some good ones this year, too. Almost all of the cast and producers from The Late Live Show (one of the best independent talk shows ever) uprooted and went to L.A. in the same month. Apparently they're continuing their legacy with The Late Live Show L.A., which will undoubtedly dominate the scene over there.
We wish all of our friends who moved on to other cities well and can't wait to see them succeed as they are so destined to do. We await their visits with open arms and cherish every second we get with them when they're back. This town, this scene, these people here: we're all a family, and that's something that's very uniquely Chicago.
We love our city. We love the people in it. We love comedy.