The Best of Just For Laughs Chicago

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Five years in, Chicago’s Just For Laughs Festival has never felt more catered towards comedy nerds; podcast tapings, surprise shows in incredibly intimate theaters, and a pair of shows celebrating the beloved Twitter account @dadboner dotted the medium-eclectic lineup. Though standup was clearly the main attraction, a few of the festival’s highest highs came from the conceptual, premise-driven shows that offered up once in a lifetime type of moments that could only happen at a comedy festival.

Competitive Erotic Fan Fiction was, hands down, the most memorable, and quite possibly the funniest, show I’d seen all week. Comics like Kyle Kinane, Ben Roy, and Mike Burns (creator of the aforementioned @dadboner) crafted and performed horrifyingly explicit tales of weird sexual debauchery committed by pop cultural icons, including the casts of Muppet Babies, Family Matters, and All In The Family.

The show’s two best stories came from Burns and Ben Kronberg; Burns’ tale climaxed with Guy Fieri getting dominated by a transsexual at a roadside diner and was later described by Ben Roy as “the perfect CEFF story.” Kronberg, recent star of Comedy Central’s Half Hour, read a malapropism-inspired piece featuring a compulsively monotonous Woody Allen with a taste for gelatinous deserts titled “Repetitive Neurotic Flan Fiction.” It was a fantastically weird, filthy show; I can’t wait to check out the podcast version of the show, which was recently acquired by the Nerdist empire.

I was lucky enough to see some of my favorite comics perform in relatively intimate venues, surrounded by likeminded, generous fans. Early on in the festival, Pete Holmes destroyed at the UP Comedy Club, a just-polished-enough standup club run by the normally sketch and improv-oriented folks from Second City. Holmes’ titanic charm has never been more contagious as he commingled endearing, friendly crowd work with playfully cerebral observations that You Made It Weird listeners have come to expect from the endlessly open minded comic.

About five minutes into his set, Holmes removed his iPhone from his pocket and began fiddling with it. The audience was momentarily put off, before he proclaimed “you’re a good crowd, so I’m going to record this set.” The game spectators lived up to his expectations, making for another standout show in a week full of awesome performances.

When asked what I was looking forward to at this year’s JFL, Maria Bamford’s single festival appearance at Park West, a strange venue that is perhaps best described as a nightclub for grownups, was always near the top of my list. It’s been a few years since I’ve seen her live, and the long wait totally paid off.

After a solid opening set from the eminently likable Cameron Esposito, Bamford took the stage for a performance that commingled intensely personal and brutally honest material with silly flights of fancy with a dexterity that no other comic working today can replicate. The huge, warm-hearted crowd was game for whatever she brought to the table, including one boundary-free bout of crowd work that peaked with Bamford convincing an audience member to bite her hand. It was probably the strangest moment I had the pleasure of witnessing all week.

In a move that could have been inspired by playful secrecy or simple chaos, the lineups for many smaller shows were not announced until a day or two before the fest began. The Combo, a series of hour-plus shows featuring a pair of headliners handpicked by Team Coco performing in a small, intimate theater (Stage 773’s Cabaret Theater, with a capacity of 70-80, tops), was billed as just that, with no details, until the week of the fest. It was ultimately revealed that comics like Paul F. Tompkins, Al Madrigal, and Brendon Walsh would be among those performing, which was very exciting!

I was able to catch a show featuring the tonally confusing pairing of Tompkins and Walsh; the former told a few amiable, discursive stories about his relationship with his wife, while the latter mainly focused on topics a bit more puerile (including a lengthy riff on the day-to-day horrors fleshlight owners probably endure). While their material was hardly complementary, the strength of both sets was undeniable, making this a real treat of a show to see, especially in such close quarters.

Todd Barry made a late but nonetheless exciting entrance into the podcast game earlier this year with the Todd Barry Podcast. In the first-ever live episode of the TBP, Brendon Walsh, Vanessa Fraction, and John Hodgman came on board for a loose, jocular panel.

It was interesting watching Barry transition between conversation styles as each new guests took the stage; he was clearly most personally familiar with Walsh, with whom he has developed an entertainingly antagonistic relationship over Twitter. It turns out they’re like that in person, too; much of Walsh’s segment found the caustic host probing his increasingly exasperated guest for stories more interesting than those he currently had to offer. Fraction, whom Barry had never met before, proved to be a playful and charismatic guest, as the two dissected some of her filthiest material, making for an unexpectedly raunchy discussion.

Hodgman took the stage last, entering the theater, suitcase in hand, immediately after an intense flight into Chicago marked by rowdy youths and traffic delays. This strange yet totally engaging quartet facilitated plenty of memorable, if occasionally uncomfortable, moments that festivalgoers look for.

While Just For Laughs Chicago struggles to hold a candle to its Canadian progenitor in terms of breadth and sheer omnipresence, it has become an important part of the ever-growing Chicago (and national) comedy scene, offering casual and super fans alike the chance to catch some of their favorite comics perform alongside exciting and surprising up-and-comers.

Photos by Sam McHale.

Matt Byrne is a freelance writer living in Chicago, you can follow him on Twitter here and should read The Steamroller, his blog all about the Chicago comedy scene.