At The Just For Laughs Festival in Comedy’s First City

Reclamation of The Second City as Chicago’s once pejorative nickname happened long before I developed an interest in comedy. And as an avid comedy fan attending the 2012 Just For Laughs Chicago festival, it became clear that the interest in comedy of the city’s citizens must have had much to do with that connotative shift.

Most literally, this was evidenced by seminal Conan writer Brian Stack’s return to the eponymous Second City training center three days prior the start of the festival proper for the recording of the popular Improv Nerd podcast. Before his tenure at Late Night with Conan O’Brien, Stack was hired by Second City after being discovered in the Imporv Olympic group Jazz Freddy. Audience members were treated to this fondly recounted information and an expertly executed two-person improv scene by Stack and his old friend, Improv Nerd host Jimmy Carrane. It was all I could do not to audibly fangirl.

One of the most difficult things about loving comedy during Just For Laughs Chicago was deciding which shows to attend; while enjoying Brian Stack, I knew that across the city, friends of mine were being treated to a show by his coworker Deon Cole, a native of Chicago’s southside, at Jokes and Notes. It was an amazing problem to have: the dilemma of which Conan writer and homegrown comedy hero to see for free on a lazy Saturday evening… all before the Just For Laughs festival had even began. For both of these men whose work I hope to eventually emulate in any small way, Chicago was their first comedic city - as it is mine.

Though the specifics often change, - Lakeshore Theatre closing its doors to make way for Chicago’s new Laugh Factory, host to many of the festival’s shows - the kinetic energy of the local comedy scene never seems to dissipate; one would think the friction created by all the coming and going of its transient population would at least create some drag. But I’ve witnessed first-hand during my short time as a stand up comic in Chicago and my week covering JFL that this city’s comedic estuary remains bountiful season after season.

The strange convergence of the feted return of Chicago comedy’s most recent graduating class (Hannibal Buress, TJ Miller, Pete Holmes, Kyle Kinane, Matt Braunger, and more) this time as nationally-known, headlining festival acts, and the unofficial commencement of the next batch to matriculate was a spectacle for local comedy fans and participating neophytes - both of which I consider myself. Though, to me, its featured acts were oddly labeled, The Comedy Bar’s New Faces of Chicago show was, in fact, aptly named. Among open micers like myself, comics like host Lil’ Rel, Adam Burke, CJ Toledano, Drew Michael, James Fritz, Mike Lebovitz, Mike Stanley, and the recently departed (to LA, not the afterlife) Cameron Esposito are considered upperclassmen; to the rest of the country, they’re fresh meat. From them, we hear trickled-down, you-had-to-be-there stories of what it was like to open for Hannibal Buress or hit mics with Kyle Kinane or crash on TJ Miller’s couch that, by the time they’ve reached us, are shoddily reassembled, conspiratorially whispered legends of local comics past. The Just For Laughs festival allowed us to see what it must have been like when the alumni and senior class roamed the halls we now populated.

During his weeklong stay at the Chicago Theatre, it was apparent that former Chicago resident Conan O’Brien was also enamored of the second city, squeezing every drop of humor possible out of local staples like the long-suffering Chicago Cubs, Irish step dancing (as an ironically named - Rebecca O’Neal!!! - lifelong, non-Irish Catholic resident of the Windy City, this felt especially relevant), Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and the infamous Weiner’s Circle dining experience. He wisely and hilariously pandered to his audience with references to the Blues Brothers movies, the improv scene, the Chicago fire, The Chicago Fire, and a sight gag - The Masturbating Chicago Bear. Naturally, we ate it up. Still, for my friends and me, trying to spot Conan’s writers in character sketches - and witnessing the masterclass in extemporaneous crowdwork that was longtime Conan warm-up comic, the gentleman in a long pant and a hard shoe (hot, open-faced sandwich nowhere to be found), Jimmy Pardo were the highlights of the week.

Seeing Jeff Garlin’s 30-second cameo at Monday’s taping of Conan was a treat (though not a real surprise. The two shared an apartment while living in The City of Big Shoulders), but unwittingly seeing him perform a completely improvised drop-in set at Beat Kitchen’s pithily titled Chicago Underground Comedy presents: Secret Big-Time Local Comedy Showcase + Secreter Short Film Showcase the next night was a welcome shock. The night’s advertised line up was already a steal at $5 a ticket; with surprise appearances from Chicago comedy alumni Kyle Kinane, Pete Holmes, Hannibal Buress, and New York native Eddie Pepitone - who managed to tackle dark subject matter like world hunger, adult illiteracy, and the financial and human costs of the Iraq war with manic levity in a bit that begun about the futility of laundry detergent commercials - I felt guilty for having press passes to see such jam-packed show for free. Host Mike Lebovitz, and the evening’s featured local comedians Adam Burke, Dave Stinton, Ever Mainard, James Fritz, and Junior Stopka can be seen all over the city hosting and working out new bits at open mics and performing in booked showcases (some of which I’ve improbably opened) every day of the week; it took seeing them as foils alongside their peers who’d returned home (famous!) from finding success on either coast to highlight what a privilege I’d been taking for granted. Even though I was in one of the short films being screened that night, (Chicago Underground Comedy producer Elizabeth McQuern’s Take Back Our Boobs), it was difficult not to feel like an impostor who’d insinuated her way into an intimate, but hilarious, public reunion.

Comedians’ (at all levels!) compulsion to constantly perform wherever possible may explain why my choice to forgo seeing The Nerd Show on Wednesday in favor of hitting Cole’s Open Mic and getting some stage time myself wasn’t as foolish an idea as I’d first believed. Toward the end of the night, it may as well have been 2007 in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood with Hannibal Buress and TJ Miller surprising fatigued comics with open mic sets - and bringing along their friends Stephen Merchant and Eric Andre (whose frenetic brand of comedy defied the shutter speed of my camera). It also justified my (Sophie’s?) choice to remain at Saturday’s Brian Stack show at Second City instead of Deon Cole’s at Jokes and Notes; before Cole’s, I attended Deon Cole and Friends at Laugh Factory to see extended sets from Cole himself, Conan writers Laurie Kilmartin, the wonderfully melancholic Josh Comers, Dan Cronin, and Brian Kiley, and Chicago favorites Damon Williams and George Willborn. By this point in the festival, drop-in sets were to be expected, so seeing an unannounced TJ Miller there wasn’t the week’s most remarkable occurrence; seeing him wolf down two Chicago-style Italian beef sandwiches in under a minute in preparation for his televised Conan set the next day was.

The only show I’d planned to attend Friday night (besides the inaugural night of my own open mic) was Paul Provenza and Troy Conrad’s Set List at Lincoln Lodge, but rumblings of an unadvertised midnight show at Laugh Factory made that a hard plan to keep. The former by itself would have been an amazing time - with local and out-of-town comics (including, but not limited to, Marc Maron, Mike Lawrence, Andy Kindler, Dan Telfer, and Brent Weinbach) performing double-blind improvised stand up sets based on audience suggestions from a hat and topics on a projection screen. Even the crowd at Lincoln Lodge that night was a veritable who’s who, up-to-the-minute-accurate tableau of Chicago comedy.

But the night didn’t end there! The latter boasted a line-up that could have demanded a steep ticket price - but didn’t. Hosted by Conan’s Deon Cole, (and this laundry list reads like a show organized by my diary) The Laugh Factory’s midnight show featured sets from Adam Ray, Chris D’Elia, TJ Miller, Lil Rel, Eric Andre, Hannibal Buress, Brian Babylon, and more. As a fan, I’d have honestly paid to see the secret show’s non-performing attendees - comics from the entire week’s festivities.

Often - and unfortunately - when the prominence of Chicago’s comedy is discussed, the city’s rich and diverse southside scene is overlooked. Accordingly, much of the festival’s action took place on Chicago’s northside, but neglecting the handful of Just For Laughs shows staged at Bronzeville’s beautiful Jokes and Notes comedy club would be a travesty. With events featuring Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me regular (and winner!) comedian Brian Babylon, Chicagoland-born favorites Erica Clark, Lil’ Rel, and Clark Jones (the latter of whom is a founding member of Chicago’s Starting 5 - a collective of comics native to the southside who pride themselves on booking shows throughout Chicago’s sometimes disjointed comedic landscape - and, together, headlined one of Jokes and Notes’ most popular shows of the festival), and northside transplants Tyson Karrasch, Kristin Clifford, and Ali Clayton.

And because Chicago wouldn’t be Chicago without its scrappy upstart spirit, the off-off-Broadway Just Because Comedy Festival is well worth far more than a passing mention. Throughout the week, I lost track of which local shows were under the umbrella of the (very punk rock) Just Because Fest and which were weekly or monthly shows that just happened to fall on JFL dates and get absorbed into the madness. This was partially because, for the duration of the festival (and, honestly, a business week before and after), surprise guests were omnipresent - with Conan writers Brian Kiley, Laurie Kilmartin, and Brian Cronin dropping in for booked sets at long-running local Saturday showcase Your Funniest Friends. No local show or mic was spared this mass descent; the popular Tuesday Rathskellar Open Mic at Lottie’s Pub forsook its usual format for the Just Because Festival and hosted a showcase that was visited by Conan’s Laurie Kilmartin as well.

I don’t know that I’ve had a better week in my life. How could The Second City be anything but an affectionate misnomer?

Rebecca O’Neal is a freelance fangirl and writer (and stand up comic?) in Chicago, IL.

Photos by Rebecca O’Neal, James Allen Kamp for, Lev Kalmens of Improv Nerd, Marc Smith, and

At The Just For Laughs Festival in Comedy’s First City