Can we talk kind of seriously about comedy for a moment? Please understand that this question is posed in full recognition of how stupid an idea this is: since time immemorial it has been understood that comedy is a topic preternaturally averse to being examined in such a manner, ideologically like a thigmonasticplant, shrinking away in response to interrogative stimuli. Often though the harder a topic is to delve into, the more rewarding it is to explore.
The aforementioned topic hangs thick in the air because this weekend will see our fair city play host to some of the best stand-up comedy talent in the country at the second annual Comedy Exposition—recently named Best New Comedy Festival on the 2015 Reader Best Of Chicago list—which kicks off this Friday, July 10. The festivities run through Sunday night when the festival ends with a closing ceremony performance at the UP Comedy Club by the fantastic Todd Glass. In between the fest will feature some 75 comedians, with roughly half of that talent pool drawn exclusively from the local stand-up scene.
Chicago has long been justly recognized as a breeding ground for comedy, having produced scores of talented writers and performers whose presence in film and television is sometimes staggering to consider. Despite this fact, one often feels that audiences are less inclined to seek out local stand-up showcases than their counterpart improv and sketch shows. This can be ascribed to a number of factors, from a paucity of concrete venues to the transitory nature of the professionally inclined comedian and beyond. The establishment of the Comedy Exposition, then, as an enduring annual showcase has great potential to effect serious change in this arena.
See, it has been posited that human nature, when boiled down to its most basic elements, is rooted in tribalism. Each action taken by an individual is born of a desire to connect to or maintain a preset status quo; it is this innate governing instinct that propels people and societies forward toward collective good. When the pursuit of life is individually focused it is simply about survival, where tribalism seeks to move beyond the basic continuance of existence.
These other forms of comedy happening in Chicago are no more valid than stand-up, but where they find purchase is through their built-in tribal nature. No less an authority on the matter than Bill Murray once called improv “the most important group work since they built the pyramids.” This is not to say that there isn’t a sense of tribalism within the stand-up community, just that, given the nature of the medium, it could do with some nurturing, Luckily, one can see that in the steps taken by the organizers of the Comedy Exposition exactly that is occurring.
Of course, that wasn’t the main focus of their endeavor, it was to put on a festival celebrating stand-up in Chicago. As the story goes, following the Just For Laughs festival’s retreat from hosting an annual Chicago event, stand-up comic and show producer Katie McVay took to twitter and posted the following tweet:
What followed was something that feels like the hoariest of tropes, that one where a scrappy group of friends band together to put on a show against all odds. Like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in Babes In Arms, saving their family from the creeping threat of Nazism through homespun song and dance or something like that. McVay joined forces with producer Matt Byrne and fellow stand-ups Goodrich Gevaart, Stephanie Hasz and Zach Peterson, committing to produce what became last year’s inaugural Comedy Exposition.
The process was a bit of a touch and go operation, since the production team was learning how to produce a major festival by, well, producing a major festival. Initially buoyed by a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, which net the Expo founders more than double what they had initially sought, things got hairier as the festival drew nearer. Initial ticket pre-sales had not been heartening, but on opening night the audiences turned out. And kept turning out. In fact, over the course of the 24 shows, nearly every one was a capacity crowd. The organizers had managed to book a stand-up extravaganza packed with all manner of talented local performers, bigger names like SNL’s Brooks Wheelan (fired from that venerable show literally days after his Expo appearance—coincidence?), Aparna Nancherla, and festival closer Andy Kindler.
This time through, the festival and its organizers have the added benefits of experience and time on their side, positioning the 2015 Comedy Exposition to be an even greater affair than the first. It is far easier to draw talent to a festival that has a proven track-record of success than a fledgling one. With that, and the Expo’s crucial local focus, the organizers’ efforts are shining a spotlight on the flourishing stand-up scene in Chicago like never before. With the initial Expo, the canny decision was made to incorporate several existing showcases into the lineup, in their regular venues as well, whereby audiences could find not just local performers to follow but also shows, like Arguments and Grievances held monthly at Schubas.
Beyond that they have achieved something even more rare. Out of the hole created by the absence of the largely corporate Just For Laughs, the grassroots Comedy Exposition grew. Creating not only a neighborhood-centric, walkable, alternative comedy festival, it provided a framework for a tribe to form. Predicated on the idea that the platform of a large-scale festival could be used to suss out and feature the voices of less established comics, the Comedy Exposition producers have chosen to foster community both locally and nationally.
Satellite festival activities kick off tonight with Competitive Erotic Fan-Fiction at North Bar, followed by the frantic 42 x 42 tomorrow night at Cole’s Bar. The 2015 Comedy Exposition begins Friday night with shows in the Lakeview neighborhood, Saturday evening in Wicker Park, and Sunday performances occurring in Old Town. Headliners include Todd Glass, Baron Vaughn, Kate Berlant, Adam Cayton-Holland, James Adomian, Sarah Schaefer, Megan Gailey, and Phoebe Robinson. More complete information regarding tickets, performers, schedules, and venue information can be found at comedyexposition.com.