Chicago's reputation as a comedy town is well deserved. Comedy clubs dot the city's map. We're the city where improv comedy was born and sketch was refined, where SNL comes looking when it needs to replenish the well; it was here that Nichols met May and Poehler met Fey. Comedy is a form that's as Chicago as steakhouses, Malört or getting blown up by Michael Bay.
The Chicago comedy scene is so pervasive that sketch troupes and stand-up nights regularly crop up in bars, pubs, music clubs and theaters. But as full-time venues for improv, sketch and stand-up go, from grandaddy Second City to the history-minded, forward-looking new entry The Revival, these are the cream of the crop.
RECOMMENDED: Best Chicago comedy nights
Chicago's best comedy clubs
Even if you know nothing about improv, chances are you've heard of Second City. This is the place that put both sketch and improvised comedy on the map while launching the careers of many distinguished comics including Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Chris Farley, Keegan-Michael Key, Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell. With long-running revues on both the main and e.t.c. stages and a number of smaller spaces for Second City Training Center students to hone their skills, the long-running institution has made the corner of North Avenue and Wells Street a comedy destination.
No doubt about it, the house that improv legend Del Close and founding partner Charna Halpern built rules. Not only has iO churned out legendary folk like Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler, but it consistently puts the art of improv first, most noticeably via the Harold, its signature long-form. The shows are generally cheap and the classes a must for budding improvisers. The new theater complex, completed in 2014, contains four performance spaces: the Del Close Theater, the Jason Chin Harold Cabaret, the Chris Farley Cabaret and the Mission Theater. The venue's expansive lobby bar is an inviting place to hang out even if you're not seeing a show.
Annoyance put itself on the map with its famously distasteful gross-out musical Co-Ed Prison Sluts. Twenty-plus years later, it still cranks out bizarre, unconventional comedy. Opened in 2014, its new home on Belmont gives it two performance venues and classroom space all in the same building, as well as a homey bar where you can rub elbows with the next generation of comedy influencers.
Opened in 2012 in the Pipers Alley space that formerly housed Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding, this Second City–run stage mixes touring stops by well-known stand-ups (recent visitors have included Kyle Kinane, Jen Kirkman, Dave Attell, Ron Funches, Kate Berlant and John Early) with tourist-friendly improv showcases and collections of archival sketches performed by Second City–trained stage vets.
The producers of the long-running Bye Bye Liver: The Chicago Drinking Play now have their own venue a few blocks north of Wrigley Field, where the flagship drunkfest fits right in. It's supplemented by short-run shows from up-and-coming sketch groups and the occasional scripted comedy.
Former Upright Citizens Brigade NYC artistic director Kevin Mullaney and Chemically Imbalanced Comedy founder Angela McMahon took over the old Links Hall space in Wrigleyville in 2014, opening a new venue for improv and sketch. Many of UTG's original shows tend toward pop-culture parodies like The Bachelor riff Will You Accept This Rose?; it has also played host to long-running troupes like the female improvisers of Sirens and Asian-American sketch company Stir Friday Night.
The nation's only not-for-profit co-op theater devoted to the art of improvisation is an excellent place for young teams to practice their craft. The programming is often experimental and incredibly hit or miss, but there's no denying the youthful, infectious energy that pervades the place.
A ref keeps the score as dueling improv troupes battle it out at the Chicago version of this national brand (which relies heavily on audience participation). Most shows are squeaky clean and family-friendly, but late-night "blue" shows on the weekends can get a little edgier. The Belmont Avenue venue also hosts stand-up showcase 100 Proof Comedy and open mic The Chaser on Monday nights.
Remember the olden days when comedy clubs with a two-drink minimum policy ruled? That era is long gone, but this venerable example has managed to hang on. The comedy here is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Zanies offers stage time to up-and-comers while paying tribute to some of the greats, but both the venue and the comics can, at other times, feel a bit dusty.