Chicago-based standup comic Mike Lebovitz is an undeniably charming performer, augmenting his slice-of-life anecdotes with jokes that are filthy to the point of abstraction. He has a bug-eyed unpredictability that makes every performance feel like it could go off the rails at any time. He's also the cofounder of Comedians You Should Know, Chicago's best weekly comedy showcase, which takes over the back room of Timothy O'Toole's in River North each Wednesday, with lineups full of the city's most polished comics and a bevy of surprise out-of-town guests.
Lebovitz is recording his debut comedy album for Stand Up! Records (which boasts alums like Maria Bamford, David Cross and Chicagoan Kyle Kinane) this weekend during a run of three shows at O'Toole's. Friday night's sole show is already sold out, though a few tickets remain for the two Saturday tapings. Before this weekend's performances, we spoke with Lebovitz about the preparation that goes into recording a stand-up record, as well as his disparate influences, which range from Steve Martin to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Nirvana.
What goes into preparing for a record? Racking up as much stage time as possible in advance or just trying to maintain the norm to make sure you're in a clear headspace?
"I have been going up [onstage] quite a lot over the past several months. Last week, I did hour-long sets four different times, which is a lot. I've been travelling a lot and I've been going up a lot. Earlier this year I was doing a bunch of comedy clubs, but that's changed in the last few months."
"I recently spent a week in L.A., and I did a lot of the hipper shows there, then I did a festival in D.C., which were mostly theater shows, and then I did a week in New York, where I did their equivalent of our North Side showcases. On top of that, I've done a bunch of one-nighters, a few shows in Rockford. I haven't been doing a lot in actual comedy clubs recently. I think it's kind of cool… Have you ever read Arnold Schwarzenegger's book about bodybuilding?"
"It's from the '70s, before he was a movie star. He felt like he had an advantage as a bodybuilder, because he used to be a weightlifter. He had this huge base of strong muscle, but then, on top of that, he'd do the sculpting routines that body builders do to look beautiful."
"I feel like I have this club muscle underneath, but I've been cutting those other muscles more recently. It's felt a little more punk rock lately, a little rougher around the edges. Though none of that was intentional."
"I've tried to do a couple of hour-long sets, but not necessarily running the set that I'll do, just to get used to keeping the balls in the air for that amount of time, focusing on maintaining an audience's attention over a period of an hour. I wouldn't do the same hour-long set in Rockford that I'd do in my home room. This was a really long-winded answer."
How did you know that now was the time to record an album?
"I knew I wanted to do an album at some point, and I'm not sure how much longer I'm going to be in town. I don't have a date set to leave, but I do feel like it's happening at some point."
"I wanted to make an imprint of the act as it is now, because a year or two from now, I won't be able to do a lot of these jokes. But that shouldn't mean they just disappear from the face of the Earth forever."
"I have a lot of jokes about my youngest son being a baby, and like, he's two now, so I already feel like a liar."
"I'd held off for a while because everyone wants their first album to be Nevermind. I thought about that and realized Nirvana's first album wasn't even Nevermind. So if this record ends up being Bleach, I'm totally cool with that."
Are there any specials or records that you looked to as influences when preparing for the recording?
"Not really. I haven't modeled it after any specific record. My favorite records are definitely the old Steve Martin records like Let's Get Small and Wild and Crazy Guy. Aesthetically, no, at this point, the technology has advanced so far that any old comedy record will sound better than those old records. It's just so much easier to make a recording sound good."
"But I think what I will do that those older records do, is that we'll probably cut together parts of a few different shows rather than those totally unedited sort of things… I figure I'm not quite good enough for that, so we'll do three shows and pick the best parts of each."
You're on the road very regularly, playing clubs in all sorts of towns around the country. Is there anything that sets a Chicago audience apart, especially in your home room at Timothy O'Toole's?
"Chicago crowds are absolutely really great. I also noticed recently, I really like D.C. crowds. They're kind of similar—a sort of young, well-educated people. Here they're mostly working corporate jobs, but in D.C., they all work for the government. You get disillusioned with that pretty quick, so they always need fresh blood."
"Chicago crowds aren't jaded like they can be in New York or L.A., because we're a showbiz town. There's less of a 'seen it…' attitude, which, for us, is nice. They'll laugh at a joke, and are smart enough to get a joke, too."
"With O'Toole's, it's my home room, right? I've been performing there for years, every other week, basically. We have a lot of regulars, and they've seen me develop basically my whole act there. I've never really put the thing together and done the whole act in that room, so I'm really excited to do the act in the room that I've developed it in. It's like, you guys have seen these different pieces coming down the assembly line, but you've never seen what those finished pieces are a part of, whether it's a car or a washing machine or whatever else."
You talk a lot about your kids in your act. I'm sure your two-year-old is still too young to understand, but has your older son ever seen you perform?
"Totally, man. Actually, I took him on the road with me this summer and he loved it. He always wants to come with me whenever I have a show. He digs it; he definitely has a good idea of what it is."
I've seen you nearly naked onstage many times, and have found that one of the sure signs that I missed out on a quality show is that the next day someone posts a picture of you in your underwear. What are the criteria for a sure-thing nude Lebo set?
"Here's the thing: You can't plan it. If you plan it, it feels forced. It needs to feel totally organic. I don't know, I mean… [Laughs] I think I've had good shows where the clothes have stayed on the whole time."
For sure, I think it's just a certain…
"I should say that if people come out to a show and I don't take my clothes off, I don't want them to feel as if they've been cheated."
"It's just a feeling that comes over me, man. It's pure animal impulse."
I remember seeing you on a show a year or two ago where very early in, you stripped down to just your underwear and socks and spent the rest of the night walking around the venue in just that.
"I think I was actually headlining that show, but rather than just like, stripping throughout, the very first thing that I did was take my shirt off, immediately. That's usually something that happens in the middle of the set. That was one of those shows that felt like it was supposed to be crazy."
"I will say, I think I do it less now, partly because it's less unexpected. Now, it's like, 'So, Lebo, are you gonna take your shirt off again tonight?' And that makes me not want to do it."
You never want to have a "thing."
"Yeah, and my 'thing' used to be that I'd eat people's food. And then it became, 'So, Lebo, are you gonna eat people's food tonight?' Then I thought, Alright, now I have to start taking my clothes off! And so now I'm searching for the next thing."