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Open-mic nights

We hit the circuit with an up-and-coming comedian.

By Matt Byrne |
Photographer: Lev Kalmens Andrew Smreker

“All right, that’s enough.…” Andrew Smreker interrupts himself during a mock interview with rapper Pusha T, moving on with what little time he has left. The clock is ticking at Flock Yourself, a weekly open-mic night happening Wednesdays in the rear lounge of Bird’s Nest (2500 N Southport Ave, 773-472-1502), where four minutes on a small corner stage is offered to comics of all experience levels willing to wait their turn. Unlike other creatives, comics don’t have the luxury of rehearsing in private, and I’m following Smreker around to the city’s numerous open mics to witness this very public process firsthand.

Smreker spends the remainder of his time working out new, high-concept nuggets to a modest response from a crowd made up mostly of friends and acquaintances who may already be familiar with his material. Afterward, he expresses reservations about his lack of preparation: “To have a good open-mic set, there must be this perfect balance of old and new. I didn’t get it this time.”

Smreker, a 27-year-old up-and-comer, has an anxiously cerebral style, spouting visions of vivid absurdity; his bit about a self-aware robot crippled by social anxiety encapsulates his style fairly well. He began doing stand-up in 2006, but has dedicated much of his energy to writing for The Late Live Show, which he cocreated in 2010. Though he left the show earlier this year to focus on stand-up, he’s still writing, having recently started freelance contributing to The Onion.

There’s a noticeable tinge of regret when Smreker talks about his time away from the stage. He aspires to become a full-time stand-up, and a few comics with whom he got his start are now among the city’s most popular.

The following Tuesday at 6pm, we meet outside Lottie’s Pub (1925 W Cortland St, 773-489-0738) before its weekly Rathskellar Mic. “The challenge of [open mics] is the waiting,” Smreker says. Comics begin showing up around five to take advantage of Rathskellar’s honor-system-inspired list that rewards early birds with higher spots in the running order. Performers have different reasons for going up early; Smreker has a day job at Groupon and tries to be home before midnight to maintain his sanity.

Around 8pm, Michael Joyce, the host and creator of Rathskellar, shouts: “Line up in the order you arrived, and be honest, don’t be a douche bag.” Smreker nabs the early spot and rushes to grab a cheap dinner (he was recently banned from ordering off Lottie’s kids’ menu).

“What we do here is laugh, clap and have a good time,” says Joyce to the narrow, brick-lined basement filled with comics and high-spirited bar patrons he’s recruited from upstairs. A half-hour into the show, Smreker goes up, opening with a few new bits that don’t quite land. He’s visibly disheartened for the remainder of his set and disappears before I’m able to catch him for comment.

The following night I meet Smreker at Cole’s (2338 N Milwaukee Ave, 773-276-5802), home to the definitive Chicago open mic. Adam Burke, who cofounded Cole’s Open Mic more than three years ago with former Chicagoan Cameron Esposito, opens with a cheerful “Welcome to Cole’s, where every week, we put up too many fucking comics!”

As is typical with any enduring subcultural institution, a community of regulars has developed that can be foreboding to outsiders. “There are definitely people who built this room and made it what it is, so there’s a sense of turf,” explains Smreker, “but the room is really supportive. They give you a fair chance.”

Burke introduces Smreker with sincere, glowing praise, teeing him up for one of the strongest sets I’ve seen from anyone all week. He enriches previous nights’ unsuccessful bits with fresh material, nailing a tonally connected but unforced set. The boisterous crowd agrees: It’s a slam dunk. Smreker watches a few more comics before heading home. Great set or not, he’s got work in the morning.