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Taking a stand

Tired of playing second banana to improv and sketch, Chicago stand-up is demanding-and earning-respect.
By Steve Heisler |

Last February, two respected comedy performers really pissed off their peers. Thomas Middleditch (who plays with the Improvised Shakespeare Company) and TJ Miller (a stand-up comic who also toured with Second City) decided to launch a hybrid stand-up/improv show in iO’s Del Close Theater, a venue typically reserved just for improv and sketch comedy. Thomas and TJ’s Tuesday Riot, which billed stand-up comics alongside the pair’s long-form improv set, ran weekly for two months.

But the greater improv community—a group that usually supports, rather than cuts down, fellow players both on and off stage—was up in arms before the show sold its first ticket. Irate posters on the Chicago Improv Network, a message board where people plug their shows and talk improv shop, were appalled that such a performance would ever consider iO its home. Their complaints boiled down to, essentially, calling stand-up a less smart comedic form—one person went so far as to write, in regard to Riot’s choice of venue, “That’s not what [iO founder] Del Close would have wanted.”

These inflammatory comments didn’t come out of nowhere: As far as comedy goes, stand-up has gotten on many occasions, in the words of Rodney Dangerfield, “no respect.” It just took the relative passive-aggressive nature of an online message board to expose this attitude.

But lately, stand-up seems to be gaining ground on improv and sketch as the city’s go-to comedy discipline. The boom of the ’80s is long gone (at one point, there were 18 full-time clubs within city limits), but stand-up is quickly recovering some of its lost ground. The venue options run a wide gamut: straight-up clubs like Zanies and Jokes and Notes; alt-venues such as the Lakeshore Theater, the Lincoln Lodge, Chicago Underground Comedy and the Edge Comedy Club; and even some offbeat places like Diversey River Bowl and Polish night club Watra now have open mikes.

“I used to be terrified of stand-up so much that I’d sit with other improvisers and say it wasn’t an art form…but it really is the best one,” says Brady Novak, a regular at the Lodge who has trained in improv and sketch. “You learn editing, writing, improvising by finding different ways to weave your jokes together—and the audience immediately tells you what’s funny. [Long-form] improv…is not the trend in comedy. Look at viral videos—comedy is becoming quicker and faster. Improv almost seems ancient.”

Those willing to ride the stand-up trend in Chicago have plenty of places to try out material, which helps them become well-rounded performers. “Chicago has a strong reputation as a good place for doing improv [and sketch], but there are so many people waiting to work at [those] places,” says performer Michael Palascak. “There aren’t as many people doing stand-up, so it’s easier to get attention.”

Palascak’s willingness to try different genres has paid off. The 25-year old has amassed an impressive list of stand-up credits in only three years. His onstage persona—a self-effacing recent college grad who lives with his parents—makes him a favorite at local clubs, earned him a spot in the Comedy Festival’s Lucky 21 upcoming November stand-up competition in Las Vegas and landed him in the August finals of Comedy Central’s Open Mic Fight online contest in Los Angeles.

Palascak’s success doesn’t surprise Beth Kligerman, the director of talent and talent development at Second City. She says that those who toss stand-up into the mix quickly develop a professional edge. “They realize, Oh, I can get off stage after my [Second City shows] and do another discipline within the art form of comedy, [which] is like moving a different muscle and doing reps,” she says. And as we know, exercise makes you stronger.

Kligerman doesn’t have a lot of patience for the attitude that created the Thomas and TJ’s Tuesday Riot, well, riot. She rolls her eyes: “Funny is funny,” she says.

Dan Telfer agrees—he’s a member of the Blewt! company (the guys behind the live game show Don’t Spit the Water) and coproducer of the Chicago Underground Comedy stand-up showcase. While some improvisers were accusing stand-up of going for “cheaper, easier laughs,” as one poster put it, Telfer was indoctrinating another sect of improv comics into the world of stand-up. He and 12 of his friends, armed with notebooks full of sloppily written jokes, attended their first open mike at Pressure Billiards and Café. They walked out believers in the power of stand-up—so much so, that Telfer’s now on temporary, if not permanent, improv hiatus.

He says that stand-up has one big advantage: Unlike improv, it’s not a one-time experience—it can be re-created and improved again and again. “I’d trade all my shitty improv shows to have something—a bit, a memento—that people can see again,” he says, “something that others will remember me by.”

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