Bigger paychecks spur move to L.A. for Chicago comedians

We checked in with three hot Chicago stand-ups as they ply their trade in L.A.

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Beth Stelling returns to Chicago Wednesday for a five-night run at Zanies on Wells Street, some two years after she left the city for the warmer and more opportunity-rich climes of Los Angeles.

The return of "Sweet Beth," as she titled her 2012 debut album, also put us in mind of two other recent comedy ex-patriates from Chicago, Cameron Esposito and Dan Telfer.

So we thought we'd check in and see how things have been going out west for this trio, who all came up through Lincoln Lodge and Chicago Underground Comedy.

Telfer, 35, known for bits about superheros and dinosaurs, left in January. Esposito pulled up stakes a little over a year ago. We talked to all three in separate conversations — because it's not like they all room together in one big apartment decorated with Bears flags and reclaimed "L" signs.

Career opportunities

Stelling: After landing her first late-night TV appearance — on Conan O'Brien's show — less than a year after moving west, Stelling, 28, is studying acting and going on audtions. She and Esposito were both named to L.A. Weekly's "12 Comedy Acts to Watch in 2013" list, and she has reached another career goal by appearing at Largo, the hip comedy and music club.

"I thought that it would take me years to get onstage at Largo," Stelling said. "And I remember posting that I was gonna see my friend Rob Delaney at Largo. I was excited. I bought my ticket. It was my first time at Largo, even attending. To me, it was just like this sort of awesome venue where the best people in L.A. performed. I tweeted that. And then when I got there Rob messaged me: He was like, 'Do you want to go on, open for me?'

"And because of that I got to go back and do (the monthly) 'Sarah Silverman & Friends,' and because of that I met Kiristen Schaal, who's been a great friend. She took me to San Francisco with her to do Sketchfest.

"And I work with two writers I met in Chicago, Mo Welch and Tia Ayers. We have been developing a pilot over the last year with Flower Films, which is Drew Barrymore's production company. So we're getting ready to kind of go to the next step with that. That's been a great kind of ride. It's about my time working for Intelligentsia Coffee. It's called 'Snobs.'"

Telfer: As we talked, Telfer, who is planning to return to do comedy in Chicago over the end-of-year holidays, was walking to the train to go to work on "@Midnight," the new Chris Hardwick-hosted show about the Internet on Comedy Central. It's a gig that, with a family to support, he is very happy to have.

"I am a social media producer," he said. "I try to bridge the gap between the show itself and social media — which is handy because it is like a comedy panel game that is about social media."

In the standup realm, "I got to know some comedians who lived on either coast before I moved, and they've been really good about letting me open for them and putting in a good word at clubs. It still feels like starting over. I'm climbing the ladder and competing with people who have TV credits. But, you know, I'm doing my favorite shows and getting to perform regularly without having to hit a bunch of open mics, and that's pretty cool."

Esposito: She hosts and produces a weekly stand-up show, "Put Your Hands Together," at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, taking over for the long-running "Comedy Bang Bang," and is thrilled to have had guests including Silverman, Aziz Ansari, Bob Odenkirk and Maria Bamford. "And on the days when I'm not sure if I'm doing the right thing or that I'm gonna be financially viable out here," she said, "it just feels like, to have that every week is, yeah, it's a real anchor."

Just last month, on or near her one-year anniversary of moving to L.A., she made her late-night debut, appearing on Craig Ferguson's show and getting the rare honor of being called over to the couch during her set, to sit between Ferguson and guest Jay Leno (look it up on YouTube; it's quite a moment in a young comic's life).

"Can you believe it? I can't. I'm losing my mind about it. Yeah, they said I was the future of late-night television! My parents were watching!

"I had spoken to Mr. Leno — I feel so weird calling them by their first name — Jay, like my friend Jay Leno, he and I had been talking in the Green Room. And he was giving me tips, because I was kind of nervously pacing. I said, 'Well, this is my (TV) debut,' and he said, 'You should put away your notes. You know (your material). You're a professional.' Which is, like, the kindest advice you could really give a young comic. He was so sweet to me. And I think because of that, because we'd had this chat, he decided to stay and watch (the set) as well. So the two of them are just watching off to the side, which is a really wild experience. But also especially your first time on TV. So there's an audience and, of course, I care about them as people. But there's also, like, two comedy legends just watching me tell silly jokes about haircuts.

"I have to say, I was nervous to do the material that I did on television. I'm very out and very comfortable with myself, but it's my first time being on network TV, talking about marrying a woman, which is still a pretty new idea for a lot of people. And those two guys taking that moment to like affirm who I am and affirm that it was okay and that they were happy that I was talking about that — that's exactly how I want to interact. I don't want to be stern. I want to be lighthearted about it. I want to be funny about it."

Moving West

Esposito: "Every day is a different experience where I feel encouraged and I'm moving, like, five steps forward. And then the next day I feel like, 'What am I doing? It's such a risk.'"

Telfer: "I had been working in Chicago as a writer and performer, geek, what have you, for over 15 years. I had been working at The Onion and that was nice and it just, it felt like I was running out of places I could work full-time. I was starting to get to tour with comedians who were, like, my heroes so that was all well and good.

"But it didn't really pay the bills. And there were no opportunities, really, to advance in Chicago. I wanted to be writing for a TV show or something, but nothing films in Chicago. Nobody hires any writers from Chicago. All the writing jobs in Chicago were like, 'For $15 an hour we'll let you come and edit our produce inventory in our warehouse on the South Side.' So I did the Onion thing for a year. I still am a contributing writer. But there was nothing else. Even the best places to do comedy, I couldn't support a family working there. It was time for me to actually go where there was an entertainment industry."

Stelling: "It's pretty cool from Chicago when you do get things. Even something — well, it felt pretty big at the time — like the new faces of Montreal (the Just For Laughs Montreal festival) that I got from Chicago. Well, that was a big deal because they usually take New York and L.A. comics. It was like, 'Wow, you can do things from here. Things certainly can happen, but, yeah, there's a benefit I had coming off of Just for Laughs Montreal, saying, 'I'm this is new comic moving to L.A., having just kind of been validated with this new faces honor.' So people are going to want to see me to find out if I'm good or not. So I came with interest, what they like to call a little 'hear.' I kind of was riding the opportunity into L.A."

The Chicago community

Stelling: "I think that if there is (a Chicago handshake), I can be sure that, well, I dont know it, but also that all these people are sick of it. They kind of give a jokingly hard time to the Chicago comics because, yes, we are undeniably strong in numbers and in comedy. So I think we get kind of poked at. You've got your Kamau (Bell), you've got your (Kyle) Kinane. Your TJ Miller. It's a force to be reckoned with. The running list is pretty good from Chicago."

Telfer: "The downside is, if you say you're from Chicago you either get a pat on the back or an eye-roll. Chicago is generally where you do comedy forever until you get tired of not being paid. So the amount of Chicago comedy people who I already knew out here is tremendous. We like to work with each other and we have experience working with each other. There are a lot of stand-up shows an other projects Ive gotten to work on because I worked with someone in Chicago. Chicago also doesn't have that TV-show-biz mentality of, every time you go up you're doing it the perfect way. We're a bunch of people who've seen each other's rough drafts and appreciate each other as human beings, not as commodites. And that makes it a pretty strong community."

sajohnson@tribune.com Twitter @StevenKJohnson

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