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Local comedians cut up in the studio for 'Mixtape'

Steve Johnson

Tribune reporter

6:04 PM EDT, July 10, 2012

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The night before in Million Yen Studios, on the city's Northwest Side, the local rock duo Local H was putting some finishing touches on its first studio album in four years.

But the gathering on this night was for a different kind of recording. "Standup Mixtape," a new podcast series showcasing the city's comics, used the apartmentlike studio — more of a one-bedroom, a Realtor would say — as the setting for an intimate, invite-only show.

The only instrument to be heard was the human voice, in both joke-telling and laughing modes. But guitars adorn the studio walls, and as the comic Adam Burke pointed out in his set, four drumsticks and three "breeze blocks" — cinder building blocks — were right behind him on the small stage.

The latter instruments were there "because, presumably, Brian Eno's going to record his next album here," said Burke, a first-rate Chicago veteran with an absurdist, intellectual bent. "The first six tracks are just gonna be the breeze blocks, and then he'll bring in the drumsticks. Your mind'll be blown."

Goodrich Gevaart a relatively new stand-up originally from Indiana who came to comedy after playing in punk bands, explained to the small crowd that "this is what we call the 'live room,'" the place where musicians perform while the sound engineer records the result in a room adjacent.

He said he got into comedy for, unusually, "fiscal reasons," but it was already paying off: In a year of doing stand-up he's made about $15, he said, while in 10 years of playing in bands, he'd earned roughly "negative $15,000."

This intrusion Monday night, by comedy into the music world, came about because Justin Schwier, founder of the local punk label Underground Communique Records, has also been a longtime fan of comedy and wanted to get involved. He saw parallels, he explained, between the city's underground music and underground comedy scenes.

He hoped to work with Cameron Esposito, a Chicago stand-up whose star has risen fast enough that she's recently moved, almost full time, to Los Angeles.

"I thought, 'Let's just swing for the fences,'" said Schwier, 33. "I'll go after the biggest name I can think of."

Gevaart, who knew both people from his separate worlds, put the two in touch, explaining to Esposito that in the music scene, Schwier "just has a reputation for being an awesome dude who's in it for the right reasons."

Schwier and Esposito hashed out an idea. The comic would "host," which essentially means doing her own set before introducing a second comic, who would do his or her own set then bring Esposito back on to quickly close out an individual podcast.

Yes, they would put them up on iTunes (for free). But those seeking a more retro vibe — and to understand the name of the series — could buy the episodes on cassette from Underground Communique or at Reckless Records stores.

The goal was a magical combination: the great sound you struggle to capture at a comedy venue, unfiltered live-audience response and a freshness that can jump out when (if) people download the results, or pop them into the boombox or Walkman that they inexplicably keep around.

"It's an opportunity to bring some great audio quality to some top-tier and emerging Chicago acts," said Esposito, 30, originally from Western Springs, and a former regular at Chicago comedy showcases Lincoln Lodge and Chicago Underground Comedy. "It's comedy coming into a place where sound happens."

"Justin and I are both people who make things happen on a do-it-yourself scale," she added. "We were taping our first episodes within a month."

And, indeed, the first of those, featuring Esposito and Caitlin Bergh, went up on iTunes on Monday, the very day of the second taping. A new one will be released every two weeks, and there's a third recording session planned for August, which will mean, with three comics per session, at least nine episodes of Standup Mixtape.

Blending comics and podcasting is not unusual. Among the best uses of the emerging medium have been by stand-ups.

But, Burke said, "it's kind of weird because there's an awful lot of podcasts about stand-up. There're very few that are actually a show."

More typical have been such podcast successes as stand-ups successfully baring their souls (Marc Maron) or riffing on life and the news (Jimmy Pardo) or on sports (the Sklar Brothers).

Standup Mixtape goes back to the source, the comedy itself, said Burke, 36, a native Australian who grew up in London and Northern Ireland and lives in the Logan Square neighborhood not far from the studio. And as for cassettes as a medium, he added, "I think enough people still have their parents' cars."

Gevaart, in his set, had a different take: "Are we gonna do a Betamax? Are we gonna do a Laserdisc of this one?"

The 28-year-old Rogers Park resident told of growing up in a "war zone" in Indiana: "It was a war against being interesting or having fun."

The second comic, 27-year-old Stephanie Hasz, from rural Wisconsin, did a frank, funny set explaining her desire for men "short enough that I could kiss them without their cooperation," or, perhaps better, for one who would appear in her bed naked, when necessary, but not otherwise bother her.

Among her printable reasons for wanting a man: "I have really weak forearms, but I love pickles."

Burke closed by being smart on a whole range of notions, although he later said he had to be careful because he didn't want to repeat material that'll be on his forthcoming first album.

Actually finding something new to say about Chicago's recent heat wave, he compared it to "waking up each morning like you're in the final stages of full-blown malaria. The fever dreams alone have been exquisite."

"The heat is so oppressive," he added, "you start taking it personally. You think you're the victim of some bad solar vendetta."

He wondered, too, whether we fail to keep social media in perspective: "According to Twitter, I have over a thousand followers. Jesus had 12."

Only a few more than a dozen were on hand for the recording session — it's a small room — and most were people who knew the comics. Matt Byrne got an invite because he had written about Chicago comedy for A.V. Club Chicago, the recently closed local adjunct to A.V. Club, The Onion's national pop-culture website.

"I love the idea," said Byrne, who works at a Logan Square record store. "I was a bit mad that I didn't think of it first."

"It's very intimate. It's like they're speaking to me," said Katie Call, seated in the front row, who got her invitation by reaching out to Esposito on her Facebook page.

"This is so Chicago," Esposito told audience members between sessions, summoning mock bravado to urge them to savor the experience because "I'm gonna be very famous very soon."

In her own stage time, Esposito made the case. She told of her Italian family, of being a lesbian visiting a strip club for the first time, and of missing the Logan Square neighborhood since moving out to L.A.

Logan Square, she explained to podcast listeners, is Brooklyn if you're living in New York or Echo Park if you're in Los Angeles.

"For those of you living in other parts of the country," she added, "I'm talking about Portland."

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @stevenkjohnson