One Friday night in Chicago, two stand-up worlds. The first world: In the established, Old Town room, the nationally known Greg Proops fires off his California hipster comedy, heavy on attitude, high on his own intelligence, thick with high-culture words and pop-culture references.
"Young people blog all the time. If you're young, don't do that," says Proops. "When your third ex-wife stops you with a squirrel rifle, then you've got something to blog about."
Tickets were $27 and, although isolated quotations probably don't demonstrate it, worth every penny. This is high-end stuff, buffed and polished for maximum impact, delivered by a man in command of the room. "There'll be no yelling out," he admonishes. "I work alone. See the 'I' in 'Zanies'? That's me, Chicago."
The crowd not only takes it, but laps it up. Around them, the walls are lined with, roughly, 2 million stand-ups' head shots, plus a handful of posters enshrining the demigods from Zanies' founding years: Seinfeld, Leno, Richard Lewis, Emo Philips.
"One more drink," the waitress tells me, because there is, in fact, a two-drink minimum.
The second world: To get to the Lincoln Lodge, a gathering that feels impromptu and has been running for a dozen years, you walk through the old-school Lincoln Restaurant at Lincoln and Irving Park, nearly empty at 10 p.m.
Suddenly, in a back banquet room, there is life. Table after table is filled with 20- and 30-somethings drawn by the cheap ticket ($10), the urban fellowship, the reputation this weekly event has established for showcasing up-and-coming Chicago stand-ups who sometimes get tagged with the label "alternative," although, really, who isn't these days?
Usually, the show is done by "cast members," a recurring crew who also share responsibility for running the show. Their material can tend toward the self-conscious, comedy about the artifice of doing comedy. The crowd is a co-conspirator.
Tonight, though, there's a special guest, West Coast comic Moshe Kasher, reading from his just-published autobiography, doing material about growing up Jewish, slight, straight and effeminate in a rough Oakland, Calif., neighborhood.
You can order drinks, but you don't have to. You can also order waffles.
For many years, these two realms were it for stand-up comedy in Chicago, a town that everybody knows is really about improv and sketch work. You had a few established clubs: Zanies on the North Side, the last survivor of the 1980s comedy boom, and, more recently, Jokes and Notes on the South Side, the spiritual successor to All Jokes Aside, plus the likes of the Comedy Bar downtown and the Improv in Schaumburg.
And then there were the "alt" rooms, regular comedy showcases developed to hone craft and build an audience by assorted groups of comics. Most prominent of these are Lincoln Lodge (Fridays), Chicago Underground Comedy (Tuesdays at Beat Kitchen), and Comedians You Should Know (Wednesdays at Timothy O'Toole's). You can see a handful of people for a handful of dollars, and you can usually see them being more experimental than they would when doing a "club set," like at a Zanies.
Suddenly, though, the landscape has changed. Three new, well-backed clubs of 250 seats or bigger have joined or are about to join the stand-up scene. The big Just for Laughs stand-up festival is now making Chicago a regular, late-spring stop. And people are starting to wonder whether we are on the verge of a second stand-up boom.
"I think we are just at the beginning of our resurgence," said comic Cameron Esposito, a former cast member at Lincoln Lodge, current cast member at Chicago Underground Comedy and regular at Zanies. "It was really hot about five years ago, maybe for the first time. The alt scene rose to great heights."
"There might be a bit of a boom," said Bert Haas, the executive vice president of Zanies, standing amid the construction zone that is his soon-to-open, 250-seat Rosemont location, just outside city borders. "It won't be as big as the one in the '80s because the millennials simply aren't as big a population as the boomers. There's some interest in stand-up comedy that might not have been there 10 years ago."
Since coming to Chicago in 2008, "I've been fortunate enough to watch a good scene blossom into a fantastic scene," said James Kamp, who started the Comedy of Chicago website to document it (and where he maintains a fairly comprehensive events calendar). "Things are more organized now — there are more open mics, more showcases, way more comics, and most importantly, more high-end venues where they can perform.
"If the scene was smoking a few years ago," Kamp continued in his email response, "then now it's officially on fire."
"Either it's already happening or we're in the early stages of another sort of comedy boom," agreed Marty DeRosa, a regular at the late, lamented Lakeshore Theater, a short-lived, sort of grand-scale alternative room at Belmont and Broadway, and a regular at the Lakeshore's gut-rehabbed replacement, the Laugh Factory, since it opened in March. "Stand-up comedy is getting kind of cool again. It wasn't for a while. Where Chicago ties in is a lot of the comedians who are the top guys or will be the top guys are coming from Chicago."
As Esposito and others did, DeRosa mentions three men in particular: Kumail Nanjiani, Hannibal Buress andT.J. Miller, all of whom had roots in Chicago's early-millennium alt rooms and are now national headliners.
"All you hear now in the industry is 'from Chicago, from Chicago, from Chicago,'" said DeRosa, who grew up in northwest Indiana and has been performing stand-up here for five years.