It is, of course, in the professional interests of everybody involved to say another boom is happening, or about to happen. But consider the evidence, especially the two big new stand-up clubs.
Laugh Factory, the Los Angeles comedy institution, has sunk what has to be millions into prettifying (and bringing up to code) the former down-at-the-heels Lakeshore. It's in a "soft-open" phase now and will do its official grand opening in mid-June, perhaps with Tim Allen headlining, said owner Jamie Masada.
Masada, famous for having Richard Pryor as his first act at the Los Angeles club he started as a teenager in 1979, said he's happy so much is going on in Chicago at the moment, suggesting a kind of critical mass is being created. Rising laughter lifts all rooms, or something like that.
"We want to be really hospitable," he said. "If somebody comes to Laugh Factory tonight, and you want to go to another club called Zanies tomorrow night, go there. If you want to go to another club from The Second City, enjoy."
The Second City room — it and Laugh Factory were planned without knowledge of each other, the principals say — is called UP Comedy Club, a 299-seat room that includes the former Booth One from the Pump Room, a throwback to Chicago's 1950s entertainment glamour. Second City owner Andrew Alexander said the city's sketch and improv granddaddy wanted into the stand-up business in part because the scene is showing "new life."
"I always felt that's a world we should be playing in," he said — no matter how much stand-up and improv performers in Chicago may remain separate tribes. "We just felt there was a good market for that."
Since opening early this year, UP hasn't been exclusively stand-up. Second City-developed sketch shows run there, as does the Tribune's "Chicago Live!" variety show (in a business and creative relationship between the Tribune and Second City).
But the weekends have tended to feature big stand-up acts, names made on network or cable television: Rhys Darby ("Flight of the Conchords"), Christopher Titus, Gary Owen. In a coming together of the alt scene and a new club, Nanjiani headlined there last weekend.
Another factor fueling new stand-up interest, though, is that comics are now able to sidestep such traditional methods of exposure. Where the 1980s boom owed a lot to cable television taking off, the current one can point to newer media.
"Audiences have been exposed to comedy in a little different way, through the Internet and through podcasts too," said Haas.
Being able to develop a name without having an HBO or Comedy Central special is changing the business, drawing new fans to stand-up and creating new stars, says Esposito, 30, who grew up in Western Springs and has been doing stand-up in Chicago for half a decade.
The old model, one Zanies adheres to, was host, a feature act and a headliner, and as long as they're all good, the names don't matter so much. People remember a good time at, say, Zanies, even if they don't remember the performers.
That philosophy, plus an unwillingness to start "papering the house" — giving away tickets to fill the room, as during the "great paper wars" of the 1990s — helped Zanies live while so many others died, Haas said.
But now YouTube clips are passed around. And the absolute explosion of comedian-led podcasts — stand-ups are proving to be the most adept at exploiting that new medium — is also cementing the stardom of certain performers.
"There's that name-draw aspect," said Esposito. "It's even bumping over to a lot of rock clubs." At the Vic next week, she pointed out, comic Reggie Watts headlines, a few days after Irish rockerSinead O'Connor performs.
And Marc Maron, arguably the leader of the stand-up podcasters, will be playing the Mayne Stage, a mostly music room in Rogers Park, for an extended run this summer. Earlier this year, the Sklar Brothers, stars of their own podcast, headlined at the Mayne Stage.
The city, these days, is almost a perfect town to do comedy in, said Brian Babylon, morning host at Chicago Public Radio's Vocalo 89.5 and a regular panelist on public radio's "Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me!"
"You can work a lot of stuff out and not have the pressures of the industry," not worry whether a network talent scout will be there and write you off for a new bit that doesn't work, Babylon said.
Babylon got his start at Jokes and Notes, when that club opened in 2007 near his Bronzeville home. But he said he and fellow African-American comics Buress and Deon Cole would "all talk about that, to really, really make it, you've got to make everybody laugh," Babylon said.
Jokes and Notes owner Mary Lindsey, a former co-owner at All Jokes Aside, said today's comics seem to agree: "There's a lot of cohesiveness with this generation of comics. They're starting to cross over. There's a lot of urban comics going north, and there's a lot of white comics coming south. I'm really excited about that and having a lot of fun with it."
Said Babylon: "You've got to know how to work the town. I get my swagger at Jokes and Notes. I get my witty edge at the hipster shows. And I get my mainstream at the Comedy Bar," the Thursday-Saturday venue in an Ontario Street nightclub downtown.
As for the big, newer rooms such as Laugh Factory, where he's already found work, "it's good practice on how to push your stage presence out," Babylon said.
The city, in whichever room, will let you know if it's working, he added.
"I always say, Chicago style is right in the middle, like that perfect bowl of porridge. If you're too New York, people can tell. If you're too LA, people can tell. Chicago gives you that across-the-board funny."
And now, it gives comics even more room to play. Jamie Burns, 23 from Florida, moved here and has already caught the eye of Masada at Laugh Factory, who is predicting big things for the redhead. Her decision to move here, Burns said, was partly a college semester spent studying with The Second City and partly "just knowing Chicago had options for me."