Last week the AV Club and The Onion held the third edition of their 26th Annual Comedy Festival and it was a week full of fantastic comedy in the windy city. This year the team at truTV jumped on board to be a part of the festival, and we took our team to Chicago to check out the events. Some festivals fall into the comedy camp category- very cohesive, you see the same people everywhere you go, and you can get badges. Other festivals fall into the events category- just some separate events at different venues within a city, with some common sponsors. The 26th Annual Comedy Festival is a bit of a hybrid– mostly separate events, but tied together by really fun nightly after parties on the rooftop of the Virgin hotel.
Tracy Morgan kicked off the fest in high style at the stunning Civic Opera House. After strong opens from Mark Theobald and Tracy Ashley, the 3500 seat theater rang out in thunderous applause and a standing ovation as Morgan took the stage. This is Morgan’s first national tour since the car crash that nearly killed him in 2014. The stage was set simply with a table and chair. While watching his opening acts perform, the crowd assumed that Morgan would perform seated, still recovering from his many injuries, but Tracy was strong and fit, and only sat down for brief periods of time during the hour plus performance.
Tracy addressed the accident right up front, with jokes about the crash and the settlement saying it could have been much worse– he could have been hit by a dirty furniture truck. Tracy said he broke bones in his face, broke his femur and was blind for a week after the crash, and talked about the people who checked in on him during recovery including a thieving uncle, and calls from some of the biggest stars in the world including Jay-Z, Mike Tyson, Eddie Murphy. Morgan crushed with every joke, with too many applause breaks to count, and of course another theater-shaking ovation at the end after he did about an hour and ten. The love that Tracy’s fans have for him is overwhelming and you could see it in their eyes as they walked out buzzing about how great Morgan looked, and how funny he was.
We weren’t able to hit up every show- we missed Reggie Watts, which we heard was electric, and couldn’t make it to see Cameron Esposito in front of a home town crowd. but we did check out Michael Che‘s set at Lincoln Hall.
Michael Che is a stand up powerhouse, and his name and his comedy should rank among the top 1% performing in the country. Che will absolutely sell out giant theaters in the very near future, so to see him in a rock hall like Lincoln Hall was exciting. The show was completely sold out, with a packed ground floor of standing fans that spilled through the doors and out into the bar area beyond. When comedy fans are willing to stand for a two hour show without getting restless, you know you’ve got a great show. There was also a packed out balcony with people sitting and standing five or six deep from the rail, many without any view of the stage but happy to just be in the room.
We hung out upstairs for most of the show and were treated to seeing Che sneak through the crowd to hang at the back bar and watch his opening act – local favorite, Brian Babylon– perform. The balcony was packed with Che fans, but they were so focused on the stage that nobody noticed him only a few feet behind them in the crowd.
Che took the stage and said he liked to address ‘the big thing’ in each town right up front- in this case- murder. He asked Chicago to stop killing each other and went on to cover a lot of ground- white women, the election, n-word issues, his sketches that never make the air on Saturday Night Live (hilarious! come on Lorne!), and he did some fantastic crowd work, particularly focusing on one poor soul in the crowd– Harrison– whose name will never be forgotten by anyone in the room. Harrison didn’t want to divulge what kind of porn he watches in secret, and that became a running thread throughout the rest of the hour. Harrison took a ton of hilarious abuse from Che, and he and his girlfriend were rewarded at the end of the show with Che inviting them up to join him to do shots. Che may be known for his weekly appearance on SNL’s Weekend Update, but it’s his stand up where he really rises above everyone else. He is undoubtably one of the strongest stage acts in the country today and was an outstanding pick by the Onion and AV Club.
The 26th Annual Festival also honored Chicago’s own with two slamming shows at famed rock club, The Hideout. This club is right out of some cool as fuck movie. It’s a house, in the middle of an industrial zone with nothing, but warehouses, factories and a Home Depot in the surrounding blocks, just a short walk from Old Towne. First of all, The Hideout is a house. A 100 year old balloon frame house that has been called The Hideout since 1934. This joint oozes history and rock and prohibition and you can smoke and drink out front before you pack into the showroom.
It was also the venue for two great shows- a writers showcase from the folks at Clickhole, and a show that we loved long before we got to watch it in person- 7 Minutes in Purgatory. Ian Abramson, a comedy child of Chicago who now lives in Los Angeles hosted the show that was basically born in Chicago. For those who don’t know, 7 Minutes in Purgatory takes comedians way out of their comfort zones by taking them off the stage. If you think performing in front of an audience seems scary- it is- but not half as scary as performing without one. Each of the comedians were brought onto the Hideout roof, given noise cancelling headphones, and asked to perform without hearing the crowd. Meanwhile a live camera feed was sent down to a giant screen on the stage where the comic would normally be. We saw hilarious sets from Joel Kim Booster, Colin Crawford and so many others, but it was Steven King who blew everyone away, and if you don’t know him already, find him, watch him and love him.
The Clickhole Writers Show was like nothing we’ve ever seen before- it wasn’t stand up, it wasn’t sketch, but more of an audio/visual performance that seemed to us like it was adapting written pieces for the live performance. There was no explanation of the event, although none was needed for the locals- they’ve seen the Clickhole writers do their thing at the iO in Chicago before. The rest of us caught on pretty quick. It’s storytelling, it’s Mad Libs, it’s interactive, it’s sketch as told through a narrative rather than acted out. There was a Mad Libs-like Legends of the Ring bit, a tribute to Gene Kelly, an emergency Pepsi brand management summit – “something terrible has happened…..To Pepsi”, a lizard man and more. The event had a very literary feel, and very experimental, almost like writers sharing their story ideas with the crowd to get some feedback- only with a nice little PowerPoint presentation to accompany it.
Both Hideout events were perfect compliments to the headliner shows, lending a very local feel to the festival. Adding to the local element were nightly shows on the rooftop of the Virgin Hotel, hosted by Ian Abramson and featuring local comics and some huge guests, Che and Chris Gethard and Daily Show writer Michelle Wolf.
Other events included a podcast event with one of our favorite New York comics, Chris Gethard, and a show at the Hideout with Jo Firestone, who is so in demand all over the country with one of our favorite Chicago comics- Martin Morrow. Also, Sarah Silverman‘s popular “& Friends” show was back at the Opera Center with the two greatest Todds in stand up- Todd Barry and Todd Glass.
Make sure you mark down on your 2017 calendars to save that first week in June, for Chicago.