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My Significant Other is painting the apartment. AGAIN. To clarify, she’s finishing the job she started before the temperature hit 100 degrees and stuck there for roughly 1.2 million weeks. The dog is having the worst day of her life, by the way. Every time SO climbs a ladder, she starts trembling. We think her former owners were abusive stilt-walkers. This has nothing to do with Ever Mainard and Rasa Gierstikas’ stand-up comedy showcase but have you ever tried to write a blog while a dog has an anxiety attack? Not to mention the paint fumes. I’m pretty sure they haven't affected my writing ability though. PINK RHINOCEROS LAP-DANCE HORCHATA. But back to Mainar and Gierstikas. Sh*t Show, their monthly comedy variety show is going gangbusters and they spoke with Our Town about the Chicago scene and more.

Our Town Why change format from traditional open mic to showcase?
Ever Mainard Numbers were low and Rasa and I knew we had to do something.
Rasa Gierstikas We wanted a fun atmosphere where new/seasoned comics felt welcome to perform without the fear of being judged and criticized.
EM We needed the change. We know people miss the open mic, but this is also such a fun, hip, unique show that people - comics and audiences- can be involved in. We have a grown man in a hot dog suit handing out Malort!! 

OT How did you get into stand-up?
RG I was always interested in it but had the worst stage phobia and relied on others to do comedy related things.  When I realized that people weren't always reliable, I decided it was time to suck it up and do stand up.
EM As a child, I really wanted to do something in comedy. When I set out, I wanted to be on SNL. Then as I got older, I started becoming more and more interested in stand up.

OT Ever, your ‘here’s your rape’ bit got a lot of attention. Can you talk about that?
RG Ever stole that from me.
EM I stole it from Rasa..... Well, the joke stemmed from an experience of being followed and being threatened. Of that bit that went viral, only a minute [was rehearsed]. The rest is just a riff.   
 
OT Obviously you think rape jokes have a place in stand-up. Are they always okay? Does it depend on the comedian? Their intention? 
EM Well, that joke started as a joke of being pursued and being threatened and then just morphed. I actually dislike rape jokes. Especially from men. Part of the reason why SH*T SHOW became a show is so we wouldn’t have to listen to poorly structured rape jokes time after time and then have the word "RAPE!" inserted for shock value. We get it. You're edgy.
 
OT What do you like/dislike about the Chicago comedy scene?
RG Like: Some of the people I've met.  Dislike:  Some of the people I've met.
EM I have to agree with Rasa.

OT Every single Chicago performer I’ve fallen for has left for Los Angeles. Are you going to abandon me too?
EM Sooner or later, but for now, I'll keep building here. 
OT That was cold, man.Tips for wannabe comedians? 
RG If this is really your passion, pursue it, but don't let other comics’ insecurities affect your confidence level.
EM Agreed. The first time I did ChUC (chicago underground comedy) a comic came up to me right before my set and said "You? How did YOU get this show?" I had a great set and then later became a cast member. You really just have to stick to what you're doing. It gets hard not to get sidetracked, but stick to it!

PINK RHINO OSTEOPOROSIS. I mean...go see their show at Shambles Bar. Last Friday of every month. 8 p.m.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," (Soft Skull press) is available for pre-order here. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez
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After ten years as a Cook County correctional officer, comedian Robert L Hines has begun to find the humor in his grueling former occupation. Now based in LA and performing stand-up across the country, Hines spoke with Our Town about his time as a jailer, his views on rape jokes and hecklers and why pain is comedy gold.

Our Town At first you were reluctant to talk about your work as a jail guard. Why?
Robert L Hines Well, it wasn’t a happy situation and it has nothing to do with the jailers, it has to do with the situation. These people have lost hope, and they feel like they have no other option than to go against the law. In your training, they tell you that you need a hobby because just doing that job itself will make you crazy, and you will hit a wall. So, I felt I needed to separate my stand-up [from] my jail life, because they had convinced me that if I gave the jail too much of myself, then there would be a time where I would burn out and wouldn’t be able to handle it. And I was not going to let anything like that get ahold of me. I don’t know if you know this, but generally black people will not get counseling. ‘I’m not gonna sit here and tell you my problems. It’s not your business.’ So to avoid all of those problems, I’m gonna keep this separate from this. Remember, I was at the jail for almost 10 years. I would end my shift at the jail, then change and go to the clubs. I left the jail in 2003, and I have only started doing the jail material in the last six months. So, it took some time—maybe, after you feel that you are no longer in danger— some time to look back and see the humor of the situation.

OT What convinced you to incorporate jail material into your act?
RLH A good friend of mine, Shay Shay—he’s a comedian, himself, he said I needed to share some of the pain I had, that pain was comedy gold, and that until I stopped being so stingy with it, I would never get the outcome I was looking for. But I was still pretty guarded. Then, last year I signed with new management, and my team said I was not really tapping into all the entertainment that I had to give. So, it was a combination of Shay and my management team both saying, ‘hey, listen, this is what’s funny, if you let it be funny.’ So, really in a very short amount of time, I have been dedicating a significant amount of my set to the jail material, and to my surprise, people are very interested. They are eating it up. It’s been outside of my own personal ability—outside of what I thought I could do. It has been amazing.

OT Why do you think audiences are interested in that material?
RLH I found that people are interested in what they have no experience with. There are a lot of misconceptions. For instance, people think you are relatively safe and separate from the prisoners. But, where I was, I was in direct contact with maximum security prisoners. So, I was in there alone with murderers and thieves and car jackers and I was unarmed. All I had was a black pen, a red pen, and a flashlight. Not the big-assed, ‘knock-a-bitch-out’ flashlight. No, no, no. I had the little ‘where’s my keys?’ maglite. From time to time the supervisors would say, “Officer Hines, why are you in there playing cards and dominos with those inmates?” And I would say, “Inmate? That’s my cousin. He’s got a name.”

OT Do you think getting to the audience to feel some of the things you felt—like getting them to feel scared or threatened— has anything to do with it?
RLH Definitely. That is a part of it, because that’s what you do when you are a storyteller. When I was a young stand-up, one of the things I learned from Bernie Mac is that the reason that this is an art is that you are painting a picture with words. The picture can go from being something beautiful to something horrific, and you need to understand that the words you use are very important. Like, he would say, “If you’re going to talk about a grape, I want to be able to taste the sweetness of the grape. I want you to be able to have rinsed the grape off and there still to be water on the grape. I want you to tell me every bit of your taste bud enjoying that grape. If you can’t do that, then you really can’t hang around me. You have to make that picture with your words.”

OT Who are your favorite comedians of all time?
RLH There are quite a few guys that make up the mosaic that is me. Some of the Chicago guys— Richard Belzer, Bernie Mac, Shay Shay, Daran Howard, Evan Lionel. Then there’s Eddie Murphy. And, of course, every black comic has a love affair with Richard Pryor, because he really changed the game. Before that, it wasn’t as theatrical. After him, everything was, you know— everybody was dramatic. And I also like Franklyn Ajaye quite a bit. When I was a young, like four or five, I would see guys on TV— like the Belzers and Franklyn Ajayes— and I would think, ‘That is the coolest job in the world. I want to do that.’ Because they would be so laid back, and so cool, and so happy on stage.

OT What are your thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding Daniel Tosh’s rape joke?
RLH I think that when you go to see Daniel Tosh, you are going to see Daniel Tosh, and you should expect that it is going to be sort of nasty, or mean, or whatever. I mean, you don’t go to a demolition derby and complain because there are cars smashing into each other— it’s just nonsensical. And I also believe that he has the right to say anything that he wants to say. But, I think that there is also a price to be paid for that freedom of speech. Okay, so it’s like the NBA player who was an ambassador for the league who said that he was, uncomfortable with, quote unquote, fags. So, you can say whatever you want to say, but the NBA can also do whatever they want to do behind it. So, when you make certain statements, you should be prepared for the backlash. My personal thought? There’s nothing funny about rape, so that’s not part of my act. For me, as a stand-up, I want you to leave my show happy. I want everybody to get laid after they get through seeing me. And I want all that sex to be consensual.

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I’m on my book tour, writing from a hotel in downtown Atlanta where I paid twenty bucks for a salad and my waiter told me that if you’re too nice to a stripper she’ll follow you home from the club like a ‘lost pup.’ You know what I could use right now? A personalized comedy roast.

Luckily, Cayse Llorens has my back. The brains behind CelebTango, Llorens aims to bring personalized comedy into your home (or in my case, freezing cold hotel room). While CelebTango also offers live comedy shows, Llorens says digital CelebTangos are more popular. Why?

“It’s a blast to interact with a star on the big screen,” says Llorens. “The comedian can be a headliner in L.A. who just performed at The Laugh Factory and they can step backstage and rock your party in Chicago. Your brother in D.C. can login and be a part of the fun. Oh yeah, and your sister who’s studying abroad in France can be the birthday girl you’re all there to roast. Afterwards, you can all keep a copy of the whole digital show to watch over and over or email it to grandma in Fort Lauderdale.”

Sounds great. Now can someone airlift me in a carrot that doesn’t cost 82 dollars?

Our Town What inspired you to form CelebTango?

Cayse Llorens Three of my favorite comedians performed at my birthday party in my apartment for my family and friends. The experience was magical: personal, interactive, and just an awesome new way to experience a live performance. My dad was basically heckling the comedians, but they loved it and incorporated him into the show. It was awesome, and every comedy club I went to after that left me craving the personal experience we had enjoyed at my party. I knew then that I had to share this experience with the world.

OT Why go through CelebTango when you could just go to a comedy club?

CL Imagine sitting in your living room watching a Dave Chappelle blu-ray on your 50 inch LCD T.V. Suddenly Dave comes alive and starts calling you by your name, teasing you about your abnormal fear of baby corn, and joking about the purple couch you’re sitting on. You joke back and you’re actually part of the show! Now imagine keeping an HD quality copy of the experience to share with your family and friends [so] you can show them a personal comedy experience you had with your favorite celebrity. That’s the magic of CelebTango.

OT How do your comedians customize their sets for a particular paying customer?

CL All of our customers fill out a simple questionnaire that we share with their Celeb. When the Tango happens, our comedians already know what really tickles your funny bone, what topics to be sure to include and what sensitive subjects to avoid.

OT What’s in it for the comedian?

CL It’s fun, convenient, and a great new source of income for both hilarious rising stars and world-renowned A-Listers alike. Fun because for the first time they can make a room full of people laugh until they cry through our sophisticated yet easy to use group video chat technology. Convenient because our comedians can perform a professional, celebrity-grade Tango from anywhere in the world with a laptop and high speed internet connection. New source of income because right now there are a lot of very talented comedians who basically only do 1 show a night, only on Friday and Saturday, and sacrifice a lot of opportunities across town or in another city. CelebTango empowers them to rock parties in LA, Chicago, the U.K., and Podunk Idaho all in the same night!

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Photo by Elizabeth McQuern

Comedy producer Nellie Huggins is a comic’s best friend. Not only has she produced comedy shows for the likes of mainstays The Lincoln Lodge and Mayne Stage, but she covers comedy for Gapers Block and has just started a new podcast series designed to showcase comedians and performers. She spoke with Our Town about her favorite comedians, the art of producing and why she’s a comedy nerd.

Our Town You self identify as a comedy nerd. What’s so interesting about comedy?
Nellie Huggins Oh God, everything. Comedy is one of the few mediums that everyone can relate to, regardless of language, age, gender, cultural background. It’s a universal language. We are born knowing how to laugh. We can say things through comedy that we may not otherwise be able to say. I believe that just like some people are born with a musical ear, some people are born with an ear for comedy.

OT Who are your favorite stand ups and why?
NH So many. Janeane Garofalo has been my favorite since I was 12. I used to sneak out of my room late at night to watch her specials. I love how smart and unapologetic she is. Currently, I love Maria Bamford, Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, Louis CK and Kristen Schaal so much. There’s something to be said for nerdy, awkward, honest, raw, smart comedy, and I’m grateful that they exist. Local comics Dan Telfer, Candy Lawrence, Ever Mainard and Kelsie Huff blow my mind every time I see them. They are definitely the future of comedy.

OT I ask everyone who cares about comedy this: Was Bridesmaids funny?
NH I can understand both sides of the argument from an objective standpoint. Me personally? I loved it, saw it twice in the theater and own it on DVD. I love Kristin Wiig and Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy and that entire supporting cast. It was so refreshing to see these smart, beautiful women on the screen doing things that, ten years ago, would have never worked. I like when anyone pushes a boundary and the humor in that movie resonates with my own. I guess my answer to this question is yes, Bridesmaids was funny.

OT How did you get started producing stand up showcases?
NH Kind of on accident. A friend of mine was performing in a local showcase and they were looking for new producers. She referred me because she thought I would enjoy it, and she was right! I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but I loved it instantly. Once I had a few shows under my belt, I started producing my own one-off’s and I haven’t stopped! [I do] concept, development, marketing, booking, promoting. Everything from the idea of a show to the execution of a show.

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After much deliberation and only one fist fight, my co-judge Micki LeSueur and I have chosen the winner of The Our Town Blog's First Annual Short Story Contest. Behold his tremendous...story.

The People of the State of Illinois Vs. Andy Walquist
by Michael McCauley

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let me begin my closing argument by commending the Prosecution.

Bang up job, fellas. First-rate.

Dear jury, though I have only the faintest understanding of the law, I can see that these attorneys have delivered an airtight case against me. I almost regret waiving my right to professional counsel. Make no mistake, I maintain my not-guilty plea, but hypothetically speaking, I would have serious doubts about my innocence if I were you. I would therefore be required to find myself guilty.

Here’s where I throw a wrench in the gears: the law kind of doesn’t apply to me.

You may recall a certain Captain Sullenberger, aka “Sully,” who captured the country’s heart and imagination when he flew an airplane into the Hudson River. Now, tell me, is it legal to fly airplanes into the rivers and lakes of this fair land? Of course not. A critical distinction exempted Sully from penalty—he was hero.

And so you the members of the jury must ask yourselves: am I not a hero?

I defy you to interpret the events of the morning of October 23, 2011 as anything other than a case study in heroism.

Let’s review.

I was driving westbound on West 63rd Street, adjacent to Chicago Midway International Airport, in a 2009 Nissan Frontier, beige. I had no destination in particular; I was simply enjoying a leisurely cruise and a cocktail—a bottle of the popular carbonated malt liquor product Mike’s Hard Lemonade. In other words it was a Sunday morning like any other, until I saw overhead, at approximately 8:31 AM, a descending jet whose landing gear appeared defective. The nosewheel had emerged only halfway from its well.

Responding to a powerful and urgent sense of duty, I swerved across the eastbound lanes, motored up an embankment, through a chain-link fence, and onto the airfield. The idea was to accelerate down the runway and overtake the doomed jet such that the pilot could guide the nosewheel into the bed of my truck.

The Prosecution contends that I was never within three football fields of Southwest Flight 332. They’ve tried to color the event as a maniacal joyride taken by a newly divorced, recently unemployed powder keg.

Poppycock. One-hundred-percent balderdash.

Although, yes, Peggy ended our marriage and disappeared with the girls. Also, a tip: no matter how furiously you type when your boss walks by, if he sees that your computer isn’t turned on he’ll know you’re not really working.

Impossibly bad luck dictates that no bystanders observed the rescue attempt quite as I experienced it. At least none came forward to testify on my behalf. I do have a witness, however. His name his God. He had better things to do this week than appear in criminal court, but I promise you, he will corroborate my account in a court of prayer.

I merged from the airfield turf and onto the tarmac at a speed of 70 miles-per-hour, achieving a maximum of 120 in mere seconds. Flight 332’s data recorder reported a landing speed of 140 knots. Not very likely. I remind you that while the flight recorder reports the performance of the aircraft, the FAA has yet to implement a device that monitors the flight recorder. I’m saying it must have been broken. For I converged upon the aircraft rather quickly. Too quickly, in fact: I was beneath its tail before I could sufficiently reckon with the physical and psychic enormity of my objective.

So I hesitated. I let the jet gain five-hundred feet. I would have aborted the mission altogether if something in the rearview mirror hadn’t caught my attention.

I saw fear, which instantly turned to shame, as fear often does when recognized.

“How dare you,” I said to my reflection. “How dare you think about yourself at a time like this. What about the passengers on that plane? The grandmas, nuns, nurses, teachers, substitute teachers, veterinarians, social workers, and babies? They need you. They need your Nissan Frontier.”

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If you haven’t heard of The Retar Crew your life is meaningless. Okay, maybe not meaningless but definitely lacking in dick jokes and Shakespearian influenced Hip-Hop. While Retar Crew members The Q Brothers created Chicago hit Funk it UP About Nothin (by the q bros/CST/Richard Jordan productions), an urban “hip-hoptation” of the Bard’s classic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, The Retar Crew as a whole is perhaps more famous for the internet sensation "No Homo." But whether updating Shakespeare or slyly skewering the same people who embrace their music, The Retar Crew remains fresh, silly and unexpectedly shrewd. This May, all four members are involved in the much anticipated Othello The Remix which goes up at London’s Globe Theater, but first, member Jackson Doran spoke with Our Town about humor both high and lowbrow.

Our Town How did you get involved with Funk it UP About Nothin’?
Jackson Doran In 2007 I was freestyling drunkenly at a party to the repeat of the Napoleon Dynamite DVD menu when another guest joined me and basically slaughtered me with his skills. I never saw the gentlemen again until about a year later, I was drinking bourbon by myself at my local pub and noticed another fellow a few stools down also drinking bourbon alone.  It was the same guy from the party.  I was like, "JQ?" and he was all, "Jackson?" and for the next two hours we proceeded to play the Megatouch game where you are a polar bear trying to hit a fish as far as you can with a baseball bat.  JQ remembered I could "rap" and that I was a struggling Chicago actor.  He had written a play with his brother, Funk It Up About Nothin,' which adapted Shakespeare into hip hop. JQ said he would get me an audition and I [told] him not to blow smoke up my ass.  Two days later I got a call from Chicago Shakespeare.

OT What makes Shakespeare and Hip Hop such a good fit?
JD Shakespeare and rap actually use many of the same poetic and rhetorical devices.  GQ always says if Shakespeare were alive today he would be a rapper.  

OT How do you go about transforming Shakespeare?
JD J and G as "The Q Brothers" write the hip-hop adaptations of Shakespeare.  They go through and translate line by line to make the whole play into rhyming couplets. From there, the play goes through anywhere from 20 to 40 drafts. [It’s] transformed into a new conceptual rap form of the same story, usually a condensed version and very fast paced.  Since this style of theater is relatively new, the form is being adapted as we create more pieces.  
 
OT And The Retar Crew grew out of your experiences doing the show?
JD While in Edinburgh [where Funk It Up About Nothin,' won best musical at the Fringe Festival] JQ and I began writing little refrains about our experiences abroad--the Fringe Fest is a pool of art and debauchery. When we returned, out of depression and boredom, we began to develop our little ditties into real songs. We asked JQ's brother GQ and their long time collaborator and friend, Postell Pringle to write verses on the songs.  After six months we had ten tracks about sex and drinking to complete an album. The Retar Crew* was formed.

OT I have to ask how you got your name and, seriously, why?
JD The first time JQ and GQ let me come on stage for their set at  Lollapolooza-- they perform at the kids stage every year--I rapped about having fun and getting crazy and rocking the mic real hard. Then in front of hundreds of kids I almost rhymed "hard" with "retard" and stopped myself before I could finish the ‘d.’  We never mention or write about mental disabilities and indeed one of our mission statements has become to kill the stigma and hate that words can cause. We are against political correctness and stretch the boundaries of appropriateness in a satirical way.  Needless to say its been a rough road trying to go mainstream.

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I’m at it again, trolling Twitter. This time Matt Trupia caught my eye. A writer and performer with sketch comedy group The Backrow, Matt also boasts a presence on the Chicago literary scene, having contributed to online literary magazines Hobart and fictionatwork.com. However it was his endlessly witty Twitter feed that sealed my deal. (That sentence sounds like the result of a computer program designed to generate clumsy and inaccurate sexual euphemisms.)

Here’s a sampling (of Matt’s tweets, not of clumsy and inaccurate sexual euphemisms although the phrase ‘Matt’s Tweets’ sort of sounds like a clumsy and inaccurate sexual euphemism. But now everything kind of sounds that way. Like when you start thinking about breathing and suddenly you’re aware of every inhale and exhale and then you think maybe your throat is beginning to close up. Am I still typing?)

Ahem, Sampling:

“I find the angle at which the mailman approaches my mailbox to be a little too confrontational for my tastes.”

“Spring: When it becomes 70% harder to pretend your neighbors are dead.”

Does two count as a sampling? Maybe just a samp.

Regardless, after a brief perusal I knew I’d found April’s Chicago Crush!


Full Name: Matt Trupia
Hometown: Nyack, New York
Profession: I design and write online training courses for a software company by day. But by night...I am probably doing some laundry and catching up on "Breaking Bad."
Hobbies: I write for a blog with some great Chicago writers and performers on http://bitcity.tumblr.com. I write fiction when I can, and sketch comedy with the group The Backrow. I also tweet under @Tamalehawk, which is great because you can do it fully prone on your couch. What else...judging people? Is that a hobby? Really feels like it.

Our Town When did you first realize you were funny?
Matt Trupia Maybe like college. I started doing improv, sketch, and writing plays. College is a great microcosm where you can feel confident and accomplished without having really earned the right to feel either.

OT How has becoming a parent changed your sense of humor?
MT Kids are pretty naturally hilarious in my opinion. They think and say really direct and random things, which I find kind of mirrors the nature of a stand-up comic. They are always trying to get you to laugh or convince you of something. It’s opened up my sense of humor some. I have to try a little harder to stay spiteful; an interesting challenge.

OT What’s the secret to good sketch comedy?
MT I look for the mix of emotions you can pack into a sketch. Moments when a character is being sincere, or earnest, or really driven often create the most memorable sketches. I hate when characters are just boring vessels for jokes and have no real or relatable point of view. Also editing. Trying to make every line either really necessary or funny--ideally both.

OT Worst improv experience?
MT One show a random guy was sitting in with us and he jumped on my friend's back with no warning and they both fell onto the leg of a person in the front row. I think I just straight up apologized. And then of course, plenty of deafening silences that make you want to unzip the earth and crawl into the void. But that kind of thing makes the good moments that much sweeter, right? Please say right.

OT Get writer-ly with me, why write in second person?  
MT I think that comes from my sketch comedy background, where you are usually aiming for a faster pace and impact. So I wind up trying to write fiction that has a performative quality. The first and second person can have an immediacy that is fun to read out loud.

OT You’re reading April 2nd at The Whistler. What can we expect?
MT You can expect to see three other superior writers: Amelia Gray, Tupelo Hassman, and Lindsay Hunter. It's a Featherproof Book release show for Amelia's terrific new novel, Threats. I will have something new written for that. If I had a poster for my reading, though, it would probably read “More Of The Same!” I’m really into my comfort zone these days. Maybe by 2015 I’ll be using multiple characters and basic narrative structure. Baby steps.

OT Describe your perfect day.
MT Definitely an open weekend day with my family. A languid breakfast that seamlessly transitions to an interesting and easily-assembled lunch, with frequent animated discussions about dinner. Seeing some friends and avoiding strangers. Not standing in any kind of line. Concluding with butterscotch.

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Chicago-based author Alan Goldsher is a renaissance man. Author of a growing catalogue of “remix” novels, spoofs that mix classics and zombies or in Goldsher’s case, Von Trapps and Vampires, Goldsher also finds time to ghost write, play standup base and mock Lady Gaga. Tonight at 8:30 p.m. he’ll hit iO Theater to celebrate the release of two new novels, A Game of Groans: A Sonnet of Slush and Soot, and Give Death a Chance: The British Zombie Invasion 2 with an night of reading and improvisational comedy. He spoke with Our Town first.

Our Town To what do you attribute the growing popularity of the (usually) supernatural mashup/parody genre?
Alan Goldsher The simple fact that the books are out there.  Mashups -- or, as Team Alan calls mine, remixes -- likely would have been embraced several years ago, had they been in the marketplace, but few major publishers would take a chance on that sort of thing.  As is the case with new a musical sub-genre, it took an indie company to test the waters, then, once the big publishers realized readers would embrace that kind of goofiness, the floodgates opened.  And I mean floodgates in a (mostly) good way. [Also], young adult readers seem to have gravitated to the books, and Y.A. is arguably the smartest, coolest, and trend-making-est demographic in the industry.  Publishers know this, and will take a shot on a mashup in hopes that it could be the next, um, er, Paul Is Undead.

OT What initially attracted you?
AG I dig writing humor, I dig writing horror, and I dig writing about pop culture, and doing something like Paul Is Undead or Give Death a Chance gave me the opportunity to kill three birds with two books.

OT What about zombies? They’ve been off in the corner for decades, why have they recently come to the fore?
AG I could get all philosophical and discuss how zombies represent the id, and in today's America -- what with its wobbly economy and simmering class war -- people can't help but embrace the ugly part of themselves when it comes to entertainment, because they aren't allowed to get that ugly in their day-to-day lives.  Truth is, for me, zombies are a wonderful entity to play with because, unlike vampires, the undead don't have a set mythology, so a writer can do with them what they will.

OT Your new book pits Lady Gaga against the zombie Beatles. What parts were particularly fun to write?
AG Gaga takes herself too damn seriously, so it was a blast to mess with her, and, given the opportunity, I'd do it again, and I don't care if she knows it.  Truth is, Give Death a Chance is just a novella, so I didn't spend too many pages trashing her, because I had to give equal time to making fun of Madonna, Eminem, Justin Timberlake, Lil Wayne, Oasis, and obstructionist Republicans.

OT Fictionalizing public figures vs creating fictional characters, discuss.
AG When I fictionalize a public figure, I fictionalize the hell out of them.  I mean, if you want to see Paul McCartney being Paul McCartney, you can pop over to You Tube, so what's the point of making a fake McCartney act like the real McCartney?  When you do parody, you heighten and exaggerate -- e.g., the real McCartney spends a surprising amount of time talking about sales figures, so my Zombie McCartney is flat-out obsessed with them -- whereas when you create an original character, it's all about realism.  There's little real about my undead Beatles.

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Abraham Levitan’s show compels me, which is why I’m writing about it, but it also confuses me so I’ll let him explain.

Our Town So what's the show's premise?
Abraham Levitan I'll try to explain this as simply as possible, which is a little tricky in the case of Shame That Tune. Each show features three contestants, who come onstage one at a time for about 10 minutes each. First, they spin a Wheel-of-Fortune-style wheel, divided among various musical sub-genres. (Recent categories include R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet", Dixie Chicks, Twisted Sister, and Glenn Miller.) Then the contestant spends 3 minutes telling an embarrassing anecdote -- the best contestants usually read straight from a junior-high diary. Then my co-host, Brian Costello (who's a novelist, Reader contributor, and drummer in a great band called Outer Minds), interviews them for 4 minutes. And at the end of the interview, I perform a song about their anecdote, in the style chosen by the wheel. At the end of the whole show, the audience votes for its favorite contestant, via a Human Applause-O-Meter.

OT How was the show conceived?
AL I have a little bit of a history doing these instant-response songs -- I used to do them for a reading series at The Hideout called The Dollar Store, and I've done them for a few WBEZ events too. Meanwhile, Brian used to have his own live talk show at the Empty Bottle. So, it's kind of a fusion our backgrounds. We wanted to make it a game show because we feel like there are already a large number of awesome reading series in Chicago, and this was our way of doing something distinctive.

OT You have a number of regulars—what does each person bring?
AL Aside from Brian and me, we have two regulars onstage at all times. Our intern is played by Jeanine O'Toole (The 1900's, Bare Mutants, and a host of other bands/projects). In her other projects, Jeanine is confident and charismatic. But on this show, she plays a bumbling intern, incapable of adjusting a mic stand without turning it into a huge physical-comedy event. She's excellent. It's basically a non-speaking role. Our other regular, a new addition, is Nick Rouley, a Chicago stand-up. He plays the Life Coach, who guides our contestants with some very West Coast-flavored self-help shtick. He also lights incense sticks when the guests are running long with their stories -- sort of our version of the orchestra starting to play at the Oscars.

OT What’s it like to have to write a song in four minutes?
AL You'd think it would be stressful -- but I actually don't feel that way. The song was written in four minutes -- of course it's gonna be terrible! Any time I start to clam up, I just think, "This is supposed to be really bad," and things start moving again. I also have two cocktails beforehand, which is helpful.

OT How are contestants chosen?
AL Initially they were drawn from our circle of friends -- mostly fellow musician dudes/dudettes, since both Brian and I play in bands. As the show has grown, we've had more stand-up comics as contestants, which is awesome. Whenever we have a contestant on the show, we ask them for recommendations for future contestants.

OT Why tell teenage anecdotes?
AL Most of our contestants are in their 30's, with maybe a little spillover into late 20's, early 40's, etc. By this point in the game, the hope is that we can laugh at our adolescence. Or, if we're still traumatized by it, maybe reading about it in public can be a kind of exorcism. I guess from the pure comedy perspective, adolescence is the most direct shot to embarrassment.

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Recently Salon.Huffington/Slate-Gawker.Jezebel ran a piece claiming that the average Valentine’s day celebration costs upwards of $400 dollars. (XoJane was too busy live blogging a pill-popper’s death rattle, out fat-accepting Nomi Lamm and posting dispatches from asexuals who promote egregious footnote abuse to weigh in.)

To me such extravagance feels smarmy and overwhelming although I did just start Netflixing Gossip Girl for the first time and watching Blake Lively flit around the upper east side being hoarse and vaguely Grecian is enough to make Gandhi sneak out to buy a pair of Tori Burch flats. And I’m no Gandhi. (God, I say that all the time!)

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Really though, the point of Valentines Day is not profligacy, the holiday’s purpose is much more exceptional, far more significant: Valentine’s Day’s sacred function is to allow me to buy as much glittery pink heart adorned clothing and jewelry as possible. Also to provide me with a blog topic and here we go.

Sure it’s Valentine’s Day but that doesn’t mean you have to go the expected route, reserving a table at Blackbird and burying your significant other under mounds of Margie’s Candies. Instead I’ve made you a list of personalized alternatives.

Valentine’s Day Roundup (Off the Beaten Path Edition)

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1. If you grew up wanting to star in (insert one) The Red Shoes/Save the Last Dance/Saturday Night Fever: This weekend River North Dance Chicago’s Harris Theater engagement offers two world premieres, "The Good Goodbyes" featuring choreography by RNDC Artistic Director Frank Chaves as well as the first U.S. commission by Italian choreographer and Artistic Director for Spellbound Dance Company, Mauro Astolfi, entitled "Contact-Me."

River North Dance Company member Lauren Kias says this weekend’s premieres are “based around love and passion.” Specifically, “Good Goodbyes” she says “is a warm and cheerful piece celebrating relationships we have with very special people in our lives. Sultry and romantic pieces by Sidra Bell and Frank Chaves, a comedic scat driven solo by Robert Battle and a intense suite of tangos choreographed by Ruben and Sabrina Veliz round out the six piece Valentines day performance.”
Visit rivernorthchicago.com to learn more.

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All Photos by Jill Howe

Scott Whitehair believes in the spoken word. Not spoken word as in a sullen Barnes and Noble cashier’s twenty minute poem about her vagina, although who knows, he might be into that. Whitechair believes in the stories we tell each other, their distinctiveness but also their universality. For three years, his reading series “This Much is True” has compelled enthusiastic audiences to pack The Hopleaf. Our Town spoke with Whitehair about the mounting popularity of reading series in general, and what makes his unique.

Our Town What inspired “This Much is True?”
Scott Whitehair About four years ago, I took a solo workshop at The Annoyance Theater with a wonderful instructor, Paula Killen. Still buzzing from the rush of our performance, a few of us decided it would be fun to continue. We were nomadic at first, just drifting around doing random performances in various coffee shops, some of which would attempt to close for the night before our show was finished. Over the years, we lost some original members and gained some new ones, before landing at The Hopleaf in 2009. Our first shows there were populated by close friends, spouses, and people who owed us money. Currently, we get to standing room only almost 45 minutes before the show starts, which blows our minds every month. A lot has changed, but our goal as a group has remained fairly consistent: tell quality personal stories in an inviting, intimate environment. Also, we love bringing guests in on the fun, and have been blessed with some outstanding featured performers from all corners of the Chicago creative community.

OT What separates yours from other Chicago series?
SW Our audiences make this show special. They are, hands down, the best audiences I have ever been in front of. Not only are they attentive and enthusiastic, but they also have a strong sense of community. We do our part by making the show welcoming and accessible. We want this evening to feel like a gathering of old friends, even if it is your first night joining us.

OT In terms of content, how does a spoken story differ from a story meant to be read alone?
SW There is a huge difference between the written word and oral language. Words are just one element of the told story, arguably no more important than tone of voice, gestures, body language, facial expressions, etc. With the written word, the reader is in control of the experience, alone with the text on his or her own time. However, with storytelling, the experience is much more immediate and collaborative. It is impossible for the storyteller to be absent from the equation in the way that a novelist is. I will say, though, that the written word is definitely easier to bring along to the beach.

OT You’ve studied improv—is there an improv element to successfully articulating a story to a live audience?
SW Absolutely. Storytelling is a conversation, and to ignore what you are getting from the audience is to miss the whole point, in my opinion. The connection and relationship between the teller and the audience dictates the flow of the story. Really, a story should almost never be told the exact same way twice, as every audience is going to have different needs and desires, and a unique energy it brings to the table.

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Photo by Billy Bungeroth

Katie Rich and Kate Duffy began writing together while traveling the country for The Second City's National Touring Company. Now, along with director Irene Marquette, the two bring their incisive talent to iO Chicago. Billed as The Mary Kay Letourneau Players Present..., their sketch show tackles everything from working-class girls recovering from a weeknight bender, to the fallout from a facially disfiguring monkey attack. Our Town spoke with Rich and Marquette about--what else?--writing and comedy.

Our Town How did you and Kate realize you had writing chemistry?
Katie Rich We toured together for Second City and when we [were] asked to write scenes individually, it got to the point where we were always saying, "We should probably just write this together." I knew any idea I had, Kate could make even better.

OT Take me through the process of writing a scene.
KR Kate and I also do a lot of our writing when we hang out. We will be chatting about something bugging us or something in the news and one of us will realize, "Holy sh*t, I think we just wrote a scene." Our show is a combination of scenes written the more traditional way, getting an idea and sitting down at the computer and banging it out, and scenes created through improvisation during our late night Sunday show at Second City.

Irene Marquette We had a fair amount of lead-time to discover the scenes. After each [Second City] show we talked about themes, individual scenes and characters. Scenes we really liked were transcribed. From there they were altered, improvised again and revised. We ended up with a massive amount of material that we began funneling into what became Mary Kay Letourneau Players Presents... We always knew we wanted to comment on celebrity, tabloid culture and human interest stories and we filtered everything through our belief that "everyone is one or two bad decisions away from disaster.”

OT Kate, ever have nights performing when you felt the audience wasn’t with you? As a performer how do you deal with that?
KR Many nights the audiences are tired, drunk, distracted, Republican, you name it. I like to find one person in the audience who is enjoying the hell out of our stuff and pretend I'm doing the show for just him or her. It's usually an older man who reminds me of my dad. Or a kid that is blown away just to be there.

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Photo by Patty Michels

In 2006 I moved from Los Angeles to Chicago to attend graduate school and right away the city seemed a perfect fit. Sure, I spent nine months out of the year shivering at bus stops or worse, wearing a down vest in my own freaking apartment, but have you seen the glazed expression that passes for affability in LA?

I don’t do fake, I don’t do easygoing and I certainly don’t do Sasquatch boots with shorts. So while LA does have its benefits (warm weather, content-less conversation, the possibility of running into Liz Phair at ArcLight (which totally happened to me—double parenthesis!--)), Chicago feels like home.

Yet since moving here, I’ve lost countless friends to the West Coast. This is not ironic, merely irritating. What with winter’s encroachment, I’m making it my mission to fight for our fair city. In that spirit, I’ve compiled the following list.

Things to Do in Chicago this December That Won’t Make you Decide to Move to LA:

1. Attend Nickel History: The Nation of Heat, New Etchings by Tony Fitzpatrick at Firecat Projects.
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Possibly my favorite aspect of living in Chicago, Fitzpatrick seems the ultimate Renaissance Man. A poet, writer, artist and actor, Fitzpatrick is the kind of prolific which usually requires methamphetamines, but as far as I can tell, Fitzpatrick is fueled by nicotine, dirty jokes and the sheer necessity of realizing his artistic vision.

In lieu of electing him mayor (which is actually my goal—the man has more intelligent things to say about politics (and zombies) than any “politician” out there), go see his gorgeous new work on display through Christmas. More information here.

2. Read the brilliant Sara Levine’s highly anticipated novel, Treasure Island!!!
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Okay, technically you could read this sardonic jewel in any location, but Levine is a growing presence in the Chicago literary scene; she belongs to the Windy City man. [Editor’s Note: The author meant to leave out that comma. She is in fact referring to a single entity known as The Windy City Man who she believes nests beneath one of her floorboards. Let’s not disabuse her, shall we?] Having crafted a protagonist as fascinating as she is morally questionable, Levine says, “The literature of malcontents is not without pedigree. Achilles brooded. Odysseus was a selfish jerk. And Dostoevsky's underground man—who'd pick his profile on Match.com? Bernhard, Beckett, Nabokov... obviously my heart belongs to the misfits and misanthropes and criminals.”

And my heart belongs to Sara Levine. Learn more about Treasure Island!!! here.

3. See "Let it Ho!"
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This burlesque-inspired revue features five of the funniest Broadz in Chicago showcasing an unaccountably rare combination of sex appeal and smarts. This year’s holiday show offers two new songs, fresh scenes and the same raunchy hilarity you’ve come to expect. I asked Broadz member Ricky Dickuless (Amanda Whitenack) what she likes about the holidays and she had this to say: “My favorite part is the Ham seasoning. Ham is a versatile and underrated dish. Ham can be served cold on bread or hot in a stew or at room temperature on my thighs to a single man looking for a free meal with benefits. I'm single. I'm lonely. And I have a freezer full of ham. My real number is (773) 484-5623.”

I’m totally setting her up with the Windy City Man. He likes Ham. For tickets to "Let it Ho!" go here.

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I’m a shell. A husk; all my sweet yellow corny bits gone, eaten, tossed aside at the end of some soulless street fest. You see I’ve lost sight of my purpose. Since launching my crush blog and my subsequent meteoric rise, crush suggestions have flown thick and fast. Where once I might follow a crush from Evanston to Pilsen, content only to stare at his back and perhaps tap him on the shoulder before ducking into a Dunkin' Donuts, now I wake sometimes to find crush wannabes camped out in my entryway.

People, crushes are about risk, the potential for public humiliation, sometimes a mild sedative and a telescope. If you prostrate yourselves at my feet and I eat a peeled grape then nod languidly in your direction, is it really a crush?

This month I decided to take a risk. I would renounce my influence, surrender control, I would do the twenty-first century equivalent of standing beneath my crush’s window blasting my boom box. I would tweet. But who to target approach?

In real life, crushes take root slowly. First you spot an attractive stranger at your local five and dime, next she’s cropping up at all your favorite haunts. What’s the online equivalent? I wondered, stepping over Rahm Emanuel, still sitting glumly on my front stoop. That’s when it hit me.
“Not now, Rahm,” I said, averting my eyes from his tattered “make me your crush” sign.
"But I ride the brown line!" He called as I locked the front door.
Back upstairs in my office, I toggled over to Twitter. Heart in my throat I tweeted:

@Zulkey Wanna be interviewed for The Sun Times Blog? This is my first PUBLIC crush request. Be honored.

Claire Zulkey. Blogger, author, critic and local performer. Increasingly, I’d seen her work at various web hangouts, linked to on Facebook, blogging for WBEZ, even moonlighting at Jezebel. Clearly Claire and I were meant to be.

An excruciating ten minutes later she responded:

@SarahTerez me! blush. Thank you--yes, crush on!

Just like that, I was back, adrenaline-fueled and dreamy, all because I took a chance! I encourage you, dear reader, to do the same.

Name: Claire Zulkey
Hometown: Evanston, IL
Profession: Editor's Assistant/Writer
Hobbies: Cooking, Reading, Travel, Chicago Sports, Running, Dogs

Our Town You’re pretty active on the Chicago scene. Tell me about the reading series Funny Ha-Ha.
Claire Zulkey Around 2003 my friend John Green (the future famous writer) and I were talking about how at literary readings, everyone always enjoys the funny pieces most and how it would be great to have a reading that was all funny, nothing serious or pretentious. People seem to enjoy the series despite my constant fear that everyone only comes to be nice and secretly resents me the whole time for passive-aggressively forcing them to attend.

OT So many writers go into writing so as never to speak to a live human being. How important are the increasingly ubiquitous live storytelling/reading series/ stand around having a persona events for a writer’s career?
CZ Unless you're a super famous important person and people are lining up to buy your book and have you sign it, I'm not sure you're very likely to build an audience based off reading appearances. However, I think building a coterie of like-minded people is integral to having a successful creative career and doing and attending readings is great for that. You need friends with whom you can have a beer and bitch about writing [without worrying] they're going to say "Must be nice having 'problems' like that."

OT What inspired your book, An Off Year?
CZ It began as a short story I wrote to entertain myself in an attempt to emulate this book I love called Celine by Brock Cole--it's about an idiosyncratic, strong-voiced female protagonist and I wanted to write a story like that. Over many years it mutated into a full book.

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Interested in witnessing live sex acts performed by incredibly attractive young singles within the romantic, dimly-lit confines of a dive bar in Logan Square? Then the Sunday Night Sex Show might not be for you, because we happen to be a bunch of nerdy literary hipsters telling drunk stories of ridiculous sexual exploits often gone hilariously wrong.

I full understand the appeal of a microwave dinner. TRUST ME, I totally do. Especially when eaten while snuggled in your pajamas, bathed in the glow of reality television. And Sunday nights are the perfect night for doing your deep-cleaning acne mask and changing the cat litter, but you really should get off the couch, comb the knots out of your hair, and put on a bra to come to the Burlington and hang out at our inbred hipster soiree. Here’s why.

1. It’s sexy.

Officially, The Sunday Night Sex Show is a reading series featuring true confessions about sex and sexuality! Sort of like Penthouse Forum, but intentionally funny Sometimes sad, often cringe-worthy, and always brutally honest. Robyn Pennacchia, the Sex Show founder, and I host this jam, and we answer anonymous love and sex questions from the crowd and give them the benefit of our sage advice between readers. And there’s trivia, and also sexy prizes.

2 It’s easier than trying to convince a hot person to go out with you.

You walk into the Burlington, which might be the least assuming place in the entirety of Chicago. You buy an inexpensive drink. (Seriously, a giant Jack and Coke is, like, four bucks or something.) There are crayons and paper lying around, and while at first that might seem awfully precious, once you use them to write your burning questions about potential lesbian threesomes and oversized testicles it becomes increasingly less so. Not a fan of human Barbie dolls being drooled over by your stepfather? Great, because everyone here looks exactly like you do. The last thing I ever want to do is stand in a room full of plastic surgery being ignored because there’s spaghetti sauce on my shirt, so I like to go to places where that kind of thing won’t happen to me. You’ll laugh at some readers, maybe find out the truth about digital stimulation, and if you’re a smartypants you could win a box of penis-shaped pasta or some edible underwear for properly answering some sexy trivia. And then you go home and resume your boring life, wondering how you ever got through the days before you met us. UNTIL NEXT MONTH.

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Photo by Anya Garrett (From left, Guilia Rozzi & Margot Leitman)

As a creative writing teacher, I’ve noticed some of my students self-censure their work into nonexistence, an approach I discourage. I tell them, only once you’ve unselfconsciously unloaded your thoughts onto the page should you call in your mental editor. I’m on the other end of the spectrum. A former teacher once advised me to “write everything. What else are you saving it for?” Insightful advice which I happily take, pajama-clad and typing in my dining room with only the dog as my witness. However, when my work finds a home online or in print I’m inevitably caught off guard. My uncensored words now public fodder, I’m suddenly accountable for something it seems like someone else wrote.

Back in college I wrote and directed a show called “Girl On Girl Action: An Evening of Theoretical Theory” which is the single stupidest name anything has ever had EVER. In fact, I just had to google it to make sure that was really what I called it. Theoretical Theory? How about Redundant Redundancy? What can I say; I was a women’s studies major…who apparently couldn’t speak English. So, I wrote this show, and performed it and later was recognized by a Big Lesbian On Campus who asked me to take part in this super sexual play she had created. And I sort of blushed and stammered and said I wasn’t sure I was comfortable. Her response? “Oh, c’mon. I saw your show. I know what you’re like.”

But she didn’t. She knew what I wrote, not who I am. I don’t think of my writing as particularly sexual, but then I don’t think of myself as bipedal or American either, still all that I am informs my writing, whether I notice or not. Writing about sexuality isn’t the only way to make oneself vulnerable, of course, however writer/performers willing to make public sexual musings seem brazen and brave.

This week Our Town is highlighting two different live readings: Stripped Stories, an East Coast phenomenon, and The Sunday Night Sex Show, conceived right here in Chicago. Stripped Stories, a hit NYC sex-themed monthly storytelling show has been playing to sold-out audiences since 2007. Guests have included award winning comedians as well as regular folks who have never set foot in front of an audience.

When I spoke with SS hosts Giulia Rozzi and Margot Leitman, I was curious to know how they handle the emotional ramifications of putting personal work onstage. For Rozzi there’s little conflict. “I'm an extremely open person,” she says. “On and off stage. If anything, I find it cathartic to spill my guts in front of people.” Leitman seemed slightly more cautious saying, “I will never perform something I am still broken up about or in the middle of; I don't use the stage as therapy. I would never subject an audience to some story I just "really need to get off my chest." I only work with material where there is humor in the pain because [of] distance.”

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The members of Chicago improv group, K.C. Redheart are masochists. There’s no other explanation for the press release I just received. Beginning August 26th at five p.m. they will improvise for thirty straight hours, and we’re all invited to watch. Throughout the marathon performance, the group will interact with tons of other Chicago improv groups and performers, creating kid-friendly shows during the day, and adult comedy at night. Our Town spoke with KC Redheart member Karissa Bruin about the impending event.

Our Town How did you come up with the idea for the Improv marathon?
Karissa Bruin Bill Stern, generally regarded as KC Redheart’s team captain, had done similar stunts with his improv groups back in Austin, TX and wanted to bring [the practice] to Chicago. We're a group of people that are game for anything, no matter how crazy. The marathon is a great and idiotic feat to pull off especially in the name of charity.

OT Right, proceeds benefit Namaste Charter School.
KB Namaste is a public charter school that has a focus on integrating wellness and health with academics. As a group, we're a pretty fit and athletic team. Margaret rows and cycles, Bill plays tennis, Nick plays soccer and George lifts and hits the gym regularly. We all have an athletic streak, so that's definitely the appealing thing about Namaste: it's not just brains, it's brains and brawn.

OT Which brings us neatly back to the marathon. How does one prepare for such a taxing event? Is there carb loading?
KB Mostly we just hoard energy drinks and protein bars. A lot of us will come to the marathon straight from work on Friday, so it ends up being quite the adventure. We also lean a lot on our loved ones and friends. Husbands, wives, girlfriends - those are the people that truly suffer. I sent many text messages last year to my fiancé "Um, could you pick up a ...." because when you're improvising and making up comedy for that many hours in a row, you get weird cravings. I guess it's like being pregnant. But with ideas and a desire to sleep.

OT How does one wind down?
KB Last year, we ended at midnight on a Saturday. I remember we were out in the parking lot and Dave was like, "Hey, we should go get a drink to celebrate," then immediately he said, "We can celebrate later." I think we all felt pretty zombified. I think I slept all day on Sunday.

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Micki LeSueur

Searching for a fun night out? Look no further than Fictlicious, a hot new reading series founded by Chicago writer Micki LeSueur. While Chicago abounds with live readings, Fictlicious offers a unique take on the concept, featuring both stories and music created around a specific theme. I spoke with LeSueur about Fictlicious’s inspiration and forerunners without once mentioning I’d recently referred to her as a French mouse. Oops.

Our Town How did you come up with the idea for Fictlicious?
Micki LeSueur For the number of talented writers in Chicago, there are surprisingly few fiction reading events. The ones that exist are great, but we couldn’t find one that meshed with all the different styles of the writers in our group, so we thought, why not create our own? For now, Fictlicious is quarterly and on August 16, we will have our second event at the Hideout. Our first show was in May at Lizard’s Liquid Lounge in Old Irving. We had about 50 people and the writers, musicians, audience, even the bar staff had a blast. Hopefully, we’ll stay around for a long time!

OT Why do you think story telling events are becoming so popular?
ML Salons featuring fiction have ebbed and flowed in popularity, possibly because good writers aren’t always good storytellers and good writers aren’t always good live readers. NPR’s This American Life can probably take credit for putting non-fiction story telling in the spotlight and making it attractive to a large-scale audience through exceptional story telling. Now, The Moth, a non-fiction story slam, is the most successful on-going event I know of, I think because it lifted the idea of competition from poetry slams. The slam component ensures that the storyteller engages the audience as opposed to just providing a stage for the storytellers. I think fiction writers [are learning] how to put on readings from the Moth or we’re all just sick of cable and Facebook and for entertainment, storytelling is about as old school as it gets.

OT What makes your event unique?
ML Fictlicious mixes original flash fiction and music based upon a single theme, different for each event. The stories are created to read aloud and the writing styles are varied – some of our writers read stories that are intricately crafted with layers of imagery and metaphor, while others are just well written yarns that amuse and entertain. We also feature at least three different professional music acts per event, with songwriters ranging from indie pop to rap, each with great stories to tell. We’re the only event that I know of where the songwriters are part of the story telling with music created specifically for the show.

OT What goes into planning/producing a storytelling event?
ML A lot of naïve optimism! I’m fortunate to know incredibly talented writers and musicians who love the concept and are excited to participate. Then it’s finding the right venue, working with the booker for the venue, and next, it’s tending to a lot of details – posters, websites, listing the event, following-up with the venue and artists. Then it’s all about promoting and getting the word out so we can keep it going. I need to make certain the event is rewarding for the artists and a great show for the audience. To keep it viable, once I finish the details for a show, I’m figuring out what to do for the next one. And now that word is spreading, I field inquiries from writers and musicians who want to participate and I need to make sure they’re the right fit.

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Erin Nekervis

I’ve been hearing about Cameron Esposito for a while now. Who was this funny woman, I wondered. And is I’ve been hearing actually grammatically acceptable? I’ve been hearing: It sounds like something the old goat farmer up the way might say. Cameron seems to appeal to the hipster lesbian demographic (See also blue, plastic 1980’s glasses, which forward thinker that I am, I was already wearing in the 1980’s.) so I decided to get close to Cameron, I’d better blend. This is a lengthy way of explaining why she opened the curtains to find me drinking PBR in her tree last night. Because Cameron is more than just a whip-smart comedian with an easy, and as it turns out, demographic-defying style, she agreed to do a quick interview before she called the police.

Full name: Cameron Anne Young Anastasia Esposito (for real)
Hometown: Western Springs, IL
Profession: Standup comic/circus ringmaster
Hobbies: yelling instructions at the screen while watching action movies; making delicious meals from various useless household food scraps (think red pepper banana pancakes, Reese's peanut butter cups dipped in salsa)

Our Town What was your first joke?
Cameron Esposito Something about how I dated a very tall Asian man in high school. [It] relied on well-placed Yao Ming reference.

OT What’s the biggest difference between being a novice comedian and a veteran performer?
CE Understanding how much work you have ahead of you. Newer comics tend to think Letterman is a year away and a lucrative film career around the corner; the longer you perform the more you are humbled.

OT With your course Feminine Comique, you teach women how to write jokes but not how to be funny. What’s the difference?
CE Jokes come from truth, from the strength of our opinions about the world. Some folks will always be funnier than others; it's inborn. But you can teach the recognition and conveyance of truth.

OT
Teach me how to write a joke.
CE Had someone say something rude to ya on the train? Write it down immediately or text yourself the hurtful comment. Add context to explain that you were just riding the train, being cool. Make sure to hang onto that feeling of being wronged. Get up at an open mic and rage. Refine wording and destroy with joke at a booked show. That rude person may never hear your come back, but you just got paid to tell it, so you win!

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Long before storytelling events bloomed like dandelions across the US, Chicago’s Fillet of Solo Festival was on the scene. Now in its fifteenth year, the festival is, according to Lifeline Theatre artistic director Dorothy Milne “a treasure trove of talent.” This year’s three-week event, running July 21st through August 7th features performers like Jenny Allen, Jimmy Doyle, Julie Ganey and even New York artist James Braly. Our Town spoke with Milne about her work on Fillet of Sole as well as her own storytelling group, The Sweat Girls.

Our Town How has FOS changed over time?
Dorothy Milne It started small and got really big. Live Bait was running the thing all summer in two spaces with twenty-four participating storytellers by the time it closed in 2008. Sharon [Evans, Live Bait's Artistic Director] wanted the Festival to continue and approached me with the idea that Lifeline take over production. As a long-time fan of the festival and a regular storyteller there with my solo collective, Sweat Girls, and with Lifeline being a new work theater, as Live Bait had been, it seemed a perfect fit. After a year of hiatus, Live Bait and Lifeline Theatre co-produced the 2010 Festival and, with that experiment a success, Lifeline has taken over production of the Festival, while Sharon remains a guiding artistic force in the event.

OT To what do you attribute its longevity?
DM If you put together a great storytelling festival, it's only going to grow. The start-up may be challenging -- it's hard to describe to newbies what they're going to see. Just yesterday I heard someone in our box office reading a description of a show to someone, and the caller was like "But it sounds like you're describing the performer rather than their character.” And the box office staffer was explaining that the performer IS the character. This idea often baffles the uninitiated. But anyone who comes to see a good storyteller becomes an immediate convert. They not only return, they bring friends. It's a form you want to share with other people.

OT What goes into coordinating the fest?
DM Sharon and I read dozens of submissions and took several weeks to decide on the eleven shows in the Fest. It’s important to us to bring in established artists who already have a following and to provide opportunities for debut performances by as-yet-unknown artists who excite us. There are twenty-four participating artists; some of the one-hour shows have one performer in them and others have multiple performers, each doing a short piece. And this year, the Fest features four artists with national exposure as well. The logistics are a lot to juggle. And we're producing the Fest in two spaces, so our staff is running back and forth between the venues for these shows that are starting at the same time!

OT You’re a director and a performer. How does each inform the other?
DM Starting as an actor helps me in how I communicate with actors. I speak their language, as much as anyone can speak anyone's language. Figuring out best communication with other humans is a life-long struggle. As far as the reverse, the most important thing is to take the director hat OFF when acting. There's a joke about it being a mistake to cast actors who also direct.

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