Lincoln LOLz

By Amanda Murphy

When walking past the Lincoln Restaurant, it’s hard to imagine anything beyond its doors other than the typical diner dishes and décor. But past the plastic tables and linoleum floor resides one of Chicago’s best kept secrets.

With 12 years under its proverbial belt, The Lincoln Lodge, which shares the restaurant space at 4008 N. Lincoln Ave., has been home to a number of successful comedians and gained the title of the longest running independent comedy show in Chicago. Beginning as just a small variety show in the back of a restaurant, the comedy club has now become one of the city’s premiere places for the art of humor.

The show got its beginning when co-creator Mark Geary realized the dearth of variety-style comedy in the city. With its ’70s–fashioned interior and small, intimate setting, The Lincoln Lodge provides a far different environment than most comedy clubs have. Dan Ronan, lead cast member, said most clubs look the same, with a clean, semi-sterile environment containing a stage, mic and some pictures on the wall. The well-worn décor of The Lincoln Lodge adds to the charm and character of the unique show, Ronan said.

The space may remain the same as it did 40 years ago, but the occupants of the small tables have changed.

In the past few years, the cast members and, to their delight, the crowd, have gradually become younger. Ronan joked that when he first began at The Lincoln Lodge three years ago, the crowd was much older and expected a much different kind of act along the lines of insult comedian Don Rickles. Comedy has a very direct connection with its audience, so having a crowd that understands the humor makes it a more enjoyable show for everyone, he said. It also allows the comedians to grow and learn what material is working and what is not.

“We would go out and have all these jokes [regarding] Facebook, and they would just be like, ‘I don’t know what’s happening,’” Ronan said. “You would just feel bad [laughs]. But now it’s a young, hip crowd.”

The show still has a variety type format, with a number of different acts and segments that set it apart from others in the city. This year, the acts include the sketch comedy group Oh!Theodora and a “Man on the Street” segment, in which a comedian and someone with a camera go out and mess with people on the street. The extra bits of the show are some of the defining reasons it’s so special to comedians and the Chicago area, Ronan said.

“It’s exciting because it makes stand-up comedy something to enjoy again,” he said. “I think when many people think of stand-up comedy, they think of a guy in a blue blazer in a nightclub, who is 60 years old, talking about his mother-in-law. It’s like a living, breathing thing that’s changing.”

The roster of performers who have goneon to prominence prove that the show is accomplishing something special. It has been host to famous and almost-famous acts, like Fred Armisen of “Saturday Night Live,” “Chelsea Lately” regular TJ Miller, frequent Comedy Central performer Hannibal Burress and Kyle Kinane, one of Variety’s “Top Ten Comics to Watch in 2010.” Greary said even though the show has grown dramatically during the years, its first and foremost reason for existing is to create the next generation of top-notch comedic performers, not bring in the big bucks.

For cast members Eliot Rahal and Julia Solomon, it was a dream to be asked to join. Improv has long ruled Chicago’s comedy scene, with stand-up comedy shows often coming and going. The average comedy show in Chicago lasts for two to three years if it’s lucky, Rahal said, but the stamina and reputation of The Lincoln Lodge proves that it brings something out of the ordinary to its performers and audience members.

Cast members of The Lincoln Lodge get a chance to perform weekly, a privilege that is hard to come by in the competitive art. Solomon said the chance to perform at The Lincoln Lodge doesn’t come without its share of sweat equity. Cast members are expected to help in a number of areas, including online marketing, booking special guest comedians and gathering headshots. She said the work, however, doesn’t compare to what it means to be part of the show.

The Lincoln Lodge also brings an element of community to the very competitive comedy scene. Rahal said since he began performing at The Lincoln Lodge, he has felt a sense of belonging that is difficult to come by in stand-up. Instead of people constantly competing with each other, The Lincoln Lodge promotes an environment where people cheer each other on. Solomon agreed, pointing out it also offers networking opportunities.

“Everyone wants to feel at home somewhere—that’s the bottom line of everything,” Rahal said. “The Lincoln Lodge really gives you that.”

Most of the successful comedians who got their start at The Lincoln Lodge return to perform, which gives the current cast the chance to perform alongside them. Cast members also work hard to bring in other large comedy acts from around the country who have no affiliation with the show but are aware of its prominence. A soon-to-be-announced and very famous comedy act is coming in late December that The Lincoln Lodge is very excited to host.

Being a cast member also gives the opportunity to get booked other places. In an industry where performing often is a necessity, The Lincoln Lodge show offers its performers a good amount of stage time, Rahal said. The more a comedian is seen there and other places around the city, is how they build a reputation. Mostly, it gives its cast members the unique opportunity to be part of a known, important show, with many options for furthering their careers, which Rahal said doesn’t compare to other productions or clubs.

“This place has given me confidence and a home,” Rahal said. “I honestly don’t know where I would be without the Lincoln Lodge. It’s nice to be part of something bigger than yourself.”