‘Paper Machete’ cuts to the point

By Brianna Wellen

As the Daley era came to a close, local newspapers and magazines reminisced on his greatest accomplishments and biggest flops while in office. Sam Hudzik, WBEZ reporter, said he would miss the laughs Mayor Richard M. Daley brought the city. To fill the void, he asked the six mayoral candidates for their favorite jokes to include in his contribution to a local salon of current events and pop culture.

Every Saturday, journalists like Hudzik along with comedians, writers and musical guests, gather at Ricochet’s Tavern, 4644 N. Lincoln Ave., to present topical commentary in an entertaining way as the live magazine “Paper Machete.”

After writing about theater for Time Out Chicago for five years, Christopher Piatt decided to create his product of performance in 2009, incorporating journalism along the way.

Drawing from his days on his college speech team, Piatt created a show adopting the “After Dinner Speech” format, a competitive public speaking event that uses humor and information to convey a point, he said. Gathering a group of five or six people every week, Piatt asks the performers to prepare a piece in that vein.

“The key is to find a mix of people from different genres and backgrounds and give them very topical assignments,” Piatt said. “The cumulative effect of these essays and character pieces is that of reading a magazine.”

Two frequent performers, bloggers Andy Lawfer and Eric Roach, knew Piatt from the local theater scene and are often asked to discuss local culture for “Paper Machete.” Utilizing their sketch comedy background, they try to make their critiques humorous but also want people to think about what’s going on, Lawfer said.

“We did a piece about art vs. entertainment in Chicago, and we do it as two jerks, but we’re trying to make an actual truthful point about the state of art in the town,” Lawfer said. “Hopefully we’re actually educating people and making them laugh.”

According to Lawfer, the setup is like a model of Thomas Jefferson’s Paris salons, places where trusted leaders would voice their opinions on important political and cultural issues. The weekly shows are a place the audience comes to hear trusted voices editorialize topics of the day, not solely entertaining bits, Lawfer said. In the past, the blogging duo strayed from their usual topics of theater and did a piece on the oil spill. The show’s Feb. 19 performance was entirely based around the mayoral race.

The pieces vary each week to focus on pop culture and current events, very rarely bringing in any personal essays, Piatt said. In an attempt to differentiate what the “Paper Machete” does from other spoken word shows, Piatt encourages writers and performers to write in the second- and third-person voice with their commentaries.

“I think there’s way too much personal disclosure by people with art degrees going on in the spoken word scene,” Piatt said. “One of the points of our editorial direction is to get writers to take the focus off themselves and focus on other subjects and other people.”

Expanding beyond live performance, “Paper Machete” creates podcasts to post on its website of some of the most memorable guests to get the word out. Currently working with little in the way of promotion, Piatt counts on big names that come through the show—such as “Saturday Night Live”’s Paul Brittain and comedian Sarah Haskins—to draw crowds in. From there, it’s word of mouth bringing people back, resulting in a full bar nearly every week, according to Piatt.

As the show continues on, Piatt’s goal is to take cultural and political topics that a subset of America cares about and make them interesting to a wide audience. While there are no immediate plans for change in the future, Piatt said he’s prepared to adapt the show as it continues.

“We have it set up in a way it will constantly be able to evolve,” he said. “It’s a very flexible format. It can be about anything really. We try to use whatever’s going on in the news and culture that week as a jumping off point. There’s really [no] limit on what it can be.”

“Paper Machete” takes place every Saturday at 3 p.m. at Ricochet’s Tavern, 4644 N. Lincoln Ave. The show is free. For more information, visit ThePaperMacheteShow.com.