Chicago: A training ground for comedic talent

By Arts & Culture Reporter

In a world devoid of Chicago’s renowned comedic training centers, Stephen Colbert might have been reduced to just a silly sounding French name and Hannibal Buress might only be seen as the funny coworker at the office. Without the city’s legendary comedy scene, the names Bill Murray and Tina Fey might be utterly irrelevant.

As a learning ground for some of the most renowned comedians in popular culture, Chicago has achieved its status as one of the top comedic cities in the U.S. Known for its rich history of comedic talent, this city has long been an incubator for some of the most well-regarded acts in comedy. Performers might make it big in entertainment capitals such as New York and Los Angeles, but it is in Chicago where the comedy stars of tomorrow first find their voices.

“People come to Chicago to get good, and then they go somewhere else to get famous,” said Matt Hovde, artistic director at The Second City Training Center in Chicago. 

While most people know the city for its iconic training centers such as the iO Theater, 1501 N. Kingsbury St., and The Second City, 161 N. Wells St., Chicago’s comedy has thrived in recent years thanks to underground clubs, a continuous influx of new sketch groups and a resurging standup community, which has produced any number of top comics, rivaling any city in the country. Comedy has always been a staple of Chicago, but it has boomed recently, thanks to the alt-comedy scene—comedy that breaks from mainstream comedic styles and formats—and broadening diversity.

Hovde, who has first-hand experience with Chicago’s comedy scene, moved to the city after graduating from Texas Christian University in 1996 to fulfill his dream of being an improviser for The Second City. Hovde said the city’s history attracts aspiring performers to the famous training center who are keen to emulate their favorite stars.

“If you like Bill Murray and Tina Fey and [Stephen] Colbert, it does not take much research to figure out that they all got their start in Chicago and went through [The Second City] program as a means to develop their craft,” Hovde said. “A lot of people that come to our training center definitely want to follow in those footsteps.”

Young performers from all walks of life have flocked to the city for decades to find their footing in the comedy world. Kelsie Huff, a standup comic and instructor for Feminine Comique, a training center that helps female comics develop their craft, said the city’s appeal allows comics to try new things they would be discouraged to do on stage in a city like New York or Los Angeles, where one talent scout in the audience could make or break a career in an moment’s notice.

“The number one thing is that Chicago is really under the radar,” Huff said. “There is no industry here, so you can take a bunch of risks and get super weird. I’m not saying that can’t happen in New York or LA, but David Letterman’s people aren’t here. Like, they don’t give a s–t.” 

It is harder to get discovered in Chicago than in larger markets. Unlike the large entertainment cities in the country, Chicago has a Midwestern, working-class feel where comics have to work extra hard to get noticed, Hovde said.

“There’s just a good culture fit [to Chicago],” Hovde said. “The Second City took its name from having a little bit of a chip on its shoulder, being compared to New York and having this Midwestern pride. That works really well for comedy.”

That is not to say Chicago does not see its fair share of talent scouts, though. Throughout the last 56 years, The Second City has been one of the most prolific breeding grounds for writers, performers and directors throughout the entertainment industry. One look at the writers for shows like “Saturday Night Live” and fans are sure to recognize Chicago talent.

“The writing staffs of all the late-night talk shows and many of the sitcoms are filled with Second City-trained people,” Hovde said. “The kind of work people do after they go through our programs is a real diverse skill set people leave with.”

One thing that sets Chicago apart from other comedy-rich cities is the exposure young comedians have access to. In the last few years, smaller venues like the Lincoln Lodge, Comedians You Should Know and the recently shuttered Upstairs Gallery have all been safe places for young comedians and performers to try material.

Alex Honnet, CEO and co-proprieter of the Upstairs Gallery, and creative director at the iO  Theater in Chicago, founded Upstairs as a creative place for  aspiring sketch performers to showcase their material in a place beyond the mainstream venues, like Second City. Upstairs closed in October 2014 after becoming too much of a time commitment for Honnet. However, Upstairs was a leader in the independent sketch community in its short time. Regular performers such as current “Late Night with Seth Meyers” writer Conner O’Malley would perform at the location on a regular basis until its closing in 2014.

“There are a lot of people who want to find their voice and do good work and then move away,” Honnet said. “You have people [in Chicago] that are at their most eager. If you’re ready to work at it and figure out what you’re like as a performer, this is the best place to do it.”

The city is widely regarded as a giant in the nation’s variety of sketch and improv training, and Chicago’s standup scene has also thrived in recent years thanks to comedians such as Cameron Esposito and 2002 Columbia alumnus Kyle Kinane making Chicago a more diverse place for the next generation of standup comics.

Caleb George, training center manager of Comedy Sportz Chicago, said the city’s standup scene is different from other major markets because the standups in Chicago are all part of a smaller, close-knit community.

“Chicago’s standup scene has boomed in the last few years and has really caught on,” George said. “I think you’re going to see a smaller pool of people doing similar standup because it’s a tighter-knit group.”

Huff said the city’s relaxed audiences help standups connect well with the crowd. As opposed to the straight-forward comedy style of New York, where comedians might often spend their nights standing in front of a brick wall while they tell a few jokes, Chicago’s comics interact much more directly with their audiences and much more conversationally, Huff said.

“There’s a storytelling and loosey-goosey audience interaction going on here,” Huff said. “With comedians like Kyle Kinane or Pete Holmes, they have a willingness to do a set, but then mid-set they’re just like, ‘F–k it, let’s just talk to this guy in the front.’ I feel like that attitude is definitely Chicago.”

Huff also said the city’s standup is strengthened by its variety of small standup venues and open mics, which enables aspiring performers to find peers with similar performance styles.

“You find your like-minded weirdos and you glom together,” Huff said. “There’s this overall community of, ‘We’re all in this together,’ because we’re all under the radar. There’s this sort of flailing together that kind of bonds everybody. Oh, and the drinking, of course.”

Finding comedians with similar styles is something that comics Pete Holmes, T.J. Miller and Kumail Nanjiani all did during their time in the city. Before moving to Los Angeles, these comics were involved in the standup scene that helped them find their voice. They are among some top comics in the alternative-comedy scene.

“The only way to really find your voice and find your confidence is just by getting reps in,” George said. “You’re not going to get as many reps in other cities as you are [in Chicago]. You see a lot of great comedians move up the chain here and find out what kind of performer they are, how to market themselves and move out to LA immediately because they found out what kind of performer they are.”

Not only is standup diversifying comedic styles throughout the city, but standup is also becoming a more welcoming environment for comics of various backgrounds.

Jamie Campbell, a standup comedian and instructor at the Comedy Sportz training center, said the number of comedians of different backgrounds is rising, giving more people a chance to prove their talent throughout the city.

“People like Cameron Esposito and Kelsie Huff have made it easier for women to have an opportunity [in the industry],” Campbell said. “They still have to be good, and you’ll find that the top women and the top guys of any race, to get to the top, they’ve still got to put in the work. But there’s not a lot of exclusion based on gender or sexual orientation or race. Just about any show on a given night is going to be pretty diverse.”

Huff said she has also noticed a change in the standup scene since coming to Chicago in 1998 to study radio at Columbia. She said women are not only getting more recognition and stage time in the community, but there also appears to also be a change in audiences’ attitudes.

“People don’t talk about this a lot, but the men [in comedy] have also changed,” Huff said. “There are a lot of men out there being more vulnerable. It’s not like the old ‘80s Tim Allen stuff like, ‘Men! Tools!’ You know, that kind of bulls–t. Men are being more vulnerable and open and exposing their underbelly and being OK with that and still being hilarious.”

Many performers in the city have training in both improv and standup, an asset Huff says is important for comics striving to stand out among fellow comedians who did not receive the same training.

“You really have to cut to the meat of a joke,” Huff said. “You get on a stage and people have to know who you are and your point of view in 10 seconds. So, of course doing that is going to help your writing and improv. If you want that edge, you need to have all the comedy tools in your tool belt.”

While performers might reach the heights of stardom on the East and West coasts, it is in the small clubs and open mics throughout Chicago where these young comedians find their comedic styles.

“Chicago is kind of like the gym,” Campbell said. “The game seems to be on the coasts, but if you donít put in the time in the gym, you wonít perform as well when the big opportunity strikes.”