Why Chicago Is the Best City in America for Young Standups

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A comedian I know just moved to Chicago after two years in Los Angeles. Hearing the news, another comic asked “Are they nuts? If you’re already in L.A., you might as well stay and figure it out. No regional scene can beat having to measure yourself every day against the best in the business.” It’s convincing, but in the case of Chicago, I think they’re wrong.

Professional comedians do eventually have to move to Los Angeles or New York City. The list of people who’ve found success without moving is short. And the list of people who stayed too long in their home scene and never made it is long, sad, and full of geniuses.

Moving too early, however, especially to Los Angeles, can also be fatal to your career. It is just not a good place to do standup comedy unless you are very, very, good at it. You need an act that can follow the best performers in your genre or don’t even bother typing “Hollywood” into Google Maps. You may never do standup in front of actual audience members again. It’ll just be you and the same forty other open micers doing three minutes for each other and then switching buildings.

Even if you are a lifelong Angeleno who grew up a block from the Comedy Store, it might be a good idea to leave and come back when you’ve got it down. I am always proud when someone who started in L.A. does their first TV set, because I know how many extra years they had to fight against the tide to perfect it. “I am happy I started here but I think I am possibly an exception,” says L.A. comic Jake Weisman. “There are so many damn comedians here, you have to push so hard to get stage time at open mics. In order to get enough time to develop you have to be willing to drive all over the city every night to many different mics, often not even getting up. It’s easy to give up. Often they make you pay to perform at mics as well and although that’s insane sometimes it’s the only option.”

To get better at standup, you need real audiences, not just other comics. In most cities, regular people watch beginning comics all the time because it’s their only choice. An L.A. comedy fan has at least five options a night to see comedians with television credits, often for free. It’s everywhere. I watched Maria Bamford in the upstairs of a Chinese restaurant in front of a stack of old tables and a “Best Chinese Food of 2011” award. Put on a show in L.A. with no television comics and it is very possible that no one will come. Not a soul. Just you doing comedy for four comedians and one bartender silently hating you all over the wide open bar.

It’s not just lack of stage time that hurts you. Your comic instincts will still lead you to entertain the people in the room. Do empty bar shows enough and your act will be tailored to make a smattering of dismayed Los Angeles comics laugh. And no one else. The number of people who can relate to a joke about not getting booked in the Riot LA Fest is smaller even than it sounds.

And if you do get a good spot, you will have to follow celebrities. When Adam Cayton-Holland visited L.A. from Denver years ago, he followed consecutive drop-in spots from Louie C.K., Daniel Tosh, and Drew Carey. In the back of a comic-book store.

It sucks following stars. All the audience knows about you is five minutes ago they were with a famous person and you’re the reason it’s over. Not the time to see if the new bit works. So you do the same set you moved to California with. But it starts getting stale. Old jokes burn out and aren’t replaced. Soon you have spent two years in L.A. and have less material than you moved there with.

It’s a scary adjustment when you get thrown in the pool with your heroes. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had to follow Kevin Nealon and the audience stood up when he walked in the room, just to thank him for existing. In that moment, I was thankful I had six years in Chicago to prepare me. “It’s the best city in the country to become a comedian,” says comic Cameron Esposito. “Chicago is a standup incubator with a glut of great stagetime and hip, invested audiences. I believe it’s the best place in the country to develop — you can find your voice, fail, eat shit, and headline killer shows all without being overexposed in the entertainment industry.”

It wasn’t like that when I started in 1997. Back then, standup in Chicago was dead. An afterthought. Improv was king. The Annoyance Theatre, Improv Olympic, and three separate Second City shows packed them in nightly. For standup fans, the picture was bleak. From 1988 to 1994, eight full time clubs went under after flooding the market with free tickets until the product had no value. Only Zanies, which never gave away a Saturday night show, still stood. After that, your choices were slim. There was “Barrel of Laughs” at a wine bar in the south suburbs where the promoter told “Cubs fans are gay” jokes for forty minutes before the show. Indifferent waitresses ran a frozen drink machine regardless of where the comedian was in their act. Night after night you would hear, “I was on the train today and-” BZZZZZZZZZ.

There were three open mics all week. One was the Monkey Bar, where the booths faced away from the stage, and the owner sided with the hecklers if they were regulars, even when one punched a comic. There was one showcase room. It was called “The Elevated,” because the El train would go by every twelve minutes. It was the daiquiri machine at Barrel of Laughs all over again. “I was on the train today and–” CLAKCLAKCLAKCLAKCLAK.

The best place for having your set interrupted was the Abbey Pub, where the Irish waitresses called their boyfriends in Galway from a pay phone by the stage. “I was on the train today and-” YOU’RE A CUNT, LIAM!

The city’s last remaining club, Zanies, booked professionals only. It was the same philosophy of protecting the value of the product that kept them out of the free ticket storm. To Zanies, customers may not have known what an open mic was, but they’d remember that the sign said Zanies and the person on stage didn’t know what they were doing. It wasn’t worth the risk.

As Chicago comics, this was the best thing that could’ve happened to us. We couldn’t rely on a club’s reputation to fill the seats for us, so we had to hustle. We had to start our own shows and get funny enough to make them worth going to. First Mark Geary’s open mic at the Red Lion pub. Then the Lyon’s Den, where every fifth spot went to someone the host knew was funny. The audience stuck around, and soon the list would hit a hundred comics a night.

I was amazed at the brilliance I saw at the Den. I would see national headliners and think, “Am I nuts or are the comics at my open mic better than this?” It was years later, when the names TJ Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, Pete Holmes, Hannibal Buress, Matt Braunger, and Kyle Kinane began to pop up everywhere, that I knew I was right.

There is something about Chicago that makes it an ideal audience to try things out on. Anthony Bourdain called it “one of America’s last great NO BULLSHIT zones. Pomposity, pretentiousness, putting on airs of any kind, douchery and lack of a sense of humor will not get you far in Chicago.” They’re open to a show, but they aren’t easily impressed. If you have an act big enough to get their attention, and smart enough to keep it, that act will work anywhere.

“The best part about it is that there was no industry,” says Kyle Kinane. “There was no one to impress. You could be as pure as you wanted to be… it was comedy for comedy’s sake, which was very beneficial.”

Another comedian who moved from L.A. to Chicago helped make this creative atmosphere happen. The new Chicago standups had few great comics to emulate in the city. Then Dwayne Kennedy returned from L.A. after appearing on Seinfeld. He wanted to change his act completely, away from the judging eyes of the networks. He grew dreadlocks and brought a glass of wine on stage he wouldn’t drink. He took risks. “The worst part about 9/11, aside from the tragic loss of life, was that it messed up my ‘The White Man is the Devil’ theory.” he would say. He made it work. The audience laughed HARD and for the first time, we could see what was possible. We had the example we needed. And Dwayne, away from Hollywood’s gaze, developed an act that earned him a Showtime special, Letterman, and Totally Biased.

In Chicago right now you can do 55 open mics a week, 16 on Monday night alone. At Cole’s open mic there are rows and rows of real people ready to laugh. Weekly bar shows that pack. And no one has the option of seeing Marc Maron for free in front of a taco stand instead. And when you are ready you can earn showcase spots at the Laugh Factory and opening spots at Zanies, who still do nine shows a week.

Stage time in front of real non-comedians is the only kind that matters. Move to Chicago and you get hundreds of hours of it, in front of people who care. And Chicago alums run some of the most popular standup shows on the coasts, so when it IS time to see how your act fares in the big leagues, you’ll have familiar faces to help you. There will come a time in every comic’s life for sunny Los Angeles. Think about spending your formative years by a big, cold, lake.

John Roy is a comedian based in Los Angeles. His appearances include Conan, @midnight, and The Tonight Show. Follow him on Twitter at @johnroycomic.

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