Open Mic Night in Chicago

They drifted in from everywhere, each riding their own current through the vast human watershed that funnels yearning and desperation into the city. They were eager and nervous or apprehensive and nervous or they came with the stoicism of the lunchpail just there to do a job. Some were new and working hard to keep their dreams from running too far ahead and some were weary and wondering if hope had run out. Some came in secret and others told everyone they knew. Not for money or out of obligation but for goals and dreams and reasons of their own all different all the same. I came too. When I asked about the open mic they sent met to the back room, the basement, the end of the bar. I waded through the cheerfully indifferent and the totally oblivious. I stopped to get a beer and dodged a conversation with a drunken Englishmen and made small talk with the barkeep. I ate some food and drank some beer and formed opinions on both. But I wasn’t there for all of that. It was open mic night and I was there for the show.

It’s Monday and the Globe is bustling except for a quiet room the comics have all to themselves. I’m worried. I’m afraid I’ve committed myself to some awkward agony where bad jokes rattle in a silent room. Everyone is still and scattered except for one table of loud and happy drunks. Everybody else is alone and clutching a notebook, even me, and none are very happy. I don’t know what their problem is. I’ve got a bit of a headache. READ MORE


The Rope-Throwin' Political Comedy of Will Rogers

There has never been a comedian with as much political influence and esteem as Will Rogers. If Jon Stewart was one of the most popular movie stars in the country you’d be getting close, but only kinda — and you’d still need to add a bunch of rope tricks. Remember Stephen Colbert’s campaign? Will got there first, and he was drafted into his campaign. Plus he actually received a few votes at the convention. Twice.

Rogers was as full of contradictions as America itself. He was a Cowboy and an Indian. He had a country voice loaded with urban slang. He rose to stardom telling jokes with a chorus of nearly naked women, yet he was the embodiment of decency. He was a member of a denigrated racial minority who never saw any problem with Jim Crow.

“My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.”

Rogers was born in what was still Indian Territory in 1879. His father was a successful rancher and politician in the Cherokee Nation who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Will grew up a bonafide cowboy, often working to drive the family’s cattle to market in St. Louis. But his long-term prospects as a cowboy were dim;  the range was dying and the Federal government was once again changing the rules for the Cherokee. Nevertheless, it was his skill with a rope that would make him a star. READ MORE


Seba Smith and the Birth of American Political Satire

Ever since George Washington laughed at himself while attending a farce by the “father” of American theatre William Dunlap, comedians have been knocking down presidents just as fast as the electorate can set them up. Political satire may be the best example of what freedom of speech is good for: it's dangerous, persuasive, and brings the mighty low, just the sort of thing a democracy needs to keep things fresh. Best of all, comedy can reach across party lines and far beyond the self-absorbed circle jerk of political insiders. One good SNL sketch will change more minds than a thousand policy briefs and think tank reports.

Perhaps the first breakout star of American political humor was Seba Smith. In 1830 Smith was the publisher of a small newspaper in Maine that needed a boost, so Smith created a character called Jack Downing and had him take a load of axe handles down to the capital for trade. Downing promptly stumbled into the state legislature  during a particularly nasty outbreak of politics and wrote to the folks back home all about it.

“They kept disputing most all the time the first two days about a poor Mr. Roberts…they got three or four majority that he shouldn’t have a seat. And I thought it a needless piece of cruelty for they want crowded and there was a number of seats empty.”



Charles Farrar Browne, the Sometimes-Racist Father of Standup Comedy

On September 22, 1862, the men who pulled the levers of war and government assembled at the White House for a Cabinet meeting. The members arrived impatient and preoccupied with their own enormous burdens in service to the war and like 90% of people in meetings everywhere, they were anxious to get the whole thing over with. But they came anyway out of respect for the dignity of their positions expecting to conduct some business worthy of their time. Abraham Lincoln cast his eyes upon these powerful men, gathered at his word in this moment of great crisis, and he read to them a profane story about the destruction of a wax figure by an idiot. It was one of the greatest, and most enduringly significant days in American history.

The author of this great day was Artemus Ward, a mostly literate showman of twenty-two years experience as a “base exhibiter of depraved monkeys and onprincipled wax works.” He was also the creation and alter ego of Charles F. Browne, a standup pioneer who shaped the invention of American comedy and became an international star. READ MORE