Chicago might be known as the Second City, but it’s the first city of stand up comedy, thanks to clubs across Chicago. John and Jim Belushi, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Joan Rivers, Bill Murray, and so many more have gotten their starts here. And so many more arrive every day, looking to get their big break! That includes our newest contributor (and seriously funny lady), Kim. She’s been on improv stages at Second City’s Training Center and other Chicago clubs, for the past few years, and she’s currently working on a two-woman show with her writing partner. So, she knows her jokes! So, she’s giving us her inside take on the comedy world of Chicago, as only she can tell it…
Every year, often in the late summer or early fall, an infinite number of young hopefuls flock to Chicago to ‘do comedy.’ It’s as simple and as complicated as that.
You’ll see them in the lobbies of Second City and iO and The Annoyance, and then, after they’ve become more familiar with the community, you’ll see them in all the other, lesser-known theaters too. They’re easy to spot; you will know who they are because they’re usually looking around, with bright eyes and half-smiles and a general aura of hesitant excitement. But mostly, you’ll know who they are because you will see yourself in their faces, as if you too just arrived here yesterday to ‘do comedy.’
That’s what pursuing comedy in Chicago actually becomes – this daily feeling and process and occurrence in which one moment you feel like you know so much and have experienced so much, and then the next moment you feel just as clueless and insecure and non-belonging as the day you arrived here.
Pursuing comedy in Chicago (and, for the purposes of this article, particularly my experiences of improv and sketch) is a complicated, intimidating, thrilling, and ever-changing process. I could write a 50-line list about what it’s like, but in comedy, we like things brief and to the point. So here are 5 truths about what it’s actually like to study and perform comedy in Chicago.
It’s not uncommon to find out that your teacher has previously taught an SNL cast member, or is friends with an SNL cast member.
If they do mention this fact for some reason, it’s always in a very calm and casual way, like it’s just a vaguely interesting piece of information that they forgot about until just now.
It’s also not uncommon to find out your teacher once auditioned for SNL themselves.
You will also hear about this in a relaxed, shoulder-shrug kind of manner. And most of the time, you won’t hear it directly from your teacher. You’ll hear it from a classmate, or a friend who’s taken their class before, or just through the never-ending fun fact train that’s constantly zooming all around the community. And then you’ll spend the rest of the class term zoning out every once in a while, staring at your teacher, and thinking “Whoa, they’ve auditioned on that little tiny stage. Weird.”
Your comedy friends are all so different that sometimes, your comedy friend group feels like you literally just took one person from each high school clique and put them in a room together.
Your peers have every job under the sun.
Nannies, baristas, office administrators, bartenders, graphic designers, servers, commercial actors, grade school teachers, video editors, yoga instructors, employees at a fancy framing store, retail managers. Every single day, you’ll meet a new comedy friend with a new day job. Every person around you is just trying to make ends meet until someday, someone pays them to be funny.
Being at a theater and casually seeing a very famous person standing five feet from you is a pretty standard experience.
The first time it happens, you’re just completely in awe and trying not to let anyone know how starstruck you are. The second time, you’re still very shocked but you start wondering how often this is going to happen. The third and fourth and tenth time this happens to you, you just look over at said famous person, feel mildly interested, and then wonder when you stopped feeling flabbergasted by celebrities. The most recent time this happened to me was when I was at Second City to see a friend’s show. I was standing in the lobby and turned around to find my friend, but instead looked over and saw another face I recognized. I almost subconsciously waved (thinking for a brief moment that I knew him personally), until I realized that it was Keegan-Michael Key and that I should most definitely not say hi like some creepy fan. Standard Saturday night.