I’ve probably written some iteration of this, the “it’s the anniversary of me moving to Chicago and I have thoughts!” newsletter, so if this bears any semblance to any of those, I’m sorry. But, once again: this week is the anniversary of moving to Chicago! I moved here quite literally with a suitcase (one of those giant duffel bags/backpacks that probably weighed as much as I did) and a dream (vague ambitions in comedy) and four years later I’m still here.
Again, I’ve probably said this before, but I had totally envisioned being a successful and well-liked stand-up comedian with a day job at The Onion and a deal for a book compilation of my hilarious and insightful millennial essays. The delusion! In fairness, I did really give the Onion thing a shot, applying several times, the last of which I submitted a packet I was truly proud of. I put less effort toward stand-up, because almost immediately I discovered that in order to get booked on a regular basis, I would need to be doing open mics at awful bars with awful people several nights a week.
The one open mic I truly liked had an absurd process: you had to show up to the bar at 5 p.m. to get a decent spot on the list, and then you were expected to stay at the bar until the mic got started at around 9:30. And then you had to wait for the host to finish her set, so it really meant that you wouldn’t go up until at least after 10 p.m. Also, the bar did not have WIFI, food, or comfortable seating, and if you wanted to leave to pick something up or just to take a walk you risked losing your spot on the list, unless you were friendly with the bartender (turns out bartenders don’t like people who only order La Croix and, during one misguided period, bring Pyrex containers of Whole 30-compliant food into the bar like a homely Mrs. Maisel). It was like a comedy DMV. The only things to do in the 4+ hours of waiting was work on your jokes, read a book—difficult to do when you’re in a dark bar surrounded by Logan Square barflies and the insufferable riffing of improv school cohorts—or talk to the other comics, some of whom were nice, but most had seemingly no interests outside of the open mic slog. I won’t even say “outside of comedy” because it feels weird to use the word “comedy” to describe such a joyless endeavor filled with joyless people. And that’s when I realized that I didn’t want to do this—why am I making myself miserable pursuing something that’s ostensibly supposed to make people laugh?
It made me realize that my experience doing comedy in New Orleans was really a special thing, and that maybe I wasn’t meant to be a comedian, but I was meant to be in that city during that specific time and do those fun things with my friends.
When I started, we were amid a improv and sketch comedy boom. Of course legendary theaters like The Groundlings and Second City had always been feeders for SNL, but a new wave of single-camera sitcoms starring comedians who had come up through the improv circuit, mixed with a glut of disillusioned millennials looking for an interesting hobby or career change, created a demand for improv training that went outside the main comedy hubs of New York and Los Angeles. Also at this time, video comedy was being taken seriously: there was Funny or Die, and web series like Broad City were being turned into shows on major networks. It felt like anyone with a decent camera and a working knowledge of video editing software, both of which were more easily available than ever, had a shot. This was why a low-quality video that my friend Colleen and I made was able to go viral (with 400,000 views—which is NOTHING compared to the millions of views videos get today) and end up covered in mainstream TV and print media outlets. With TikTok and Twitter churning out a steady stream of micro-comedy, I doubt a video like ours (despite being a VERY well-written and effective parody starring two beautiful women, despite what the commenters said!) would even register. We were so lucky to be doing what we were doing at that time.
But it turns out that improv comedy, an artform where it’s very easy (and sometimes encouraged) to violate boundaries, that inspires cult-like devotion of its teachers and top performers to get spots in shows, where students spend hundreds of dollars per class but would never expect to get paid to perform or even teach in some cases, was not meant to survive #MeToo and renewed focus on exploitation in the workplace. #MeToo fractured many comedy communities, including the one we came up with in New Orleans. And then the one-two punch of the pandemic and the fight for racial justice dealt a lot of these places the final blow: UCB in New York closed, iO in Chicago closed more recently. This is also an artform that encourages touching, breathing together in poorly ventilated spaces, and shouting out the first thing that pops into your mind (which for many white people who grew up in America tended to be something racist). It’s an artform that cannot be taught on Zoom, although some have tried! (I’m referencing a specific person here.)
Oh, and stand-up. You probably know all the notable perverts in that community, and can infer the many problems that can come from a system built on the kind of alcohol-fueled open mic nights I described above, so I don’t need to go into any more detail there.
This was originally supposed to be about moving to Chicago and not a meditation on the current state of comedy, but clearly that was on my mind. I think that all taught me is that not everything is forever, and despite what capitalism demands of us, not all hobbies need to be monetized (but people who do those things for their full-time jobs absolutely deserve to be paid and protected from sexual harassment, racism, and exploitation!). You may move to a city thinking you’re going to do one thing, but then find happiness not doing that thing at all. Remain flexible, embrace impermanence, and if someone tries to get you to buy an online improv class, report them to the Better Business Bureau.
Broadway Belters is literally just an Instagram account that posts poor-quality bootleg videos of performers singing the fuck out of songs on Broadway. If you want to see the best part of “Defying Gravity” sung by probably dozens Elphabas, this is your place.
If you live in Chicago you’ve probably had to deal with me rambling about Democratize ComEd, the campaign I’m volunteering on to ditch our corporate energy utility in favor of a public, democratically controlled one. This interview with our #1 alderman ally is a good explainer.
I stopped caring about getting COVID from boxes awhile ago, but this article has compelling evidence that surfaces are probably not the main way people are getting it, anyway.
I don’t really have much to recommend this week. I’m gonna go listen to WAP a hundred more times. Have a good weekend!