Chi-Town Comedy Chat: Comedy in the Age of Coronavirus

Microphone comedy in chicago

Chicago’s thriving comedy scene is known the world over. From innovative stand-up comedians to hilarious improv artists to beyond talented sketch troupes—not to mention writers, directors, producers, and sound and lighting crews—it’s the people who make this community feel like a family.

The very necessary shutdown Governor J.B. Pritzker put in place to help flatten the curve of the coronavirus— which has caused previously unthinkable levels of serious illness—has hit the business of the comedy community hard. Some comedians have lost their livelihood while independent venues are fighting to stay afloat.

Chicago comedians are known for their ability to improvise, and many are doing just that by hosting livestreams, leading fundraisers, and working on new material for fans to enjoy on the flip side of this. Already, Kelsie Huff and The Kates have hosted the Stay Home Laugh In Fundraiser in support of the staff at The Book Cellar, and Alex Kumin and the Lincoln Lodge Training Center are offering a variety of Fem Com comedy workshops via Zoom, for a $5 suggested donation in support of Lincoln Lodge instructors, while everyone— with the exception of all the heroic nurses, doctors, hospital staff, first responders, grocery store workers, delivery drivers, truckers, and so many others—is staying home (and saving lives in the process).

Rebellious Magazine reached out to several local comedians to see how they are doing, how fans can help and what they see for the future of comedy in Chicago. Their responses (some edited for length) have been heartfelt, thoughtful—including ways to support venues and other comedians rather than themselves—as well as optimistic and, of course, funny.

Deanna Ortiz – The Lincoln Lodge, Crushes! with Deanna Ortiz Podcast

The coronavirus couldn’t have hit at a worse time for Chicago comedy. (And the world, but go figure I want to make it about me…) The Lincoln Lodge venue was just starting to hit its stride in its spring programing, Just For Laughs auditions were set to take place at the end of March, and April marks the beginning of the all-consuming “showcase season.” Right before the virus hit, comics were preparing their ‘tight five’ to be seen by agents, managers and industry execs. As many of us know, it kind of started like a snowball…certain places shutting down here and there, a friend working from home, then suddenly the whole world was on lockdown. I did two shows the day before the governor called for all venues to close, and I remember looking at my phone seeing all the prestigious venues announcing they’re closing… Zanies…The Comedy Bar…Second City (who always boasted that they stayed open during a blizzard and Stephen Colbert made cookies for the entire audience). Well Colbert can’t help us now because as each new social distancing law came up, we scurried to think of ways to maintain business running and stay healthy. Disinfecting microphones and doorknobs and counting audience members lasted for about a day before we had to postpone all shows and classes.

It’s so amazing to be able to sustain yourself as a standup comedian, but now suddenly their whole livelihood has been cancelled indefinitely within the span of one week. The silver lining? Comics are now finding new ways to vie for your attention! The amount of online content that is really funny and heartwarming and available to people has been amazing. Comics are live streaming shows, creating sketches, characters, and doing what they can to make this inside life feel a little more normal. My advice for people who are looking for some normalcy or some connection with other people trapped in their houses would be to follow your favorite comedian on social media, see what they’re up to, chances are, they’re doing something crazy on Instagram live or finding ways to connect back at you. When all this is over, I think we’ll all look at the world a little differently, we’ll appreciate a line outside the bar, a fully stocked grocery store shelf, and your local comedy show. Until then, if anyone has Colbert’s number, I could really use a cookie!

Ashley Leisten – Writer/Director Boyband The Musical (Ashley has been participating in a fundraiser for The Annoyance, which finds her quarantined inside the theatre with a handful of other artists who are working on an original show.)

The lifestyle of a comedian is living from opportunity to opportunity—and when all those get cancelled and you can’t see any in the near future either, it’s really scary. We’re always working toward that audition that’s six months away or waiting to hear back from a festival that could give us our “big break” and now we’re looking at blank calendars.

I’m lucky to have the opportunity to make art with other people during this freakish period of social distancing. I am one of eight people in Chicago who gets to write a sketch show instead of slamming their head against a wall in total isolation. I’m cherishing collaboration and laughter more than ever and feel so encouraged by all the comics who are taking to the internet with hilarious content. There’s no reason to stop making people laugh right now! The ensemble here can’t wait to show everyone what we’ve created while trying to raise money for the theatre we call home.

Janice Rodriguez – Founder/Producer Las Locas Comedy

It’s been a very strange time to say the least. I miss performing, I miss our monthly Las Locas Comedy show and it’s been tough. I really feel for the comedians who are pursuing a career in the performing arts full time as they have completely lost all income. I think we’re all in the same boat trying to determine how to stay engaged with our audiences, stay sharp in terms of writing/performing and then trying to figure out if there a way to monetize any of that content during this time.

I would say Las Locas Comedy and myself as an individual performer, are trying to focus on content development and just staying engaged with our fans via social media, live videos, posting previous show performances, etc. I’m also doing our best to lend support to our venue DSTRKT by sharing posts via our social media channels. We have an eye to the future and are really trying to offer some laughs and entertainment during this really LOCA time (see what I did there?).

Meredith Kachel – Executive Director of Chicago Underground Comedy

We’ll [ChUC] be on hiatus for QUITE some time with the closing of all bars and restaurants (Beat Kitchen being both), so we decided to do what’s best for our staff there and raise some cash for our bartender Sam and waitress Betty. They’re with us every single week, and the show wouldn’t run without either of them. People can contribute at Paypal at booking.chuc@gmail.com or at my Venmo at meredith-kachel. Other than that, we are having our very first quiet email box—no one is sending out booking emails, haha.

It’s actually kind of refreshing that no one is pressuring anyone into getting back into the grind; these are super trying, scary times and literally the LAST thing we need is anyone’s opinions on dating. I’ve seen lots of emergency funds for performers and staff, and I hope that this helps people reevaluate what’s most important at clubs, ’cause it ain’t profit.

Tracy DeGraaf – Comedian, Author “Laugh Anyway Mom”

As you know Laurie, I’m on a comedy mission. As a Christian and a breast cancer survivor, I use comedy to reach people and inspire them spiritually and physically. I want them to take another step in their faith journey, and I also want them to get and stay current on their cancer screenings. I like to tell women that I want them to “know Jesus, but I don’t want them to meet him face-to-face just yet.”

I feel like this time of crisis will give all of us opportunities to help each other. I’m sure that I’ll get back to doing public venues as soon as possible, but in the meantime, I plan to do my best to love on my family, friends and fans with inspiration and comedy via social media and my blog (which I’m re-launching as of April 1, 2020). I actually had that in the works well before the coronavirus, but it will be timely as people will be looking for something to LOL about and to be inspired. I’m also planning to connect with my audience via a podcast.

There’s no question that this is going to be a painful time for everyone. Right now I have a torn rotator cuff that needs surgery and my son (a high school senior) is homeschooling. Of course, surgery will have to wait and I just realized that my son has Spanish AND math so that’s gonna be a problem. I have to endure some discomfort for now, but it’s not forever. The world will laugh again!

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DeGraaf also shared that she loves to by merch, books or DVDs from comedians she loves—which she thinks of like a tip – and she encourages those who are financially able to do the same when someone makes them smile.

Along with many of the above mentioned fundraisers, Chicagoservicerelief.com lists a directory of fundraisers for Chicago bars, venues, restaurants and other service-based businesses and Ilcovidresponsefund.org offers people a place to donate to those hardest hit by the pandemic statewide.

Stay well, stay home, wash your hands and we’ll all get through this together.

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Laurie Fanelli is a Chicago-based writer and photographer who specializes in live entertainment coverage. She is at home at major music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and, of course, Lollapalooza and Riot Fest. She loves chatting with hilarious comedians and has interviewed the likes of Maria Bamford, Paula Poundstone and Tracy Morgan, to name a few. She has photographed tons of great bands/musicians – from every genre – including Rob Zombie, Florence and the Machine, Alabama Shakes, Neil Young, Shania Twain, Pitbull, Pierce the Veil, Kendrick Lamar, Patti Smith and many, many more. When not writing or shooting shows, Laurie loves to spend her free time training for marathons and exploring the city of Chicago. She is a longtime vegetarian and animal advocate who likes to cook healthy, delicious meals that everyone can enjoy. For more information or to contact Laurie, head over to www.lauriefanelli.com.