Comedy means many things to many people. For some, it is a way to revel in the unique pleasure of collective laughter, while for others it is a perfect coping mechanism for turning the negative aspects of life into something positive. For Chicago-based comedian Gwen La Roka, comedy is a way to connect people through jokes, shared human experiences and important causes.
“If it’s a good cause, it’s my cause,” explained La Roka. “My thing is – am I available? If I’m not already on a show , you need me for a fundraiser or a cause or to host a show or even to help set up a space, I’m there. My friends know that as long as I’m not booked already, I’m always there for the cause.”
Advocacy and comedy are intertwined for La Roka on stage as well as in her everyday life, and both places find her transcending above the negativity of the modern world to a place of personal – and contagious – optimism.
“When you are so passionate about these important topics – like DACA, equal rights, mental health, self-care, climate change – you really dive in, and you learn a lot of shitty things,” she explained. “You can walk around questioning how to enjoy life under the weight of it all, but I think that finding the funny in everything and killing it with kindness – while not blowing off the reality of the issue – is the best way to approach every day.”
La Roka doesn’t just sit around and wait for things to change, she takes decisive steps to try to make the world a better place. A perfect example of this came in the form of her self-titled sketch-meets-stand-up show at Joe’s on Weed Street this past October. After the recent wave of destructive natural disasters devastated Mexico, Puerto Rico and so many other coastal communities, La Roka got together with fellow Chicago comedian Mike Oquendo to do what she does best… take a negative situation and do whatever she can to make it better.
“We came to the decision to turn ‘The Gwen La Roka’ show into a big showcase. We added more comics. We added musicians and whoever wanted to come to help make it a big party. People danced, people laughed and, between that and another show Mikey O did that weekend, we raised well-over $10,000 for Mexico and Puerto Rico,” she said. “And it was fun.”
Final Five Questions with Gwen La Roka
What makes you laugh?
I don’t know. That’s so funny because it’s a question that I didn’t expect.
The first thing I think of is quirky comedy, but I can’t think of a good example. I’m sometimes a fan of stupid stuff. I guess I’ll have to think about this question a bit more.
Do you have a favorite joke either that you do or you love from another comedian?
I get a kick out of telling kids dorky, “drum roll please” kind of jokes. Not just kids actually, but adults, too. It’s funny because I like to do these jokes at my friends’ houses. I love cheesy jokes like, “So a mushroom walks in a bar and says, ‘Bartender make me a drink.’ And the bartender says, ‘I don’t serve your kind here.’ And the mushroom says, ‘Come on. Why not? I’m a fun-guy (fungi).’”
It’s stupid, but some people laugh out loud. Some people are like “what the hell? I don’t get it.” But I like telling cheesy, corny jokes like that at parties.
What establishments or landmarks would you recommend for someone to visit in Chicago?
Well, I’m definitely a foodie, so it’s hard for me to narrow down one of the million places that I like to go to eat.
I’m a creature of habit, so I always go to the same spots, but I would say go somewhere like Simone’s in Pilsen. It’s a bar and grill in the front part with some dope artwork, and then in the back, my buddies produce a show there called Pilsen Stand Up. They do comedy and there’s karaoke afterwards.
Simone’s has good food, nice artwork and a cool atmosphere.
Do you have any comedy recommendations to share with the world?
I’m going to keep it local, and I’m going to say Pilsen Stand Up, The Kates, The Mona Show, Comedy Bowl, The Mikey O Comedy Show and Las Locas Comedy. And all of the Chicago stand-up spots.
What makes you Rebellious?
I’m rebellious because I do not conform. I don’t want to be a zombie, man. I do not want to be a zombie, so if screaming conspiracy theories and questioning things instead of just following along with the herd makes me rebellious, then that’s a great thing.
*Lead photo used with permission from Gwen La Roka