Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

The Players 2011: The 50 people who really perform in Chicago

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As the economy slowly lifts us back to our feet and we look around, we see a remarkable sight: a performance industry in Chicago that survived the worst recession since the Great Depression wholly intact. Sure, we had a few brushes with death, and no doubt a few very small, very new theater companies threw in the towel, as they do even in good years, but unlike many other cities across the country, we’re in pretty good shape. How good? The League of Chicago Theatres issued a press release last week proclaiming our town as America’s theater leader, with more than 250 professional theaters, including four Regional Tony Award winners, and a combined annual budget of $250 million serving five million audience members. Add in our thriving dance community, a comedy scene that’s the envy of the nation and two world-class opera companies and you’d have to say we’re doing pretty damn good. But neither the economy nor any cultural organization is fully out of the water yet, and the dramatic uncertainty injected into the political sea by Mayor Daley’s decision to call it a day means Chicago’s performance community will need some steady hands at the wheel these next few years. Accordingly, for this edition of The Players, we’ve broadened our horizon and taken a closer-than-ever look at the individuals in charge of the financial fitness of our local institutions. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Jeffrey Ross/Zanies

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jeffrey rossRECOMMENDED

Jeffrey Ross strikes me as the type of guy who wakes up at 2pm, peeks out his tour bus, mutters, “Damn, we’re in Chicago already ” then goes about his usual routine: making a good living by mercilessly ripping on people. When I saw him last year at Zanies, he looked disheveled, eyes bloodshot, a disgusting neck beard outlining his chin, basically in the sort of physical state someone would be if their wife just left them. And yet, the whole charade actually enhanced Ross’ insult-ridden set, as if saying, “Yeah, I’m a pathetic schmuck, but if I’m totally owning your ass, then what does that make you?” Currently serving as the New York Friar’s Club “Roastmaster General,” Ross can be frequently seen roasting the pants off of whoever’s the man or woman of honor (usually some loser like Chevy Chase), and while those shows put his biting sarcasm front and center, they don’t show just how sharp and quick Ross is with a live audience. Sure, the dude’s crude, disrespectful and crass—but in an intelligent sort of way. (Andy Seifert)

October 14-15 at Zanies, 1548 N. Wells, (312)337-4027.

Preview: David Alan Grier/Zanies

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david alan grierRECOMMENDED

Comedy vet David Alan Grier has taken some pretty awful roles in a few godforsaken films—like Damon Wayans’ sidekick in the 1994 superhero parody “Blankman,” or as a bumbling American soldier in the Pauly Shore bomb “In the Army Now” – but he’s become a pretty dependable and relatively enjoyable stand-up, based on his sarcastic outbursts alone. Grier’s latest project, Comedy Central’s “Chocolate News,” a “Daily Show”-style satirical news show with an African-American perspective, was recently cancelled, and though the show never really lived up to its premise, you could tell Grier still had some comedy left in him. With an enormous, boisterous on-stage persona, Grier’s the type to express wit through incredulous eruptions. Perhaps the best indicator of Grier’s reputable goofiness: his Wikipedia entry states that he’s in talks to star as Louis Farrakhan in “The Nation,” a comedic bio-musical about the minister’s life. The report, according to Grier, is untrue, yet people have been persistently asking him about it, as if it’s clearly the part he was born to play. Honestly, unless Pauly Shore comes calling again, how could he not capitalize on that idea? A Louis Farrakhan musical has “career-defining triumph” written all over it. (Andy Seifert)

Sept 23-25 at Zanies, 1548 N. Wells, (312)337-4027.

Preview: Bill Bellamy/Zanies

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billbellamy2RECOMMENDED

It doesn’t seem all that long ago, but with a new decade fast approaching, the nineties are beginning to hold that same goofy, nostalgic appeal that was once reserved for remembering all of the eighties’ most embarrassing trends. And what says “pure nineties!” better than the phrase “booty call,” allegedly coined early in the decade by comedian Bill Bellamy and subsequently used by stand-ups everywhere, from Chris Rock to Bob Hope (assumedly). Bellamy has since cultivated a fairly respectable career, leading to a long list of credits, including Conan O’Brien, Last Comic Standing (where he’s hosted), and Def Comedy Jam, but, like Jim Gaffigan and Hot Pockets, he’ll likely always be defined for his classic “Booty Call” Showtime special, in which a fresh-faced, overly energetic Bellamy described the essential steps of the booty call: the browsing through the rolodex, the prodding of the completely suspecting suitor and the celebration of having coaxed “the booty” from her apartment (“my booty on the way!”). So tasteless, so stupid, and yet, so timeless. (Andy Seifert)

Sept 10 at Zanies, 1548 N. Wells, (312)337-4027.

Preview: Rob Riggle/Zanies

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RobRiggleRECOMMENDED

Most will recognize Rob Riggle as “that one guy from The Daily Show,” the husky correspondent who showed up around the same time as John Oliver. But Riggle’s been all over the biz, the kind of guy  you start to notice after he’s popped up in humorous sketches over and over again, like on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “Saturday Night Live,” “The Upright Citizen’s Brigade” and most recently in the bro-comedy smash hit “The Hangover.” But the most intriguing entry on Riggle’s resume? The U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. Amidst tours in Liberia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, Riggle managed to squeeze in time to foster a comedy career, becoming one of the few (if any) comedians whose day job is lieutenant colonel. Riggle’s not especially known for his stand-up routine, but his work on “The Daily Show” and other sketch troupes suggests a blend of political humor and a lot of off-the-cuff jabs. Between the military experience and the dirt he surely has on Jon Stewart, he probably has a thing or two to chat about. (Andy Seifert)

July 23 at Zanies, 1548 N. Wells, (312)337-4027.

Preview: Butch Bradley/Zanies

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butch_bradleyRECOMMENDED

At first, Atlantic City-based comic Butch Bradley seems like a poor man’s Lewis Black—lots of incredulous outrage, with arms flailing about and pointing angrily at hypothetical subjects. But give him a little more credit than that: many of Bradley’s outbursts are directed at such harmless topics that the punch lines include a hint of irresistible non-sequitur goofiness. “I don’t want to be killed by a first-time killer,” Bradley quips about his apparently inevitable homicide. “I want the guy to be good. They have to start somewhere. I don’t want any amateurs.” Bradley leaves to the imagination why he thinks he’s going to be murdered, and why he prefers a precise professional to kill him. It’s the same deal in a bit about spiders just showing up in his car when the doors are locked (“I don’t even mind if he wants a ride, just ask me,” he says)–Butch rarely explains why he’s ranting on the particular minutia of life he’s targeted. And it’s that lack of coherent logic that makes his routine pretty entertaining. (Andy Seifert)

July 21-26 at Zanies, 1548 N. Wells, (312)337-4027.

A Funny Thing Happens: Just for Laughs Festival hopes to crack up Chicago

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David Cross and Bob Odenkirk

David Cross and Bob Odenkirk

By Andy Seifert

Chicago may be an improv town, but Chicago also likes a little one-on-one action every once in a while, as in the audience versus the entertainer, one guy or gal throwing out his or her material in the hopes that it will produce a moments worth of euphoria in a crowd of onlookers and they can reap all the glory. That’s stand-up comedy for you, and it’s the format that will dominate the “Just for Laughs” Festival, which makes its American debut after twenty-seven years in Canada.

Legitimate Hollywood stars, alt-comedy favorites, Comedy Central stand-bys, Chicago theater troupes, and fresh-looking up-and-comers (yet to be chewed up and spit out by the industry) will converge in the Second City between June 17-21, meaning a ton of talent and a number of borderline personality disorders will be on full display. Spanning twelve venues throughout the city and including a fluid, diverse lineup of about forty shows, the Just for Laughs festival should appeal to a wide range of audiences and, like any festival, has its share of both immensely exciting shows and left-field head-scratchers. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Josh Blue/Zanies

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josh-blue-headshotRECOMMENDED

You know how the saying goes, “when life gives you cerebral palsy, achieve fame as a comedian by poking fun at your disability.” At least that’s the proverb for Denver’s Josh Blue, the winner of Last Comic Standing Season 4, who has turned his lifelong cerebral palsy into an immensely likable stand-up act, one that lightheartedly narrates life with the disability while refuting any preconceived stereotypes. The Paralympic-soccer-player-turned-comedian uses his unconventional body movement as a starting off point for his quips, then, once the jokes bring the house down, tells his audience that “you’ll all be going to hell for laughing at me.” Blue’s material is more than novelty, his self-deprecation is creative, unique and—dare I say it—heartwarming. “I was walking downtown and the drunk-tank stopped and picked me up,” he says. “I was like, ‘uh-oh.’ I was like, ‘Wait a minute fellas, there’s a misunderstanding, I’m not drunk, I have cerebral palsy.’ They’re like, ‘That’s a pretty big word for a drunk ass.’” (Andy Seifert)

June 11 at Zanies, 1548 N. Wells, (312)337-4027, at 7:30pm and 9:30pm. $25.

Preview: Susie Essman/Zanies

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ESSMANRECOMMENDED

She may not claim to have coined the phrase “you fat fuck,” but New York stand-up/actress Susie Essman certainly popularized it. As the bat-shit-insane wife of Jeff Garlin’s character on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Essman has pulled out nearly every scathing combination of profanities in the English language in order to deride the completely whipped Garlin and his partner-in-crime, Larry David. For a show that builds its comedic foundation on unscripted arguments, Essman has proven to be a bulldog that’s escaped from its leash, willing to tear apart Garlin and David for the audience’s continued amusement. Aside from “Curb,” Essman’s been touring the stand-up circuit for a couple of decades, and while a lot of her routine is still very much insult-driven, much of the act fixates on her Jewish heritage, replete with many rousing impressions of her family that remind heavily of the old Mike Myers’ “Coffee Talk with Linda Richman” SNL skit. (Andy Seifert)

May 17 at Zanies, 1548 N. Wells, (312)337-4027, at 6:30pm and 8:30pm. $30.

Preview: Gallagher/Zanies St. Charles

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gallagherI remember watching Gallagher’s stand-up routine back in the early nineties and, as a little kid, I naturally thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen: giant trampoline couches, crazy inventions, frizzy clown hair and—best of all—the Sledge-o-Matic mallet, with the power to violently obliterate everything from watermelons to cartons of milk to computer keyboards. Since his glory days, Gallagher’s been in the midst of some bad press, first by suing his brother, Ron Gallagher, for copying nearly every aspect of his act (which sounds like a perfect story for Dateline NBC), second for a 2005 interview when he called David Letterman, Tom Hanks and Michael Keaton terrible comedians and belittled Comedy Central for only awarding him “the 100th best stand-up of all-time.” Seems like all the hooplah sucked the life out of him, because at the age of 62, Gallagher looks pretty gray and altogether tired, and the novelty of destroying everything on God’s green earth has run its course. Comedy doesn’t have to be intellectually stimulating by any means, but Gallagher’s been staging the same glorified food fight for almost thirty years, and at some point, the whole gag turned stale. (Andy Seifert)

May 8 at Zanies in St. Charles, 4051 E. Main, (630)584-6342, and May 9 at Zanies in Vernon Hills, 230 Hawthorn Village Commons, (847)549-6030.