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Sunday Splash: Jim Belushi returns to Chicago stand-up scene

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Updated: November 15, 2012 6:21AM

More than 30 years after cutting his teeth as a young comic in Chicago, actor Jim Belushi is returning to bring some bite back into the stand-up scene — and give new talent a shot at stardom. On Oct. 18 (and continuing Oct. 19-20), he’ll host the grand reopening of the Comedy Bar, 157 W. Ontario, as its co-owner.

The venue will serve as an incubator for new comedic talent, and Belushi admits he’s openly scouting.

“Chicago is the poacher capital,” he says. “ ‘Saturday Night Live’ comes here and poaches comedians. Jay Leno comes here and poaches comedians. I’m hoping that not only can I find great ideas and premises to develop on the stage, but to find some great comic actors that I can use in projects I’m producing.”

Belushi, 58, has quite a track record: He starred in, directed and produced the ABC sitcom “According to Jim,” which aired from 2001-2009. He’s been in dozens of films and television shows — as both a dramatic and comedic actor — starred on Broadway and continues to tour as a blues singer with his band, the Sacred Hearts. He’s also a partner in the House of Blues chain and regularly performs with Dan Akroyd as the Blues Brothers.

But his partnership in the Comedy Bar isn’t about adding another notch to his belt. “I make my living in a different venue,” he says. “This is more about the craft, about having fun again, the magic. There’s nothing like that feeling of everybody in the room laughing at the same joke.”

Chicago has a long history of serving as a training ground for young comedians, and Belushi says it’s because there’s something special about local audiences. “Listen, I don’t know if Chicago is the funniest city in the world, but everybody in Chicago knows what’s funny,” he says. “When they laugh they fall out of their chair. That trains the stand-up comics. When they leave Chicago they’re prepared because that sensibility works everywhere.”

The new venture came about organically with two partners: Jim’s 31-year-old son Robert Belushi and Kyle Lane, a young stand-up comic who became friends with Robert when they were in an independent film together seven years ago. Lane had been operating the Comedy Bar on the ground floor of the Ontourage nightclub (after performances end it transitions into a live music venue with dance music on the second floor) and had kept Robert apprised of his successes, which included events with Comedy Central and TBS’ Just for Laughs Festival. Over the years, Lane also became a close Belushi family friend.

“Anytime Jim was in town, he’d take Robert and me out to a Cubs or Bears game or dinner,” says Lane. “Jim and I got to talking last spring about the Comedy Bar, and the things we were accomplishing, and he wanted to step in to help take it to the next level. I was more than happy to have Jim on as a partner and mentor. Chicago loves him — I refer to him as ‘the Mike Ditka of comedy.’ ”

Belushi is equally effusive about Lane. “There aren’t a lot of things inspiring me lately as far as television and film material,” he says. “What really is inspiring me is Kyle. He has a great vision for this club.”

That vision includes adding a blues house band and burlesque shows, which will begin in the new year. It also has to do with the club’s vibe. “This has the feel of an old Rat Pack kind of room,” says Belushi. “It’s dark, it’s intimate, it’s sexy and you always catch magic.”

Belushi will travel to Chicago from his home base in Los Angeles about 10 times a year to perform improv with Robert (they call their troupe the Chicago Board of Comedy) and also open for house comedians with stories and anecdotes. His favorite topics: social commentary, politics and — most of all — relationships (see sidebar). “It all boils down to sex, sexual tension, sexual relief, how to find a guy, how to find a girl, what guys and girls are doing wrong.” It’s a great date night, he says. “You take a girl to the Comedy Bar, and she laughs very hard and releases a lot of endorphins, you’ve got a better shot.”

As far as helping feed into the very scene that turned him into a superstar? “I don’t really think that big,” Belushi says. “I just chase the magic. I’m just looking for a place to have a ball. As long as I’ve been in Los Angeles, I love that life there — but I don’t have the fun there that I have in Chicago. Some guys go to the golf course. I want to come here.”

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