Stage 773 hosts local Just for Laughs crew
BY MIKE THOMAS firstname.lastname@example.org June 11, 2013 8:02PM
Chelsea Peretti is booked to perform four standup shows and as an ensemble member of "Set List: Stand-up Without a Net" at the Just For Laughs Stage 773 showcase.
TBS Just for Laughs
Chicago @ Stage 773
◆ Wednesday through Sunday
◆ Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
◆ (773) 327-5252; stage773.com; justforlaughschicago.com
Updated: July 13, 2013 6:07AM
For the first time in its five-year history, Chicago’s annual TBS Just for Laughs comedy festival (June 11-16) is showcasing almost all local comics in one place: Stage 773 on West Belmont Avenue. So if you’re keen on seeing folks before they break big — names such as Kyle Kinane, Junior Stopka, Caitlin Bergh and many more — this is the joint to visit.
Although Jokes and Notes on the South Side has its own JFL programming in addition to a separate showcase at 773, the four-venue Belmont location is where most local action takes place. The festival’s biggest names are in bigger rooms, such as UP Comedy Club, the Park West, the Vic Theatre and the Chicago Theatre.
Touted as a “Digital Comedy Hub,” 773 also is tricked out to live-stream performances via such popular Web outlets as Dailymotion, TeamCoco, Yahoo! and others. It’s ground zero for a slew of podcasts as well.
In addition to local performers, many national ones — among them Chelsea Peretti, Moshe Kasher, Ari Shaffir, Todd Barry, Kumail Nanjiani — are on the guest list.
“We think by having this new hub and getting everyone together, we’re going to get people who are really excited to see Chelsea Peretti, but then while they’re at the hub they’re going to walk into another room and see some great local talent,” says JFL’s Montreal-based director of programming Robbie Praw.
But not everyone’s thrilled with the change — which Praw describes as “an investment” that’s costing the festival more money, not less.
Chicago-based stand-up Drew Michael, a co-founder of the local group Comedians You Should Know and a past festival participant, says it appears as though JFL regards the local scene “almost as an afterthought. They’re not very in tune with what’s going on. They look at locals almost as a formality. That’s what it seems like, anyway, because why would you shove everybody into 773 — a place that doesn’t even do stand-up shows?”
Praw disagrees and points out that tuned-in locals (including former Time Out Chicago comedy editor Steve Heisler) have run things in years past. Moreover, the festival recently had a staffer — former Creative Artists Agency agent Pam Klier — relocate from Los Angeles to Chicago specifically to handle in-town auditions and other business. Also, Praw says, decentralization was a detriment to attracting the largest number of patrons. “Rather than giving people a focal point, we were saying, ‘Figure it out for yourself.’”
Still, Lincoln Lodge comedy producer Mark Geary remains troubled by the shift from many rooms to one. For the performers, he says, converging could be “a better thing.”
For Geary, as a producer, it was “a crushing blow, because I thought we were in the catbird’s seat last year. We’re doing these great shows, we’re getting amazing talent and we’re bringing our venue to a new audience.”
This year JFL still is highlighting local venues, but in name only. At 773, productions are titled “The Lincoln Lodge Presents,” “The Annoyance Theatre Presents” and so on. Praw says it’s a good “branding exercise to show comedy fans that may not be coming to their individual rooms that they’re out there and they procure phenomenal talent.”
Although Geary is bummed about not being able to use his own room, he admits that four years in a row of JFL attention was a gift, as was the free advertising he received and the roughly $1,200-$1500 his not-for-profit stands to lose due to the different set-up. “I only made that money by their good grace,” he says. “And I got their talent for free, which is huge.”
While Annoyance improviser and “Messing with a Friend” host Susan Messing also has reservations about the 773 move, she sees where JFL is “trying to problem solve.” A single venue instead of several spread-out ones that might be harder for patrons to access may well be an advantage.
And, she adds, “A different stage is always inspiring to me. As long as it says ‘Annoyance Presents,’ I don’t care if it’s in an alley.”