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Chicago’s next hub of hilarity: Laugh Factory?

Jamie MasadEmily Meador Laugh Factory Los Angeles hold blueprints their plans build new comedy outlet an empty theater Belmont Broadway.

Jamie Masada and Emily Meador of the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles hold blueprints of their plans to build a new comedy outlet in an empty theater at Belmont and Broadway. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 3, 2011 12:34AM



Does anybody remember laughter? Specifically, the laughter that once emanated from a thousand comedy caverns and chuckle huts that dotted Chicago’s downtown and North Side in the ’80s and ’90s?

All right, it wasn’t a thousand, but there were lots. Top destinations included Byfield’s, the Comedy Cottage, the Chicago Improvisation, the Funny Firm, Catch a Rising Star, Chaplin’s (which vanished in mere weeks) and Zanies. From 1991 to 1998, All Jokes Aside gained national notice and ruled the South Loop.

And then — not overnight but quickly — it was over. Virtually every comedy club that had sprouted during the boom withered when supply outpaced demand and would-be patrons increasingly opted for other entertainment alternatives. An overabundance of mirthless hacks and free (or discounted) tickets didn’t help matters. Neither did the burgeoning popularity of improv, which now dominates the local comedy scene and attracts students of the centuries-old art form from near and far.

In the end, only Zanies in Old Town remained as the city’s sole full-time punchline palace. And despite the presence of a cavernous Improv franchise in Schaumburg, the two-decade-old (and recently relocated) Riddles Comedy Club in Alsip and the 2006 emergence of Jokes & Notes in Bronzeville — a 150-seat, five-day-a-week space that bills itself as “the only African-American comedy club in Chicago” — Zanies continues its streak as the city’s best-known, and highest-grossing, haven of hilarity.

Riddles owner Ken Stevens once pondered a move to the city, but thought better of it.

“I always felt it was Zanies’ territory,” he says. “Because other clubs, you saw they never really survived down there.”

That might soon change.

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A 377-seat branch of the Los Angeles-based World Famous Laugh Factory is slated to open in the former digs of Chicago’s Lakeshore Theater, at the southeast corner of Belmont and Broadway. That’s barring any other major disruptions, such as the city-mandated work stoppage that halted renovation of the site for a couple of crucial weeks in May. The red-carpet grand opening, recently postponed from mid-June, now is set for around July 1, which intrigues Zanies executive vice president Bert Haas, an experienced if biased observer.

“I’ve opened seven clubs and I can look you in the eye and say without any shame that I did not open a single one on time,” he says. “Because when you get into the construction process there’s just so many variables, so I don’t hold it against them if they run behind schedule. If they get open by the fall, I would consider that a success.”

The Laugh Factory’s vice president of business development, Emily Meador, contends a summer opening is still on track. The club’s launch, though, is less in question than its longevity.

Over the years Laugh Factory majority owner Jamie Masada and his partners — including, since the mid-’90s, music mega-mogul Quincy Jones — have enjoyed enviable success at their L.A. location with the help of stars or soon-to-be stars such as George Carlin and Roseanne Barr, Robin Williams and Chris Rock, Jim Carrey and Dave Chappelle. Dun & Bradstreet’s latest report puts 2010 estimated sales at $870,000. A much smaller branch that features lesser-known talent in nearby Long Beach earned around one-tenth that amount. The Iranian-born Masada, who immigrated to L.A. from Israel when he was 14, says profits alone exceeded $1 million.

But historically, since Richard Pryor kicked off L.A.’s opening in 1979, the organization has had modest results outside of California. An Aurora incursion in the early ’90s was short-lived. So was a Memphis outpost, run by someone who licensed the Laugh Factory name.

In 2002, actor and comedian Jamie Foxx was supposed to help establish a branch in Atlanta, but that has yet to happen, and an attempt to take Manhattan was fraught with legal drama. Court records indicate that in its first few years, between 2004 and early 2007, the New York club (in a renovated Times Square peep-show/strip joint and part-owned by Big Apple porn czar Richard Basciano) reported no profit. By early 2008, all vestiges of Laugh Factory involvement were gone.

Could Chicago end the slump?

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Not only does the Chicago Laugh Factory’s structure dwarf the 100-seat Zanies on Wells, its only true competitor a couple of miles south, but it is situated in a plum location that’s teeming with pedestrians, surrounded by restaurants and easily accessible by public transportation (less so cars).

And because the Lakeshore booked a bevy of stand-up acts during its last few years, the nearly century-old venue already is known as a comedy destination. Thanks to a $5 million interior makeover and a half-million-dollar custom-crafted marquee outside, however, physical similarities will be few.

Even so, flashy style is a poor substitute for substance — at least in the long term. Together with good sight lines and top-notch acoustics, it’s what happens on stage that matters most: the funny. And not just big-name funny. The Laugh Factory promises to deliver A-listers, but so far none has been revealed. And comedy insiders say prominent headliners are only a small part of the equation.

“If you can make it a destination where an audience comes to see whatever you have, then you don’t have to play that name game of ‘who’s the star?’ and ‘who are we going to have to spend a s---load of money for to sell tickets?’ ” says veteran comic Paul Provenza, who served as a consultant to the Lakeshore and who used to play the Laugh Factory in L.A.

His other piece of advice: don’t swagger. “If the Laugh Factory comes off as being, like, ‘Hey, forget what you’ve got here in Chicago, we’re bringing you the real s---,’ then I think it does cost them something.”

As they have been for decades, outsiders are looked upon warily in these parts. Consider Macy’s or Rahm Emanuel’s new police chief. The comedy business is no different.

“You have to know your audience,” says veteran Chicago comic Dobie Maxwell. “I moved here from Milwaukee, and it’s funny to me that the differences between Chicago and Milwaukee are 90 miles in map [distance], but about six planets through the comedy solar system. And they’re going to find that out coming from L.A.”

To hear Masada and Meador tell it, they’re all about humility.

“We’re not here to be a flashy brand from L.A.,” Meador says. “That’s not us. We’re an open-door-policy, we-want-you-to-feel-at-home kind of company, and that’s what we want to communicate and have here as well.”

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Asked if the Laugh Factory’s advent has him worried, Haas cracks up. His reaction stems less from complacency than from a been-there-done-that knowingness. Since he began as a Zanies waiter, in 1980, scores of would-be challengers (by his count 50 to 60) have come and gone while Zanies kept chugging along — and growing. In reach, not square footage.

Roomier sister spaces in Vernon Hills (recently shuttered) and St. Charles have allowed it to book pricey celebrity comics who circulate between the clubs. At least two of them, Zanies loyalists Gilbert Gottfried and Richard Lewis, say they likely won’t step foot onto the Laugh Factory’s stage.

“The only people that ever worry us are people that do bad shows or don’t know how to run a venue,” Haas says. “Because what happens is someone will go there, see a lousy show and go, ‘That’s stand-up comedy?’ And then I can spend a million dollars on advertising and they’re never going to come to Zanies, because their [impression] of stand-up comedy is negative.”

Perhaps in part because Masada has been made aware of the fact that Chicagoans typically embrace their own (even those from leafier suburbs), the Laugh Factory owner has placed the 25-year-old Meador in charge of his Broadway club.

A graduate of Lake Forest Academy and an English-communications student during a two-year stint at DePaul, Meador began her Laugh Factory residency roughly four years ago, cleaning up after shows. An internship ensued.

As the official story goes, it was Meador’s steady urging that led Masada to seriously consider setting up shop in Chicago. And supposedly it was she who persuaded him to spend millions instead of the hundreds of thousands he initially had in mind. When a suitable space was secured (the landlord, who declined comment, originally wanted to install dental offices) and Masada had done some pavement pounding to get a feel for the neighborhood’s vibe, invasion plans began in earnest. Or maybe that’s too diabolical a depiction.

“We’re not invading Chicago,” Meador insists. “It’s me coming home, really, and bringing a piece of what I’ve experienced and what I love so much about L.A. to my hometown.”

She confidently predicts a residency of 20 to 25 years, which raises some eyebrows. A couple of them belong to former Lakeshore owner-manager Chris Ritter, who now runs the Mayne Stage theater in Rogers Park.

“From my experience doing comedy at Broadway and Belmont, if they’re spending $5 million to build that place out, they’re going to need a 25-year plan,” he half-jokes.

Outside the comedy realm, some businesses near the Laugh Factory are thrilled about their new neighbor and its potential ripple effect on area commerce. The manager at Wilde Bar & Restaurant down the street says he might keep his kitchen open longer for post-show noshing. Broadway Shoe Repair owner Dan Kanellakis, who saw “Star Wars” in the Laugh Factory’s theater when it was still a movie house, calls Masada “a real good guy” with a “great demeanor” who “really wants to make it work.” Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) and Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce executive director Maureen Martino have high hopes, too.

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The infectiously energetic and relentlessly sunny Masada, 51, joins us after a brief meeting with his marquee installer. Whereas the more businesslike Meador wears high heels and a conservative black dress, he exudes kid-like enthusiasm in dark jeans and a casual tan blazer.

Members of a mutual admiration society, they take turns singing each other’s praises. Meador: “He’s such a great role model for me, and I have so much respect for him.” Masada: “Everything she’s developed for the Laugh Factory . . . it’s all winners, so you can’t say no to her. To find this smart, smart woman . . . ”

They both spend time lauding Chicago. Its stand-up comedy scene, though, has room for improvement.

“It’s been my feeling and it’s my opinion that there’s no real strong stand-up presence in this city, with the exception of Zanies,” Meador says. “And I feel like there could be a lot more. And what I wanted to do was make another platform for the comedians to have to hone their skills and to be able to perform.”

Masada agrees. “We want to revamp the comedy community in [Chicago]. That’s what we want to do. We’re not in here to take business from anybody. . . . We want to help everybody. That’s the key thing.”

So is giving back through various outreach programs. And judging by Masada’s long-standing charity work out West, it’s more than a marketing ploy. At his L.A. establishment, Masada long has hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for the homeless. Jewish high holidays, too. He and Meador plan to do likewise in Chicago. Masada’s comedy camp for underprivileged kids will put down stakes here as well.

Harvey-born comic Tom Dreesen, one of Chicago’s favorite sons and a Laugh Factory investor (Masada is shooting for around nine total), extols Masada’s boundless generosity. He also warns against viewing Masada as a “simpleton” and says that his friend has a crafty capitalistic streak.

“See, he does it subtly,” Dreesen says of Masada’s approach. “Jamie’s about marketing, about getting people to keep coming back to the club. And getting the community aware of the services they provide there and having special events and that kind of stuff. He’s a promoter.”

A promoter who, New York Magazine noted in 1996, “has been known to exaggerate a bit.”

The question is, will Chicagoans buy what he’s selling? Meador thinks so.

“We’re here to stay,” she proclaims.

Her boss is more circumspect about his undeniably risky investment.

Says a smiling Masada, “I’m hoping she’s right.”



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