Chicago Comedians Polish Their Craft at Schubas

Your Sunday Best Photo

Schuba's Sunday night show has become a not spot
for aspiring comedians. (Photo by Andrew Kahn)

Belmont Stop IconBy Andrew Kahn, A.Jay Wagner and Lars Weborg
The Red Line Project

Posted: March 16, 2010

It was a cold Sunday night with sleet pouring from the sky and puddles of slush covering the streets and sidewalks, tucked away in the attic of North Side pub Schubas, a small crowd seemed oblivious to the weather outside.

There’s no stage, no spotlight, only a single microphone stand and a token stool, the tools of the trade, sitting below the spartan lighting.

Each week Schubas holds Your Sunday Best – an open-mic comedy night – in the small upstairs bar reached by an inconspicuous staircase in the front of the downstairs bar. Schubas has faithfully been holding the event at the the corner of Belmont and Southport avenues for more than a decade.

A motley crew sat expectantly, attention facing forward while sipping on their beers. Some were nervously tapping or scribbling away on notepads. One particularly anxious looking young man paced the steps only to return to his seat to scribble something in his notebook, and then back to ruminating on the steps.

Slowly, the space began to fill and the drinks began to flow in anticipation of the 

irst brave soul to try to make them laugh. Some entered to good-natured heckling. Others slipped in like a new kid on his first day of class.

The weekly show has become a mainstay for many of Chicago’s up-and-coming comedians. The Chicago Tribune called it the city’s “industry room” as the majority of performers will take the opportunity to plug their own shows and venues.

As Evanston’s Ricky Gonzalez said, “At Schubas, you’re not performing open mics for audiences. You’re performing for other comics.”

Your Sunday Best’s master of ceremonies, Prescott Tolk, himself a Comedy Central veteran, opened up the night name-checking some of those in attendance and then jokes about the recent disappearance of Andrew Koenig, the actor who portrayed “Boner” on the sitcom Growing Pains.

He riffed on a friend’s callous comments on Koenig’s disappearance, “It’s a weird situation with comedians. You think they’re kidding, and then, all the sudden, they’re not.”

Tolk quickly handed off the mic to a nebbish, bespectacled lad who read his jokes directly from a crumpled piece of paper. Head down, lifting only to respond to the silence of another failed joke. The best he could manage was some sympathetic laughter from the crowd. But upon conclusion he received an encouraging round of applause as he returned the microphone to the stand and retreated to his seat.

Despite the weather, the room was packed and people continued to file in and out throughout the evening.  Though there was no assigned seating, the room had the feel of a high school. A clique of sarcastic 20-somethings congregated in the back, while a handful of pros situated themselves near Tolk at the bar, newbies at attention in the front, and scattered about was a collection of everything in between.

The audience was forgiving and attentive, not surprisingly, due to the fact that most eventually took a turn at the front of the room.  Comedians, amateurs and pros alike, telling jokes to each other created an encouraging yet competitive vibe. And its not uncommon for a first timer to receive a chilly reception. Gonzalez said, “When they see new faces, a lot of times the room can be tough. It’s just more competition.”

As the night wore on and nearly every member of the audience made the journey to the front. It became clear that some of the stand-ups were not starry-eyed accountants with hopes of the big time. A handful had the stage-presence and the verbal dexterity of someone who could be doing this for a living.

But the thing was many of them were not especially funny. It became clear that they came with very little prepared and treated this as an opportunity to flesh-out some bits and determine what would get laughs and what wouldn’t.

Others took it quite seriously, despite how flat their jokes fell. The effort was apparent by the nervous shuffling of notes or grasping for a drink, both stalling and desperately trying to find the one that would be a winner.

As the comedians grew more skilled, so did the congenial heckling. One comedian 

who took the stage to much fanfare launched into a manic set that quickly devolved into a raucous give-and-take with the crowd that was absent any formal jokes.

When asked about Chicago’s comedy scene, Matty Ryan said, “It’s definitely a family. You see all the same people all the time. And, for the most part, people are looking out for each other.”

Though the majority of the comedians at Schubas were competing for the very few paid gigs available in town, and a certain contentiousness does arise from the competitive nature, it’s obvious that a camaraderie overrides it. The high fives received on the way back to the seat, the free beer for the kid who flopped, and the warm reception all are greeted with go to show that this is a community. It’s understood that very few will ever make any money off these jokes. And to return week after week knowing this speaks to not only to each comedian’s gumption, but also the camaraderie.

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