News Column

Funny business

June 7, 2013


Come Tuesday, it'll be all smiles around Chicago for awhile.

That's when the fifth annual TBS Just for Laughs Chicago comedy festival kicks off, featuring nearly 200 performers in 100 shows at eight venues across Chicago. The event runs through Sunday, June 16.

Some of comedy's biggest names will perform, including Bill Maher, Seth Meyers, Russell Brand and Bob Newhart -- and that's just at The Chicago Theatre. Other high-profile hot spots hosting performers include Park West, The Vic, UP Comedy Club, Jokes and Notes and Stage 773.

In 2009, the Just for Laughs group partnered with comedy TV station TBS to produce a festival in Chicago, where many comedians have started their careers. Today, it's the country's single largest comedy festival, showcasing the industry's biggest stars and emerging talent.

"Chicago is known for its comedy," said Christine Melko-Ross, a festival spokeswoman. "It has so many great comedic performers, and it was just a natural fit. It's been a really great experience, and people have embraced the festival."

Included in the performer lineup are several comedians with suburban roots, including Matt Walsh, who graduated from Hinsdale South High School, and Kyle Kinane, an Addison Trail High School graduate who can be seen on Comedy Central.

Walsh now stars on the HBO comedy series "Veep." A founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade theater and sketch/improv group, he has written and created several TV shows including "Players" and "Dog Bites Man" and had roles in hit comedies such as "Ted," "The Hangover," "Old School" and "Elf."

He also co-hosts -- along with fellow Chicagoans Horatio Sanz, Brad Morris and Joe Nunez -- the Bear Down Podcast, which provides commentary on the Chicago Bears and sports celebrities. As part of the festival, the men will host a live performance at 10:30 p.m. on June 12 at UP Comedy Club.

Though Walsh, who discovered a love of improv at Northern Illinois University, now lives in Beverly Hills, his hometown roots are still strong. "I gravitate toward Chicago people," he says. "People are nice and modest and things like that."

His three kids -- ages 6, 4 and 18 months -- also help keep him in check. They find him funny, but "not as funny as I think I am," he says. "They think they're funnier."

Other festival highlights include a solo show by British superstar Russell Brand on June 12 at The Chicago Theatre; a Second City Alumni show featuring graduates Scott Adsit, TJ & Dave, Kevin Dorff and Jon Glaser at UP Comedy Club on June 12; and Knuckleheads, a night of sketch, improv and more with "Saturday Night Live" newcomers Tim Robinson, Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant June 13 through 15.

There also will be an advance screening of "The Heat" with director Paul Feig at the Kerasotes ShowPlace ICON on June 11. The movie stars Sandra Bullock and Plainfield native Melissa McCarthy as mismatched law enforcement officials who join forces to take down a drug lord.

Stage 773 is a new venue this year, with organizers aiming to keep some performances closer together. With four theaters in its complex, it will host more than 60 of the festival's shows. "We're putting together a variety of different shows to try to create a festival-central place," Melko-Ross says. "We're calling it a hub, a hangout of different shows."

The complex will be able to live-stream shows and act as a digital headquarters. It's a first step in organizers' goal of revolutionizing how festivals are experienced, she says, so people can also enjoy shows from home.

The best part about producing comedy is that people leave shows feeling happy, Melko-Ross says. Another goal is for the audience to discover something new. "We're proud of that part, the discovery of someone they might not know," she says. "We're always trying to get our audience to experience new types of humor."

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