The TBS Just for Laughs Chicago comedy festival is underway in multiple venues and, as they say on TV, we've got team coverage of everything from the marquee attractions at the Chicago Theatre to the late-night, semi-secret performances that insiders prefer. More reviews from the warm-weather funny fest will appear in the Tribune on Monday and Tuesday. For tickets, go to justforlaughschicago.com.
Russell Brand at the Chicago Theatre
Like most celebrity Lotharios, this British comic with the hairy Jesus looks but the high-pitched voice actually is a blend of the masculine and feminine. Nonetheless, the uber-text of Brand's heavily sexualized, 80-minute solo stand at the Chicago Theatre is the discovery of which woman in the house will receive the honor of getting to sleep with Katy Perry's ex, once the business of the show is out of the way.
The prospect seemed improbably attractive to a reasonable percentage of Brand's heavily female audience, many of whom were willing to go along with the performer's physical posturing, tails of sexual prowess and his assorted forays into the house, preening, picking, choosing, all while cracking funny with that high-pitched, real-man-but-needy whine he has perfected for seduction of all stripes. "I am a bit tired," he kept saying, by way of warning, lest his performance (for the show, for the aftermath) show up on YouTube. For the guys, Brand positions himself as a kind of selfless opening act for what might transpire later in the evening, once his female fans have been loosened up by Brand's banter. He's doing all the heavy lifting, he insists, for others to enjoy the fruits of his labors. There's no question that Brand has a head on his shoulders — amid all the sex jokes he did work in a few references to cultural theory, semiotics and even philosopher Umberto Eco. And perhaps there is some distance between the man and his Jaggeresque sexual swagger. Maybe. Brand prefers you to be not entirely sure. But while the relentless focus on sexual detail grew tiresome, the best moments of the show were indeed the ones where the man satirized his own image — that of a drug addict, sex addict, immoral prankster. All of that has been his act; all of that has been true.
"[REDACTED]" at Constellation Theatre
Arguably Just for Laugh's most anticipated showcase, the line-up is secret (last year, unannounced "[REDACTED]" acts included Amy Schumer and Aziz Ansari), the ticket impossible (all 250 seats sold in four minutes) and the cause honorable (proceeds go to the Chicago chapter of the 826CHI writing center). So maybe the problem is expectations — the show is designed to slide in as many famous faces as possible and convince you that this is the Greatest Evening of Comedy Ever.
As unremarkable, uninvested all-star jams go, you could do worse: Wednesday's "[REDACTED]" found Doug Benson flailing, Brian Posehn lavishing the Wicker Park restaurant Schwa with lame, unprintable compliments; David Cross satirizing reaction to the Sandy Hook shooting (angry, thoughtful and, considering there wasn't enough time to generate steam, inevitably glib). A mini-set from indie-rock's Superchunk (with comedian Todd Barry on drums) did nothing for momentum. That said, Barry's own set, and feigned confusion about writing center benefits ("Do they need the money to fly in Stephen King?"), was fresh, as were those from Cameron Esposito and Kyle Kinane, Los Angeles-transplanted Chicagoans, who brought such bewilderment to single life (Kinane) and opposition to gay rights (Esposito) that they're kind of an HBO pilot waiting to be filmed.
Then there was John Hodgman, wearing the skirt suit of a vacationing nun, doing his set as Ayn Rand — reading her imaginary columns from Parade magazine ("What 'tis wrong with committing suicide?"). That's invested.
— Chris Borrelli
"The Knuckleheads" at UP Comedy Club
What do Tim Robinson, Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant have in common? Well, this time last year, all three of them were toiling in Chicago comedy theaters. Then they auditioned for "Saturday Night Live" and each got the gig.
The packed UP Comedy Club was filled with the "SNL" demographic and a trio of young performers who have enjoyed a sudden surge of clout — and who still have a bit of that shell-shocked, oh-my-god-I-made-it look about them. Conventional wisdom has it that Strong was the rookie breakout on "SNL," but that was not the case in this roughly 70-minute show made of up of sketch, solo suites and improv. Bryant's enhanced visibility and confidence has made her choices bolder without undermining her everygal charm. And the lovable Robinson, TV or no TV, remains one of the best physical comedians Second City has produced since John Belushi; he always seems awkward at first and comes with an initial hesitancy that is not ideal for TV sketch comedy. But once Robinson finds more long-form venues — like the movies — his talents will win out. Strong was weakened by her choice of attire, a weird, loose top that seemed to obscure not just her characters but her entire persona. But she had little bursts wherein one could see what those SNL scouts admired. None of this trio yet has the clout or confidence to bite the hand that is now feeding them — and that's the kind of show we always want to see from the chosen ones. And they were rusty and timid when it came to good, old-fashioned improv. But they're all works in progress, made in Chicago.
Chelsea Peretti at Stage 773
One of the paradoxes of stand-up comedy is that the archetypal stand-up is uneasy — confiding onstage, a mess offstage. And yet, that uncertainty, as a subject, is rarely mined as nakedly (or accessibly) as it is by the talented Peretti, whose act takes on the appearance of an anxious person interviewing herself, questioning why she bothers. Do I even have to add she's more writer's comic than comic's comic?
A former scribe on "Parks and Recreation" and Sarah Silverman's Comedy Central series (co-starring with Andy Samberg this fall on Fox's "Brooklyn Nine-Nine"), she began her Thursday set saying how odd it was she was doing stand-up considering she quit, paralyzed by doubt, watching male comics step offstage with a boom: "That's what comedy looks like!" She's not timid; she preens, skips. But the heart of her subtly humane material — born of clear uncertainty — is the self-conscious reminder that her jokes are her side of the story, that people are so casually hurtful to anyone who goes out on a limb these days even Einstein would hesitate to post his Theory of Relativity on YouTube. At the end, when she told the audience that she brought her all to this show and they brought "probably 60 percent," it was just a joke. But maybe it wasn't.
— Chris BorrelliCopyright © 2015, RedEye