Sarah Silverman, you're such a scold. At the Chicago Theatre late Saturday night, the unfiltered comedian was confronted with so many tweeters, texters and compulsive amateur photographers as she hosted her marquee show at the TBS Just for Laughs comedy festival, she felt the need to deliver numerous sermons on How to Watch A Live Performance. "Look at you," she snarled, venomously, to one seemingly oblivious dude in the front row, "eating popcorn like you're watching a movie and not a real person TWO FEET IN FRONT OF YOU. Is this the respect that dance gets? Is that what they do to Brian Dennehy at 'The Iceman Cometh'?"
Well, some of them, yes. But you could sense the still-lithe and seductive but less perky satirist, who now is 41, on the cusp of crossing that line from familiar to authority figure for her young demographic. That's a dangerous and oft-irrevocable business for a hip comedian, especially in a huge venue where such antics tend not to read well from the back. Hopefully Silverman will manage her, ahem, transition and just get angrier in a bigger way. The signs are good, as she raged Saturday about "deranged" people "documenting garbage" instead of providing the live energy that might raise up her show, and she took down an only modestly invasive heckler as if she were firing off cruise missiles. "You know what's like a Facebook page?" she asked her front-row losers, rhetorically and maybe even maternally, "your memory."
Silverman chilled as she introduced her guests, who included the hugely talented Hannibal Buress (doing much the same he did earlier this week in his own show), the shock-haired musical comic Reggie Watts (mostly weird), Marc Maron (too low in energy for a venue of this size) Kyle Dunnigan (a funny guy who started his fine act by pretending to be Silverman's mentally disabled cousin, fooling half the house) and, best of them all, Natasha Leggero, a cute, caustic and hilarious valley-girl type with improbable roots in Rockford.
Between their acts, Silverman stood up and, by her own admission, judged.
Nick Offerman at The Vic Theatre: His portrayal of the taciturn Ron Swanson on"Parks and Recreation" has elevated former Chicagoan Nick Offerman into a pop-cultural icon. Though a terrifically funny actor, a stand-up comedian he is not, and his performance before a sold-out crowd Saturday at The Vic wasn't a comedy show so much as an opportunity for Offerman to riff on what he drolly referred to as his "10 Tips for Prosperity," which had a distinctly Swanson-esque sound to them: Say please and thank you, always carry a handkerchief, get a hobby, eat red meat.
If the night had a rambling quality to it, so be it. Offerman has the right kind of low-key charisma that makes for marvelous company. His unabashed adoration for his wife and fellow comedic actor Megan Mullally (who belted out a handful of tunes with her band before Offerman took the stage) is at once mushy and manly, and it is a beguiling combination. As a public figure, Offerman has social politics that are complicated but intriguing; he's a man's man but also a feminist, a conservative liberal and a liberal conservative. He talked about church and Jesus more than one might expect but was just as quick to sing a song with lyrics so dirty, he suggested it might be time for his mother (in the audience) to take a bathroom break. He is a man who expresses himself with a certain amount of formality (who else but Offerman would refer to the venue by its long-forgotten given name, the Victoria Theatre?), but also one who wears his heart on his sleeve. As a motivational speaker, he is not a galvanizing presence, but as a human being, he's hard not to admire.
Aziz Ansari at the Chicago Theatre: Watching a stand-up comic perform is almost never aspirational. Unless you are so well-adjusted that a curdled outlook on life seems exotic, the pain behind a comedian's microphone is usually all too relatable. Then there's the joy in watching Ansari, 29, his career ascendant, glide through stories about nightclubs, charity auctions and married friends with real responsibilities.
He has no apparent angst; during a bit about repressed childhood trauma, he fished around his head for some bottled-up agony only to decide, nope, not harboring any. Describing himself watching Barack Obama greet the Roots at the White House ("Oh, snap! It's the Roots!"), he said "I realized the president is exactly like I would be if I were president." This is safe, easy material to come up with and nearly impossible to deliver with humility. And yet Ansari instinctively toes the line between swagger and charm, which is also the point of his act at the moment. Dressed in a black tuxedo suit with a big flower in the lapel, he is not a parody of a professional but the thing itself.
— Christopher Borrelli
John Oliver at The Vic: Oliver is that rarity in stand-up comedy, a performer who gives the impression of being well-adjusted, of trying to make people laugh not to fill some gnawing void in his soul but because he rather enjoys the game. And his art doesn't suffer for it in the least. Oliver, 35, the "Senior British Correspondent" on "The Daily Show," lit up the Vic on Friday night in a fast, 80-minute set that was, essentially, his shorthand version of de Tocqueville. He explained America to Americans, gave us lessons on how to lose an empire and told us we were Elvis Presley, but "in your Vegas years." Of what's happening in the presidential election, he said, "The longer you have democracy, the less you care about it. It's like goldfish."
Yet he repeatedly assured the crowd that everything is going to be all right, not because of the facts stacked against us, but because we believe it will be. Which led to the set's sustaining mantra about our absurd "overconfidence" finding a way to carry us through. When audience members shouted a couple of comments, Oliver didn't bristle or attack but built them deftly into the act. In the end, his act mostly worked because it was about something bigger than himself. A bit about witnessing a pigeon wandering through an airport, uniting the patrons in delight, led him to wonder: "Have we always been that tantalizingly close to everything being OK?"
Kelly Carlin at UP Comedy Club: History shows that being the child of a celebrity is generally no fun, but "A Carlin Home Companion," Kelly Carlin's strikingly serious (for a comedy festival, anyway) one-woman show Friday night at The Second City's UP venue was still dark and raw enough to surprise many in the audience expecting a nostalgic look at life with her legendary comic father, George. Not what they got. Clearly, the younger Carlin loved her parents, but her childhood, in her telling, was spent seeking the approval of a mostly absent father and negotiating peace treaties (she literally drew one up) between her alcoholic mother and drug-fueled dad. Kelly Carlin is not, for sure, a natural performer like her dad, and, for some on Friday, this show was oversharing. But the gutsy piece (not least because Carlin makes clear her late dad did not like personal revelation) not only analyzes her father's life and work with clear-eyed perspicacity, but it's remarkably full and very moving in its picture of a young life lived in the shadow of a genius. Carlin should bring it back.
Chris D'Elia at Laugh Factory: "Whitney" didn't get much love in its debut season, but the sitcom managed to score a renewal for the fall, and I have to think at least some of NBC's confidence in the show lies in Chris D'Elia's stabilizing presence as the straight man (to co-star Whitney Cummings) who has a wit of his own. His stand-up persona, however, is far more jangly and has a certain amount in common (for good or for ill) with that of Dane Cook. Much of D'Elia's set Friday focused on public drunkenness, from the woozy mood swings of his ex-girlfriend, to a member of the species he dubbed "drunk blazer guy," who presumably gets dressed "like I'm going to give a presentation — and then when I get to the party, it's like, 'What presentation?'" D'Elia's physicality is what sells his jokes, and if you are a fan of call-back comedy, this is your man. No question his set delivered, even if something about his demeanor seemed to invite a bit of heckling. It wasn't an unwelcome dynamic; the way he manages this tension is part of his appeal. Though focused on honing his act for an upcoming Comedy Central special, he was willing to put his innate likability on the line and tussle with the audience. And this crowd wasn't tolerating anything disingenuous. "Why is it so hard to get girls?" he began at one point, before someone called him out with a one-word reality check that every comedian must face once they land a sitcom: You can't pretend you're a regular schnook when being on TV means you're anything but.
"The W. Kamau Bell Curve: Ending Racism in About an Hour" at the Hideout: Spoiler alert: Despite a rousing effort, cult comedian W. Kamau Bell did not end racism Saturday. He offered instead something less like a provocative, squirmy dispatch from a supposedly post-racial America than a sweetly bewildered survey of racism and cultural blind spots in the age of Obama. He worked websites and video clips and photos into his stand-up routine, admitting them like evidence into an argument that felt oddly shapeless and unsurprising — but that's OK for now.
Bell, who grew up in Hyde Park and is about a month away from debuting in his own Chris Rock-produced FX series, has a comedy writer's frenetic glibness; he's great with seemingly off-handed lines: On the laughably old-school website of George Zimmerman, he said "Only racists are that bad at HTML." But he also comes off like a writer on the verge of more rigorous, transcendent material. The stage may not even be the place for it. Showing a clip of Obama being heckled last week at a press conference, he asked white people in the audience: "How do you feel when you see that?" Shouts of "embarrassed" and "disgusted" came back. See, he said, that's how he feels every time a black person does something ridiculous. What's funny about that isn't the joke. (It wasn't one.) What's funny is that he reminds us.
— Christopher BorrelliCopyright © 2015, RedEye