Here's a funny thing about arts festivals: You know they're really cooking not so much by what acts are part of the official lineup but by what's tagging along.
Exhibit A is the Edinburgh Festival. If that annual entertainment conflab in Scotland were composed only of the official entries — a military tattoo, operas and, mostly, other such high-end attractions — the entertainment world would not head there en masse each August. Everyone goes for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival which, over time, has become an official entity all of its own. Almost anyone with the money to rent a church basement can stage a show in Edinburgh. So what about this week in Chicago, when the TBS Just for Laughs comedy festival is coming to town? Is there a fringe growing up around the official offerings?
More than you might think. I remember standing outside the Park West a couple of years ago as an agent-booker type from Los Angeles told me how Just for Laughs Chicago, as distinct from the original Just for Laughs Montreal, was known as a "consumer festival" — which is industry-speak for a festival that people who work in the business don't need to attend. Well, you're thinking, who cares if industry types attend if I just want to see some shows? Fair enough.
But if you are one of thousands of folks in Chicago taking classes at iO or Second City or if you're a stand-up comic looking for a new agent, you're hoping some agents will find their way here. And they won't come to see Bill Maher do what Bill Maher always does.
This year, there are some signs of improvement. Seth Meyers may be scouting for "Late Night" talent. Marissa Ross, the casting director for "How I Met Your Mother" on CBS, said she is hoping to open up a casting office in Chicago and plans to host the "first annual Chicago comedy talent counting conference" in Chicago this very weekend. Ross said this week that she plans to bring talent scouts from most of the major broadcast and cable networks to town, where they will be attending regular shows at iO and at Second City, as well as watching a special "diversity showcase" Saturday at the Annoyance.
What else can you find that's not on the official Just for Laughs slate? This weekend, Stage 773 will host the Chicago Women's Funny Festival. Curated by Jill Valentine, the fest will feature a plethora of funny gals, including sketch, stand-up, vaudeville, improv and the like — from newcomers to veterans like Susan Messing.
Meanwhile, the Laugh Factory is presenting a week of what it calls "comics that will make Chicago residents proud" — poking a little fun at the national acts who make up a hefty portion of Just for Laughs. In its pointed publicity, the Laugh Factory accuses Just for Laughs of "neglecting the talent in the host city talent yet again" (conveniently not mentioning the Laugh Factory's own love of national acts). The Lakeview venue is hosting an entire week of Chicago comics, beginning with the crowning Tuesday of "Chicago's Funniest Media Personality" (I didn't know we had any that were funny) and booking a week of free-for-you shows featuring local funny people. Laugh Factory even says it will buy scouts and agents a free drink to encourage them to show up.
And if you didn't know the comedy scene in Chicago was feverishly competitive, now you do. The venerable Zanies comedy club in Old Town is doing pretty much the same thing on exactly the same dates (June 11-16), showcasing "10 Comedians for 10 Dollars" and thus offering a chance for those comics to showcase themselves at just the right moment.
Does all this constitute a fringe? Well, not entirely. It still would be great to see out-of-towners and locals booking up every available storefront and basement during this week.
But all this represents an improvement. And a great few days for laughs.
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