The Chicago Women's Funny Festival is back for its third year with 77 shows featuring 400 comedians on four stages across four days.
OK, a few of the 400 performers are male—it's not the "Anti-Men Funny Festival"—but for co-producers Jill Valentine and Liz McArthur, the festival's aim is to bring women from across the country together to network, see each others' work and celebrate all forms of comedy—stand-up, sketch, solo, musical, improv, vaudeville and more—together under one roof.
Valentine—who's been the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival executive director since its inception in 2000—also performs with The Cupid Players and with McArthur in Off Off Broadzway and Feminine Gentlemen; all three groups are included in the lineup. Additional featured performers include Canadian favorite Danz Altvater, Turkish native Aliye AJ, Sri Lankan-Canadian comedian Sandi Rankaduwa, Boston comic Kenice Mobley and many others.
One featured comedian is current "SNL" writer and Chicago native Katie Rich, a veteran writer-performer in three recent Second City mainstage shows: "South Side of Heaven," "Who Do We Think We Are" and "Let Them Eat Chaos." In the fest, Rich performs a sketch show with her former Second City mainstage castmate Holly Laurent called "Joan and Ro: New York City, 1962" (10 p.m. Friday), which includes musical accompaniment from Second City mainstage musical director Julie Nichols. You can also take an advanced improv writing workshop with her (3-6 p.m. Saturday; $75). We called Rich, who primarily writes the "Weekend Update" segments for fellow former Chicagoan and "Weekend Update" anchor Cecily Strong, to find out more.
Chicago Women's Funny Festival
Go: Various times, Thursday-Sunday at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
Tickets: $14-$15 per show. 773-327-5252; chicagowomensfunnyfestival.com
What to expect from 'Joan and Ro' with Holly Laurent: "Holly and I, we did every single mainstage revue together at Second City. And when you do that, you are around that person more than your family. It really fast-forwards your friendship, so you go through all the stages of friendship that take decades. And so when she moved to L.A. and I moved to New York, we just really missed each other. Joan and Ro were the characters that we often gravitated towards, that we played the most—who we are at heart, which is 75-year-old women that don't even care and just say whatever's on their minds."
Why a festival that showcases female comedians is important: "The thing is, it's eventually going to get to the point where it's not, I'm hoping. [Laughs.] And it's happening more and more. But until we're at that point—until it really does seem sort of redundant—I think we have to keep doing it."
Why she wishes people would stop asking if women can be as funny as men: "I did an interview for Bitch magazine, and they asked me that question—that's the question you always get asked. And I was like, '[Bleep] this; I'm not going to answer this question.' And then I was like, 'No, I am going to answer this question because if it keeps getting asked, then it obviously is valid.' And I think what people are forgetting is it's not just comedy! It's everything [where] women are being counted out. So it's a symbol of an even bigger problem. Especially if you're a woman of color—that makes it even harder."
Where you'll find her when she's in Chicago: "[My fiance and I] have a six-month-old little rescue dog, and we love her so much. And so Brownstone, which is right down the street from our house, is where we like to go to watch Hawks games and we can bring her and have her outside. And I'm going to be doing a show at iO, and I'll go back to Second City—just the old haunts."
How she adjusts to life in two cities with a fiance and a dog in Chicago: "Our relationship started long distance. We've been together for about four years, and for the first year, he lived in Philadelphia and I lived in Chicago, so we kind of got really good at it. It's not as bad as you'd think—'SNL' only works 24 weeks out of the year, and he comes to New York when he can. The hardest part is actually missing my dog because I can talk to Devlin—that's my fiance—on the phone and Skype with him, but I can't really talk to the dog on the phone. And she doesn't understand that I'm [away] working and I'm coming back."
A typical 'SNL' work week: "It's pretty nuts. We only have Sundays off. On Monday, we have a writers' meeting just to discuss what's going on in the world. And then the host comes in and everyone gets to meet the host. It's like an informal pitch session. For the people who are primarily sketch writers, Tuesday is their really long day—that's where they're there till, like, 6 in the morning. Where for 'Update,' we're there basically every day from 10-to-10 until Friday—that's when we're there till 3 in the morning because things change—things that happened on Monday are already old news. So it's not till Friday at 10 o'clock that we know what we need to write jokes about. [Laughs.] So Friday is long and then obviously Saturday is very long—we basically work for 48 hours straight. When people are like, 'Wow, you get all this time off!', it's like, 'No, we kind of don't.' [Laughs.] It works out."
How she landed the job: "The head writer for 'Weekend Update' was leaving to go work with Seth Meyers to be the head writer on Seth's show, so they had an opening for a writer. And Cecily—who was actually my understudy at Second City, which is funny—was like, 'I really just want to push for Katie.' They knew me from Second City and from auditioning [for 'SNL'] and they were like, 'OK, we'll have her do a packet and see what happens.' And I did and surprisingly, when they asked Lorne [Michaels] about me, he was like, 'Oh, I love her. Yes.' So the big man approved, and they liked my writing."
On writing for Cecily Strong: "I love writing for her. I like writing for her voice. Just to get to develop her and what she's saying and who she is as a 'Weekend Update' anchor is really exciting."
What surprised her most about the job: "How quickly it went from 'Oh my God, can you believe I'm here?' to 'Oh my God, I better [bleep]ing get this done and do good work' [laughs], you know? And that's not to say you still don't have your moments of, 'Wow, this is really cool.' But it does become a task that you need to do and do well. And the honeymoon period doesn't last very long."
When it started to click: "It was the week that I felt like I got my first joke that was really good for Cecily and was also really in my voice. There was this joke about this river in Scotland that had been filled with whiskey, and Cecily did this great impression of this Scottish fish. It was a hit, and it was a big thing for her and it was a big thing for me. And I was like, 'Oh, wow, I can do this.' And I think that was my fifth show, so it took about five weeks before I was not just throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what stuck, where I was like, 'I think I kind of get how this works.' It doesn't get easier. You just get better at it."
How her work at Second City prepared her for 'SNL': "When I was on mainstage, I only had Mondays off, so I'm used to that. People don't realize that the performers are also the writers, so when we're writing a show, we're working all morning and rehearsing all afternoon, then we're getting notes. Then we're trying to sleep. It's really not that much different. It's just something you work on for three months and it goes up, rather than something you work on for a week and then it goes up. But what Second City really taught me is you're a team—that's the most important thing. The show itself—like 'Weekend Update' itself—has to be the best it can be. It's not about me or you or your joke. It's just, what's the best joke for the segment? ... And also it's really hard to fluster me, because after being at Second City, you have an entirely new running order, an entirely new show at 5 o'clock that has to go up at 8 that you have to memorize, and it somehow always worked out.
Julia Borcherts is a RedEye special contributor. firstname.lastname@example.org | @redeyechicago