Seven years ago, Bronzeville resident Brian Babylon was earning a good salary as a media director for a multimedia firm and working the stand-up open mic circuit—when he founded the Bronzeville Comedy Showcase. Hosted in the courtyard of a coffee house on his block, the showcase was Babylon's way to bridge the North Side-South Side comedy divide and gain more stage experience.
Seven years later, almost everything has changed. The coffee shop closed, and the same year Babylon started the showcase, he left his job to enter the debut lineup for Chicago Public Radio's Vocalo station as co-host (with Molly Adams) of its "Morning Amp" program. He's graduated from open mics to become the host of The Moth StorySlam at Martyrs' and a panelist on NPR's "Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me" comedy quiz show. And he's a regular showcase host at Jokes and Notes, the Bronzeville club where he performed some of his first sets.
One constant? Every summer, Babylon brings the Bronzeville Comedy Showcase back to the block, although it resides in swankier digs these days at Blanc Gallery and is now sponsored by Vocalo. But it's still free and still takes place outdoors in a courtyard. Opening night, Babylon performs with Chicago joke slingers Tim Barnes and Ali Clayton, a hand-picked emerging comic or two and a surprise, out-of-town special guest.
So what exactly is this North Side-South Side comedy divide? What's true diversity in a comedy audience? And why did Babylon give up a cushy corporate salary for a public radio paycheck, anyway? We called him to find out more.
Bronzeville Comedy Showcase
Go: 7 p.m. Wednesday; then, every other week through Aug. 27 at Blanc Gallery, 4445 S. Martin Luther King Drive; 773-373-4320. Free.
Schedule and info: wbez.org/events
Why Bronzeville? "I just think that Bronzeville is a good place for anything entertaining. … It's centrally located for the South Side—close to downtown, close to the lake and close to public transportation. It's right off the 47th Street Green Line. And it's close to Hyde Park, so you get that element."
Why Vocalo sponsors the showcase: "They know the importance of bringing different types of people together even just for a comedy show. A lot of [comedians] talk on social issues—I always say comics are sociologists—so it goes hand in hand. And that's very important to Vocalo."
Why the showcase attracts a diverse audience: "Sometimes Chicago can be a media desert for certain groups of people who are left out of the conversation. So a lot of times, blacks, Latinos, a lot of blue-collar people don't get the chance to have their stories heard or their point of view heard on mainstream media or even public media—so that's why Vocalo was there. And I feel my crowd looks like what Vocalo's looks like. It's very diverse, people from all walks of life. I do 'Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me,' so I clearly have a connection to the core, upwardly mobile NPR listener, but I still have my South Side cred with the people on the block and on the streets who've known me from just doing shows. So I like to bring those people together with 'Morning Amp' and with my show in Bronzeville—just trying to make Chicago even the playing field."
Diversity is not just about race: "I really wanted to have a space where I could have a diverse crowd—not just racially. Cause a lot of times, people get caught up on black and white and Latino or Asian, but it gets down to socio-economics as well. You have people from higher educated backgrounds or the blue-collar workers or the NPR crowd versus the WGCI crowd. And a lot of those people just get caught up on race where even within black people you have people who might not like an urban comic—they might want more highbrow comedy."
On the segregation of Chicago comedy: "I've always said Chicago gets the rep as being hyperly segregated. And for a long time in Chicago, the comedy was like that. But now that's kind of breaking down. I always like to put on the guaranteed funny folks but also up-and-coming comics who I meet on the North Side and on the South Side and give them a shot—my room is not a comedy club, but I get a good crowd. And a lot of times, that's their first time working south of Roosevelt and they appreciate that a lot. It gives them a warm-up before they go to, like, a Jokes and Notes—an urban comedy club."
Now that stand-up is exploding in Chicago, is this type of showcase necessary? "Up Comedy Club opened, Laugh Factory opened, Comedy Bar opened. So now that's opened it up for everyone to get a shot to get real stage time in front of a real crowd at a real club. And you need rooms like mine and other showcases to warm up your jokes. 'Cause there's a space between open mic and comedy club for comics. There's the open mic where new guys get to warm it up and then—sort of like high school—once you've passed the open mic phase, then you go to the showcase phase and then you're ready for the clubs and then you're ready to take the act on the road."
The showcase has made an impression with national comics: "This room has actually got a good reputation in L.A. and in New York from other comics. A lot of my quote-unquote famous friends go, 'Oh, man, Babylon has this great room outside'—Hannibal [Buress] goes and talks about it or Deon Cole, who's on 'Conan' and had his own show on TBS. 'Cause comics love money, but they love crowds even more. So when they see photos online and they see that nice, diverse crowd, they just want to go and do it."
How the showcase helps his joke writing process: "Well, this is my version of an open mic. 'Cause how I write jokes—I might be on the train and I might see something that might look funny and I might just have the notepad on my phone, I jot that concept down. And [at the showcase] I get time to work it out. That's why I started this room—sometimes you have to create your own stage time."
How Chicago's mid-2000s comedy scene upped his game: "Deon Cole was the host of the [Jokes and Notes] open mic—he was the first black writer on 'The Tonight Show.' And he was my mentor. He took me under his wing and said, 'Yo, man, you're funny,' and kept pushing me. And if you look at the people I started with who were doing the rounds, like Hannibal [Buress], T.J. Miller, Beth Stelling, Kumail [Nanjiani], Matt Braunger, Kyle Kinane—I could go on and on. People who are the new buzz comics of the future are the people who came from this town who I started with. So you're competing with folks—like, 'Wow, God, this guy is hilarious, I'd better step it up,' or 'I need to write harder.' That helps create a good show and a good comedian."
How open mics can fail comedians: "I would say one of the best open mics in Chicago is Jokes and Notes' open mic, which is in Bronzeville. And the reason being is that sometimes you go to an open mic and there's a list of 46-47 people, you have three minutes, everyone goes up, the room is full of comics. That's cool. Jokes and Notes' open mic, the list is maybe 12-15 people, you get maybe four minutes, but the crowd is maybe 150-165 paying customers who are not comics. And you have to make them laugh. And for me, that's how I started. A lot of times open mics can be very supportive and they'll laugh at your jokes 'cause they're comics, but sometimes that can help you and sometimes that can hurt you, because when you take that material to a club, people are like, 'I paid a ticket price! I paid two drinks! Dude, I didn't come here to support your hobby! I came to laugh!' And sometimes comics don't get that."
Why he traded his high-salary corporate job for Vocalo: "The shift was, I was doing this project for a major tobacco company that shan't be named … [and] it was a video we were making that was supposed to train lawyers on how to be more likable to pick jurors to help them win cancer cases. [Laughs.] The worst video ever made, I was making that. And then during the break of the video, Torey Malatia, who back then was in charge of Chicago Public Radio as they started Vocalo, said, 'Hey, man, I heard your name when they were talking about this project.' I doubt I would have made the change if this was commercial radio. [But] I knew the prime directive was [to] bring public radio to non-traditional public radio listeners. And that resonated with me."
When The Moth StorySlam came to Chicago in 2010, he shared a story at the first show: "I was the very first one onstage! I told a story about how I snuck and got a Jheri curl behind my dad's back [laughs] with my own allowance money 'cause he didn't want me to do that."
How he landed the gig as The Moth's host: "They were still trying out who they wanted to host it [during the first Chicago show]. I think they wanted [WBEZ producer and comedian] Justin Kauffmann and he said he couldn't do it. And they called me back two days [after his performance] and asked me if I wanted to host. Locally, that's one of the bigger things I do every month. I'm always—not amazed, 'cause it's a good time—but it's been four years strong and last month we were pretty much sold out. We've added another night that Don Hall hosts over at Haymarket. It's not stand-up, but I'm still allowed to be funny."
What he learns hosting The Moth: It teaches me showmanship and how to run a show. Because sometimes the stories aren't all funny and sometimes they aren't all good. But you still have to keep the show rolling and maintain that energy and still give respect to the sad stories and not demean them. I think I've figured it out on how to do it. No one's ever complained about it—and you know that crowd loves to complain. [Laughs.]
How he landed a spot as a 'Wait, Wait…Don't Tell Me' panelist: "Peter, Mike, Ian, that whole crew—they sit a few rows over from me. They know me. They knew I was a comic; they may have seen my set a few times. They knew I did The Moth. And that day, one or two people got snowed in, in New York. I'm doing my 'Morning Amp' show on Vocalo and Mike and Ian come to my studio in a tizzy one morning, like, 'Yo, what are you doing tonight?'… And they told me how much money it was. And I'm like, 'Hey, [bleep] the money—yes!' I know what this was about. I'm not stupid. I know the gravitas of the situation. [Laughs.] They have over six million listeners. I hadn't had any prep [but] I knew what the show sounded like. And I just hit the ground running. I guess I did really good that first show. They had me back; I did well. And then Peter had the talk with me and they put me on the cast. People say, 'Oh, you were lucky.' But it's like, 'No, luck is just delivering when opportunity presents itself.'"
He checked a dream off his bucket list when he appeared with 'Wait, Wait' July 10 at Colorado's Red Rocks: "I've always wanted to do Red Rocks, but I'm like, 'Damn! I'm not a rock star.' But ever since I saw that U2 Red Rocks video, I was like, 'I would love to rock a crowd like that.' And then I'm getting a chance to rock Red Rocks and that's just from this opportunity. And I've got to kill it every time."
Julia Borcherts is a RedEye special contributor.