When local comedian Katie McVay discovered in December that the Just For Laughs Festival was not returning to Chicago this year, she tweeted the news and posted it on Facebook with a plea for someone to put together an event to make up for the loss.
"There are no pure stand-up festivals in Chicago outside of Just For Laughs," she said. "There's Snubfest, which has stand-up and there's Chicago Women's Funny Festival, which has stand-up, but neither of those are pure stand-up festivals. And we have such a great stand-up community that we really deserve [one]."
When responses poured in from other comedians asking for ways they could help, McVay realized that she'd inadvertently taken on the responsibility herself. "I was like, 'I guess I'm running a festival!' " she said.
McVay contacted fellow comedians Stephanie Hasz, Zach Peterson and Goodrich Gevaart and comedy producer Matt Byrne, who all agreed to co-produce The Comedy Exposition of 2014, a three day stand-up extravaganza. The fest features 24 showcases at multiple venues with each day's events taking place in one neighborhood so that audiences can move easily from one show to the next: Friday, it's Lakeview; Saturday, it's Wicker Park; and Sunday, it's Logan Square. The talent roster features 70 comedians from Chicago and around the country, including headliners such as Andy Kindler, Jackie Kashian, Brooks Wheelan, Aparna Nancherla, Sean Patton, Sean O'Connor, Ryan Singer and Adam Cayton-Holland.
But how do you finance a festival from scratch? When the team learned that it would take two years and a $1,000 fee to establish the fest as a nonprofit, their hopes of landing corporate funding fell through, so they instituted a submission fee for applicants—a common practice on the festival circuit—and set up a Kickstarter account.
"We put our initial goal at $3,000, and we actually reached it within 24 hours," McVay said. "We were really hesitant about asking for [$3,000] because we didn't think we could do it. But the community—and people outside the community, even—were just overwhelmingly generous. We actually ended up reaching double our goal, so we added more headliners."
More than 300 hopefuls submitted, so the five producers each watched at least seven minutes of every clip and tallied their favorites. "We wanted to try to get people from all across the country and from all walks of life and not just have a festival of 100 straight white dudes from Chicago," McVay said. "So we tried to pick a bunch of people who we felt like were going to offer unique perspectives."
While the entire roster looks intriguing and most events are only $5 each, the sheer number of shows and their lineups can be mind-boggling. So we checked in with all five producers to get their recommendations for don't-miss acts to get you started.
The Comedy Exposition of 2014
Go: 7 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday (Lakeview); 1:30-11:30 p.m. Saturday (Wicker Park); 3-11 p.m. Sunday (Logan Square); various venues
Tickets: Free-$20; $25-$60 for multi-show passes. comedyexposition.com
Bio: Wisconsin-born, Chicago-based stand-up comedian known for her "raw honesty about being a single young woman with a propensity for short haircuts and tough-guy jackets"
See her: Hosting the 10:30 p.m. Friday show at Township headlined by Jackie Kashian
"Jackie is an L.A.-based, Wisconsin-bred stand-up veteran. ... As she says it, her standup is 'like listening to a really racy episode of "All Things Considered."' I'm from Wisconsin, too, and Jackie was the first comedian I saw on TV who seemed like a real person. She's incredibly engaging and snarky in a way that seems friendly instead of cynical—like someone I'd want to crack jokes with at a family reunion. Man, it'd be cool if we were related." (4 p.m. Saturday at Hideout; 10:30 p.m. Saturday at Schubas; 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Elastic Arts; 9:30 p.m. Sunday at Township)
"Shane is one of the funniest comics in Portland. He covers some really dark topics—like the death of his father—in such a silly, likable way. Something about him just makes me want to hug him and go on an adventure." (7 p.m. Sunday at Township)
"Liza is a former Chicago comic who moved to New York a few months ago, and she took one of the city's most unique voices with her. Liza's got a perspective unlike any other comic I know—she's an unabashedly poorly read Russian immigrant who loves chatting and snacks—but her jokes cover highly specific, shared truths about modern womanhood. They're like that one Beyonce song about girls ruling the world, and they should be required viewing for all teenagers." (7 p.m. Friday at The Playground; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Hideout; 7 p.m. Sunday at Elastic Arts)
Bio: Omaha, Neb. transplant who hosts the Arguments and Grievances comedy show and has shared stages with Rob Delaney, Kyle Kinane, The Sklar Brothers, Doug Benson and others
See him: Hosting the 10 p.m. Saturday show at Hideout headlined by Brooks Whelan and Ryan Singer
'Arguments and Grievances'
"In the interest of full disclosure, I help run this show. Because of that, I know how good of a time this will be. Arguments and Grievances is a debate show where comedians square off against one another over asinine topics. In the past it has been Macbeth vs. the McRib or Hugs vs. Drugs." The lineup includes Aparna Nancherla (L.A.), Derek Sheen (Seattle), Megan Gailey (New York), John-Michael Bond (Atlanta), Aaron Brooks (Austin), Andy Juett (Denver), Kevin Brody (Chicago) and Kevin O'Brien, all hosted by Kevin White. (7 p.m. Friday at Schubas)
"I saw Zach last month at Omaha's Crom Comedy Festival, and in between each joke, he received a round of applause. That means the audience laughed and then they thought about the joke again and continued to approve. Zach's jokes are short, absurd and sharply written. If you like the bizarre, deadpan and irreverent, Zach Reinert is right up your alley." (10:30 p.m. Saturday at Schubas; 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Cole's Bar)
"There are many reasons why Denver is regarded as a hotbed of comedy nationally. Adam Cayton-Holland is one of those reasons. As part of the group The Grawlix, whose show sells out every month, Adam has appeared on 'Conan' and 'The Pete Holmes Show.' Adam's comedy is sharp and flashes between silly, biting and sometimes a bit dark. Come see why the land of marijuana and mountains are laughing—besides for all the drugs." (10:30 p.m. Friday at Schubas; 7 p.m. Sunday at Township)
Bio: Co-host of the Freak Happening comedy show
See him: Hosting the 7:30 p.m. Saturday show at Hideout headlined by Sean Patton and Aparna Nancherla
"One of the best comics to come out of the stellar Denver comedy scene. I could listen to his jokes and relaxing cadence all day." (10 p.m. Saturday at Hideout; 7 p.m. Sunday at Elastic Arts)
"The Puterbaugh Sisters make me laugh harder than anyone. When they are on stage, it's less like seeing them perform and more like hanging out with the funniest friends you could hope for. [The] late-night show will be anarchic and decidedly weird." (Midnight Friday at The Annoyance Theatre)
"As seen on 'Conan' and Comedy Central, best experienced live and loose. Sean weaves amazing storytelling with the monstrous ability to make riffs seems like well-crafted jokes." (9:30 p.m. Saturday at Hideout; 5 p.m. Sunday at Elastic Arts)
Bio: Produces the Goofballs United and Freak Happening comedy shows and runs The Steamroller comedy blog
See him: He's a producer (not a comedian) so he's behind the scenes and in the audience
"Aparna's a N.Y./L.A.-based comedian who wrote for the dearly departed 'Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell' and is one of my favorite people on Twitter. She's got this great deadpan silliness onstage, balancing day-to-day observational goofs and wordplay with more provocative social commentary." (7 p.m. Friday at Schubas; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Hideout; 7 p.m. Sunday at Elastic Arts)
"I was so thrilled when Andy came on board to headline the festival. There's no one like him; he's been doing deconstructive, scathingly smart stand-up comedy since the late 1980s. He played an integral role in the development of what is now known as alternative comedy, concocting scathing, multilayered jokes about comedy, comedians and a third thing. You can hear Andy's voice work as Mort on 'Bob's Burgers;' he also plays recurring role on 'Maron' and is a regular guest on 'The Late Show with David Letterman.'" (9:30 p.m. Sunday at Township)
'Subs' with Adam Burke and Ian Abramson
"Chicago-based comics and evil geniuses Adam Burke and Ian Abramson have cooked up a high-concept comedy show that casts Comedy Expo performers Sean Patton, Candy Lawrence, Chad Briggs, Megan Koester and Tim Barnes as substitute teachers, stepping in at a local high school after the entire faculty falls ill. Each comic will be tasked with educating the audience on a different subject, making this one of the only shows you're guaranteed to maybe learn something at." (5 p.m. Sunday at Elastic Arts)
Bio: Co-hosts and produces The Two-Hour Comedy Hour and is a member of the Chicago Underground comedy collective
See her: Hosting the 7 p.m. Sunday show at Township headlined by Adam Cayton-Holland and Brooks Wheelan
"An L.A.-based standup, Megan Koester is one of the funniest and smartest people I have ever seen take a stage. She has one of the freshest voices out there and manages to annihilate the concept of comedy while also doing comedy." (7 p.m. Friday at The Playground; 5 p.m. Sunday at Elastic Arts; 7 p.m. Sunday at Township)
"I'm so excited to see this guy in person! Hailing from the fantastic Portland, Ore., standup scene, I fell in love with his clip. He has the deadpan style of Stephen Wright with a razor-sharp eye towards race and culture. And I just found out that we both went to the same college!" (8:30 p.m. Friday at The Playground; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at At North)
"We lost Joe to L.A. last year, and the loss still aches. Joe is an incredibly prolific and incredibly silly man. Part of the acclaimed 'Late Live Show,' Joe is one of the goofiest and greatest." (7:30 p.m. Saturday at At North; 3 p.m. Sunday at The Comfort Station)
Liza Treyger: "Liza is a former Chicago comic who moved to New York a few months ago, and she took one of the city's most unique voices with her. Liza's got a perspective unlike any other comic I know--she's an unabashedly poorly read Russian immigrant who loves chatting and snacks--but her jokes cover highly specific, shared truths about modern womanhood. They're like that one Beyonce song about girls ruling the world, and they should be required viewing for all teenagers." (7 p.m. Friday at The Playground; 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Hideout; 7 p.m. Sunday at Elastic Arts)