You won't find universal love for the Just for Laughs festival in Chicago's comedy scene. But as the aggregation of local, national and international talent prepares to begin its fourth annual run here this week, you will find something close — plus recognition that Just for Laughs, the country's largest comedy festival, has played a key role in tying the city to stand-up comedy.
Since deciding to make Chicago the location for its first American festival, the Montreal company behind the event, officially called TBS Just for Laughs Chicago, has managed to turn mid-June, usually something of a club-going dead zone, into a highlight of the year.
Indeed, Just for Laughs has become the city's top Canadian import that does not come in 12-ounce bottles or earn its pay on a sheet of ice. And the talent concentration is so high that we can even forgive the festival those cringe-inducing coffee-flavored Twix bars that were passed out one year as an event sponsor tried to push a new (and, as it turned out, doomed) product.
"I love it. It's showing that, 'Hey, Chicago is a place to be for stand-up,'" says Kyle Lane, owner of the Comedy Bar, a relatively new venue downtown that will be hosting showcases this week featuringConan O'Brien's writers, Chicago comics and up-and-comers on the national scene.
"You're hearing about the boom in comedy again, especially in stand-up, and I think Just for Laughs plays a big part in that," Lane says.
"The lineup's real strong this year," says Kelly Leonard, executive vice president of Second City, which will see its new UP Comedy Club used for several shows this year. "They've fine-tuned the thing and seem to understand the marketplace better. For a comedy nerd or aficionado, this is a stellar lineup of some of the best people doing this work right now from different angles."
Name-brand performers coming to town for JFL this year include Patton Oswalt, Stephen Merchant, John Oliver, Aziz Ansari, Sarah Silverman and Jeff Ross. They're part of a laugh-seeking tableau that will see 185 performers doing 96 shows in 18 venues over six days, Tuesday through June 17 in front of perhaps, estimating conservatively, 50,000 people. Think Lollapalooza minus the mud, Sundance without the hot tubs, a Renaissance faire with way more references to Facebook and airline food.
And even while the numbers have been growing — the first year saw 54 shows at nine venues, according to Just for Laughs, the second about 150 performers — the ambitions have been changing. This year, for the first time, none of the shows is being taped to air on TBS.
Instead, the cable channel is having its marquee star, late-nighter O'Brien, do a week of shows from the Chicago Theatre.
"Having Conan come and do four nights out of here, that is our television," says Dennis Adamovich, a senior vice president and general manager of festivals for TBS.
The event is having a big impact on local comedians. Of all the performers this year, 92 — about half — are local, according to Just for Laughs.
Even the ones who don't officially get in can sometimes find a way to be part of things. Danny Kallas, a 30-year-old Elmwood Park native who's been doing stand-up for about six years, acknowledged that competition can be tough for the showcase among local comics, who think it might be a chance to be discovered, connect with an agent or get an audition.
"I didn't see one person from the industry at our little thing last year," says Kallas, who was in the 2011 version of New Faces of Chicago (this year at 9 p.m. Thursday at the Comedy Bar). "All it did was cause friction in our little scene," as 20 people were selected while "50 or 60 could have been," Kallas says.
No longer a new face this year, Kallas isn't officially part of the festival, but he has a pretty good slot anyway: Hannibal Buress, the Chicago stand-up who's risen to national headliner status in recent years, personally tabbed Kallas to open for him in his Park West show Thursday.
"I guess I respect Hannibal's opinion more than anybody else's," Kallas says.
Buress says he is donating his proceeds from the show to the grade school in the Austin neighborhood he attended and where his mother works, St. Paul Lutheran.
For a comic, he says, the logistics of a festival are pretty much the same as any other gig, but the concentration of peers means it's a chance to hang out with people you don't often get to see.
Plus, "it's good that it's in Chicago," Buress says. "I'm happy to come home and work."
Comic Greg Proops ("Whose Line Is It Anyway?") agrees about the value of having everyone in one place.