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Russell Peters gets first laughs in the new Laugh Factory

Chris Jones

3:38 PM CST, February 24, 2012

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When Jamie Masada opened the now-famous comedy club Laugh Factory in Los Angeles in 1979, the first comic to appear was Richard Pryor. The oft-told story goes that when Masada tried to pay Pryor, Pryor instead insisted on giving Masada, who was still in his teens, some money for the rent.

When Masada quietly opened a new Laugh Factory in Chicago on Thursday in the former Lakeshore Theatre, the first headliner was Russell Peters. Peters, a Canadian comic with an Indian heritage and a huge following among audiences with some link to Asia, was getting paid, but he usually plays much bigger rooms. His appearance at Laugh Factory in Chicago this weekend is, to a large degree, a favor to Masada in the Pryor tradition.

"When Jamie called me up, I thought, 'R.P. and then R.P., well that works,'" Peters said in a brief preshow conversation in the balcony. This wraparound balcony, replete with VIP room, kitchen and bathrooms, did not exist before Masada and his partners dropped upward of $5 million on expansive renovations of this famously gritty theater.

Opening right on the heels of the Second City's new UP Comedy Club, Laugh Factory is a very different kind of room.

UP is wide, shallow and plush and well-suited for a group of performers. Laugh Factory, which seats 350 to 400 people, is narrow and deep — and thus closer to the old-school, telescopic feel, say, of the Zanies comedy club, albeit with a much larger capacity. The old theater seats have been replaced with tables with servers offering drinks and food. Masada certainly has transformed the joint; his own collection of memorabilia (a life-size model of Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield's tie, Johnny Carson's good wishes, Groucho Marx's dinner jacket) lines the lobby, which now has an elevator and a bar offering local brews. But a certain edginess and urbanity remains.

At showtime Thursday, a long line still snaked down Broadway, but then Laugh Factory offers a reveal as you wander in through the door and the narrow lobby. The real asset of this place is the soaring height of the performance space, which no other comedy club in town can replicate. Especially from the rear, this lends the joint certain old-school theatricality; you can almost imagine the plumes of smoke drifting up from the smoking comic at the microphone and hanging 20 feet in the air, if only comics still were allowed to smoke. And the funny people will do their thing in front of a huge Laugh Factory logo, which both carries clout in this business and offers a useful reminder of the point of the enterprise. There's no diversity of focus here. This is a club that feels fully focused on one thing — standing up.

With this reporter still amazed at the very existence of a balcony — entire second stories rarely sprout atop old single-story theaters — Peters stood in the shadows, complained to Masada about how dark the place felt, and then surveyed the back of his audience's heads. "Look," he said, grinning. "More Indians than this club will see for the rest of its life. They came in from Schaumburg."

Peters got wild applause with a similar line during his actual set. He's at his best when he becomes a kind of de facto spokesman for the born-in-America children or grandchildren of immigrants from India or Pakistan or Korea, immigrants who famously place an emphasis on education and getting ahead.

"What do you both do?" Masada said to one young couple. When they replied that they were both studying to be doctors, Peters had his opening. "Doctors?" he asked, full of snark. "That was what your Indian parents wanted. What did you want?"

At first the couple laughed but insisted that the medical profession was, in fact, their own choice. But Peters was relentless. "What do you dream of when you go to sleep. You. Not your parents. You. What? What?" he shouted. Finally, they broke. "A tennis player," one said, which led Peters, a formidable improviser, down a whole other line of business involving Indians and rackets.

Peters, whose nonwhite bona fides mean he also can get away with mocking a Nigerian accent right in the face of a Nigerian, walks a careful line between promoting new-world secularism and mocking assimilation. After locating one guy of Korean descent, Peters asked for his name. "Yeah, right, Tom," he said, sarcastically, even as the man insisted that this was, in fact, his actual name.

cjones5@tribune.com

When: Through Sunday

Where: Laugh Factory, 3175 N. Broadway

Tickets: $40 at 773-327-3175 or laughfactory.com