When Chicago actor Scott Duff joined forces with Laugh Factory to debut an LGBT-themed showcase, he knew he wanted his first headliner to be no-holds-barred comedian Jessica Halem, who spent 12 years—1996 to 2008—at the top of the Chicago comedy scene before returning to New York.
"I really wanted a strong female presence," said Duff, a founding member of About Face Theatre who also has appeared in productions at Steppenwolf, the Goodman and other Chicago stages. "Whenever you think about the gay community, you think of gay men. And I'm like, 'No, no, no! Let's get the fierce, funny women up there.' "
Beginning Monday, May 27, Duff will host a stand-up showcase with a five-week run—every Monday up through the Pride Parade, after which the series likely will run monthly. In addition to Halem, the debut night lineup includes popular Chicago comedians Archer Coe, Joel Kim Booster, Kenny DeForest and Gwen La Roka and DJ Marc "Moose" Moder. If the showcase's name, Chigaygo, doesn't ring a bell, the previously used working name, Homos A-Go-Go, might.
Admission includes a 7 p.m. reception featuring a cocktail called Gay Icon made with Halsted Vodka, a local maker which donates 15 percent of its profits to LGBT community causes. And each week, Laugh Factory donates 100 percent of the door proceeds to LGBT nonprofit organizations. The May 27 beneficiary is the Lesbian Community Care Project, which Halem headed from 2001 to 2006. "I'm being paid in vodka," said Halem. "As usual."
We caught up with Duff and Halem to find out more about the new series and Halem's opening night act.
Your stage credits already include many prestigious companies. What compelled you to add "comedy show producer and host" to your resume?
I've always loved comedy. We joke that the reason why Eric Rosen and Kyle Hall—the founders of About Face—brought me on was to lighten the mood. [Laughs.] Our first show was "Dream Boy" and that was the most depressing play on the planet. They needed somebody to add some humor to make it bearable. And that was my role in the company for a really long time. Comedy has always been a huge, huge part of my life. And when Maggie [Sargent] at Laugh Factory and I connected, it seemed like the perfect combination of both worlds.
What do you hope that audiences take away from the show?
Both gay and straight, that we're all in the same boat; our experiences are pretty similar. And that you can laugh at a universal situation seen through a particular filter.
What sets Chigayco apart from other Chicago comedy showcases?
Each Monday, we are selecting a different LGBTQ non-profit organization and giving 100 percent of the door to them. Laugh Factory has a really long history of philanthropy; it's really important to the owner. Like, on Thanksgiving, they open up their doors and they serve dinner to the homeless—and they do this at all of their locations [nationwide]. So we were trying to figure out, "What is the philanthropic angle that we can give back to our community?" Laugh Factory is right on the edge of Boystown and they haven't really made that connection to the community yet, so we were trying to figure out a great way to do that. And what's better than to get people giving and laughing than comedy?
In About Face's "We Three Lizas," you played a character named Conrad Ticklebottom. Do you have any crazy character names or ridiculous costumes as the Chigaygo host?
I think the craziest thing I've got is a far-too-tight T-shirt. I'm walking that very fine line between looking cute and not like some scary creeper man who's trolling the locker room at the YMCA.
Your training includes the Second City Conservatory. Will you be incorporating improv into the lineups?
My work tends to be more improvisational, especially as a host. You get a chance to riff off of what happens and play with the audience a little bit more and that's what I really dig on. As we move forward, who knows? We're playing with the whole form. My hope is that we get a lot of The Second City performers to come in because we're doing it on a Monday night, so it's their night off. I'm in conversations with a former Chicago celebrity to come in and do some of her stuff. It's going to be stand-up heavy just because that's what Laugh Factory is known for, but who knows? We might even throw in a cabaret singer every once in awhile.
Where do you like to go when you're back in Chicago?
It's IML weekend—International Mr. Leather. In Chicago, we take it for granted, 'cause every day in Chicago feels like Leather Day. But I'm telling you, I miss it now that I live outside of it; it's just a special occasion. I will be first and foremost at Sidetrack because I miss it terribly. I'll go to Big Chicks. I tried to get into Girl & the Goat but it's sold out. Any chance [chef Stephanie Izard] is a lesbian and will let me in?
You could try her other restaurant, Little Goat Diner—it has a bread shop, too.
You know what I love about the Midwest is that people still eat bread! [Laughs.] Here in Brooklyn, everyone has a gluten allergy. I just had a major milestone birthday a year ago and I did a cleanse [at a] yoga retreat. It seemed like such a good idea, to just try something new and start fresh. It was lovely and wonderful, but I will never do it again. [Laughs.] I was like, 'I should be eating fondue and chocolate cake right now.' But I swear to God, I was drinking all green juices. And then on the actual night of my birthday, in a private room, you give yourself a hospital-grade enema. And I had to do it myself! There was no one there with me turning it into sex play. It was so disappointing.
Why do you feel that your risque approach to comedy appeals to fans?
I have a long list of places that I have performed one time only. [Laughs.] But here's the thing: People in the audience get it; they appreciate it. I find more and more it's the producers of the show who are nervous for their audience—and I think, more than they need to be. I think it's more unfairly put on women comics and I can only imagine that it's triple-fold as a lesbian comic. Being a lesbian who talks about sex is very unusual; it's very hard for people. We're not the ones that people think of as sexualized in the real world. I've been risque, I've taken risks, but I've always gotten such good feedback from the audience and that's what has kept me going. And unfortunately, there's been people out there who don't get it and keep doing, I think, more conservative, boring productions. But who needs them?
You worked for founding feminist and former congresswoman Bella Abzug early in your career. What was that experience like?
She really lived life. One minute you're on the phone talking—at that time—about the original George Bush and then the next minute, we're driving to the Second Avenue Deli to get a turkey leg. [Laughs.] I went to Beijing, China with her for a UN Conference on women. We snuck out to get ice cream and someone came rushing over and said, "Bella, the lesbians have been detained!" This was a big deal; the lesbians had unfurled a banner inside the UN conference demanding lesbian rights. And they got detained, which in China in 1995 did not sound like a good idea. "This is serious," she said. And she turns to me and she's like, "Quick, hand me my lipstick." She was doing such important work but always remained so grounded on many levels.
Any recent headlines that might show up in your set?
I definitely am thinking a lot about Angelina Jolie's brave op-ed piece about having a double mastectomy. It touches on a couple things for me. I have a long history of running the Lesbian Community Cancer Project [now called the Lesbian Community Care Project] and it makes me think about what we've been doing in the feminist and gay communities for years, which is talking about our bodies and having control over your body and information and the medical system. But then also, in the queer community, trans guys get double mastectomies to have a flat chest. And I've been trying to talk more about trans stuff onstage because the trans community is such a part of my life. So there's got to be something there about Angelina Jolie and her connection to the trans community—even though she might not know it yet. And I might just also have to talk about "Game of Thrones."
Julia Borcherts is a RedEye special contributor. email@example.com | @redeyechicago