Funny, isn't it, that in addition to being known for the blues, Chicago is also renowned for its comedy.
Funny unusual and, much more important where the audience is concerned, funny ha-ha.
So it should come as no surprise that this weekend's Blues Festival downtown only leads into next week's Just for Laughs festival, a weeklong comic extravaganza comprising 65 separate shows and more than 100 performances at 19 venues across the city. A Rosemont show, part of the festival in the past, was canceled this year because of a conflict.
Still, now in its fourth year, Just for Laughs Chicago is bigger and better than ever, with the fest climaxing next weekend with shows headlined by Sarah Silverman and local product Vince Vaughn.
Yet things get rolling right away on Monday, June 11, with Conan O'Brien doing a week of programs from the Chicago Theatre for his TBS late-night show “Conan.”
“We have a great Conan following in Chicago,” said Dennis Adamovich, senior vice president at Turner and general manager of its festivals, adding that they had to use a lottery to allot seats. That stems not only from the appeal of TBS' comedy format with Chicagoans, but from O'Brien's roots here in the improv community in the '80s, before he began writing for “The Simpsons” and went on to play host to NBC's “Late Night” and “The Tonight Show.”
“Conan” will spearhead the festival and no doubt provide some of its top media moments, as O'Brien strays into Chicago and its environs to film bits to run on TV during the week at 10 p.m. Deon Cole and others from the program's writing staff will also be doing their own shows as part of the festival, which is much more than just O'Brien's visit here.
“The Conan Writers Live” is at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Laugh Factory on the first night of the fest proper, followed by “Deon Cole and Friends” the following night — same time, same place. Janeane Garofalo performs a late-night set with Kyle Kinane at 11 p.m. Wednesday at the UP Comedy Club in Chicago.
Other highlights include film director Kevin Smith, of “Clerks” fame, enjoying an evening at the Chicago Theatre starting at 8 p.m. Thursday, with Patton Oswalt (fresh from playing straight man to Charlize Theron in “Young Adult”) doing a pair of sets at 7:30 and 10 p.m. the same night at the Vic Theatre.
Also on Thursday, Adam Sandler will be on hand for a special preview of his new movie, “That's My Boy.” It's at 7 p.m. at the Showplace Icon, and fans can try for free passes at justforlaughs chicago.com.
The fest comes to a rousing conclusion at 8 p.m. Sunday, June 17, at the Chicago Theatre with Buffalo Grove's own Vaughn playing host to a comedy showcase featuring his buddies Bill Burr, Steve Byrne, Colin Jost and Angelo Tsarouchas.
“We've been pestering him for four years,” said Bruce Hills, Just for Laughs' chief operating officer, and now that Vaughn has signed on to work with TBS the time has come.
Far more unpredictable might be “Sarah Silverman's Pro-Choice,” at 7:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday, June 16, also at the Chicago Theatre. Silverman has hand-picked comedians Marc Maron, Chris Hardwick, Reggie Watts and Natasha Leggero, of Rockford, for a program that figures to take aim at battles being fought in the political sphere during the presidential campaign.
“That's one of the cool things about Sarah,” Leggero said. “She's always growing and working on new material, and a lot of people who've had the success she's had really wouldn't bother. It's so inspiring.”
Leggero grew up in Rockford and attended Illinois State for three years, majoring in theater criticism, but skirted the Chicago comedy scene to finish school in New York and then head to Los Angeles, where she got into doing standup.
“I moved from New York to L.A.,” she said, “and I just thought everybody seemed so dumb.” She saw comedians pointing out the same sort of idiocy she was noticing and decided, “I can just stand up onstage and make fun of whatever I want. I didn't really know that was an option until I moved to L.A.”
That critical approach to the culture, and to comedy, is also what has made her a natural foil for acerbic comedians like Silverman (Leggero had a role on the short-lived but often brilliant “The Sarah Silverman Program”) and Chelsea Handler (Leggero has been a regular panelist on “Chelsea Lately”).
As a native of Rockford, Leggero declined to call the Chicago appearance a homecoming, however.
Yet Chicago specifically did draw one of the attractions Hills is most proud of this year: Stephen Merchant, Ricky Gervais' more-or-less-silent writing partner from the original British version of “The Office” and the HBO series “Life's Too Short” and “Extras” (where he can be recognized as Darren Lamb).
“He wanted to come to Chicago. He has an incredible comedy mind,” Hills said. “Stephen Merchant is someone we've always admired. This is the first time he's done any of our festivals.”
Merchant will be returning to his original comedy roots in standup with a routine Hills saw in Los Angeles and calls “very, very strong.” He'll perform at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, June 14-16, at the Park West.
Just for Laughs grew out of a comedy festival now in its 30th year in Montreal. It branched out to Toronto and then, three years ago, retraced the route of the Second City troupe back to Chicago, with TBS joining forces to create a U.S. fest also designed to help promote its comedy format.
Adamovich recalled very little debate on the site selection at TBS. “If there was one city we wanted to put down (on the list) that just loved comedy, what would it be?” he said. “Chicago was the likely choice.”
“It has great venues to work with,” Hills said, “and also a fantastic audience that is accustomed to a high-quality level of comedy and has met us with open arms.”
The fest has expanded to smaller rooms such as Lincoln Hall, the Lincoln Lodge and the Hideout, the city's club of choice for alternative music.
Yet a closing-night performance out in Rosemont at the Akoo Theatre fell through when headliner Bill Engvall had to cancel with a conflict with a pilot he's shooting for the History Channel.
Adamovich and Hills both insisted Just for Laughs has now put down roots in Chicago and isn't going anywhere. They may yet expand again, although they don't feel obliged to force it.
“I'd rather be great and the size we are right now,” Hills said, “than dilute it with a whole bunch of sloppy bookings.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.