Comedy was Kelsie Huff's defense mechanism -- then it became her career
Most seniors at Richmond Burton Community High School chose a poignant quote about life or success to appear beneath their senior photo in the yearbook.
Kelsie Huff chose to write: "Pull my finger."
It signaled the start of a successful comedy career for the Richmond native. Today, Huff, 36, is a regular performer and panelist on ABC 7's "Windy City Live" and works as a stand-up comedian, writer, actress, voice-over talent and comedy teacher. She also co-hosts a web series, "The Open Mic," with Chicago comedian Daryl Moon.
"To be successful in Chicago, you have to hustle. You have to do all these things at once to get exposure. There's no one basket," she said. "It's creatively exciting to teach, create content for brands, do on-camera coaching ... you really can grow."
While she has an energetic, fun and quick-witted personality, there have been plenty of not-so-funny times in her life. She grew up in a family where alcoholism wreaked havoc.
"I was loud, and I was always doing a lot of jazz hands. I was one of those kids who grew up in one of those fun, alcoholic homes," she said. "There was a lot of tap dancing like, hey, if you make people laugh, maybe they won't scream at each other. Humor is a defense mechanism that has a tendency to help you out."
She almost bailed on her comedy career before it even began. At 18, as a student at Columbia College, Huff sneaked into a Chicago bar to do a stand-up routine at an open mic night. It was a disaster. Not her performance, but the experience.
She declined to give many details, saying only it was "bully, angry comics" who stole jokes and got so drunk, they were puking everywhere. She didn't do standup for many years after that, instead veering toward improv and working at Second City and iO.
To pay the rent, Huff worked for 12 years in marketing, both at Guaranteed Rate and A and N Mortgage, doing comedy at night.
"(The finance world) is very Christopher Guest. It's a small world ... of 'super bros' and cranky gals who have been there since the beginning of time who are actually doing all the work," she said. "It was a lot of fun, actually."
It was where her alter ego, "Chad on a yacht," was born. She described this persona to Improv NerdPodcast as a rich white guy who oozes confidence. When she feels vulnerable, or like an outsider, she acts as if she's Chad.
Listing all the shows, performances and jobs Huff has done over the years could fill this newspaper, but she's most proud of how she's helped other women get started in the comedy business.
Nine years ago, Huff started the kates, an all-female, twice-a-month female comedy showcase in Chicago, which recently expanded to include new "the kates university" comedy classes. She also still teaches stand-up comedy classes to women at Feminine Comique, aka "Fem Com."
"I had a mission to give women more space and more opportunities in Chicago. More than 600 women have taken the class. We get everyday gals who want to give it a try," she said. "I didn't expect to love this part of it so much, but I do."
-- Jamie Sotonoff
• Dann Gire and Jamie Sotonoff are always looking for people from the suburbs who are now working in showbiz. If you know of someone who would make an interesting feature, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
See 'the kates' performThe kates perform pop-up shows across the area, as well as at these Chicago spots:
• The Book Cellar in Lincoln Square, at 7 p.m. on the second Friday of the month and 7 p.m. on the last Saturday of the month.
• Laugh Factory Chicago in Lakeview, at 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month.
For more information, visit thekates.org