Inaugural 312 Comedy Fest brings top standup comics to suburbs and Chicago
As traditional live performances have picked up over the course of the last two years following the pandemic, few artforms have thrived in quite the way stand-up comedy has.
Stand-up offered Americans a means of escape during turbulent times, with comedy specials on online streaming platforms like Netflix acting as a launchpad for young stars telling relatable stories.
Comedian Taylor Tomlinson kicked off the year selling 11,000 tickets over the course of a sold-out January run at Chicago Theatre while Arlington Heights native Sebastian Maniscalco and Chicago-born stand-up John Mulaney made the jump to arenas.
With Dave Chappelle heading back to town in October for an unprecedented three-night residency at United Center (Oct. 4, 6 and 7), and a pair of arena performances by Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Gaffigan set there for November, comedy in the Chicago area has rarely been hotter.
Capitalizing on that success is the 312 Comedy Fest. Running from Oct. 27 through Nov. 5, the fest dominates not just the city slate but the suburbs, too.
"That's our goal: to bring comedy everywhere. So, you don't necessarily have to go downtown to see a great comedy show as part of that week," said Andrew Farwell, vice president of Nashville-based independent promoter Outback Presents, who's producing the 312 Comedy Fest locally in partnership with Jam Productions.
"The key is that this is for the Chicagoland area. Because we've got a couple of shows in Rosemont, we've got Joliet shows and obviously downtown Chicago," he said. "We're kind of taking over for that week."
In addition to a festival-opening Spanish language performance at Allstate Arena by Mexican comedian Franco Escamilla on Oct. 27, 312 Comedy Fest also will feature suburban performances by Canadian stand-up Russell Peters (Nov. 4 at Rosemont Theatre) and a full schedule at Zanies Rosemont, which will include a Halloween roast of local comic Ken Flores on Oct. 31, plus appearances by actress and comedian Mary Lynn Rajskub on Nov. 2, writer and comic Jamie Lissow Nov. 3-4 and former radio host Steve Dahl on Nov. 5.
"I don't know if you've seen the roster of that comedy festival, but it is an absolute honor to be a part of it," Lissow said.
"I started doing this show called 'Gutfeld!'" explained the comic, referencing his appearances on the nightly satirical Fox News show. "It's this little comedy show that kind of snuck in and got some viewers. But I did that show a bunch -- I think I had done it 15 times. And then I got booked at Zanies in Rosemont.
"It was my first gig after doing that show. I walked into that club on a Friday night -- and I walked in through the front door. You never know what's going to happen -- but it was sold out wall-to-wall! That was the first time I really felt like I had a room full of fans -- ever," Lissow said. "I've been doing comedy for 25 years. I did 'The Tonight Show' in 2001. But it was at Zanies Rosemont where I first walked in and was like, 'Oh my god!' It was really special. And I'm coming back!"
While the festival features national headliners like Nate Bargatze, who performs Nov. 3-5 at Chicago Theatre, it will also feature up-and-coming comics alongside local voices.
"A lot of people hear 'festival' and they think Lollapalooza," Farwell said. "It is multiple stages -- just across the city and suburbs. It's going to open itself up for a lot of really unique opportunities. You're going to see people pop up at shows that you didn't expect to see. And we're going to use local talent for openers where we can.
"Having Zanies be involved is really important," he said. "We're bringing the national touring comedians and then applying that local element. And I think that's going to be what sets us apart from other similar festivals."
"That's the model that we're going for here," he said. "Dusty Slay is another one who is new to the scene. He's reaching that profile where he's playing theaters. And, as he grows, that's another opportunity where, when he's headlining Chicago Theatre in a couple of years, people will remember back like, 'Oh! I remember when I saw him at the Vic!'"
Local comic Paul Farahvar will open for Slay at The Vic Theatre on Nov. 2.
Raised in Oak Brook, Farahvar cut his teeth as an aspiring musician and promoter -- and trial lawyer -- before turning to stand-up.
Inspired by Bob Saget and Conan O'Brien, as well as the storytelling of Mulaney and Gary Gulman, Farahvar has opened for and toured with comedians like Jen Kirkman, Judy Gold, Demetri Martin and Adam Carolla.
Looking back on his unique career trajectory, and a predominantly single adulthood, Farahvar spins compelling tales during often self-deprecating sets.
"I work with Dusty a lot. He's taken me on the road," Farahvar said. "One great thing about Dusty is that he's family-friendly comedy. So, it's a clean comedy show. You don't have to feel awkward coming with your family to see him. And he's considered one of the up-and-coming comedians of our time. People have said he's the modern Mitch Hedberg."
Farahvar recalls a time when music and comedy weren't easy to find right around the corner. But the suburbs have become a great home for stand-up comedy.
"Growing up, if you wanted to go see live music or comedy, you had to go to the city. Now, there are so many great venues in the suburbs hosting comedy nights," he said. "Hey Nonny in Arlington Heights comes to mind. There's a showcase there once a month that has comedy. The Improv in Schaumburg. In the west suburbs, Aurora has comedy shows. And in Batavia, The Comedy Vault is quickly becoming a great room," said Farahvar, noting his headlining performance at The Comedy Vault on Oct. 1.
Elsewhere in the suburbs, Christine Gambito performs Sept. 24 at the Improv in Schaumburg. The following weekends, stand-up Dave Attell (Sept. 28-30), SNL alum Jon Lovitz (Oct. 12-14), actor/former Evanston resident Jeremy Piven (Oct. 27-28) and comedian Bruce Bruce (Nov. 17-19) will grace the Improv stage.
And at The Comedy Vault in Batavia, the worlds of yoga and comedy collide as actress and comic Laurie Milbourn takes part in "Going To My Happy Place COMEDY Yoga" (admission includes a free drink ticket) Sept. 24.
"Curb Your Enthusiasm" star Jeff Garlin, who grew up in Morton Grove, will take to the stage at Zanies Rosemont Oct. 19 with "Clerks" star Jason Mewes set to appear Nov. 10 and 11. A run of four shows by comic Kev Herrera is set for Dec. 1 and 2.
Coupled with newly announced 312 Comedy Fest dates, including an appearance by SNL Weekend Update anchor Michael Che at the Riviera Theatre on Nov. 4, the fall and winter comedy schedule is shaping up to be can't-miss.
"I think it reminds people how important comedy is," Farahvar said. "If you look at 'Saturday Night Live' or you look at stand-up comedy, a lot of comedians who are blowing up right now either started in Chicago or spent a lot of time here. So, I feel like it's an important part of the scene. And I think the 312 Comedy Festival brings light back to Chicago."
"I'm just super excited. Rosemont was like that first place where I had fans -- and I'm curious to see if I still have them -- if they come back," said Lissow laughing. "I love a comedy festival. Legitimately, it's like being on vacation or something -- it's like not even working. I'm just super psyched. This is a way to see a bunch of guys you'd probably pay $50 a ticket for to just see them. But here you can see a bunch of them in one weekend. So, why not?"