On a recent Wednesday night in the back room of a Lincoln Park bar, a guy standing near the front door with a mike said to the crowd, "And now, please welcome to the stage one of my very best friends--Cayne Collier!" He put down the mike, walked to the stage, sat down on the stool behind the mike stand, and said, "Hey, thanks for coming out!"
Collier is the creator, producer, emcee, and host of "The Elevated," a weekly Wednesday-night showcase of local stand-up comedians at Cherry Red. Chicagoans are fickle, and comedy clubs and regularly scheduled comedy rooms like Collier's come and go. Of all the places that have hosted national acts, only Zanies, now in its 28th year, has held on. Of the venues for local acts, only "The Elevated" has achieved double-digit longevity--it celebrates its tenth anniversary on August 16. It's the longest-running independent comedy showcase in the city.
"It is very unusual for an independent comedy show to run anywhere for ten years," says Deb Downing Grosz, a stand-up and improviser who's been with the show since the beginning. "Especially being run by the same person--Cayne has a steadfastness that's almost inhuman." She thinks one reason the show's lasted so long is that Collier isn't callous. "He creates what he calls a 'with' not an 'at' experience," she says. "There's no attacking people in the audience. Instead he brings them into the show." Greg Mills, an eight-year veteran of "The Elevated" and a former writer for Martin Short's Primetime Glick, agrees. "He personally goes out of his way to learn as many of the audience members' names as he can." Mills says there's another reason for the show's success: "I think overall, more than the other nonclub venues, this has the most solid lineups in any given week."
By the time he was 13 Collier had decided he wanted to be a comedian. At 17 he took a comedy class at the University of New Orleans and went onstage for the first time. He says people kept telling him, "If you wanna do stand-up, you've gotta get out of here--go someplace like Chicago." In 1994, when he was 21, he did. He knew Chicago had a terrific sketch and improv scene, and he figured there'd be plenty of opportunities for stand-ups. There weren't. Now people were telling him, "If you wanna do stand-up, you've gotta get out of here--go to LA or New York." But he was already taking classes at Second City and ImprovOlympic, and he was broke. He says one night he came home from his job scooping ice cream with some of the store's crushed peanuts and made dinner by mixing them with strawberry preserves: "I thought, 'Yeah, you're pretty poor.'"
A year later the booker at the Improv on Wells Street, Tom Tenney, who'd seen Collier perform there and at open mikes, asked him to emcee a new showcase of local stand-ups. Collier had made friends with lots of young comics, and he quickly put a show together, though it lasted only two months. In 1996, after the Improv closed, Tenney produced a similar show at the Cue Club, the pool hall in Lakeview that's now Cherry Red. Within a week he'd abandoned the show and offered Collier the reins.
Collier had no idea how to run his own room, but he liked the idea of organizing local comics on his own terms. He says that at the time there was nothing between open mikes and comedy clubs--no showcases where local booked comedians were free to experiment. "In clubs they say you've gotta have a punch line every three seconds," he says. "It's like in radio--dead air is dangerous." Other club norms bothered him too: "In one of the few art forms where the fourth wall can be and is destroyed, stand-ups many times ask questions of the audience. But the response doesn't matter--whatever the audience says, they're going to do their preplanned bit anyway."
That August he organized and emceed his first showcase at the Cue Club. To promote the Wednesday-night shows, he says, he and the comedians he'd booked practiced "underground guerrilla marketing stuff." He'd recently bought a used medical-equipment van, and they'd drive it around Lincoln Park, ballyhooing the show through speakers and shoving flyers at pedestrians and onto windshields. "We totally got busted by the police," says Downing Grosz. "It was pretty exciting." By the end of the year attendance at the shows averaged 40 to 50 people, and Collier and his regulars were having a lot of fun. "There was a definite electricity about what was going on," he says, "like hey, we're building something here."
In 1998 and '99 Collier took the show on the road. They played in New York and Philadelphia and at several colleges, putting on the Wednesday show in Chicago the whole time.
But the travel burned them out, and by 2001, Collier says, he was "emotionally spent." He pauses and adds, "My friends would say I say that every year."
Some of his former regulars have gone on to bigger stages. Dwayne Kennedy has been on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, Mike O'Connell on Jimmy Kimmel Live, John Roy on CBS's Star Search (he won) and Comedy Central's Premium Blend, and Rob Paravonian on Tough Crowd With Colin Quinn.
Similar stand-up showcases have since emerged, notably "Chicago Underground Comedy" at Gunther Murphy's and "The Lincoln Lodge" at the Lincoln Restaurant, but many local stand-ups say Collier's room is unique. "There is a comfortability there," says Greg Mills. "The room has Cayne's stamp on it because, well, he literally opens every show." Downing Grosz says, "To have a fellow comic run a room is a blessing. He's loyal and supportive. Cayne would never give you notes on your set or give you a hard time if you tanked. I really feel like I can do anything there."
Collier has been able to support himself as a performer and teacher since 2000. He was a member of ComedySportz for ten years and now teaches there, and he's a member of the Second City Touring Company. He also does corporate and industrial work and TV voice-over gigs. He sometimes flirts with the idea of retiring the show or handing it over to someone else, but, he says, "Deep down I still like it. I believe in it. I not only like giving performers a wonderful playground to play in, I like playing there too."
On that recent Wednesday around 20 people--solid for a summer show, when attendance wanes, says Collier--watched him and six other comics do 90 minutes of stand-up. Mills was the closer, and though his ten-minute set got consistent laughs, he occasionally struggled to find the right phrasing. "One of the coolest, most complimentary things you can hear is Cayne laughing from up over that tech tower in the back," he said later. "Sometimes his laugh is the only one."
"The Elevated" Ten-Year Anniversary
When: Wed 8/16, 8:30 PM
Where: Cherry Red, 2833 N. Sheffield