Six years ago Brian Babylon was making a nice living as media director for an instructional video company—they once taught lawyers for tobacco giant Philip Morris how to select jurors in cancer cases. But then he found out he wasn't a bad comic, having held his own at Jokes and Notes, the formidable new comedy club down the street from his apartment in Bronzeville. He applied for a host position with Vocalo (WBEZ's experiment in hyperlocal public radio), got it, and decided a funny life would be worth the pay cut.
Now Babylon calls himself the Prince of Bronzeville and he's one of the city's busiest comedians. His ability to riff on just about anything powers three regular hosting gigs. You can find him at the Bronzeville Coffee House on Wednesdays, running the comedy open mike he founded there. On the final Tuesday of each month he's at Martyrs' in North Center, hosting the Moth StorySlam, where regular joes tell tales that might get podcasted. And every weekday morning he plays the "Bagger Vance black dude" to Molly Adams's "millennial white chick" on Vocalo's hip current-events show Morning Amp. He's also a regular panelist on NPR's Wait Wait . . . Don't Tell Me.
That means he performs for a lot of different crowds. "Sociologists will tell you that Chicago is hypersegregated," says Babylon, who's in his late 30s and has lived all over the south side. "Once you go west or south of Roosevelt things change. I noticed that only a few comics would come from the north side to Jokes and Notes when it opened. All those people are doing big things now." Babylon includes Kyle Kinane and T.J. Miller in that group; guys like Hannibal Buress and Deon Cole crossed Roosevelt going the other way.
Working both sides of Chicago's color line can be tricky. There was a time when Babylon wasn't doing well in the "urban urban" black rooms, and he remembers tanking along with Buress at Jokes and Notes. But he believes that venturing outside their ethnic comfort zone ultimately gives comics the confidence to do their material anywhere. "Deon Cole told me the good good people can do their set and make people laugh and not change shit," Babylon says.
Cole went on to work for Conan, and Babylon is gunning for Dave Letterman's job, so the hosting and comedy and on-the-job diversity training are all good preparation. After all, he's entertaining people from rural Indiana to West Town on Vocalo. "The show has to happen every day, sick or not sick. It has to be engaging, has to be real, has to be cranking."
Brian Babylon at the Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Festival
Sat 9/22, 10 PM, Riverfront Theater, 650 W. Chicago, brilliantcornersof popularamusements.com, free.