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The Comedy Exposition stand-up fest stands in for Just for Laughs

A fivesome of locals at the ground floor of Chicago's stand-up scene launch a new funny festival.

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The Comedy Exposition of 2014 started with a single tweet.

Local stand-up comedian Katie McVay was the instigator: "I found out Just for Laughs wasn't happening, and I tweeted 'Someone should throw a comedy festival because Just for Laughs isn't happening.'"

Spurred by McVay's half-serious outburst, comics and friends immediately volunteered to help fill the gap left by the absence of the mammoth stand-up comedy festival. Montreal-based JFL's COO, Bruce Hills, announced last December that after a five-year run here, the fest was taking a year off from Chicago to "rethink the festival model." So from the very beginning, the stand-up-themed Comedy Exposition didn't have much choice but to happen.

Five signed on to organize the fest: McVay, Stephanie Hasz, Goodrich Gevaart, Zach Peterson, and Matt Byrne (the lone noncomic). They all have roots in the local scene, producing shows, podcasts, and blogs, and each is acutely aware that while Chicago is renowned for its improv comedy, stand-up is often relegated to the backs of bars, restaurants, and record stores. (Byrne, by day Saki's event coordinator, is more than partially responsible for the shop's uptick in comedy programming.) Local comedians, they felt, deserved a proper stage.

"It's not so much about filling the void of JFL," says Hasz, a coproducer of the weekly stand-up show Parlour Car at Bar Deville. "Almost every city with a good scene has a fun, comedian-run festival. And aside from a couple small festivals like SnubFest and the Women's Funny Festival, Chicago doesn't really have one."

The Comedy Exposition organizers' objective was to build the kind of event they'd want to perform in (or attend): a comedy festival with the ethos of a music fest, a damn-near-walkable DIY event that wouldn't be as sprawling, headliner-focused, or reliant on individual tickets as Just For Laughs, and one where comedians without much of a name wouldn't be made to feel nameless. (They cite the High Plains Comedy Festival in Denver and the Crom Comedy Fest in Omaha as models.)

"JFL is great, but it's a pretty mysterious process, and we want to be more transparent about what we're doing, how we're spending money," McVay explains. "We want it to feel like friends hanging out."

In the spring McVay launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the fest. "We asked for $3,000 and reached it within 24 hours," McVay continues. "That's the moment when we got jazzed." By the campaign's end in late April, backers had pledged over $7,000.

More than 300 submissions poured in from stand-ups interested in performing in the nascent fest. Diversity among the comedians was a priority in the selection process—"more ladies, more not-straight white dudes," McVay says. Hasz admits that, slogging through submissions, variety among the talent became her white whale. "You just don't want to see another joke from a guy with a beard who is unemployed."

Hasz and her crew initially planned for the Comedy Exposition to have 40 slots—20 locals and 20 out-of-towners—but they ended up accepting nearly 60 comics. The fest's lineup includes cheap (sometimes free) showcases at venues such as the Annoyance, the Playground, and Cole's, anchored by solid locals like Candy Lawrence, Joe McAdam, and Megan Gailey (a $25 pass gets you into all of them). The four "main events" (including a pair on Saturday) occur at Schubas, Township, and the Hideout. "Main events" is the Comedy Exposition's way of saying "popular, touring comics that cost a little cash," a list that Gevaart, one of the minds behind 8x8 at the Hungry Brain, says was whittled down by asking the simple question "Who can we afford?"

The top-billed comics are Jackie Kashian, Aparna Nancherla of Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, and SNL cast member Brooks Wheelan. Those shows are $20 apiece. A $60 premium pass gets you into the whole shebang—minus the closing show featuring Andy Kindler (Mort from Bob's Burgers), which is a separate ticket entirely. "Full disclosure: we just didn't have the cash" to let premium pass-holders into the Kindler show, McVay says.

Each of the Comedy Exposition's three days is centered in a particular neighborhood—Lakeview, Wicker Park, and Logan Square—which plays to the proximity clause the festival is pushing. But when it comes to venues, "we cast a wide-ish net," Byrne explains. "We defaulted to places that might be on the smaller side, because if something sells out that's awesome."

"Our dream would be to end up with a little money in the bank and be able to put deposits on comedians for next year," Hasz says. (I've been assured organizers have already placed holds on the Twitter handles @ComedyExpo15 and @ComedyExpo16.)

And let's not forget that the organizers are comedians, so they've given themselves carte blanche to obsess over details they believe make for a good stand-up show, from choosing hosts to arranging the chairs in logical, pleasing ways.

"There have been so many shows I've been on where I thought, If you just moved your seats, you'd have a better show," McVay says.

The biggest sell will almost certainly be Chicago's own stand-up scene. Where Just for Laughs banked on the Oswalts and Ansaris of the comedy world to fill venues like the Vic and the Chicago Theatre, the Comedy Exposition is leaning on locals for its inaugural events—a point of pride for the fest's organizers.

"There are comedy nerds who know a lot about big comedians, but they're not really looking for comedy on the local level," McVay says. "And then there are those who don't know a lot about comedy. They go to a show and are like, 'It's comedy!' That's like going to the movies and saying 'It's movies!'"

"If you see CJ Sullivan headline a show at Crocodile during the festival," Hasz says, "you might say to yourself, 'Whoa, this guy is amazing. He lives here and I can see him any time? Maybe I should get out and find him.'"

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