A trip to the Hoosier State via I-90 begins rather inauspiciously. The Chicago Skyway separates the city from northwest Indiana, and as motorists glide over the toll road, they're greeted by monotonous blocks of homogenous houses, spindly smokestacks, and the Horseshoe Hammond Casino's gaudy orange and pink sign, which juts out of the grey landscape like a puffed-up, preening peacock. In neighboring Gary, the highway runs past decrepit icons like the once mighty, now moldering Grand Central Station, a place that draws only ruin pornographers these days.
Despite the distinct lack of scenery, my imagination is running wild. I'm en route at long last to one of the country's most unassuming stand-up destinations: the Comedy Attic in Bloomington. It may seem counterintuitive to ditch a comedy hub like Chicago for, of all places, Indiana, but I've been told the Attic is incomparable. It's a club that comedian's comedians have heaped praise upon: Andy Kindler called the spot "a dream come true," Maria Bamford described it as "a very special place," and Marc Maron hailed it as "a comedy mecca." Tonight I'll see the supremely talented former Chicagoan Kyle Kinane take the stage.
But first there's mile after unmagnificent mile of Indiana to plow through. From I-90, I make a sharp turn south onto I-65. What lies ahead is nothing but assembly-line tract homes, barren cornfields, and the occasional billboard. One near exit 240 tells drivers that "Hell is real." (Less charitable Chicagoans might say that Indiana residents already know a thing or two about hell on earth.)
An oasis comes in the form of the city of West Lafayette, the home of Purdue University. The exit on the interstate is announced by hundreds of windmills languidly rotating under the big blue sky. They wave me in the direction of a roadside treasure, the Triple XXX, which is not the strip club or porn shop it sounds like. The 24-hour diner built in 1929 sits on an oddly sloped lot that lends the place quirky charm, but the fountain root beer and ground sirloin burgers are no novelties.
From West Lafayette, Route 231 delivers me directly into Bloomington. Despite having lost an hour along the way due to the shift in time zone, I arrive at the Persimmon Inn, an immaculate small lodging that happens to be a five-minute walk from the Comedy Attic, early enough to take a disco nap before the show.
The Comedy Attic, on the southwestern outskirts of the Indiana University campus, gets its name because the stage is located on a second floor. The room's L-shaped layout ensures a comic must constantly swivel during his or her set. Aside from the minor design flaw, I'm otherwise instantly smitten. There's no drink minimum, not a single corporate party in sight, and no gaggle of bachelorettes wearing penis helmets. Moreover, everyone in the room seems to be talking about comedy. It's easy to see why aficionados of the form—from Indy and beyond—flock to the Attic.
Kinane is masterful. His whip-smart, long-form storytelling style is carefully honed, although he does manage the occasional one-liner, including, "I think you can be both a stripper and a mother, but you need to keep separate social media accounts," and "I'm one Netflix documentary away from becoming a vegetarian. Ever educate yourself into a corner?"
Afterward I find myself at the Back Door, a queer bar whose logo features a unicorn with a rainbow shooting out of its ass. The bar also happens to be a sponsor of the annual Limestone Comedy Festival at the Attic. I sidle up to the bar and order a Salad Tosser (other cocktails include the Pink Taco, the Boozy Bottom, and Citron My Face) and pivot to the drag show. This being a college town, I'm older than many in the bar but everyone is flirty and welcoming. Indiana isn't known as a particularly gay-friendly state, but Bloomington wears its liberalism on its sleeve. It's the kind of place that elicits all manner of cliched adjectives: "funky," "arty," "eclectic"—and they all stick. The IU campus is situated in the middle of a forest. Chain stores are the exception.
There's one last stop on my Hoosier State comedy tour: the Drop Comedy Club in South Bend. On the route north from Bloomington, I stop in Indianapolis. Since my last visit eight years ago, neighborhoods like Fountain Square, Fletcher Place, and Lockerbie Square have become ripe with vintage clothing stores and cheffy eateries and bakeries. What was once an old service station is now Milktooth, a brunch spot where I destroy a pair of made-to-order cinnamon-sugar doughnuts and a Dutch baby pancake. Milktooth is on Virginia Avenue, invaded today by a folk festival. There's live music every few blocks and vendors hawking all sorts of handcrafted T-shirts, candles, and furniture made with apparent Hoosier pride.
The historic downtown of South Bend has seen better days. But the city center, which is quiet on this Saturday night, is ringed by a handful of modern-looking municipal buildings, including a police station, a library, and the St. Joseph County Jail, the facade of which is disarmingly pleasant. Across the street sits the Dew Drop Inn Restaurant & Lounge.
The place is a true dive bar, populated by working-class whites—the very same ones who now have us contemplating a Donald Trump presidency. It's also home to the Drop, a backroom comedy club founded by comedians Jonathan Baldizon and Zachery Boyce. Tonight's headliner is Kevin White, a very funny Chicago comic (full disclosure: he's also a friend). "At a glance you'd expect it to be the worst place for comedy," White says, "but thankfully the club was founded by these young comedy nerds who have good taste."
Last year I drove from Chicago to see Todd Barry at the Drop, and I've gone previously to watch Chicago comics Natalie Jose and Kristen Toomey. Tonight the floor belongs to White and another Chicago funnyman, Seth Davis.
The Drop is fascinating in that it challenges Chicago comics to deliver their set in an environment that's less friendly than the ones offered by the likes of the Laugh Factory, Zanies, and North Side taprooms. The crowd boos White when he brings up the controversial new North Carolina bathroom law. That is until he wins them back with the punchline: "I miss the simple days when there were just two bathrooms," he says, "black and white." Maybe what's so special about the Hoosier State's comedy scene is that it provides ready testing ground for new material. New state slogan: "Will it play in Indy?" v
Correction: This story has been amended to correctly reflect the name and abbreviation of Indiana University.