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On Stage: how to succeed at comedy by really trying



A little over three years ago Joe Bardetti left a job as a copywriter for Leo Burnett to become a full-time stand-up comedian. He knew he was giving up security, but he didn't expect what happened next. One week after his resignation, some local comics tried to boycott Zanies over wage issues. Then both the Fallout and the Improv shut down, victims of the comedy bust.

To get paid gigs, Bardetti was forced to travel out of state. He performed for a crowd of cowboys and Native Americans in South Dakota; he says the two groups eyed each other tensely throughout his set. While he was onstage in a seedy Kentucky bar, a pair of women started to brawl. But Bardetti says the experience strengthened his act.

"That's how I got so much better," he says. "You get a sense of composure onstage. You get material that works for many different audiences. It's a proving ground. If you make it out alive, you can call yourself a comedian."

Now an established professional, Bardetti is a regular at local venues like Zanies and the Funny Bone, and he travels to out-of-town engagements two weekends a month. He shies away from shock tactics and graphic sexual material. "That's part of the game, part of the skill," says Bardetti, who's 31. "The job of the comedian is to say out loud what everyone thinks but is afraid to say. But you don't have to do it in a gross and disgusting manner." He draws much of his humor from his experiences with ad clients making absurd claims about their products. "Most consumers have a really sensitive BS meter. That's something I try to tie in to in my act. I do a bit about Hallmark making up holidays to sell more cards, like Happy Boss's Day. What boss is going to fall for that shameless suck-up?" He also satirizes the recently developed widemouthed beer can. "Was there ever a problem with big beer chunks getting stuck in cans?"

Bardetti was more of a jock than a class clown while growing up in Andover, Massachusetts. He played on his high school's football and track teams and later competed in track and field at Brown University. After graduating in 1988 with degrees in both economics and international relations, he moved to Chicago to work at Burnett, creating TV and print ads for such clients as Tropicana and Dewar's.

Though he won several industry awards, he was dissatisfied. "When I get good at something, it becomes boring to me. I'm always looking for new challenges, and stand-up comedy is the hardest thing I've done. The only reason I tried it was that I moved to Chicago. I knew I could stink and no one at home would ever have to know."

He embarked on a series of improv classes at Second City and began testing his routine on open-mike nights at 950 and other clubs. In the summer of 1994, he decided to quit his job after a successful performance at the Burnett company picnic. "I felt comfortable in front of 1,200 people, and I knew I had to give it a try."

Bardetti claims advertising and stand-up are similar. "You are basically coming up with creative ways of looking at things and presenting them to people. You hope to leave a positive impression and have them see the world the way you see the world."

Bardetti performs at 8:30 tonight at All Jokes Aside, 1000 S. Wabash, and at 10:30 tomorrow night at the Village Theater, 1548 N. Clark. Both performances are part of this weekend's Chicago Comedy Festival, a series of stand-up performances and movies. Admission at All Jokes Aside is $12.75; call 312-922-0577 for tickets. The Village show costs $10; call 312-902-1500. For a complete schedule of events at the Chicago Comedy Festival, see Funny Business in Section Three.

--Michael Marsh

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joe Bardetti photo by Nathan Mandell.

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