Chicago’s comedy secret? Margaret Hicks says it’s fail again, fail better. | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

Arts & Culture » Lit Feature

Chicago’s comedy secret? Margaret Hicks says it’s fail again, fail better.

by

3 comments

"Chicago is different because it's not on a coast, it's different from New York or Los Angeles because you have the right to fail. You get more than one chance. You have the right to fail and pick yourself up and start again." —Second City cofounder Bernard Sahlins, quoted in Chicago Comedy: A Fairly Serious History

Bernie Sahlins's comment expresses one of the bigger themes of Margaret Hicks's succinct but comprehensive Chicago Comedy: A Fairly Serious History (History Press), which is that Chicago gives her performers the creative space and freedom to fail, learn from failure, and keep plugging away. While tracing Chicago comedy back to its inception ("Chicago was born with a joke on its lips. A global city known for its architecture, business and big shoulders was named after a particularly smelly onion. Good one Chicago, good one."), Hicks makes a powerful argument for Chicago as a living, breathing, improvising repudiation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's assertion that "there are no second acts in American lives."

When you think of all the legends who honed their craft here—from the Marx Brothers (who lived in Bucktown for ten years) to Tina Fey, with the likes of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Lord Buckley, Dick Gregory, Bob Newhart, Del Close, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chris Farley, and on and on and on in between—you might expect a history of Chicago comedy to reach a scope and girth comparable to that of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Or not. In any event, there's a lot of ground to cover. Yet Hicks encapsulates the performers, styles, and schools of thought that have come to define Chicago comedy in 111 pages. While she freely admits that it'd be impossible to mention everyone who's made a mark here, vaudeville, radio, television, improvisation, and stand-up are all given plenty of space as they're tied into the overarching idea of Chicago as a place well suited to experimentation.

The chapters on improv are especially edifying, tracing Viola Spolin's explorations of the form in the 1930s, her son Paul Sills's use of it starting at the University of Chicago in the '50s, and how it came to be interpreted and transformed by people like Close. The Chicago style—developed, practiced, and rebelled against to this day at Second City, iO, Annoyance Theatre, and other venues—is discussed at length, making this a worthwhile read for students of comedy who aren't clear on the different approaches.

Hicks provides a rich history of stand-up, starting with legendary Chicago-connected performers from the 1950s and '60s, like Gregory, Newhart, and Lenny Bruce. She also delves into the commercial side of things, discussing the comedy club boom of the 80s and how it led to the so-called Paper Wars of the early 90s, when presenters competed to lure audiences by papering houses—i.e., offering lots of free tickets—only to run themselves and one another out of business.

But she seems to rush through recent developments. There's not a word here about Just for Laughs or even Chicago Sketchfest—a glaring omission. And more space should've been devoted to south-side stand-up, of which Bernie Mac and Hannibal Buress are just the beginning.

Still, if Chicago Comedy isn't encyclopedic it ranges widely, from tomfoolery at the Sauganash Hotel in the 1830s to the prismatic wit of modern-day shows like Papier Machete. The book is an informative and entertaining account of how the willingness to fail made Chicago a nationally recognized mecca for comedic talent. 

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment
 

Add a comment