Chris Condren's comedy act was born out of the thrill of making people laugh—but spite made it what it is today.
In 2008, Condren, then just 20, had already been bombing at open mikes around Chicago for about a year. "I had awful stage presence," he admits. "I couldn't look at the audience." That summer he went to Pittsburgh for a Duquesne University music-writing workshop. A college dropout from Libertyville, Condren was the oddball amongst the program's serious musicians: he wanted to compose for video games. "I became obsessed with writing a song that they would hate, but it would be so catchy it would get stuck in their heads. I realized I had a hit on my hands when people were telling me they hated it, when they were complaining—dumbfounded—that I had gotten in on a scholarship and had written such a crappy song."
Condren's crappy hit, "Space Time Warp," has since become a fixture in his comedy act. A jaunty jingle with a gee-whiz take on time travel ("Travelin' to the past and gettin' there pretty fast / It's the space time warp"), it's played on what sounds like the fanfare horns setting of his Casio portable. But Condren's delivery is what kills. His singing voice suggests Fozzie Bear doing an impression of Dr. John, an over-the-top mix of awkwardness and irreverence. Also, Condren is funny looking. Though he turned 23 on September 11, he presents like an overgrown 15-year-old—tall and gangly, with braces on his teeth and a tendency to crack himself up mid-joke. Watching his routine, it's hard to gauge how aware he is of his gawkiness, whether he's naive or knowing. That he leaves you guessing is his quiet genius.
The awakening brought on by "Space Time Warp" changed Condren's shtick from a shy attempt at traditional stand-up to a predominantly, even boldly musical act. "I had been doing observational jokes, telling stories about things that happened to me and my friends, things that happened on the train on the way into the city," he says. "People laughed when I could muster up the courage to deliver them right. The thing about jokes compared to songs is I can be nervous and play a song fine. It's just singing. People can't pick up the inflections of how uncomfortable I am."
The result is that Condren's gone from open mikes to getting asked to headline showcases. He turns down the offers, though, because, he says, he prefers to perform for audiences that are unfamiliar with him. He likes being the unknown guy on the bill.
Condren's act has continued to develop. He recently swore off "offensive stuff," namely a joke that involved the terminally ill and bear fights. He's also moved beyond open mikes to legit venues and regular showcases. He landed a spot in the Best of the Fest showcase at the Chicago Just for Laughs festival this summer and subsequently went to New York to audition for the mothership JFL in Montreal. "I did my best material and I didn't get in with my best material, so I have to make my best better," he says. Condren's even been leaving the keyboard home on occasion. "I've been doing straight stand-up again more and more—build those muscles. I don't want the keyboard to be a crutch. I gotta make sure that my hind legs are developed."
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