It began the way any other open mike would. "A couple guys asked, 'What are you doing with this big room on Monday nights?'" Joe Tozer recalls. The year was 1999, and Tozer owned a bar called the Lyons Den.
Located on the ground floor of a three-flat at 1934 W. Irving Park Road—just east of the intersection of Irving, Damen, and Lincoln—the Den was unspectacular up front. With booths along one wall and a few stray beer signs, the bar area gave off a your-friend's-70s-basement vibe. The back room was the draw. The apartments above didn't extend all the way to the alley, so the ceiling was higher. And the acoustics were great.
The Den served primarily as a music venue—a place where young bands could play a decent gig on their way to the Metro. But the guys who talked to Tozer weren't musicians. They were comedian-slash-card-magician Tim Adamz and Jeff Carpenter, an improviser who'd once been shot in the head while riding his bike, lost an eye, and then put on a show about it. "Jeff and myself were looking to do improv and stand-up comedy," says Adamz, "and we decided that an open mike was the best way for us to do it. Everything else happening at the time was just stand-up or just improv. We figured that if you combine the opportunities, audiences from both worlds would come. "
Tozer agreed to let Adamz and Carpenter have the space for free on the expectation of good drink sales. He set up a microphone and a PA system, hung lights over the stage, and, in perhaps his greatest contribution to comedy, offered $2 bottles of beer on Mondays. Adamz and Carpenter opened the Three-Ring Comedy Circus—the "rings" being improv, sketch, and stand-up—at the Lyons Den during the summer of 1999.
As it turned out, their dreams of synergy didn't come true. "The only people in the audience were us comedians," Adamz says. Carpenter called it quits after a month and a half, and Adamz eliminated sketch and improv from the show's repertoire, focusing exclusively on stand-up. He brought on two other comics, Jeff Klinger and Dan Kaufman, to help him run the room, and saved the three-ring-circus concept by saying that the rings now referred to Kaufman, Klinger, and himself.
"It's lightning in a bottle to have an open mike work," says John Roy, who was a Den regular despite a rigorous touring schedule. But between them the Lyons Den ringmasters created an astonishingly successful incubator, where comics got really good really fast while perfecting a distinctive rogue style. Until Tozer sold it in 2004, the Lyons Den was known throughout the city as the home of the open mike where anything might happen. "Only a few open mikes in this country," Roy claims, "have ever been better than the Lyons Den."
Or more prolific. Many of the most promising comedians on a national scale are graduates of the Lyons Den scene. Over the last three years, Variety's annual 10 Comics to Keep Watching list has included six Den vets: T.J. Miller, Matt Braunger, Kyle Kinane, Kumail Nanjiani, Deon Cole, and Hannibal Buress. That's 20 percent of a very select group. Chris Rock told Esquire that Buress, until recently a writer on 30 Rock, is his favorite young comic. Miller is making his way in movies (Cloverfield, Yogi Bear). Comedy nerds pack shows whenever Kinane or Nanjiani or another excellent Den vet, Pete Holmes, is on the bill. And they all credit the open mike at the Den for giving them their start.
ITS OWN START wasn't so promising.
When Klinger and Kaufman came in, they tried to goose attendance by making sure that one in every five of the four-minute slots was filled by a ringer, as it were—an established regular chosen by one of the Comedy Circus ringmasters to break up stretches of bad comedy. They also put stools near the stage of the 100-seat room, encouraging patrons to sit closer to the action.
Still, performers and audiences alike were only trickling in to the show, which started at 8 PM. Adamz says it was more than a year before they developed any sort of momentum.
Most bar owners would've pulled the plug, but Tozer wasn't most bar owners. He stuck by the open mike while it found its footing, promoting it in ads he ran for the bar's music bookings. And though the beer was already cheap, he handed out a free one to anybody who signed up to perform.
Tozer's hospitality ended up being a significant factor in the open mike's growth. One night, a comic and sometime waiter called Tommy Mayo came by after midnight with a bunch of his coworkers from Hugo's Frog Bar. Tozer snapped into action, greeting the new arrivals with free drinks and rushing into the kitchen to cook up some snacks. That wasn't the last time the Hugo's Frog Bar folks showed up. "Midnight became a whole new show," Roy says. "When other open mikes would be shutting down, the Lyons Den was just getting started."
The sign-ups suddenly bordered on insanity. Securing the 15th to 20th slot (between, say, 9 and 10:30 PM) had formerly put a comic in prime time at the Den. But energetic late-night houses widened that sweet spot considerably, and the rolls grew. "I remember hearing Joe say, 'I had to cap the list at 100,'" says comic Emily Dorezas. Adamz recalls a time when Tozer considered putting a second, simultaneous open mike in the front room.
Eventually, says Dave Odd, a Den regular who now runs Edge Comedy shows at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, "Comics from Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Saint Louis would make the pilgrimage."
Comics were hungry for chops-building stage time. Showcases like the Elevated, Midnight Bible School, and the Lincoln Lodge were considered the cream of the alternative room crop at the time, but they were selective. Mark Geary's open mike at Lincoln Park's Red Lion Pub was hot for a spell, but when he left in 2000 to open the Lodge with Thomas Lawler, it petered out.
The Lyons Den took up the slack, not only providing performance opportunities but a sense of community. "Stand-up was not a hip thing to do," recalls Kinane, whose wry, self-deprecating stories were a Den favorite. Indeed, the impression permeating TV was that of a guy wearing a purple blazer with the sleeves rolled up, telling a marriage joke punctuated with, "This guy knows what I'm talking about!" The Den was a place where comics could perform just for the sake of performing—where they could feel like they belonged and geek out over their beloved, unpopular art form. "I remember just being excited that somebody had a new set," says Kinane.
Peer approval was important at the Lyons Den, and the scene's all-stars were treated with reverence. Comics who regularly killed sat at a booth in the front bar known as the "varsity table." "The thing that's true about Chicago comedy is that people are pretty supportive and friendly. But if you weren't funny, you weren't in the club," Roy notes. "You really wanted those other comics to leave the front bar and watch you perform. It hurt when they didn't."
The in-house competition became an end in itself, bigger than careers or even making money. "Rather than thinking about when it was time to go out to LA, I was thinking, 'Jesus Christ, I'm not as good as Pat Brice,'" Mike Bridenstine says. There was a lot on the line, after all: The respect of peers. Laughs from the loyal civilian audience. A seat at the varsity table.
The work ethic, consequently, was intense. According to Kinane, Lyons Den people are doing well now because "if you didn't have a new four minutes, you didn't go up. The Lyons Den was my Friday night. It's what I was gearing up for Tuesday through Sunday. All week, I would write jokes I wanted to try."
It was important to stand out. Goofy, restless T.J. Miller once took the stage in full army regalia and crafted a scenario in which he was in Vietnam, and the only way out was to tell really dumb jokes. Near the end of another night, Bill O'Donnell spewed racist jokes and threw poppers at an older couple until he'd forced them to leave; then, faced with a comics-only room, he did an additional 20 minutes. Jason Fever, perpetually tongue-in-cheek, wore a Klansman outfit onstage and delivered intentionally lame material completely unrelated to the KKK—just because.
"The Lyons Den was a world where anything you wanted to do for your four minutes was considered stand-up comedy," says Nick Vatterott, a boundlessly energetic comic whose own work exemplifies that philosophy. Vatterott once drew a face on a plastic ball, taped it to the back of his head, and combed his long hair over the top of it. He then did a set as "Ball Face," which included giving the character a haircut. He also took the stage with white balloons taped all over his body; instructing the audience to sing a sort of NFL Hall of Fame version of "Frère Jacques," he told a series of one-liners, popping a balloon after each punchline and trying to get them all popped before the audience finished the song.
Then there was the time the diminutive Vatterott sat in a closet next to the stage through 21 comedians, just so number 22, bearish Brady Novak, could take him out and use him as the dummy for his "mantriloquist" act. "I didn't realize that that was the closet they kept the drum equipment in," he recalls. "For two hours I had to crouch perfectly still so that the cymbals wouldn't come crashing down."
Vatterott's many sets at the Den are still paying dividends. His current act, which he's done on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and at last year's Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, is rife with risky, experimental comedy. If he'd come up in a more conventional context, he says, "I wouldn't have been inspired, motivated, or even allowed to do that type of absurd comedy."
Cue the wack jobs, just as excited as Vatterott was by the promise of four restrictionless minutes. They wandered in with such regularity that they became Den staples. "A lot of our nuts were people you wanted to watch," Roy says. One woman stripped naked, enveloped her body in Saran Wrap, and covered herself with chocolate syrup. Someone else had a habit of eating cigarettes, smoking salt, and breaking VHS tapes on his head. And a third allegedly stalked a Den comic for three and a half years, showing up onstage now and then to crack eggs all over herself, perform a Wiccan ceremony, or hand the comic a big photo of himself ripped into one-inch-square pieces. The other comedians assumed it was all an elaborate bit. But they eventually wised up, and the tale became a legend of the Den.
As did the night George Carlin stopped by. Though he didn't perform, "it was like Elvis was in the building," Tozer says. "I was afraid he was going to get mobbed, but it was kind of the opposite."
No, the Den saved that kind of behavior for its most deserving. In 2003, John Roy won CBS's Star Search. His victory speech went something like, "To everybody in Chicago, working every week for no money at the Lyons Den: If I can do this, you guys can, too." The following week, Roy was back at the Den, where he was greeted with a standing ovation.
WHEN TOZER SOLD THE DEN (it's now the Globe Pub, a soccer bar) that was that. The Den's final night was celebrated with a mammoth, drunken show featuring Brady Novak in tighty whities. Comedians took stools and tables as souvenirs. A former Monday night host, Steve O. Harvey, says he approached the Globe's new owners shortly after it opened and asked to continue the open mike. They declined.
A mass exodus of Den-bred comedians followed, and those who stayed in Chicago felt the effects. "I wanted to keep having a blast, doing shows for each other and making strangers laugh," Dorezas says. But that was like living in your college town the year after graduation.
The current crop of young Chicago comics is playing in a bigger sandbox. Showcases like the Elevated and the Lincoln Lodge begat a second generation that includes Chicago Underground Comedy, Comedians You Should Know, Red Bar Comedy Club, Entertaining Julia, Edge Comedy, and the recently shuttered Riot Comedy. Run by affable post-Den stand-ups Cameron Esposito and Adam Burke, the open mike at Cole's in Logan Square draws about 50 comics every Wednesday night—which is now only a sliver of the scene. A search through the Chicago Reader stand-up listings for a random Monday turns up three open mikes . . . one of them at the Globe.
And there's more on the way. Two new comedy clubs are about to join Zanies and Jokes & Notes in Chicago. After a year of sitting dormant, the former Lakeshore Theater space at Broadway and Belmont is being converted into a Laugh Factory, the opening date TBA. And in a move that's as bizarre as it is logical, Second City is partnering with Levity Entertainment (which books the Improv chain) to start a stand-up club. Designed to seat 280 people in the former Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding space at Piper's Alley, it's expected to launch October 1. For the first time in its history, Second City will have an answer when the uninformed call and ask, "Who's playing tonight?"
"We would've killed to have what these kids have," Roy says. "We only had one thing, and that one thing became really important."
Esposito notes the Den's influence in the present scene. "There are more agents and managers doing showcases" in Chicago, she says, "trying to find the next 'those guys.'"
They'll certainly find some of what they're looking for: The talent in town now is stellar and diverse. Amiable storytelling by Prescott Tolk or James Fritz coexists with the unabashed silliness of Burke and the twisted sensibilities of Junior Stopka or Beth Stelling. But a second coming of the Den itself isn't something you can plan for.
Not that some haven't tried. When the old Lakeshore Theater was in full swing, owner Chris Ritter produced a copycat effort called Colonel Ritter's Spectacular Hour of Wonderment. It ran for a few weeks, attracting, among others, a leisure-suited, mop-topped comic with jokes like, "What has six balls and fucks Mexicans? The Lotto"—but no audience.
The Lyons Den open mike succeeded precisely because it was unplanned. Comedians created what they needed, and the other factors—a lovable and supportive owner, an ideal room, relentless peer motivation—just fell into place. "This town is driven by comedians doing what we want to do," says Chicago Underground Comedy's Dan Telfer.
The Lincoln Lodge's Geary sees the new Laugh Factory and Second City clubs yielding one of two possible outcomes. They'll "either destroy every other room because we can't compete," he says, "or legitimize what we're all doing and take it to the next level."
The first outcome is unlikely: as long as there are comedians who want to perform, there'll be a scene. And the second has already been done—by the Lyons Den.
The Reader's comprehensive* guide to open mike history in Chicago*somewhat (comedians have bad memories)
Bolded for relative importance in Chicago comedy history/lore
Funny Firm 1987—1992
The Comedy Act Theatre 1990
All Jokes Aside 1991—1998
The Cotton Club 1991—1995
Riddles Comedy Club 1990—2008, 2009—present
Red Pepper's Lounge 1995—present
The Elevated 1996—2006
Underground Wonder Bar 1997—1999
Monkey Bar 1997—2000
Midnight Bible School @ Donny's Skybox 1998—2000
Bird's Nest 1998—1999
Pick Me Up Cafe 1998
The Map Room 1998—2000
Red Lion 1998—2000
Lyons Den 1999—2004
Hoghead McDunna's 2000—present (off-and-on)
The Lincoln Lodge @ Lincoln Restaurant 2000—present
Beat Kitchen 2001
Miska's Lounge 2001
Morris Tavern 2001—2002
Red Pump Room 2001—2002
Coyle's Tipling House/Crush/Mix 2001—2006
Sean Flannery: "I remember they kept having fires in the kitchen, then relaunching with a new name...they had some theme-orientated open mikes on Sundays probably around 2001, one of which was heckling. But, being an open mike, the only audience was comics, thus the heckling was deeply personal. I'm told the show ended with seven or eight performers crying."
Knockout's/Jefferson Tap 2002—2003
Chase Cafe 2002—2005
Phyllis' Musical Inn 2002—2005
Brisku's Bistro 2003
Mullen's on Clark 2003
Big $1000 Comedy Competition @ Lakeshore Theater 2003
Betty Blue Note 2003
Cubby Bear 2003—2004
Holiday Club (Wicker Park location until it closed, then Lakeview location) 2003—2004
High Tops 2004
The Piano Man 2004—2005
The Melting Pot 2004
Sean Flannery: "It ended the first night, after Ricky Carmona used the phrase 'dope-ass niggas' while a couple was celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary."
Bad Dog Tavern 2004—2007
Chicago Hilton & Towers 2005—present
Raw Bar 2005—2006
Pressure Cafe 2005—2007
Kitty Moon 2005—2007
Sean Flannery: "This one was hilarious. A bad, Bermuda-themed bar on Ashland Avenue, where the female bartenders had to wear string bikinis. The audience was creepy old men who couldn't afford a strip club and just sat at the bar, eyes fixed on the poor girl behind it. I truly don't think they even knew a comedy show was going on."
Chicago Underground Comedy @ Gunther Murphy's/Beat Kitchen 2005—present
Jokes & Notes 2006—present
The Globe 2006—present
Spoken Word Cafe 2006
Gorilla Tango 2006—2007
Root Inn 2006—2007
Bronzeville Coffee House 2006—present (summers only)
Chicago Center for the Performing Arts 2007—present
Entertaining Julia @ Town Hall Pub 2007—present
Lakeshore Theater 2007—2010
People Under the Stares @ Weeds/The Hideout 2007—2008, 2011—present
ComedyZone @ Dave & Buster's 2008
Cork Lounge 2008
Checkerboard Lounge 2009—2010
Cactus Club 2009—2010
Comedians You Should Know @ Fizz/Timothy O'Toole's 2009—present
RIOT Comedy @ Chicago Joe's 2009—2011
Jake's Pub 2009—2010
Rebel Bar 2009—2010
Gallery Cabaret 2010—present
Speak Easy @ Sedgwicks 2010—present
Rotten Comedy @ The Oakwood 2010—present
Cafe Wha-Who 2010
Diversey Rock 'N' Bowl 2010
Red Bar Comedy Club 2010—present
Iron Curtain Comedy on Tuesday 5/16/11
Why So Serious? on Sunday 3/19/11
Three Dead Moose on Sunday 3/8/11
Mahoney's Comedy Open Mic on Tuesday 2/11/11