Schubas Your Sunday Best A Staple of Chicago’s Comedy Scene

March 10, 2010

by Andrew Kahn, A.Jay Wagner, and Lars Weborg

Your Sunday Best, February 21, at Schubas.

It was a wintery Sunday night with sleet pouring from the sky and puddles of slush covering the streets and sidewalks, tucked away in the attic of North Side pub Schubas, a small crowd seemed oblivious to the weather outside.

There’s no stage, no spotlight, only a single microphone stand and a token stool, the tools of the trade, sitting below the spartan lighting.

Each week Schubas holds Your Sunday Best – an open-mic comedy night – in the small upstairs bar reached by an inconspicuous staircase in the front of the downstairs bar. Schubas has faithfully been holding the event at the southeast corner of Belmont and Southport for over a decade.

A motley crew sat expectantly, attention facing forward while sipping on their beers. Some were nervously tapping or scribbling away on notepads. One particularly anxious looking young man paced the steps only to return to his seat to scribble something in his notebook, and then back to ruminating on the steps.

Slowly, the space began to fill and the drinks began to flow in anticipation of the

Mikey Manker tweaks his material one last time before taking the stage. Photo by Andrew Kahn.

first brave soul to try to make them laugh. Some entered to good-natured heckling. Others slipped in like a new kid on his first day of class.

The weekly show has become a mainstay for many of Chicago’s up-and-coming comedians. The Chicago Tribune called it the city’s “industry room” and this

certainly seems the case as the majority take the opportunity to plug their own shows and venues.

As Evanston’s Ricky Gonzalez said, “At Schubas, you’re not performing open mics for audiences. You’re performing for other comics.”

Your Sunday Best’s master of ceremonies, Prescott Tolk, himself a Comedy Central veteran, opened up the night name-checking some of those in attendance and then jokes about the recent disappearance of Andrew Koenig, the actor who portrayed “Boner” on the sitcom Growing Pains.

He riffed on a friend’s callous comments on Koenig’s disappearance, “It’s a weird situation with comedians. You think they’re kidding, and then, all the sudden, they’re not.”


Tolk quickly handed off the mic to a nebbish, bespectacled lad who read his jokes directly from a crumpled piece of paper. Head down, lifting only to respond to the silence of another failed joke. The best he could manage was some sympathetic laughter from the crowd. But upon conclusion he received an encouraging round of applause as he returned the microphone to the stand and retreated to his seat.

Despite the weather, the room was packed and people continued to file in and out throughout the evening.  Though there was no assigned seating, the room had the feel of a high school. A clique of sarcastic 20-somethings congregated in the back, while a handful of pros situated themselves near Tolk at the bar, newbies at attention in the front, and scattered about was a collection of everything in between.

Photo by Andrew Kahn.

The audience was forgiving and attentive, not surprisingly, due to the fact that most eventually took a turn at the front of the room.  Comedians, amateurs and pros alike, telling jokes to each other created an encouraging yet competitive vibe. And its not uncommon for a first timer to receive a chilly reception. Gonzalez said, “When they see new faces, a lot of times the room can be tough. It’s just more competition.”

As the night wore on and nearly every member of the audience made the journey to the front. It became clear that some of the stand-ups were not starry-eyed accountants with hopes of the big time. A handful had the stage-presence and the verbal dexterity of someone who could be doing this for a living.

But the thing was many of them were not especially funny. It became clear that they came with very little prepared and treated this as an opportunity to flesh-out some bits and determine what would get laughs and what wouldn’t.

Others took it quite seriously, despite how flat their jokes fell. The effort was apparent by the nervous shuffling of notes or grasping for a drink, both stalling and desperately trying to find the one that would be a winner.

As the comedians grew more skilled, so did the congenial heckling. One comedian

Matty Ryan delivers a joke as Prescott Tolk and Dan Telfer look on. Photo by Andrew Kahn.

who took the stage to much fanfare launched into a manic set that quickly devolved into a raucous give-and-take with the crowd that was absent any formal jokes.

When asked about Chicago’s comedy scene, Matty Ryan said, “It’s definitely a family. You see all the same people all the time. And, for the most part, people are looking out for each other.”

Though the majority of the comedians at Schubas were competing for the very few paid gigs available in town, and a certain contentiousness does arise from the competitive nature, it’s obvious that a camaraderie overrides it. The high fives received on the way back to the seat, the free beer for the kid who flopped, and the warm reception all are greeted with go to show that this is a community. It’s understood that very few will ever make any money off these jokes. And to return week after week knowing this speaks to not only to each comedian’s gumption, but also the camaraderie.


Homelessness, A Growing Problem

February 21, 2010

As published in The DePaulia.

As the temperatures continue to drop and the weather makes it uncomfortable to even wait on the bus, it’s hard not to notice the makeshift beds laid in the doorways of abandoned buildings and nestled against the stanchions of an underpass.

This is the time of year when homeless shelters and support networks are most heavily taxed.  In an economic reality where local governments are tightening their belts and private donations are dwindling, the circumstances have become considerably more difficult.

A December 2006 study by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the UIC Survey Research Lab estimate that there are 73,656 people in Chicago who experience homelessness over the course of a year, with 21,078 experiencing homelessness on any given night.

According to a Chicago Coalition for the Homeless study, an estimated 35% of the homeless in Chicago are families.  For a family to afford a fair market two bedroom apartment in Chicago, and to stay within the acceptable 30% of total income threshold, a renter would need to earn $17.98 an hour or work 111 hours at minimum wage.

While the causes of homelessness are diverse and complex, the lack of a living wage is a major contributor. To make matters worse, finding a job that offers a living wage is becoming increasingly challenging.  Estimates show that by 2012, 71.5% of all jobs offering wages that could support a family will require education beyond a high school diploma.

The difficulty in finding a job that offers compensation capable of supporting a family goes to show the steep climb required to solve the problem.  And this doesn’t include the many discriminations encountered when seeking employment.  Many homeless struggle with personal issues, including previous institutionalization or incarceration that make finding work nearly impossible.

To make matters worse, according to a study by The Chicago Alliance, the state of Illinois will cut the already shoe-string budget of health and human services by 13%.  The decreased funding will leave homeless shelters able to serve 23% less clients and at least 5,640 experiencing homelessness or at risk for homelessness will be turned away.

While the state may be granted some latitude due to the current economic hardships, it’s hard to ignore these delinquent figures: 53% of homeless providers are owed money by the state with the average tardiness running 13 weeks and some running as late as 8 months.

It should be noted that getting an accurate count on homelessness has proved an intractable endeavor due to the vagaries inherent in attempting to number those who lead lives of transience and unpredictability.  Many of the numbers collected rely on the usage of homeless shelters and services.  These numbers can be misleading, though, as these types of collections have limitations, including times when a shelter will reach capacity and must turn people away.

Others prefer not to rely on the provided services.  Public Policy Professor Toni Lesser believes many see reaching out for aid or assistance as a loss of dignity.  Though it may be difficult for you and I to relate, many remain proud of the independence and lack of reliance on charity and choose to eschew any form of aid.

While the problems facing the homeless are manifold and the number of homeless undoubtedly increasing, perhaps it’s time consider this very real problem in our city, and country as a whole.

Newser; or How to Bite the Hand That Feeds

January 27, 2010

The great debate of the future of journalism seems always to circle back to, “Who will instigate the original reporting and how will it be afforded?” The answers to that question are numerous and multifaceted.

Michael Wolff believes he knows the answer.  Wolff; journalist, author, pundit, and entrepreneurer, is a co-founder of Newser, a sleek and innovative news aggregator launched in Oct. of 2007.  Wolff, known for his outspoken nature, is fond of announcing his desire to put newspapers out of business, as is evidenced in a video on the site’s “About” page.

Newser is built around the popular concept that people are strapped for time.  They offer summaries of staff curated news content offered in a forever-updating grid.  It’s splashy design, smart aggregation, and concise stories are constructed for today’s newshound.  Brevity and regularly refreshed content are built for today’s shortened attention spans and constant internet connectivity.

But a quick perusal of the Newser site leaves one confused.  On the right of each story they list their sources, which are most often the big media outlets Wolff has set out to destroy.  If his vanquishing goes as planned, one must wonder, “Where will he get his information to summarize?’

Wolff’s brashness has not gone unchecked.  A foil has arisen in the New York Times‘ David Carr.

Carr stands of the opinion that someone will need to pay for  initial reportage and sites like Newser have nothing in their business model to cover these expenses.  Therefore, they are reliant on those whom they are chastising, as Carr discussed extensively in this discussion at NYU in 2008.

Rob Fishman of the Huffington Post, disected the argument between Wolff and Carr in a May column.  The results where anything but shocking.  They showed that Carr’s reportage was fueled by research and interviews, whereas Wolff’s was, revealingly, loaded with links to other newspapers (Carr’s Times extensively) and other Newser articles which are primarily summaries of newspaper content.

To pretend we know where journalism is going from here would be an exercise in futility.  To pretend that newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur, as suggested by Wolff, would be equally as foolhardy.

String of Violent Robberies Shakes Lincoln Park

January 27, 2010

A rash of attacks and robberies hit the Lincoln Park neighborhood over a six-day span in late July and early August.  Police believe at least five of the incidents to be related.  Beginning in the early morning on July 30, multiple men, all in their 20s, were attacked from behind by groups of three men or more.  In each case, the assailants demanded a wallet and then brutally attacked the victim, sending two to the hospital.

Map of Lincoln Park Robberies

In one case, the victim was able to pick a suspect out of a lineup, but the suspect was released due to a lack of further evidence.

The police are investigating the possible connection of three other similar crimes in the proximity.

FLYP and the Future of Digital Publishing

January 25, 2010

While the introductory video of FLYP (“More Than a Magazine”) would have you believe they’ve reinvented the wheel, reality tells us they’ve simply pushed the bar of digital publishing higher.  They have certainly upped the ante in the battle for the slickest, most modern magazine presence on the internet.

FLYP has been heralded as the future of the magazine format.  In an article discussing FLYP’s launch, referred to it as the van guard of “Magazines 2.0”.  While other media outlets have taken a more tempered approach, most recognize it as an important step in online journalism and eagerly await public response.

As detailed at the Online Journalism Blog, the innovation is the result of a change in focus.  FLYP not only privileges the content of the story but also the media in which it’s delivered.  While not a staggering revelation, the resources they’ve dedicated and commitment they’ve shown have produced a website with few competitors.

All is not perfect, though.  At times you can feel them shoehorning a story into one of their glitzy multimedia pieces.  It’s akin to a teenager who’s just gotten his new car and he just rolled up to the party.  He knows folks are watching and be damned if he’s not going to show off a little bit.  For instance, they convert a banal little piece on the study of decision making into a 2 minute, 14 second animation that adds little more than eye strain to the information.

But with FLYP it’s not about where they’re at.  It’s about where they’re going.  As one of the few sites on the internet to truly embrace the possibilities of a multimedia platform; not to mention the resources behind the venture to allow for some initial turbulence,  they’ll be limited only by their own imagination and ingenuity.  And we’ll be watching.

Into the Unknown

January 14, 2010

After reading Vadrim Lakrusik’s column “Eight Must Have Traits of Tomorrow’s Journalists”, I found myself thinking, “Sheesh, that’s a lot of skills to master.”  But then I took a step back and considered the idea that we’ve so repeatedly been instructed, we will be creating the future of journalism.

Upon graduation, it seems unlikely many of us will fall into traditional journalism roles, but instead we’ll be called upon to innovate, freelance, and scrap for any paycheck we can.  Because, ultimately, we don’t know what’ll be out there waiting for us.  And just as an explorer wouldn’t head off into uncharted territory without his or her full complement of tools and necessities, we are being equipped with our tools and necessities with each class we attend, with each column we write, and with each video we edit.

Sean Blanda’s article regarding the relationship between hyperlocal media and established media smacks of the failings of the newspaper industry.  Their inability to venture off their comfortable groundings left them vulnerable to the hyperlocal coverage.  And upon discovering David had invaded what had been Goliath’s age-old turf, the local papers generally responded with indignation.  It seems in time that the established media has realized its error and attempted to assimilate many of the hyperlocal’s tactics, while sometimes simply purchasing them outright.

While Blanda’s suggestions may seem like common sense, they also appear to be a good jumping off point for two outlets on opposite sides of the media continuum.  As we continue to redefine the future of the media, the strong voices shall remain, be they large or small, and the sharing of secrets and cribbing of notes may be the key to existence for both.