With the absence of Just For Laughs in Chicago, this city was left with a gapping wide hole for standups. But fear not, The Comedy Exposition starts tonight and lasts throughout this weekend. I spoke with Matt Byrne, one of the producers of the festival, to get a few more details.
Just to be clear, what exactly is your role in the festival?
Since this was the festival's first year and none of the five producers have and prior experience organizing something of this scope, we all sort of figured out our roles along the way, taking on tasks we felt comfortable with/capable of pulling off reasonably well. Since I have my foot in both the comedy and (to a much lesser degree) music scenes here in Chicago, I became the de facto venue finder/coordinator. My main job is working at saki, a record store and performance space in Logan Square, which regularly partners with local venues to promote concerts, so I came to the festival with a lot of contacts at some of the larger venues we've ended up working with.
I'm also a freelance writer and have some experience in PR, so I became the main press guy as well. I know my way around a press release and know how to semi-artfully pester local press outlets into covering the festival. All that said, our other producers also definitely helped find venues and solidify press things, because we're a family.
How did the idea for The Comedy Exposition of 2014 begin?
The Comedy Exposition began in December 2013, birthed from a single tweet Katie McVay posted hours after it was revealed that Just For Laughs would not be returning to Chicago in 2014. She half-seriously wondered aloud if she should organize something to fill the JFL void, and was met with unqualified enthusiasm from members of the Chicago standup scene, myself included. Katie then handpicked a few of the most enthusiastic/friendly of the many who replied to come on board as the festival's main producers. I'm incredibly flattered to be working with such a motivated and goodhearted group of people.
What was the goal behind this festival?
There are two main goals of the festival, one is to expose as many Chicago-based comedy fans to the huge amount of talent currently plugging away almost completely under the radar here in town. Most Chicago standups don't find notoriety until they relocate to more showbiz-friendly towns (Cameron Esposito and Beth Stelling jump to mind as two very awesome examples of recent, hugely talented Chicago exports that are well on their way to becoming household names), and we'd love to play a small role in getting folks into folks like Candy Lawrence and Danny Kallas before their inevitable Comedy Central half hours.
The other goal is more comedian-oriented. Chicago's got a great standup scene but it's often eclipsed by hugely popular sketch and improv scenes here. There are a slew of hugely influential and beloved comedy institutions in Chicago, (iO, Second City, The Annoyance, etc.) but none of them have much of a stake in standup. In addition to the 20 or so Chicago-based comics we're featuring on the fest, there are over 40 comics coming in from other parts of the country to appear at the festival.
We want to show off Chicago's vibrant, groundbreaking, and staunchly DIY standup scene to these out of towners, as well as offer networking (and friendship) opportunities to comics from across the country, who, after meeting at fests like these, can help set up newfound out of town comedian friends with shows and places to crash in their hometowns.
How did you go about reaching out to people? What was your strategy in "collecting talent?"
Expo producer Zach Peterson was hugely helpful in bringing in comics. He performed for several years in Omaha before moving to Chicago and worked with the OK Party comedy collective to bring headliners (like the ones featured on our festival) Nebraska. We also received over 300 submissions, and accepted way more comics than we'd initially intended to, because of the huge outpouring of interest we'd received from comics from all over the country hoping to be a part of the festival.
Do you anticipate this to be an annual event?
We do! We've already got @comedyexpo2015 and @comedyexpo2016 locked down and everything!
What/who are you most looking forward to this weekend?
I'm excited to see Andy Kindler (I still can't believe we got someone on his level for our first year). There's nobody like him, he's fearless, self-referential, and incredibly silly. I'm also excited to see Rob Christensen, Mary Van Note, and Curtis Cook. I'm also just really excited that this whole thing is actually happening.
What is the one thing you want people to walk away from this festival knowing or thinking?
I hope the audience members keep coming to comedy shows the other 362 days of the year, because there's great, innovative comedy (standup and otherwise) happening every night and not enough people are willing to take a chance on performers who are still a few years away from their first TV credit. I hope the comedians we're featuring on the festival have a nice time, make a lot of friends, and have good sets in front of engaged, friendly audiences.
I hope me and the other four producers make it through this weekend alive.
Well there you have it folks, The Comedy Exposition begins TONIGHT, so if you don't already have tickets, get them now and have yourself a merry little standup weekend.