Just For Laughs...

Riding past the Chicago Theater on my bus ride home is becoming detrimental to my wallet. Although I am religious in tracking the comings and goings of Chicago's theater scene, I seldom pay attention to the other forms of entertainment that come through the city on tour. There are only a handful of bands that I follow closely enough to want to see them in concert (Andrew Bird being the notable exception), and same generally holds true for comedians and other celebrities on speaking tours.

However, as I was sitting in the State Street traffic a week or so ago, I happened to notice Demetri Martin's name on the marquee for the Chicago Theater, in conjunction with TBS's Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. The Just for Laughs Festival, now in its second year in Chicago, brings major names in comedy from around the Anglophone world to the city for five days of performances during the summer. It's a great opportunity to catch your favorite stand-up act, or partake in some sort of unique comedic happening, and I was lucky enough to spot Martin's name on the roster this year. I've been a fan of his since he launched his Comedy Central show Important Things with Demetri Martin in 2009, when his good looks helped attract me to the show. His unique blend of stand up, clever use of props, comedic songs, and sketches held my attention, and I was sad when the show was canceled after two seasons.

The next day, after consulting with Justin about whether he'd be interested in going, I picked up some tickets on Ticketmaster (and was later bummed to find them on Hottix this morning for half-price, but I wasn't willing to take the risk at the time.) Once I looked into the show a little bit more, I was disappointed to find that Martin would mostly be emceeing, and that the bulk of the evening's entertainment would come from five other comics that he had hand-selected to showcase.

Thankfully, it turned out that Martin did a set of his own to open the show, which was tight, well-edited, and above all things, funny. He didn't sing, or do any bits with drawing, both of which had been my favorite segments in Important Things,but it was still cool to see him do his stand-up act live. The remainder of the show featured a mix of unknown and fairly famous comedians, the most well-known being Kristen Schall of The Daily Show, and Paul F. Tompkins, formerly the host of Best Week Ever on VH1. Since they were the biggest names, their sets came at the end of the evening, however, they failed to provide the big finale that I think the show's organizers had expected.

As it was, the show gained momentum through the first three performers following Demetri Martin's opener, climaxing with the third comedian, Hannibal Buress who was the biggest surprise of the evening. Kumail Nanjiani was first, with a well-selected set that focused on race issues and the discrimination faced by Muslim-Americans. That he was able to take such a serious subject and make light of it was impressive, but I'd recently caught him on television and recognized many of the same jokes. It's nice that he brought us his best material, but I would have liked to have seen something different from him.

Next, after a brief interlude from Martin, was David O'Doherty, a hilarious Irish comedian who brought the musical humor I was expecting from Martin. (Perhaps Demetri decided not to sing to avoid stealing O'Doherty's thunder?) I'd never heard of him before, but his song about the dullness of real-life house parties provided a comedic counterpoint to the endless jams we're accustomed to hearing from hard-living musicians about the crazy parties they go to. O'Doherty was an unexpected gem, and I'd definitely make an effort to catch his act again in the future if the opportunity arose.

Best of all though, was Hannibal Buress, a writer for Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock, who was by far the funniest performer of the evening. I was laughing so hard during his set that I got a headache from the lack of oxygen I was sending to my brain because I was too busy laughing. He definitely earned a new fan tonight, and it doesn't hurt that he's originally from Chicago, so I can take pride in calling him one of our own. If you're in the city, check him out next month at Zanies -- it's totally worth it.

After the midpoint of the show, things started to go precipitously downhill. I was most excited to see Kristen Schaal, since I was familiar with her work from The Daily Show, and had always found her funny. However, it quickly became abundantly clear that she needs a writing team behind her, because her original material, if it can be called that, was terrible. It seemed like she had no plan or organization to her jokes, and most of her time on stage seemed to be spent telling us about the joke she was going to tell, instead of actually telling it. When the big joke she'd been setting up finally arrived, it turned out to be entirely about taints, and not even my inner middle-schooler found it funny.

Demetri Martin was still funny in between sets, which salvaged things somewhat, but the last act of the evening was by far the worst. Paul F. Tompkins came out strong, with a crack about getting to keep all the water bottles still on stage because he was the last comic, but after that, he seemed to run out of material. He fumbled around, struggling for something to say, trying to play to the crowd unsuccessfully, before telling a lame, uninteresting story about a hat shop he once worked in. It was awful, and the only thing keeping me in my seat was the hope that Demetri Martin might tell some more jokes at the end to wrap things up. Otherwise, I would have left and gone home. Sadly, all Martin did at the end was re-introduce the comics who had just performed for a curtain call. We should have just left and gotten a head-start on the traffic.

Still, approximately 66% of the evening was funny and amusing, and that's not bad. I discovered some new comedians that I wouldn't have known about otherwise, as well as seeing an old favorite in person. The Just for Laughs Comedy Festival is a welcome addition to our city's annual entertainment offerings, I'm glad I decided to check it out this year, and I'm already looking forward to checking out their line-up for next year.

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