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Founders of Chicago Women's Funny Festival Talk Seriously About Comedy

 Liz McArthur and Jill Valentine not only organize the Chicago Women's Funny Festival, they'll be performing too — twice.
Liz McArthur and Jill Valentine not only organize the Chicago Women's Funny Festival, they'll be performing too — twice.
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DNAinfo/Patty Wetli

LAKEVIEW — Comedy is comedy no matter who delivers the joke, but the perception persists that funny business is men's work.

Changing that impression is one of the reasons Jill Valentine, 37, and Liz McArthur, 34, founded the Chicago Women's Funny Festival, now in its third year, scheduled for June 5-8 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. The fest features all manner of humor: sketch, improv, solo, musical acts, stand-up and more.

"Being a performer myself and a comedian myself, 15 years ago, there would be one woman in an improv class, and you're playing the girlfriend," said Valentine, executive director of the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival and director of operations at Stage 773.

 Liz McArthur and Jill Valentine in character as the comedy duo Feminine Gentlemen.
Liz McArthur and Jill Valentine in character as the comedy duo Feminine Gentlemen.
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Feminine Gentlemen

Patty Wetli chats about the festival on DNAinfo Radio:

Though women have become more prevalent in comedy since then, they're still playing catch up, often judged against a double standard, according to McArthur.

"A fat guy, balding, on a stage, for some reason it's fine. But if it's a fat, balding woman, it's a problem," she said. "I watch movies and I'm usually annoyed with the wife and girlfriend. But it's getting better."

The pair pointed to Tina Fey and Amy Poehler as women whose work they admire — "I even like their commercials," said McArthur — and credited Melissa McCarthy of "Bridesmaids"-fame for pushing the boundaries of what audiences will accept from a female comedian onscreen.

"Seeing Melissa McCarthy not be pretty ... just be f---ing hilarious" was liberating, Valentine said.

The Women's Funny Festival not only offers female performers a platform to showcase their talents but, just as importantly, provides a place to network and support each other's work.

"It's such a celebration," said Valentine. "I looked at the lineup and I'm just so proud."

Having waded through scores of submission tapes — including one filmed sideways, which Valentine offered up as an example of how not to get booked for the fest — the two have programmed 400 performers over the course of the four-day event.

Among the acts they're excited to introduce to a wider audience: Fruit Flies, an indie folk-rock duo, and Shannon DeVido, an actress, writer, comedian and singer who happens to use a wheelchair.

"She's one we've been dying about," said Valentine.

The pair trust that their audiences will be game for anything.

"Chicago audiences are so educated and they come out in 20-degree weather," said Valentine. "You play to the highest denominator — they get it."

She estimated that 85 percent of the festival's 400 performers hail from Chicago, which she called "the comedy capital of the world."

Headliners include Katie Rich, a South Side native who now writes for "Saturday Night Live" and is just one of the many success stories produced by the city's comedy scene.

Chicagoans like Rich have been successful when they fly the Midwestern coop because they're "workhorses," Valentine said.

"That's what we create, workhorses," she said. "In New York or L.A., they say, 'I love Chicagoans ... they work.' "

Rich will also lead one of the festival's many workshops — "Advanced LongForm" — because yes, Valentine said, comedy can be taught.

"You can give people the tools to be funny," she said, explaining that "there are rules, there are basics," such as fish-out-of-water routines. "There's also a component of observation and just getting up there."

Valentine, an Oak Lawn native who now makes her home in Albany Park, honed her skills at Second City and Improv Olympics, having known since childhood that comedy was her destiny.

"It was always what I was going to do," she said.

McArthur, who hails from St. Louis, went the more traditional theater route, moving to Chicago to study at Columbia College, but said she briefly harbored ambitions of becoming the first "kid stand-up comedian."

Her dreams were crushed when she caught a "20/20" segment featuring a precocious young comic, whose joke about connecting the dots of her brother's pimples wasn't even funny, McArthur said. If that was where the bar was set, she didn't want to sink to it.

McArthur, now a resident of Humboldt Park, met Valentine while volunteering at Sketch Fest and a comedy team was born.

"I think we complement each other and we both like to write — we're very character-based," said Valentine. "It's about playing off the other person."

They'll be performing twice at their own festival, first as the comedy duo Feminine Gentlemen, and again as members of Off Off Broadzway, a burlesque parody troupe.

Their advice to other women looking to break into comedy boils down to education — "You're nothing without having your mind on stage," said Valentine — and being willing to try and fail, over and over again.

"In the beginning, you're going to f--- up a lot," said McArthur.

And though she founded a festival specifically designed to counteract the imbalance of opportunity for female comedians, Valentine urged up-and-comers to set aside notions of gender bias.

"Just put your head down and do the work," she said.