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Can 'The Open Mic' Web Series Keep Comics From Bolting From Chicago?

By Patty Wetli | March 8, 2017 5:44am | Updated on March 12, 2017 10:54am
 A new web series features the
A new web series features the "tragically hilarious characters of the Chicago stand-up comedy scene."
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The Open Mic

LINCOLN SQUARE — Open mic night — it's where budding standups go to kill or die.

The ones who emerge victorious can go on to become household names, from Jerry Seinfeld to Amy Schumer.

And the ones who flop?

Well they're now the subject of a new 10-episode scripted web series, "The Open Mic," which debuted online last week (click here).

The series is the brainchild of Chicago comedians Kelsie Huff and Daryl Moon, who play the hosts of a fictional new open mic night. The series' short three- to eight-minute "blurbs" follow the group of oddballs and misfits attracted to the open mic, most of whom utterly tank to hilarious effect.

"We wanted to talk about failure ... the struggles, the quirks, the sadness but also the joys of people who are not successful," Huff said. "The dregs of comedy."

It took Huff and Moon 1½ years to write the series, in part because both have other commitments — Moon, who lives in North Center, has a full-time job and is married with kids — but also because the duo, who typically work solo, needed to settle into a partnership and find their collective voice.

Huff ended up tackling character development and the series' story arc, and Moon did the heavy lifting when it came to writing the so-awful-they're-funny open mic comic bits.

"Daryl was great at writing bad jokes," said Huff, and she means that as a compliment.

"All these bad jokes come with some baggage of the character," she said.

The two held auditions and cast fellow Chicago comics, who needed on-camera or sketch experience, in the roles of the series' band of losers.

Were the comedians let loose to improvise?

The writer in Huff would like to say no, but the comic in Huff admitted, "Of course."

Some comics came prepared with specific thoughts on how their characters should dress, others animated the words on the page with their own unique energy and mannerisms.

"These performers killed it," Huff said.

The series was shot on a tight schedule over the course of three weekends in October and November at Bucktown's Gallery Cabaret.

"We had comics showing up at 5 a.m., which is another risk," Huff said.

Her husband, filmmaker Jason Madeja, directed the episodes and brought a fresh point of view that helped keep the series from becoming "super-insidery," said Huff, who lives with Madeja in Lincoln Square.

A new episode will go live on YouTube at 11 a.m. every Tuesday, but beyond that Huff said she's not sure what's next for "The Open Mic." 

"Do we have a solid plan? No," said Huff. "After this interview, I'm going to Google, 'How to pitch a TV show.'"

All kidding aside, the primary goal of "The Open Mic" is simply to showcase Chicago's comics, she said.

Given the city's reputation as the launching pad for some of the biggest comics in show biz, Chicago would seem to be doing just fine promoting itself without any help from Huff or Moon.

Huff begs to differ.

"People are from Chicago; they don't stay," she said. "There's no [comedy] industry, no writing jobs. There are clubs here, but no big scene. People don't get paid."

Comics get discovered at Second City or the iO improv theater and then move to New York or Los Angeles where they can make a living as comedians, maybe as a writer for a late-night show or by stringing together acting parts and standup gigs, Huff said.

"Our major export is talent," said Huff.

Some comics, Huff among them, would prefer to make Chicago their permanent home, and she'd like to see that choice become a more viable option.

Though she's managed to cobble together a career as a comedian, it's been a constant, exhausting juggling act, she said.

"I have all the balls up in the air," said Huff, including voice-over work, graphic design and teaching.

Her natural effervescence may mask it, but "the process of being a creative hustler takes a toll," she said.

Though Chicago has lured several television productions in recent years, they've almost exclusively been limited to one-hour dramas: "Empire," "A.P.B." and the Dick Wolf "Chicago Fire/P.D./Med/Justice" juggernaut. 

Why not add "Chicago Jokesters" to the franchise? Huff wonders, not entirely in jest.

Homegrown talent like Tina Fey or Lane Tech alum Jill Soloway, creator of the Emmy-award winning "Transparent," might have the pull to establish a comedic hub in Chicago, a la Wolf, but they continue to orbit New York and L.A.

"There's this idea that there's a time limit here [in Chicago]; there's this shame and guilt in sticking around," Huff said. "We see a problem here, and we're trying to fix it."

She pointed to Chance the Rapper and Joe Swanberg, whose Netflix series "Easy" is shot in Chicago, as examples of artists who've managed to find success without decamping for either coast.

"I need to research all these people who are subverting and copy them," Huff said.

It's actually not like Huff, who grew up in a small "antique stores and corn" kind of town near the Illinois-Wisconsin border, to follow anyone else's path.

"I come from a real blue-collar background. Being an artist was never an option," she said.

But repeated viewings of "Good Morning, Vietnam" convinced her that she was meant for a career in radio. After enrolling at Columbia College, she realized it was Robin Williams' improv chops, not his DJ skills, she wanted to emulate.

She stitched together classes to form a comedy major (which exists at the school now but didn't then) and after graduation signed up for classes at Second City. It was there that she met Amy Sumpter, who became her comedy partner, and the two hit the Midwest college circuit.

Huff thinks it was 2002 when she and Sumpter were reprimanded after a show for performing a sketch set in a gynecologist's office, which stymies her to this day.

"That changed the path for me," she said, realizing that she needed to find the right audience for her work, not alter her work to suit the college bro crowd.

Huff and Sumpter went on to create The Kates, which is entering its 10th year. Described by Huff as "a bunch of goofy women telling their stories," The Kates is the all-female comedy showcase Chicago didn't know it needed but has thoroughly embraced.

"It's grown from 10 women on my booking list to 671," Huff said.

The show originally made its home, and borrowed its name, from Edgewater's Kate the Great's Book Emporium. The Kates migrated, name intact, to Lincoln Square's The Book Cellar when Kate the Great's closed.

The choice of venue is meaningful to Huff, who initially eschewed bars because she was newly sober when the Kates launched. More importantly, she recognized that there are comics who don't feel comfortable in clubs, or don't want to take the stage at 2 a.m. on a weeknight — because they're older adults and have 9-to-5 jobs and families.

"If you're a 56-year-old woman, how do you find your comic voice if your audience is 19-year-old men?" Huff asked.

Her sense that "female-identified people need to be on the g------ stage" translated to "The Open Mic" series as well, with the cast and crew split nearly 50-50 between men and women, and "almost all the extras" are women.

"It's sort of my jam to help out women," Huff said.

If "The Open Mic" doesn't vault any of its cast to the next level, or doesn't prove to be the bait to lure the comedy equivalent of Dick Wolf to Chicago, that's OK with Huff. Failure comes with the territory, a lesson she learned at her own first open mic night.

Huff was in college at the time, and she and a couple of fellow students went to an open mic at what's now the Globe Pub.

Her friend nabbed a slot ahead of Huff's and proceeded to steal all her jokes. Yeah, they got laughs, but that was small comfort to Huff, who was left with no material.

"It was bad news — I didn't go up," she said, and ended up shifting her focus from standup to improv.

The moral of her story isn't "never tell a joke to another comedian." It's simply: "To people who've had these experiences — don't give up."