While none of this year’s Just For Laughs headliners were women, meaning nary one of their names made it to the iconic Chicago Theater marquee, the best jokes, biggest laughs and most outrageous moments came from the ladies. Am I tooting my own lady-loving horn? Maybe a little, but it seems the general consensus is that ladies like Chelsea Peretti, Maria Bamford and Anjelah Johnson are the next-big, who’s who, and what’s hot of comedy. Peretti not so earnestly spent her four-show stretch toying with comedy gender roles and envelope pushing while Johnson kept a packed house laughing, capping her set with the crowd-pleasing character Bon Qui Qui. Bamford deftly jumped between killer impressions and gut-wrenching albeit hilarious stories, leaving a standing room only crowd with sore abs and a tear in their eye. Without a doubt this year’s 5-day run goes to the women. No matter which stage they graced, they had the biggest balls of them all.
Day one of the fest kicked off with some of the fiercest shows of the entire fest. Double Threat featuring Kellye Howard and Brianna Baker, as BEDE, brought autobiographical hilarity to Stage 773, dissecting societal norms and catching the audience off guard with brutal honesty and unmatched wit. Bede was one of the most raw and infectiously funny performances of the week and Kellye Howard’s honesty was disarming compared to her strong stage presence and fast-talking, no nonsense demeanor. Her energy was electric as she put the most personal parts of her life on blast, nailing the nuances of her own observations, her upcoming wedding and motherhood.
The Shit Show was a whole other animal, on another planet, and conveniently just down the hall. While closing out the first night of the largest comedy festival in America seems like a rough gig, the responsibility didn’t get the best of Chicago-based comedians, Ever Mainard and Rasa Gierstikas. The co-producers and hosts of The Shit Show confidently hand-picked a solid set of wildly hilarious and engaging comics, including local favorite Caitlin Bergh, Corey Calvert and Keith Paesel, who all skillfully weaved personal stories into knee-slapping, outrageously timed punch lines. They held their own as hometown favorites and gracious hosts, proving their shit show authenticity by smacking the crowd upside the head with glowsticks not even 5 minutes into the show.
Mainard and Gierstikas are two of the hardest working comics in Chicago, and it showed. Once an open mic night, the showcase has since evolved into a sometimes crass, but always good-hearted evening that never fails to offer big laughs and free drinks. It’s also one of the most diverse and inclusive nights in the city where big names are known to casually drop by to perform. A highlight of the Showcase was Stupid Bitch Syndrome’s Emily Walker’s committed impressions of “a lesbian on The Bachelor” and “a lady eating a sandwich in the park alone.” Walker had the crowd rolling in the aisle and dodging pieces of bread in what I can only assume was the best joke of the show, if not the entire first evening of the fest. If the folks behind Just For Laughs had any question on how to keep the energy high and the party vibe rolling through the rest of the fest, these would have been the comedians to ask.
Ever Mainard deserves recognition in her own right, not only as one of the hardest working, but also the hardest worked of the festival. Having been scheduled for an already impressive three shows including her own, The Dailymotion Comedy Showcase and The Super Serious Show, she was pulled in a number of last-minute directions during the fest, also opening for Moshe Kasher and hosting one of Team Coco’s Combo shows. Seems Chicago’s best-kept secret isn’t going to be secret for much longer as she killed each and every opportunity she got. Pssst, Ever is the next big thing to come out of Chicago. Pass it on.
Milwaukee-based comic Chastity Washington was a force of in your face, hilariously timed and physically demanding impression that found her stealing the spotlight on both The Urban Comedy Hour and 5-Leading Ladies line-ups. A former middle school teacher with a lot to say, Washington was one of the most naturally talented comics on the fest, impersonating her run-ins with teenagers and hilariously recounting her reaction to Michael Jackson’s death. I want to say that Washington was the only comedian to have reenacted the entire choreographed dance to Thriller during the fest, but I wasn’t able to catch Bob Newhart so I won’t bet on it.
Cameron Esposito, just one of the recent Chicago to LA transplants at the fest, might want to get her business cards edited to say showstopper seeing as she took the festival by storm jumping between rolls as host, performer and opener. One of the most requested names of the fest, Cameron stole the show from David Cross and Doug Benson as one of the performers on the [REDACTED] line-up and mused about run-ins with Anne Hathaway and Christina Hendricks and her affection for coon-skin caps as the opener for Maria Bamford. Her confidence found her able to charm small audiences and larger crowds alike with the hot-button topic of gay marriage, her self-proclaimed side-mullet and recounting being so gay, she was born with a collection of denim, ready to play rugby.
What can you say about Maria Bamford that hasn’t already been said? “That was the best thing I’ve ever seen!” was already taken by the entire audience of the Park West Theater and, “She’s my hero!” by every up-and-comer at the fest. How about that she is a fabulously awkward, vocal magician who kept an entire room buckled in laughter just by talking about her interactions with her neighbors. That, and she was and is such a gifted performer that she can joke about mental illness and killing a loved one without over-doing or downplaying it’s severity. Bamford’s brand of comedy is cleverly executed and often times uncomfortable, making her one of the most unique and powerful voices in the game.
If this year’s line-up is any indication of what’s to come, seems the next wave of comics will be of the female persuasion. With Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant both fresh off their first season of SNL, killing it at the fest’s Knuckleheads show at UP Comedy Club, it’s only a matter of time before some of these ladies start following suit, or better yet, get their own late-night talk show.
Erika Star is Portland-based writer and regular contributor to www.afterellen.com