Can Chicago create a sustainable professional comedy industry to rival the coasts?

April 6, 2012

Download Story

Considering the hubbub over The Onion’s impending move to Chicago, you would have thought that it was the New York Times announcing it wouldn’t be publishing in New York anymore.

After the original buzz died down over the news that the free satrical weekly (which was conceived in Madison, Wisc., incidentally) would join forces with The A.V. Club in the Midwest, it seemed that things were calm. Chicago was pleased -- comics in Chicago were pleased, at least -- and well, those New Yorkers would just have to deal.

But the pot was stirred again with this Atlantic Wire story that broke at the end of March, which reported ill-will amongst the staffers, enough that many of them said they weren't moving anywhere (and used the move to spark some creative editorial protesting).

Chicago comedians and writers were both insulted and inspired over this quote from an unnamed staffer: "Nothing against Chicago. I think it's a great town. But we're here in the center of everything and it's still a challenge to find good people,” he or she told the Atlantic. In response, 24-year-old Chicagoan Josh Nalven said, “One man’s trash is my 401k and full dental” when Chicagoist talked to him.

But speaking with the Chicago Tribune last week, editor-in-chief and general manager of The Onion Scott Dikkers said people in Chicago comedy are "younger and hungrier" than those in New York, a quality he’s looking forward to capturing.

Others aren't so sure comedy writers can make a decent living here. The host and producer of The Sound of Young America (now Bullseye) and Jordan, Jesse, Go!, Jesse Thorn tweeted, "Losing 2/3 of creative staff + moving to a place with close to zero pro comedy writers = recipe for disaster." This spurred a massive thread on his Facebook wall, where Thorn further clarified:

"Make a list of the most successful alumni of The Second City. Then, in a column next to that, write down where all those people live. The reality is that people who want to work in entertainment move to the place where the jobs are, and that is not Chicago. And replacing 2/3 of a staff with people from a theater training program who are getting their first real job is a recipe for disaster."

Whether or not the staff -- or other writers -- are happy with the move, The Onion consolidating in Chicago offers the city an amazing chance to become a real comedy mecca, not just a state-of-the-art training facility. They want to expand to build a production studio, and take advantage of a 30% Illinois tax credit on all video business -- even web, where much of their content lives.

And perhaps they should take a tip from Tina Fey, who famously got her start here. When asked by a fan who’s moving to the Second City what she should expect, Fey said in a promotional video for NBC, “My advice to you about Chicago is that Chicago is a real city. Manhattan is like Epcot center; Chicago is a no. joke. city.”


Today on Eight Forty-Eight, we’ll speak with Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO, and Kelly Leonard, Executive Vice President of The Second City, both have helped many young performers go on to fame and fortune (and many more realize that perhaps they want a more stable job). They talk about whether this is the time for Chicago to beat Los Angeles in the comedy industry game. They’re joined by Nina Metz of the Chicago Tribune, who has shared insight on the performance industry for WBEZ in the past.

And for those coming to the city for the first time, this story, courtesy of Fey, might make them have a better idea of what they’re in for.

“Let me tell you something about Chicago: I used to have a homeless man living in the foyer of my building whose nose was bitten off. Another person had bitten off his nose, and he was just continuing with his business. That’s Chicago.”