Chicago's new salon culture

January 23, 2012

Eight Forty-Eight

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(Flickr/Erica Minton)
WBEZ blogger and author Claire Zulkey looks at whether Chicago is a new center of literary humor.

Regular WBEZ listeners may have heard about The Moth: It's not only on the air but has also become a live event where folks get together and share stories on stage, and is hosted by several WBEZ staff members, like Brian Babylon of Vocalo's The Morning AMp and Events Coordinator Don Hall.

But The Moth's not the only game in town--there are other, similar events in Chicago that involve not only readings but theater, music and sometimes, the genres are juxtaposed, and have been been called the "new salon culture" here at WBEZ. WBEZ blogger and host of Funny Ha-Ha Claire Zulkey joined host of The Paper Machete (which WBEZ also podcasts) Christopher Piatt, as well as Brian Babylon and Robert Valadez, a Pilsen gallery owner, to talk about this resurgence. Below is are some highlights of their thoughts.

On the resurgence of salon culture in Chicago:

Piatt: There is a history in Chicago of sort of, you know, pointy-headed intellectual types that are kind of mouthy, getting together in a bar, in an environment where there are readings….It was also very big in the 90s; you know, Laura Links, Milly’s Orchid Show,  David Sedaris and writers like that, came out of a reading tradition that was sort of mixed up with some first person reporting, some essays, some stand-up, some slam poetry.

On the importance of humor in these salons:

Zulkey: When I started Funny Ha-Ha, I wanted to showcase the funnier parts of Chicago literature. Whenever I would go to a reading, there’d be two funny readers and three serious ones, and I’d always think ‘I want more of the funny’, just because I didn’t want reading series' to be so serious.

Zulkey: I prefer, if we’re having a stand-up comedian, I will ask them maybe to do something that’s more like a one-man show or a reading, as opposed to doing like five minutes of stand-up, just because I want them to stretch their definition of what they do a tiny bit. I still want them to do what they do, but it’s not a stand-up show. It’s not Zanies. It’s Funny Ha-Ha.

Who attends the salons, and whether it matters where they are:

Piatt: They’re very populist.

Zulkey: I think we always want to get more people in, but it’s also sort of a recurring cast of characters. I’ve borrowed readers from Paper Machete; I know Christopher has seen friends of mine at Funny Ha-Ha.

Piatt: Yeah, we poach each other’s talent. There’s like a Greek mythological level of incest among the series around town…you see the same faces at a lot of these events.

Where are salons in Chicago? Are they just on the North Side, with a primarily White audience? Is there a difference depending on location?

Babylon: How to get people out on the South Side is different than the North Side, proximity of the locations, the bars, the South Side is more spread out, so it’s harder to go out.

Valadez: What we’re doing in my gallery and studio is we’re providing an open door and an opportunity for people to express themselves in various ways.

Zulkey: I’m always open to changing venues if they’re available, but the Hideout is our home and we have a soft spot in our heart there.

Babylon: When The Moth actually went outside of Martyrs', and they called me and they said ‘We want to do an event on the South Side’ I was like ‘Uhhh.’ I mean, at first. It was going to be kind of tough, I felt, to get people out. But they moved it to the sort of south loop side, west area, and it’s been a pretty good crowd…So if you build it, as they say in New York City, The Moth folk, that is, they will come.