Talking with Hope Rehak: a Chicago comedian whose star is on the rise

A friend of mine who is a law professor and comedy fan wrote me to say I need to know about Hope Rehak.  I love getting interview suggestions, so I was enthusiastic.  I realized how great his suggestion was when I saw Hope’s clips on YouTube and saw a young, rising comedian who looks like she belongs on stage, who has something to say, and whose delivery and material were so engaging that I could have listened for hours.

Hope, 26, reminds me of favorite friends, the ones with the warm but honest perspective who can talk about hard things, doubts, insecurities and obstacles, and make them funny and conquerable.Hope Rehak 1

She has deep roots in Chicago. She grew up in Lincoln Square and during high school worked at Women & Children First Bookstore and studied improv and writing at Second City and iO.  She studied play writing through a mentorship program at Steppenwolf and interned with the Neo-Futurist theater company. Her work has been produced by The Second City Training Center, iO, Oberlin College Student Showcase, Gorilla Tango Theater, Steppenwolf Cross-Town Teen Ensemble, the Citizen’s Theatre Company in Glasgow, Scotland and most recently, by Chicago’s Agency Theater at its 24-Hour-Play Fest last month.

During the day, Hope is an administrative assistant at Northwestern University’s law school. At night, she continues her stand-up career at multiple venues around the city.

On July 10, she will appear with Chicago’s acclaimed comedy troupe, “The Kates” at the Book Cellar.  On July 29, she will be featured at “Miss Spoken,” which is “live lit for females.”  Further details below.

Hope kindly took time out to speak with me about how she went from improv in Chicago to stand-up in Denmark (where she was named “Newcomer of the Year”), Sweden, Chicago, Los Angeles and back to Chicago again, and about the experience of being a woman in stand-up in our great comedy city. She also revealed some surprising things you would never guess from watching her on stage.


Q: How did you become interested in comedy?

A: I was an introverted kid.  I thought I was funny, but I wasn’t sure anyone else did. Sometime in childhood an uncle who is very funny told me I was funny and it felt so good to be told that by someone who wasn’t me.  I realized that’s my favorite compliment.

Q: Has your uncle seen you perform?

A: He hasn’t, but a couple of his kids have. I don’t know if he even knows.  I’ve never shared that story.  But he’s still the funniest person at Christmas and holidays and I’m always trying to one-up him, but I never have.

Q: What was the moment you knew you could get up on stage and do comedy?

A: I took Second City classes in high school, but I only did it because I was obsessed with the show Strangers with Candy.  I looked it up and thought, “Wow, Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris were in my neighborhood.  Second City does teen classes. I should go.”

So I started classes with a couple of friends from high school.  I’m not that good at improv, but my friends were really good at it and actually, still do it.

I found my niche at Second City writing sketch. I never thought I could perform because I’m a pretty bad actress and a mediocre improviser.  I didn’t think about stand-up until college.  I went to Oberlin.  There is a department where students teach classes for credit.  A friend of mine who is now a comedian in Portland, Curtis Cook, was teaching stand-up. He was a junior and I was a senior and I signed up.  That was the beginning.

Q: When did you know it was a good fit?

A: I didn’t know until I got up on stage at the end of that class.  During the semester, we workshopped jokes in class and I was terrified.  It didn’t go very well.

Then at the end of the semester we had a big show at the local coffee shop. A couple hundred students came and it wasn’t until I got up and actually did it and then …. I kind of killed.

After I got off that stage, I thought, “I can do this!  This is a thing I should be doing.” I’d been told it over the years, but I was shy and not convinced that I could do it until I did it.

Q: I saw that graduation show on YouTube. You looked very natural, like somebody who had been doing stand-up for years. 

A: I see myself being still post-puberty.  I look at that “non-home-video” video of myself and see how awkward I was and can barely watch it.

Q: You made it look easy though it isn’t at all.  What would you advise people who want to project a natural ability on stage?

A: I’ve thought a lot about it. There are so many answers to the question.  Comedians who appear natural on stage fall into one of two categories.

There are people who are gifted performers and they put on a persona of being comfortable and they’re exceptional at it.

But that’s not me. I have to remind myself that I’m worth listening to as just myself. I also feel a lot of confidence from the fact that I’ve written what I’m saying. If somebody doesn’t like what I’ve said, that’s on me, but then it’s also on me if somebody does like what I say.

I guess what you think of as seeming natural is I try to speak on stage the way I speak to my friends. I’m a good conversationalist with my friends and I just try to bring that on stage.

Q: What are your long term plans?

A: Since high school and discovering Second City I thought the only way forward was to be Tina Fey.  I think a lot of women in comedy look up to her, especially in Chicago.  That’s a big deal and she’s the big dream.

For me, it’s more about being a writer.  I’ve wanted to write for Saturday Night Live for a long time, but not necessarily getting to the Tina Fey level of being famous as a performer.  That scares the heck out of me and I would never want to do it. Like I said, I’m really bad at not being me.  The biggest dream I have right now is getting staffed [as a writer] on a show.

Q: What is the best way to get started in comedy?

A: You have to be a person who does it.  Suzan-Lori Parks, the playwright, said you can’t call yourself a playwright unless you’re writing plays.  It doesn’t matter that they’re getting produced, but that you’re writing them.

I think that’s true for comedy.  There isn’t any wrong or right way to start. If somebody wants to do it, they just have to get up and do it.  I found the classes [at Feminine Comique] really wonderful, but I took those classes after I’d already been doing comedy for two or three years.  There were people in the class who were just starting, but there were also students at all levels.

At Feminine Comique the classes are women-run and for women, so they’re a lot more about empowering women in a male-dominated space than they are about beginning stand-up.  It’s all related, but it’s very much about empowering women to consider the fact that they have something to say as much as anybody else.

Q: Would you say the experience of male and female comics is different?

A: It’s a mixed bag. I lived in Denmark for a while and I did comedy in both Sweden and in Copenhagen.  It’s a very egalitarian society and yet most of the comedians are male.  It seems to be a worldwide problem.

But there do seem to be more women comics in Chicago than elsewhere. Perhaps it’s because Chicago has the Feminine Comique, something I haven’t found anywhere else, which promotes a community of female comedians, even for those who haven’t had the classes.

Q: Do you think men and women are received the same way as comedians?

A: It’s different everywhere.  A comedian friend of mine had an experience recently where she came to an open mic and it was $5 for the audience members and free for comedians.  The guy at the door asked her for $5 and she was like, “No, I’m going up.”  So there are a lot of assumptions.  I definitely think a lot of men think you’re in it because you want to marry one of them.  Oh yes, we’re looking for our “Mrs. Degree” at a comedy club.  That is a very weird assumption.

But other than that, I haven’t personally experienced any negative comments.  A lot of men are totally friendly and swallow whatever misogynistic impulses they have.  Maybe you hear about them second-hand.  Or if you’re around a group of guys, you might hear them say something to each other. But to your face?   I think people are working really hard to be a little less sexist.  I do see an effort for sure.

Q: How do you work out your material?

A: For me, because the writer thing comes first, I have to write it first.  There’ve been one or two open mics where I decided to go off the cuff a little bit, but I don’t really care for it.  Not that they don’t go well.  Sometimes they do go well.  But I might not remember what I said.  There’s a lot of adrenaline. I find riffing really difficult.  I know other comedians who record their performances so if they do improvise, they can write it down later.  But I have to write it first and then I memorize it.  I’ve learned how to memorize it and then act like I haven’t memorized it.

Q: I would never guess.  Your delivery is very conversational and natural.  Your material doesn’t sound memorized at all!

A: For me, the stage fright is about forgetting everything I wrote.  So it has to be memorized in order to get up there and be terrified and still remember everything.  Early on, I got up a few times and forgot something I wanted to say and that’s just a terrible feeling, so that’s why I work to memorize it.

Q: What are your favorite topics?

A: A lot of friends who know me in real life are surprised that I don’t do more political comedy because I care a lot about political issues. It does make its way into my comedy, but it’s not overt.

I really admire people who can do it more overtly.  Like Cameron Esposito talking about the gay community is something that is really good and important and she makes it funny.  To me, that’s the goal.  Richard Pryor did that and Amy Schumer, too, where they’re talking about tough things, but people listen because they make them laugh.

I’ve noticed as a radical leftist who sometimes in the past has voted for the Green Party, no one wants to hear it unless you can make them laugh.

I talk about personal things because I think personal can be political, talking about being a woman experiencing random things as a woman.  I would love at some point only to talk about things that are loaded.  But for now, I’m trying to practice being funny as me and then maybe one day we’ll get to the point of openly talking about the things I care about.

Hope Rehak 3Q:  Did you find cultural differences in Denmark in what’s funny?

A: Yes, absolutely.  Countries and cultures within countries have different senses of humor, although there’s a bit of commonality among English speakers.

I joked a lot about being an ex-pat when I was talking to ex-patriot audiences.  That was something we all had in common.  That’s important; wherever you are, finding the thing you have in common.

The interesting thing about making fun of Danish people for the benefit of all the ex-pats was that the Danish are extremely self-mocking and self-effacing.  They think nothing is funnier than bullying themselves and then bullying others which is why they sometimes get in trouble for being racist or xenophobic. They are hard on everyone, but they’re really hard on themselves, too.  So they love it when you make fun of them.

I learned that comedy is extremely culturally specific and that universalism can be overstated.  The truest cliché about writing and comedy is that the specific is universal.  When you generalize, it’s always less funny.  No matter the culture, generalizing will never be good enough.  You have to be specific.  That’s why some jokes won’t work.

Q: Please tell us about being named “Newcomer of the Year.”

A: That was a really odd experience.  It was a competition at an open mic in Copenhagen produced by a Canadian who had married a Swede who set up an English open mic at an Irish pub.  It was in a very touristy area with a lot of people traveling through.   I did a set about being an American in Europe.

That stuff would never work in Chicago because if you start joking about your year abroad, you’ll just sound like a brutal asshole, but if you’re already over there and people are in the same position it works.

The competition was based on audience applause. I was pandering to the audience.  That’s something of a skill.  I’m not trying to be down on myself, but it’s something that worked that night maybe because other comics were trying to pander to smaller groups and I was trying to make sure everyone there was on the same page.

Q: Speaking of different cultures, you moved out to Los Angeles for a while.  What was the comedy community like there compared to Chicago?

A: Very different.  People who do comedy in Chicago are doing it for one of two reasons.  Some are doing it because it makes them happy and they want it to be part of their life.  They’ll go to their job from 9-5 and then they do comedy after.  Others are doing it because they eventually want to go to New York or L.A.

I met a lot of models and actors in L.A. who were doing comedy as a way to diversify their skills for their resume.  I don’t think anyone in Chicago does it for that reason.  That was a big culture shock.

Q: Would you go back to Los Angeles?

A: When I came back to Chicago, I tried to be really honest about it.  I went with savings and dreams, the thing that everyone does, and I came back when I ran out of money, but not because my dream is dead.

I’d move out to New York or L.A. again. I love both of those cities, but I need a job next time.  I would move for any job that was worthwhile that wanted me.  But it was something I wanted to do as a 24 year-old.  There was an element of pragmatism that was missing. I knew it was missing, but I don’t think I would repeat that.

Q: How would you describe the Chicago comedy community?  What is it like to be a part of it?

A: I hope I’m a part of it.  When this interview comes out, there are comedians in Chicago who have seen me, but there will be plenty who won’t know who I am.  I wouldn’t say it’s a unified community, but I don’t mean that as a criticism.

For instance, I’m dependent on the CTA.  I don’t drive, so people like me mostly stick to their neighborhood.  I mostly perform in Andersonville, Rogers Park, Lakeview, Boystown.  There are tons of amazing open mics on the North Side.

I’ve talked to comedians in Pilsen and Logan Square and they have their own scene and there’s a whole other South Side scene.  I’m not coding that to secretly mean by race. It actually is regional.  Some comedians are good at getting all over the city and they benefit a lot by doing that.

I try to go to different open mics all the time and there are still always ones I don’t know.   Chicago is definitely great in terms of number and character of venues.  There’s a huge diversity of who’s going to be in the audience.  Who you’re going to get in Wrigleyville is not going to be the same as at the Heartland Café in Rogers Park or at Simone’s in Pilsen.  Every place is different.

But it feels like there are fewer opportunities to move beyond it than in New York or L.A. Someone would do stand-up five times in L.A. and suddenly be on Letterman and that doesn’t happen so much to Chicago comics.  But everyone here works hard and the ones that you see [on television],  all the wonderful people who come out of here, usually have been working in Chicago for years and years before they get to that point.

Q: What are the best and worst things that have happened to you as a comedian?

A: Performing abroad during my second year of doing comedy was very informative.  Having a non-American focus was a good thing.   You can get boxed into your thinking about the world. When you leave your community you see what is possible, both good and bad, which is very good for comedians.  If you’re always talking to the same group of people, you don’t know what makes other people laugh.

Taking my first class with Curtis Cook was also a formative comedic experience.

The worst thing that ever happened to me was getting up on stage and forgetting every single thing and having to get off the stage. But what I found good about that is that it’s the worst thing that can happen short of throwing up on stage.  Once you’ve done it you can only go up.

Someone said to me, “Well, it’s better than if you’d told your jokes and no one laughed.” I said, “I don’t think it is.  I would have preferred people not laughing because then you learn something.”  When you forget you can’t really learn from the experience other than about how you have stage fright.

But the more times I go up, the further I’m getting from that experience.  It was a rough day.  I had friends there, so it’s kind of a painful memory.   The more distance I get between then and now, the better.

Q: What is the best comedy advice you ever got?

A: I think it was Kelsie Huff who said it.  She taught me at the first and second levels of Feminine Comique and she is really terrific.

She explained that stage fright is really the sense that you’re not worthy of being up there.  If you can believe from the bottom of your heart and with all of your mind that you are as deserving of people’s time and attention as anyone else, it goes a long way to fighting stage fright.  This has been true for me one hundred percent.

The sense of worthiness doesn’t mean arrogance. It means recognizing that you’re worthy of people’s time. Everyone has something to say. It’s a humanist outlook.  You might not like what someone else says.  They might not like you.  But it doesn’t mean anyone is less.

Q: That’s great life advice, too.

A: I think it is, too.  Especially for shy people.  Especially for women.  I think there is this deferential thing where we think we’re being polite, but really we’re minimalizing ourselves.

Q: That is so true. Do you think things are changing for the better?

A: Yes, I hope so.   Terry Gross interviewed Amy Schumer a few years ago.  And I love Terry Gross.  But she was chiding Amy Schumer about her comedy and about how it’s too much about sexuality and about what Terry Gross called “inappropriate” things.

It shocked me. I thought, “Terry Gross, you are the queen of probing interviews and you’re saying there are things that should be off limits?”  It seemed like a generational thing. In subsequent interviews Terry Gross has come around to Amy Schumer.  But I couldn’t believe that a woman who was a feminist icon was chiding her for a very feminist action.

Q: How are comedians like Amy Schumer changing comedy for women?

A: I would say, in general, that the ability to say things that are true to your life has been greatly and positively affected.

Q: Who are your favorite comedians?

A: I love Beth Stelling. I don’t know anyone who says the things she says.  We went out to lunch once when I was in L.A. and that was a big deal for me. I don’t know if she knew how big a deal it was.

I’m really interested in what Key & Peele are doing.  They have an amazing writing staff.

In terms of stand up, I have to name-drop my friend Curtis Cook again.  He’s just terrific. He’s definitely on the rise and deserves to be listened to. And then are so many around town, like Kelsie Huff.

Q: What is the key to getting stage time in Chicago?

A: It’s really important to stick to your time. People will remember if you go over and if you do, a lot of places will be less inclined to let you go up the next week.

I was a creative writing and poetry student and brevity was the key to everything I wrote. I feel that way with comedy, too.  A lot of friends have asked about the link between poetry and comedy.  It’s the economy of language.

Also, when you’re done with your jokes you should get off the stage.  Don’t stay because you have one more minute.  If you go out on a good joke, that’s what people remember.

Whether you get to go up can be truly random.  You just have to accept it and not take it personally when they draw names out of a hat.  A lot of rooms have set numbers of people who can go up.  For example, Just Dickin’ Around’s “All Ladies Showcase” at Hydrate on Thursdays, has a sign up the day before. It’s the first 10-12 ladies who email them, so it is democratic.

The same for this great open mic on Lincoln Ave. called “No Shame.”  It’s run by the Agency Theater and sign-ups start at 10:00 pm and usually thirty of forty people show up for fifteen spots.  But it’s not a lottery.  Just get there on time.  A lot of places do it that way and I think it’s okay, because the truth is if you’re doing it regularly enough, you’ll see the laws of probability at work. You win some, you lose some.  The more you can do, the more it will feel like you’re actually getting on.

Upcoming shows:

Friday, July 10 with The Kates: 7:00 p.m. at the Book Cellar, 4736-38 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.  For more information:

Wednesday, July 29 at Miss Spoken: 7:00 p.m. at Gallery Cabaret, 2020 N. Oakley Ave., Chicago. For more information:

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