AJ is not Anthony James or Andrew John. There’s nothing ordinary or predictable about AJ Lubecker. “It stands for Austin Jack,” he explains. “Whenever I tell people that, they’re like oh my god, that’s the coolest. But I go by AJ. My parents called me AJ before I could talk. That’s always been my name and I like it. It fits me. I think Austin Jack sounds like a lot to live up to.”
At twenty-one, AJ is the youngest person ever to anchor the Laugh Factory’s prestigious 10:00 p.m. Friday night time slot. His show Funked Up Friday is the first Friday of every month and like all great parties, it’s never the same show twice.
And by party I mean party. It’s not just happening on stage to a room full of spectators. Walk in as a ticketholder. Leave as a singer who shared stage time with AJ. Or shared a glass of champagne. Or your life story. AJ won’t be a stranger by the time you leave. What the heck, he won’t be a stranger by the time you come in. Don’t be startled if you’re waiting in the lobby or even in the line outside and the show’s star materializes beside you wanting to chat or dance. Funked Up Friday blends the intimate with the exhilarating. It’s comedy, music, dancing, singing, performance art, audience participation and surprises.
Speaking of surprises, what’s this about being only twenty-one years old? How long could AJ have been doing comedy? The answer is just about all his life, but his career really began when he was fifteen. Too young then to get into bars and other venues by himself, his mom would drive him to his gigs. During the drive from Algonquin into the city, they’d alternately talk about the show and try not to talk about the show.
When he applied to college, AJ knew he wanted to be close to the Chicago comedy scene where he could continue building his career. Now a soon-to-be-graduate of DePaul and a seasoned comic, he envisions making Funked Up Friday even bigger.
AJ kindly took time out of an extraordinary schedule to speak with me about his comedy career, the unexpected revelation that he’s an introvert at heart and to leave me convinced that he is completely living up to “Austin Jack.”
Q: When did you know comedy was what you wanted to do?
A: I always liked performing. My brother and I started making YouTube videos when I was around eight. I started doing stand-up in 2009 when I was fifteen years old.
Q: What inspired you to go into comedy?
A: It was something I always wanted to do. I always liked making people laugh.
Q: When was your first time on stage?
A: I had written a few jokes and recorded them on the computer, though not in front of an audience. I burned those jokes to CDs and gave them to friends and family. That was probably in 2003. I later did those jokes at an assembly in front of my elementary school. That was the first time I performed on stage. Then I didn’t do stand-up for a few years. I began again in 2009. My first shows in Chicago were at Harry Caray’s where there used to be a showcase.
Q: You’re very natural on stage. How did you develop that comfort level?
A: I think just by performing a lot. The more I was getting up, the more comfortable I was. Then it developed into what I do now. I feel like I’m able to be my raw self on stage.
Q: How would you define that?
A: I try to unfold how my brain works which is pretty off beat and random and kind of jumps all over the place. So that’s what I like to do on stage.
Q: What was it like to be part of the Chicago comedy community in the beginning? Everyone must have been five to ten years older. Were people pretty welcoming?
A: Yes, for the most part, people were welcoming. It was a little intimidating just because everyone was older than me so it was harder to relate with other comics because I was in high school and at a totally different point in my life. I wasn’t able to have a beer with anyone after the show.
Q: How did you learn both the “show” side and the “business” side and how to develop, pitch and sell your own show?
A: I went to Dundee Crown High School in Carpentersville. There was a program there that provided food and other necessities to low-income students to take home. I did a big benefit show for the program and raised about eight hundred dollars. When that went well, I was more confident as a producer. I started a show called the Chicago College Class Clowns (“C4”), which we did for three years in the city. I ended that last May. So I learned a lot about how to produce and market from those experiences.
Q: What was it like to pitch your show to [Laugh Factory Owner] Jamie Masada and [Chicago Director of Operations] Curtis Shaw Flagg?
A: When Class Clowns was doing well in 2013, I started working with the Laugh Factory on their College Night. We did five of those there, and they were all a lot of fun. When C4 ended, I started looking for the next project. At this time I came up with the idea for Funked Up Friday, and started looking for a venue for it.
The Laugh Factory was my first choice for the show. I love the staff, the venue itself, the atmosphere; I thought it fit Funked Up really well. I had a great meeting with Curtis when I first pitched the show, he was into it, but wasn’t sure about the 10:00 p.m. Friday time slot. It’s kind of a sweet spot, so it’s protected. I had some more brainstorming meetings with Curtis, Brian Morton (Chicago Laugh Factory Manager), and Phil White (Production). They all are awesome to bounce ideas off of, and helped me put the whole Funked Up idea together. And they still are great support at shows, if I need something flown in/dragged across the stage/spotlight/music cues, they’re the first people I talk with.
After that I met with Jamie who really liked the pitch as well, so that was very exciting to have everybody on board.
Q: I’ve heard so much about Jamie Masada. It must have been really exciting to meet with him.
A: Yes, it was. Definitely surreal to talk with him.
Q: What is he like?
A: He’s an extremely creative guy, and while I was talking with him he could see the big picture very quickly. I pitched the show and immediately he had a ton of ideas that he was throwing my way.
Q: That’s so cool. How would you define Funked Up? What does it mean?
A: I really like soul music, funk music. I like that soulful, kind of funky style. It’s my favorite music. So I grabbed ahold of this Funked Up name. I would say that it’s different, offbeat, kind of weird. It’s fun. I think it describes my style very well.
Q: How would you describe the audience experience?
A: I try my best to create a party atmosphere to the show, an anything-goes type of vibe. Come ready to dance and participate in it, too.
Q: Do you have a favorite exchange so far with someone in the audience?
A: I did a show on January 1st and at the start of the show I had a hidden bottle of champagne and under a bunch of chairs in the audience I had taped champagne glasses and did a “check under your chairs” thing, an “Oprah.”
I walked around the club and filled up the glasses of the people who had them and said something like, “Does anybody have a glass for me to pour into?” And one woman said, “How about a mouth?” I handed the bottle to them and they were kind of waterfalling it. The wait staff was a little upset with me for creating a mess, but everyone seemed to have a fun time with it, so …
Q: That sounds like a great moment.
A: Yeah, that was a fun way to kick off a show.
Q: Do you interact with people as they’re coming in?
A: Yes. I like to make myself as visible and as approachable as I can. I want to talk with everyone who comes to the show because they’re a very important part of it. So I like to meet as many people as I can and see what they think of the show and make sure everyone is having a good time.
Q: I love that. Sometimes audience members get to a show and are excited, but a bit uncertain. Where do we go? Where are we sitting? Is this the right door? It’s so nice to put people at ease, immediately at home. It sounds like a brilliant way to establish the atmosphere of the show.
A: Yes, definitely I try to do that. Sometimes if there’s a line outside I’ll go out to talk with people and get the show going before the show even starts and that’s why I have music playing. It’s usually soul stuff or Temptations and I’ll be around dancing and talking with people as they come in.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not doing comedy? Although you’ve got to be pretty busy between school and producing the show.
A: I write a lot. I’ve written a pilot, and some other spec scripts and different things like that. I’m also represented by Lily’s Talent Agency, so I go on quite a few auditions during the days as well.
Also yoga’s a thing that I’ve been doing for the past couple years. It helps me keep things straight, and keeps my body feeling good.
Q: What are your time management tips? How do you minimize distractions, stay focused and fit all that into a day?
A: I like keeping my mornings pretty loose. I usually get up around 8:00 or 8:30 and have a cup of coffee. I like planning out my day first thing. Different things I want to do I’ll put on the side of my calendar and cross them off as the week goes by. Yeah, it’s keep a list of the things I want to do and I do them. It’s how I’m able to keep everything intact and keep moving.
I keep things very organized. My room is always in line. Everything is put away. But then I also like to keep things loose and have the freedom to do whatever I feel like doing. So that’s a balance that I have already in how my brain works. It’s kind of loose, but I know where everything is.
Q: What is your advice to people who want to do something like what you’re doing and maybe even as young as you did?
A: If you’re starting to do stand-up, then doing open mics and trying to find your voice. But there’s not really a rush to anything, especially if you do start really young. I needed to realize that stuff happens naturally as you’re getting better and you discover different things. It’s like any other creative type of pursuit. You keep going and growing as a person and then different things will fit for where you are.
That’s [how it happened] with the podcast that I started and the same thing with Funked Up. It happened to feel like the right time and so I was able to do it. Also, keeping an open mind and staying loose so when an opportunity comes you’re able to grab a hold of it.
Q: What is unexpected about you that the audience might not guess?
A: I am a pretty keep-to-myself person. People who know me and then see me perform for the first time are kind of surprised. Someone just came to the last show who didn’t really know me well [but well enough to say], “That’s not what I was expecting from you.” Because in my day-to-day life I tend to keep to myself and I’m usually inside my head.
Q: I’m in my own head a lot, but I don’t think I could make the transition to doing what you do on stage. Is it hard to do that?
A: It feels natural to me because what I’m doing on stage is what’s going on in my head already, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to do walking around in the world. It doesn’t feel unnatural because I’m already thinking these things, but the stage is the only place appropriate for me to be that person who’s yelling “Shake yo ass!”
Funked Up Friday is March 4 at 10:00 p.m. at The Laugh Factory, 3175 N. Broadway and every first Friday of the month. Tickets are $17 in advance and $20 at the door.
Listen to the Funked Up Friday podcast with guests like Pat Tomasulo (WGN), Gregory Hollimon (Comedy Central’s Strangers With Candy) and Dave Maher (Dave Maher Coma Show) on The Laugh Factory Network here.
To learn more about AJ, including additional appearances, visit http://ajlubecker.com/
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