I can’t wait to tell you about the “Just Dickin’ Around” (JDA) open mic and showcase. But first I want to announce my new address. It’s 3458 N. Halsted, also known as Hydrate Nightclub, which happens to be the home of JDA. JDA’s producers, Krista Atkinson, Marla Depew and Scott Duff have created a rare retreat, a place where comedy is at its funniest, but also at its warmest and most inclusive.
Eliminating fear and its four sad mordant offspring (second-guessing, self-doubt, shame and inhibition), these three show-runners have created a space that invites comic minds to explode with some of the most inventive and authentic sets around.
I was fortunate to be at JDA last Thursday night for part of the open mic and all of the all-genders showcase (which alternates weekly with an all-female showcase). During the open mic, Liz Greenwood went up to deliver original one-liners and she killed. (One of my favorites was about a product that promises irresistibly touchable feet. “I don’t WANT that!”)
The showcase featured all manner of comedic styles and voices, including Jessica Besser-Rosenberg, who I’d seen perform with the kates and was very happy to see again. She has a rare deft and hilarious touch with difficult, relatable topics such as being the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor asked to represent Jews to a classroom of kids who’ve never met one.
Steve Gerard went onstage, fled behind the curtain for a whispered Newhart-esque conversation on his phone and managed to bring down the house while invisible. Ray Holleb and Ralph LaGuerre also had smart and energetic sets.
Downstage at JDA is bathed in soft purple light, while upstage remains unlit, giving the entire space a feel of the dawn following the dark. Thursday night’s host was Scott Duff who added to the effect with a positive, radiant energy that felt like a new day. He had several callbacks of friendly chiding with a woman in the front row after she admitted to dressing her dog in a poncho. At least he thought she said “poncho.” “Not a poncho! It’s a PARKA,” she howled back.
All in all, it was an evening where everyone was family.
So am I really moving into the JDA space? In my dreams. Turns out Hydrate isn’t licensed as a residence. But go take in the show. It feels like home.
Following a producers’ meeting, Krista, Marla and Scott kindly took time out to talk by phone about JDA and their own comedy. Speaking with them, it’s easy to see how they’ve created an enviable atmosphere that actually isn’t easy in this world (but oh, that it were).
Teme: How would you describe JDA’s mission?
Marla: Amy Eisenberg created the show in 2013. Her vision was a laid-back space where women were comfortable letting their individual brand of comedy loose on stage. She called it Just Dickin’ Around because, “Hey, we’re just dickin’ around!”
But it was really about having a safe space for women. I was a cast member. Then Krista performed on a bunch of shows as well. Amy eventually wanted more help, so she brought us and another woman (Tamale Sepp) on as co-producers and we revamped it into more of what it is now.
Our mission still is to have a safe place where marginalized voices are the main voices. A place where women, queer people, people of color, anybody who feels shunned by society and maybe not welcome inside a comedy show to feel like they’re the main voice at this comedy show.
Krista: Amy went to a lot of open mics that are pretty typical where there are maybe one or two girls and a bunch of dudes. It was not a fun place to be because nobody was laughing at each other’s jokes or paying attention to each other. The guys are telling a bunch of jokes that are super offensive. They’re sexist, they’re racist, and she got tired of going to mics where women didn’t feel comfortable. So she wanted to create an open mic where women would feel comfortable and like they have a voice.
When she brought us on as producers, we talked about things we did and did not like about mics, and tried to design it based on that. For example, they’re several hours long, which we did not like. So we created a mic where it’s capped at fourteen comedians and only an hour long so everybody can support each other and actually listen and laugh, rather than wait three hours to go up for their spot when they’re tired and not paying attention.
Marla: As long as there’s no hate speech, hey, say whatever you want. Have a good time, support each other, and be welcoming to people who are brand new; give them space and that chance to shine. We’re committed to being a supportive, welcoming, and empowering space.
Teme: Has the scene improved since Amy created JDA?
Krista: We were just talking earlier about how we feel we’ve opened a door. There are a lot of people who have said that our show inspired them and they’ve gone on to create their own female-friendly spaces and mics and shows. It’s becoming less taboo.
There are probably still haters who are like, “Oh no, women’s rooms … Safe spaces are death for becoming a good comic.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. When you have a good open mic experience, it gives you confidence. Confidence makes you a better performer because then you go on to your next performance better able to sell yourself on stage. Whereas if you’re constantly having shitty mic experiences, you don’t have confidence and that just keeps making you a worse performer.
So I think JDA is helping to bring a positive atmosphere into the scene for a lot of people.
Marla: A ton of people have gone through Feminine Comique. So even though the Chicago comedy scene has issues, I feel like we have a shit-ton of strong women who support each other: The kates, which has been instrumental in the scene in providing spaces and opportunities for women, FemCom, JDA, and Elyse Nylin, who is a Fem Com graduate, just started a show called You Joke Like A Girl.
Teme: Oh right, at Volumes (Bookcafé)!
Marla: Yes. She just started at the end of June and it’s been fantastic. There’s something about when women come together, really anybody who feels marginalized or shit on, when they come together and join forces and support each other, beautiful things can happen.
Teme: I think that’s so true. So as producers, how do you decide on your line-up?
Krista: Our criteria is we want them to be good, obviously, but it’s not just that. Are they professional? Are they going to show up on time and come through and do the job and be gracious? And do they fit in with this mission? If it’s someone who’s getting up and telling sexist jokes or if they’re someone who doesn’t seem to support marginalized people, then I don’t care how good they are. There are plenty of other shows for them, but ours isn’t it.
Teme: Can people who are starting out be part of the show also? Or are you looking for people with a certain amount of experience?
Krista: Yes. I’m glad you asked that. That was actually one of Amy’s biggest goals. She wanted newer people to get stage time. It’s hard to go from open mics to [getting a spot on] shows. So yes, we love having at least one newer person on every line-up so they have a chance to do that ten minutes if they’ve shown themselves at mics and we think they’re ready.
Teme: How did you all meet?
Krista: I met Marla when I got divorced and decided to do comedy. I signed up for a class at the Annoyance because I wanted to do stand-up, but I didn’t know how to get into stand-up. I thought, well, if I take an improv class, maybe I’ll meet somebody that could help me get into it.
So I sold a Tiffany’s bracelet on eBay to pay for a class at the Annoyance and that’s where I met Marla. It was just serendipitous. The first night we clicked and found out we had all this stuff in common. She told me about Feminine Comique, so the goal of meeting somebody who could help me get into stand-up happened.
Marla: And she hadn’t even said anything about stand-up. We just totally clicked. I said, “Hey, if you’re ever interested in doing stand-up, you should take this class called Feminine Comique.”
Krista: The next class I signed up for was Fem Com and then after that, Marla booked me on her show. Amy Eisenberg and Tamale were also performing that night. Amy had just started Just Dickin’ Around and she said, “Hey, you should come do my show.” So I did. She had me on a couple of times and we really liked each other. Marla and I noticed that she was trying to do all these things that were hard for one person, so that was where we all came together and started working together.
Then Amy asked me to book Scott for our show. She told me, “You have to meet Scott Duff, he’s great.”
Scott: I was a regular open-mic’er for a while, or trying to be, because the mics always have a long line. My shtick is that I’m a professional gay, so it was always a little hard for me to find safe spaces where I could try out new material unless a place was exclusively gay. So JDA was a great fit for me. We became great friends and they invited me on as a producer last year.
Krista: We had a spot to fill because one of our producers (Tamale) left to pursue other projects and we thought since we had added an all-genders night to our repertoire earlier that year, we wanted to pull in somebody who was a male, but also Scott was the first name that kept coming up no matter what gender we were talking about. He’s a solid comic and he knows how to produce shows because he produces Chigaygo at the Laugh Factory and had all of the things we look for in a producer.
Teme: Those are such great stories. Those are my best impressions of the Chicago comedy scene, that at its best it’s a warm place where you can connect with like-minded people and do what you’ve been hoping to do.
Scott: It can be. It’s not like that at every place.
Marla: It’s lovely when it does happen.
Krista: I think you gravitate towards other people who are like that. My first year in comedy I assumed everyone was warm and supportive, because the people I gravitated towards were. Then when I started venturing out to some of the other places, it was like, aaaaaaaah! [scream]
[Lots of laughter]
Scott: That’s funny because I had the opposite philosophy. When I started doing comedy I thought, “Oh, my god. They’re just a bunch of assholes! I don’t want to be around anybody!” And then I found Just Dickin’ Around and I was like, “Oh, you’re my people!”
Teme: I’m listening to your mission and thinking, why can’t the whole world be like this?
Krista: Yes! Marla says that all the time!
Marla: I say the same thing. Sometimes I hear, “People are rude and obnoxious. Brush it off and get a thick skin and ignore them.” That’s all fine and good. At the same time, no one should have to take abusive behavior. The more spaces you have that are deliberately supportive and people are being kind to one another, the better it’s making the world, even if that’s just one show at a time.
Krista: The idea that, “no one was nice to me, so why should I have to be nice to everybody else and why should I help other people?” That’s stupid.
Marla: It’s the opposite of what it should be.
Scott: Yeah, dammit! Be nice, you fucking assholes!
Teme: How did you each get started in comedy?
Scott: I kind of fell into comedy. I’m an actor. I was a founding member of About Face Theatre here in Chicago. Then I moved away to Memphis for eight years. Before I left, I’d worked at the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and Chicago Shakespeare and when I came back, I was hoping for, “Oh my god! You’re back!” And that didn’t happen at ALL!
But every show I’d ever been cast in I was brought in to make funny and I’d been an improviser back in the day when Navy Pier had an in-house improv team for tourists. I’d also done a one-man show at iO. So comedy has always been in my background.
When I came back I asked “how can I get involved?” Laugh Factory had just opened up close to Boystown and wanted to appeal to the queer community. They were starting a queer night. They’d asked a friend of mine from the League of Chicago Theaters to be the producer and she was like, “No, you don’t want me. You want this guy.” She recommended me and I just kind of fell into doing stand-up. That was about three and a half years ago.
Teme: That’s so cool.
Scott: It’s weird, right? It was just weird. The reason I always knew that I was funny was that I realized growing up, if they’re laughing at you, they can’t hit you. I grew up in suburban St. Louis and it was very hard at the time.
Krista: I had a similar experience. I grew up as a kid doing plays, wanting to be an actor and with people always thinking I was funny. I was always getting cast in comedic roles. My first play that I was cast in at college, it wasn’t a comedic role, but I got the role because I said something funny at my audition.
For me, it was always theater and people telling me I should do comedy and me never listening. Then I had a miserable, miserable marriage and I was incredibly unhappy. We moved to Chicago so I could act, but any time I took a step in the right direction, something would always get messed up and I’d have to fix it, so I never got to do the things I’d hoped to do.
Finally when the divorce happened, I said, you know what? I’m going to do something for myself. What is there to be scared of anymore? I’ve been through divorce. I’ve been through bankruptcy. I’m not even thirty yet. I think I’ve got some things to say. I don’t want to say other people’s lines. I want to say my own lines.
Marla: And then I had a not-at-all-delightful, stifling religious upbringing and always had humor as my defense mechanism. I knew from a very young age what Scott was saying: that as long as you’re making people laugh, they’re not hitting you. As long as I was making my family laugh, my dad wasn’t yelling.
I also have an acting background and I was involved in theater up through high school. Then I psyched myself out as I am wont to do, but still did some acting here and there. Then I moved to Chicago eleven years ago and studied at Second City. I got really into sketch comedy. I did sketch for a long time and I loved it because I’m playing comedic characters and writing. Then Feminine Comique got me into stand-up. It was something I was so afraid to do, but I knew that I needed to do it and have been doing it ever since.
Teme: It sounds like each of you had experiences where it would have been easier to shrink and lose your voice, but you all did the opposite. You made sure you were heard and broke away from anything or anyone that would have silenced you.
Scott: Yes, that would work.
Krista: We all became a little shiny-eyed as you said that.
Marla: That’s a good observation, yes.
Teme: What does your style of comedy say about you?
Krista: I am very, very dark and somewhat dry and sarcastic and kind of R-rated. I actually have a very goofy, silly side, but it never comes out in my stand-up. Around my family and my old friends I do things like silly dances, but I bet a lot of people who have only seen my stand-up would be very surprised to know that side of me. I think my stand-up specifically comes from my divorce and my need to get out all those inner demons and darkness and to say super inappropriate things that I’m not allowed to say anywhere else.
Marla: My comedy is a combination of my darkness, my dad’s very old-fashioned yuk-yuk-ness, and my mom’s pathological cheerfulness. So I think that my stand-up is very cheerfully dark. It’s very goofy. It’s really nerdy, but …
Marla: Yes, I do a lot of character work. And I imitate my mom frequently. She’s an absolute character. I would say it’s goofy, cheerfully dark and nerdy but accessible.
Scott: Argghh! I don’t know! I have this whole thing about being a professional gay. My whole mission is I’m a little political. It’s moving the LGBT – not “agenda” because that sounds so gross, but it’s normalizing queer culture and moving it towards the center.
Even at the most straight club I’ll always talk about gay sex because I think there’s a stigma around it in our society. The more we talk about it and the more people see people kissing or holding hands, the more we’ll eliminate that stigma.
Krista: You’re very high energy.
Scott: I’m a total spazz.
Krista: Very high energy. Kind of goofy.
Marla: And great with crowds.
Krista: Yes, amazing with crowds and riffing.
Scott: So what I try to do is a reflection of me. I’m a total spazz. I’m desperate for people to like me. But it’s also like, hey, and now I’m going to talk about sucking a dick and you’re going to have to listen to it.
Marla: I don’t want to offend people, but I want to make people uncomfortable at times because I want to make them think. But I still want to make them laugh, so maybe I’m going to talk about fucked up social mores but I’m going to do it in a nerdy, accessible way.
Scott: I think we all do that. What are the issues we encounter every day? We all have social issues that we have to talk about.
Krista: Marla has a great bit about changing your last name and the social implications. Scott has a great bit about not wanting to scare women who are walking in the streets by themselves. I’m actually a Conservative. I’m kind of a centrist Libertarian leaning right and sometimes I’ll bring that up because in Chicago comedy, I’m the only one.
But also I’d say my mission is for women who have a lot of sex and who are single and own their sexuality to know there’s nothing wrong with that.
Teme: So what is your favorite or best or worst thing that’s happened in your career as a comedian?
Scott: It was at a Chigaygo show at Laugh Factory. The title should tell you what the show is about. I walked in and there was a huge house already there. I was like, hello! Who are these people? Why are they all dressed in camo?
It was this busload of people from Kankakee. It was the Country Time Caterers of Kankakee County. You couldn’t get a better name for comedy.
And I was like, oh no! I’m going to die. They’re going to kill me! So I got up on stage and I was making all these assumptions about this audience. They’re going to be really conservative. They’re going to be really, really homophobic. It’s going to be horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible and I’m terrified. I got out on stage. It was the best night ever. They had a good time. They could all relate. It was a company outing. They were like, “Oh, yeah, we’ve got Trisha.” There was one lady who was just drunk to the tits. She became the punching bag for the whole show. Every time someone came up on stage they were like “It’s my turn to babysit now.” I named her Bitch Pudding.
That was one of my favorite nights because I learned something. I’d put expectations and judgments on the audience without giving them a fair chance and they surprised me in a good way.
Krista: I’ll say one of the worst times. I’d just started doing comedy, and had only ever performed in Chicago, and it had always gone well. Then I went on a trip to Atlanta with my girlfriends and they wanted to see me perform, so we found an open mic. I was not used to the open mic where it goes on for several hours and you get bumped and bumped. I was supposed to go on tenth and got bumped down to maybe fortieth and they kept putting up dudes above all the women.
Everyone was laughing with all the guys and nobody was laughing with the women. I did a set that had always worked here in Chicago, and I completely bombed. There are always things you, as the comic, could have done better, and I know my set wasn’t perfect, but I remember looking out at the audience and seeing hateful looks from the guys as I was talking about sex while the women in the audience were stifling laughter. It didn’t occur to me how different the South was and how backwards it could be when it came to stuff like that.
Scott: Oh, it’s fucked up.
Marla: One story that popped into my head. I went on a queer comedy tour twice. We were in Minnesota where I used to live, so I had a bunch of friends come out. We filled an entire theater. Like Scott was saying, I assume things about people and I was nervous about performing in front of friends who hadn’t seen me do stand-up. I’d rather perform stand-up to strangers than friends. But they were two of the best sets I’d ever had. It was so validating and helped me get out of my head a bit.
Teme: What’s something about you that the audience might be surprised to know?
Krista: I haven’t slept with as many people as they probably think I have. My ex and I were each other’s first and only. I was very careful about waiting for love and everybody knew me as very innocent back then. I started going a little wild after my divorce.
And that I can be super goofy and silly and make a real fool of myself. I make up silly songs and dances that people back home make me perform for them, and I don’t think anybody in Chicago really knows about that.
Marla: I’m more filled with rage than people think. I wouldn’t say I’m a whirling dervish of rage, but I get angry about a lot of stuff. It usually comes out through humor. I don’t always show it on stage, but I do at times, and it’s exhilarating. There are bits where I yell. Like yelling about how nice I am.
Teme: I totally understand that.
Scott: I have no idea what to say …
Marla: You’re an open book.
Scott: I am an open book. I’ll be mad. I’ll be sad. Whatever I’m feeling.
Krista: I think you’re more sensitive than you like people to know.
Krista: You put up a tough front, but people who really know you know there are things that really affect you.
Scott: Oh, yeah. And I’ll cry at the drop of a hat.
Marla: I’m crying right now.
Teme: How would you each describe each other?
Scott: Marla is a dirty hippy …
Scott: … with a heart of gold. Krista. Dirty hippy. Just kidding! She’s not dirty at all. Well, she’s dirty in a different way. Dirty with a little stank on it.
Scott: A heart of gold that has the potential of being crazy cat lady. Trying to change her mind is like trying to push a river. She’s a very determined woman.
Marla: I would say that Scott is kind and there’s a vulnerability to him that’s comforting and inspiring. He’s a go-getter, but thoughtfully so. He doesn’t push people out of his way. He’s super supportive and empowering and empowers other people.
Krista is one of my best friends and she is so thoughtful and open-minded and like Scott was saying, very determined. She has a lot of integrity. She is so intuitive and I trust her opinions about people and she’s …
Scott: … loyal.
Marla: Yes, incredibly loyal. I just love them both so much.
Krista: That is what I was definitely going to say about both of you. I would say Scott is very real and very genuine and what you see is what you get. We have great respect for each other. We have great discussions where we both can be very blunt and he does so in a way that is very kind and thoughtful and respectful. He makes you feel good when you’re around him even if he does say I have the potential to become a crazy cat lady – which I’m fine with! I’m fine. Nothing wrong with that.
Scott: Those cats are going to eat you one day.
Krista: Or try to marry me. And then Marla has been my comedy big sister. She’s one of the most sensitive souls you’ll ever meet and that’s a good thing because she is constantly making me see things in a different way. I have a little bit of ignorance bred into me from the area of the country that I came from and she has the best way of helping me come through that. We couldn’t have more opposite beliefs on certain things and yet she is one of the people that I feel the most comfortable talking with. Just ridiculously loyal and sticks up for me like a big sister. When bad things happen to me she gets madder than I do.
Scott: That’s so true!
Krista: Scott has seen it happen. She gets very upset. This is really a good group of people and I am always excited to see them.
Teme: I can tell this atmosphere translates to the mic and showcase and is a big part of the JDA evening.
Scott: Thank you. That’s what we try to do.
Just Dickin’ Around, Hydrate Nightclub, 3458 N. Halsted.
Free admission and free pizza. Donations appreciated.
First and third Thursdays: all-ladies showcase
Second and fourth Thursdays: all-genders showcase
No show on fifth Thursdays.
Open mic sign-up: 8:00 p.m. (14 spots, 4 minutes each)
Open mic: 8:30 p.m.
Showcase: 9:45 p.m.
Krista Atkinson appears with the kates on Broadway at Laugh Factory on Thursday, September 1 at 8:00 p.m.
Scott Duff’s Chigaygo is at Laugh Factory first Thursdays of the month, 10:00 p.m. Next show is September 1. You can also see him at Zanies as well- check the schedule for his next show.
Marla Depew’s Laughs In The Lounge is on the third Wednesday of every month at Rogers Park Social, 6920 N. Glenwood, 9:00 p.m. Free showcase. Donations appreciated. Next show is September 21.
Krista has performed in The Taming of the Shrew as Katherine, in the Vagina Monologues, Parade, and Dracula. She is also a Second City Training Center and Annoyance Theatre alum and appears at Zanies, Laugh Factory, Second City’s UP Comedy Club, The Lincoln Lodge, Comedy Sportz, with the kates, and on stages in New York and L.A. Her festival appearances include the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival, Toronto’s She Dot Comedy Festival and the Boston Comedy Arts Festival. She is also a writer at ChicagoNow and a voiceover artist. http://www.kristaatkinson.com/
Marla is a Second City Training Center, iO, and Annoyance alum. She’s performed at Zanies, Second City’s Donny’s Skybox, Second City’s DeMaat Theater, Laugh Factory, Comedy Sportz, and clubs and venues in New York, L.A., and throughout the Midwest. Her comedy has been featured at the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival, Gilda’s Laughfest, and the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival. Time Out Chicago named her solo show, Marla Depew: Recovering Christian “one of seven shows to see” at Chicago Sketchfest. She is also the producer and host of the monthly showcase, Laughs In The Lounge in Rogers Park.
Scott is a founding member of About Face Theatre where he will be appearing in I Am My Own Wife, later this fall. He has also performed on the stages of Steppenwolf, The Goodman Theater and the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, the Lookingglass Theatre and the American Theater Company. He is the producer of The Laugh Factory’s Chigaygo and can be seen at Zanies, iO, Comedy Sportz, The Annoyance, and Laughs In The Lounge. On Sunday mornings, tune in to his show Out Chicago, airing 11 a.m. -1 p.m. on WCPT, Chicago’s Progressive Talk, where his guests have included Margaret Cho, Paula Poundstone, Rondi Reed and Amy Landecker. http://www.scottduff.me/