How will you spend Friday, January 20th? Gnashing your teeth, smashing your head through the wall and venomously wishing that Conway woman a crappy birthday? (As the malevolent fates have it, January 20 is also her birthday.) If so, you will be relieved and happy to learn of a most ideal alternative: laugh. And I don’t mean maniacally and alone.
I’m talking about laughing with Chicago’s best comedians in a venue full of new friends at a show put together by two of Chicago’s top producers. The What A Joke Comedy Festival, conceived by New York comedians Jenn Welch and Emily Winter, will take place in thirty-three American cities and Oxford, England over inauguration weekend.
The Chicago event, which takes place at The Hideout at 9:00 p.m. on Inauguration Day itself, is helmed by Liz Maupin and Meredith Kachel, both known for their considerable contributions to the city’s comedy scene. Liz is a producer of Late Late Breakfast, a combination comedy-variety-game-show-surprise-party, which Interrobang said is “one of the best comedy shows in America.” The show has toured the country to critical acclaim and uniquely features free pancakes for all.
Meredith is the executive producer of Chicago Underground Comedy, known nationally as the original comedy home of Cameron Esposito, Beth Stelling, TJ Miller, Kumail Nanjiani and Dan Telfer, to name a few. Meredith has added social justice to ChUC’s credits with the launch of ChUC Charities.
Friday’s festivities at The Hideout will include a line-up of some of the city’s biggest names in stand-up: Kristen Toomey, Brandi Denise, Matty Ryan, Sammy Arechar, Calvin Evans and Ghouldini, who promises an original song to commemorate the day.
There will also be a silent auction with items donated by Facets Multimedia, New Belgium Brewery, Motor Row Brewing and other local treasures.
The event is selling out fast and it’s unlikely there will be tickets left at the door. Click here to be sure you won’t miss out. Liz and Meredith also recommend arriving early. After seats are gone, it’s standing-room only. You can also show your support by wearing a red hat. Not that red hat!
Liz and Meredith kindly took time out for a behind-the-scenes look at the Festival and their plans to turn January 20th into a sanity-saving occasion of renewed hope and laughter.
Teme: Please tell us about your life in comedy and how you got started.
Meredith: I have been doing stand-up for six years here. I’ve got a great crew at Chicago Underground Comedy. We’re all aligned on using our position of power for good and doing things for others. This year we launched ChUC Charities. We’ve already raised $2,000 for Planned Parenthood. We’re going to have another show a couple days after What A Joke, for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education fund. I’m making this a huge priority. My priorities have changed from how many goofs can I do in a night to how do I use this situation to make the lives of my neighbors easier?
Liz: My story is a little non-traditional. By day, I was a project manager, which is basically organizing things.
Meredith: That’s producing.
Liz: It is producing, yes. It’s a very similar skill set. My husband Danny Maupin does comedy and he and Tyler Jackson run Late Late Breakfast. He and Tyler brought the show to Chicago, so we all moved here at the same time. I had an internship with a company that ended in the winter that same year so I had some down time. I always saw the value in Late Late Breakfast. It’s a very unique show. Nothing was happening like it.
I thought, “Well, how can I help them up their production value?” I made a stage sign for the show and I started making pancakes and that’s how I met everybody in the scene. Danny was already meeting people by doing comedy. I had no friends yet, so not only was Late Late Breakfast my introduction to producing, but it also led me to know everybody I know today. We shot a television pilot for the show last summer. A lot of people have asked me to help produce shows and I’ve been willing to do it if I love their vision.
Teme: I wondered how the pancakes got started! I think it’s so cool that you do that.
Liz: We knew [singers/comedians] Charlie and Lily. Lily used to work at The Hideout. That’s actually how we got [Late Late Breakfast’s] venue. Charlie suggested one day, “Why don’t you guys make breakfast?” I thought, “Oh my god. I have a griddle!”
I hadn’t thought that making pancakes is a skill you could have. I have done it for almost four years now. I’ve got it to the point where I can put the batter down on the griddle, walk away from the griddle and know exactly when to walk back and flip them.
Teme: How did you each become involved with What A Joke?
Liz: Jenn Welch reached out two days after the election. She and Emily Winter decided on this national festival to raise money for the ACLU. I immediately messaged Meredith.
It’s been easy to get the comedians and everyone on board. I think everyone’s at a loss of what to do right now. Things like this are really helpful.
Teme: Are there national guidelines for the show or is it up to the local producers?
Liz: All the shows are taking place between January 19th and 21st and all are stand-up comedy. Other than that, every city is different because every scene is different.
Teme: It sounds so necessary. I feel comedians are going to be on the front line of truth-telling. I mean, they always are, but especially now. We can’t trust anybody now but the comedians.
Meredith: We should make that the slogan. You’re right. In comedy there’s no filter zone. Also, as with Chicago comedy generally, we have a diversity of voice and line-up. When you hear all those different voices, you tend to side a bit more with people maybe you didn’t before. It opens people’s minds and eyes.
Teme: That’s such a good point and leads to my next question, what are the goals for the event?
Liz: The largest goal is to raise as much money as possible for the ACLU. It’s so important to donate now to organizations with the power to fight what’s about to happen.
Meredith: We hope we’re making a difference one day at a time, one show at a time.
Teme: It sounds like it could be a therapeutic event for the audience, too.
Meredith: Yes. January 20th is going to be a scary day. The Festival makes a big statement, “You guys, it’s going to be okay.” This isn’t Pol Pot yet. I am glad that our show is happening on Inauguration Day. There is nowhere else I would rather be than …
Liz: … surrounded by my people.
Meredith: Exactly. In a room full of like-minded people who are there to laugh. It’s going to be a cool party, friendly, sleep-over, therapy, AA, whatever-you-need-it-to-be sort of vibe.
Teme: Will it go later past the show because people are likely going to feel a need to hang out?
Meredith: Yes, probably. I have no doubt actually. People who like stand-up comedy tend to like drinking also. There is a lot of that at The Hideout.
[Note: since we spoke, it has been confirmed that Yung Zucchini will DJ after the show. Ticket holders are welcome to stay.]
Teme: It sounds like a therapeutic evening. This might be a silly question, but will it be political comedy?
Liz: We want the comedians to say whatever they want. It’s their jokes.
Meredith: And their time on stage.
Liz: Exactly, they can do whatever they want with it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is political.
Meredith: I also wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not, just to take people’s mind off of it.
Meredith: We’re there for people to really have a good time. We have some of the best comedians in Chicago.
Teme: How did you choose the line-up?
Meredith: We wanted diverse voices. We also wanted people who had name recognition.
Liz: The Festival organizers wanted the best names in comedy. Being in Chicago, that’s easy.
Teme: What does it mean to each of you to be a part of What A Joke?
Meredith: It’s been my mission and the mission of my show, Chicago Underground Comedy, to focus on one, inclusivity, and two, to be a charitable organization and move away from just pure stand-up and to use that stand-up for good. It’s more about my personal goals of helping others. The policies that are being put in place are also personal to me, so it’s about a personal “fuck you” to the Trump administration. What about you, Liz?
Liz: I can’t put it any better than that! I’m not a performer. I just produce. It’s so important to help put on shows right now, not only for fundraising, but also to give people a platform.
Meredith: Exactly. We’re not fucking lawyers. This is all we know how to do.
Teme: All the better, comedy brings people together. With lawyers it’s adversity and fighting.
Meredith: It’s pretty divisive out there. Comedy can be divisive as well, but if we can laugh at ourselves, we can realize that we’re all pretty much the same and in the same boat.
Teme: Usually comedy is easier when you have distance, but it seems like we’re not going to have any distance for a while. Is it harder to be funny without that distance?
Meredith: The common thought is that comedians are sad to begin with and comedy is a coping mechanism. Sometimes the best comedy comes out of the worst breakup or tragic thing. This time it’s different because people are angry and frustrated and that’s a very different emotion and it’s different to come up with a humor solution for it. It is going to be difficult, but a lot of people are more articulate when they’re angry.
Teme: Are you getting pushback from Trump supporters?
Liz: We haven’t in Chicago, but I know the organizers have received messages on their Facebook page.
Meredith: There’s going to be pushback. It’s the climate. But it’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around. I’m not sure why there would be opposition to civil liberties, other than personal gain.
Teme: I was just thinking that, especially with Congress taking steps to repeal universal health care. But why?!
Meredith: Exactly! Why? It’s money for people at the top. Also, now they want to work quickly. They’re staying up late to push these things through. All of a sudden, Mitch McConnell, boy oh boy, what a night owl! How efficiently government can run when they want to take things away from people.
Teme: So true. One of the things that makes me happy about What A Joke is the hope of people uniting like this.
Liz: Absolutely. There are a lot of organizations out there doing good, but the ACLU is already fighting back. They’re already organizing.
Teme: I have to confess I don’t know a lot about what they’re doing now. What is an example of a current initiative?
Liz: One is a new Kentucky law that forces doctors to describe an ultrasound in detail to a woman getting an abortion even if she’s sick, even if the doctor believes it would be traumatizing or harmful. Even if she covers her eyes and ears. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit challenging the law.
Meredith: In so many of these things, the ACLU is there in some capacity. Speaking up for and representing voices that are unheard. It gives me so much hope.
Teme: It seems like there are a lot of reasons to hope.
Meredith: Yes. Reasons are everywhere. They’re absolutely everywhere. Then there are people who are terrified of a lifestyle where women and minorities would be placed in positions of power. It scares them because they feel then their voice won’t be heard when it’s the exact opposite. When everyone does better, everyone does better. I really believe that.
Teme: You are so right. Opposition to civil liberties seems to be about holding onto whatever is perceived as the status quo.
Meredith: Right. That’s exactly it. It’s white, it’s male, and it’s heteronormative and there is a place for that. Obviously, I’m not saying kill all men. Well, I have said that before. But the ACLU is there to defend the rights of the unheard.
Teme: What do you think the role of comedians will be while this administration is in power and that way of thinking is still trying to assert itself?
Meredith: Like you said earlier, to speak the truth. That’s a lot of what comedy is anyway. I know that’s what I’ll be listening to.
I was talking to my dad about this. He’s kind of a former hippy and he said, “Well, you know, Mer, Trump is really scary but we had Nixon and then we got a couple really good Led Zeppelin albums.”
He’s got a point. In times of fascism, you’re going to have a revolutionary art period. Look at the Renaissance right after the Middle Ages. When people have something to push against, it becomes personal and they will devote a lot more time. But I don’t think that’s the main take-away. We’re all fucking scared and we’re going to use whatever artistic form or creative outlet that we have to the best of our abilities.
Teme: How do you each take a break from thinking about all the hard stuff? I go back and forth between wanting not to think about it and feeling obligated to think about it.
Meredith: I feel inundated with information. What that information is telling me can be really stressful. We’re lucky because we have a good community here in Chicago. A lot of the comedians are good friends and we spend most of our time together. We’ll go to a show or be around like-minded, funny people. You can joke about this stuff and get it off your chest and wallow together. That’s been really helpful for me.
Liz: I go back and forth. Some days I try to go on with my life and not think about it for just a day. The next day I’ll read everything I can to make sure I’m informed. I don’t think it’s possible to just continue going on. I don’t want to normalize anything. And therefore, I feel I must stay informed as hard as it is.
Teme: My brain wants to normalize because it’s just easier. When Donald Trump wanted to deny those events in Russia because he’s a “germophobe,” my mind said, “He is a germophobe! Of course! It never happened.”
Meredith: But pee is sterile!
Teme: There ya go. Thank you!
Meredith: It feels like there’s no longer a sense of right and wrong. It’s all been tossed out the window. But I’m over screaming about it and more into screaming about how we can help. Staying on track and focusing on one thing at a time are important.
Liz: Yes. And on what’s actually happening …
Meredith: … so it doesn’t overwhelm you.
Teme: You’re so right. It’s like reality TV and real life have completely merged now.
Meredith: It’s become Goosebumps and the X-Files.
Teme: So what else should people know about What A Joke?
Meredith: It’s going to be a really good time. If you need to fucking blow up the stage after watching a potato be sworn in as president, then come hang out with us.
Chicago’s What A Joke Comedy Festival is January 20th at The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia at 9:00 p.m. Tickets and more information here.
Information about What A Joke nationwide and in Oxford, U.K. here.
ChUC Charities’ benefit for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund is Wednesday, January 25 at The East Room, 2354 N. Milwaukee Ave., at 8:00 p.m. Details here.
Liz is producing Kevin Brody’s A Good Son about a comedian’s struggle with his father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Friday, January 27- Sunday, January 29 at the Athenaeum Theatre. Tickets here.
The next Late Late Breakfast is Saturday, February 4 at The Hideout at 3:00 p.m. Details here.