Pop-Up Magazine brings an escape hatch to Chicago: A Q&A with Jo Firestone and Aaron Edwards

Pssst! C’mere! Need an escape? I know where you can find a one-of-a-kind escape at a good price and it’s close by. There will be celebs revealing never-before-told stories, sometimes in unexpected mediums like music, multimedia or animation. After the show, you’re invited to gather with your favorite performers up close and personal at the bar.

This unique event is Pop-Up Magazine’s first themed tour. Pop-Up is the sister magazine to the award-winning California Sunday Magazine. The sibling mags decided to partner this October on the theme of “escape,” saying “we could all use a little escape in one way or another. From politics, from the past, from hostile governments and climate change. From the Internet. From negativity. Maybe even from ourselves.”

Unlike print-bound magazines, Pop-Up is a traveling showcase of surprises and unconventional presentations. When it arrives at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theatre on October 12, it will bring comedians Jo Firestone (Shrill, The Tonight Show), Jordan Carlos (Black Mirror, Adulting, Divorce, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Colbert Report), Chris Duffy (Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, he has written jokes for Dan Rather), poet Sarah Kay (Project VOICE), writers Clio Chang (Jezebel, The New Republic), Keri Blakinger (Houston Chronicle), Lolly Bowean (Chicago Tribune), musician Left at London, and photographers Lucas Foglia (International Center of Photography, SF MOMA) and Lisette Poole (Time, The Atlantic, The New York Times).

Each contributor will tell an escape story that’s never been heard before. The stories touch on topics including immigration, the Internet, criminal justice, music, and more. Once told, that’s it. The show will not be recorded and will never “pop up” online. In short, if you want to know, you gotta go to the show!

Jo Firestone, whose comedy is one of my favorite escapes, kindly answered some questions by email about what escape means to her and she also has some excellent advice. Jo has a knack for making life’s challenges hilarious, endurable and even impossibly fun. She interacts with the audience as personally as if she’s known you forever. She is also famous for her contributions to The Tonight Show as a writer and on-air contributor (her Betsy DeVos impression is classic) and for her appearances on Adult Swim’s Joe Pera Talks With You.

Jo has a podcast called Dr. Gameshow and a game show called Punderdome which she created with her dad. Her comedy album is The Hits.

I was also fortunate to hear from Pop-Up’s producer Aaron Edwards. Jo and Aaron gave me a snapshot of the event that is shaping up to be the great escape of the year.

Jo Firestone

Teme: I don’t want to ask you to give too much away, but what can you say about the story you’ll be telling at the Athenaeum in Chicago?

Jo: It’s got a lot to do with staying at home. I guess I don’t really pay attention to directions.

Teme: What has been your most successful escape?

Jo: One time I got to a work party, realized I didn’t want to be there, said hello to no one, and left after 10 minutes. It felt perfect.

Teme: You’re wonderful at interacting with audiences. For those of us who aren’t so good at thinking on our feet (or who are awkward in big groups of more than two people), can we learn the skill of quick, funny interaction or is it something you’re born with?

Jo: I think the key to thinking on your feet is just saying whatever pops in your head in the moment and regretting it for days and days later. Some people spend too much time pre-regretting what they’re about to say, which I think slows them down!

Teme: What are your favorite things to do in Chicago?

Jo: I have a niece and a nephew in Chicago so my favorite thing to do is hang out with them. Sometimes we race little cars, sometimes we peel eggs, it’s wild stuff. What a city!

Aaron Edwards

Teme: What makes Jo a wonderful contributor to the show?

Aaron: My fellow producer Haley Howle invited me to Everyday Decisions, an interview-based show that Jo did in New York. It was my first time seeing her live. She brought this really special mix of sincerity, absurdity, and playfulness to the night that felt incredibly special. Haley reached out to her, told her about the project we were cooking up, and workshopped an idea with her that we assigned into the Escape Issue. A Pop-Up Magazine story can take many forms. Our bread and butter are compelling narratives, but the show isn’t features and magazine stories from top to bottom. We break form, we experiment, and we really try to see how people — especially performers — interpret and pitch into the show. I don’t want to spoil it, but what we landed on with Jo feels so uniquely her and a hilarious pairing of her style with our stage.

Teme: How did you decide on the “escape” theme?

Pop-Up Magazine Oakland w/Mohanad Elsheiky/Photo by Alex Welsh

Aaron: It felt like the right moment. The world is a garbage fire. I’d like to escape to the forest and toss my phone into a moat, but I don’t know how to hunt and still owe student loans. We knew we wanted to try out a themed show in partnership with our sibling publication, California Sunday. And in all of our joint brainstorms a consistent through-line emerged: everything feels terrible! So we channeled that into something. We set out to find stories that tugged on that feeling, while moving the conversation forward.

Teme: At the post-show gathering, will audience members have a chance to speak individually with performers? This sounds like a rare and wonderful thing to do. Why was it important to Pop-Up‘s creators to give the performers and audience an opportunity to interact personally?

Aaron: Totally. Pop-Up started as a small show in the Bay Area, among friends. As the show grows and tours new cities, we never want to lose that. At its best, storytelling is a tradition that doesn’t end once the story is told. That ethos is what drew me to the show when I first saw it, long before I produced it. After laughing, crying, and finding myself deep in thought, I could walk up to a contributor and ask questions. I could tell them how their story made me feel. Or I’d meet a new friend in the audience, connected by the experience. When I co-host the show, I usually remind people that after the night is over, the show will disappear. We don’t put anything from it online. But I never say the stories will go away. That’s something everyone in the audience shares, and takes with them. That extension is just as special as the stories themselves.


Pop-Up Magazine’s “The Escape Issue” is at The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave. on Saturday, October 12, 2019 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and more details here.

More about Pop-Up Magazine at popupmagazine.com

More about Jo at  jofirestone.com

More about Aaron at aaronmedwards.com

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