Photo: Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon, Mike Bridenstine in 2006
Once upon a time in Chicago, a rogue group of comedians swept into the city, howling like the fiercest blizzard. They were bursting with rebellion and creativity. They would set the comedy world ablaze and change it forever. NO, I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT IMPROV IN THE SIXTIES. The years were 2000-2010, the comedians were standups, and it’s all documented in Mike Bridenstine’s electrifying new book The Perfect Amount of Wrong: The Rise of Alt Comedy on Chicago’s North Side. Just some of the group’s remarkable credits and achievements:
- Kumail Nanjiani (Oscar nominee, Independent Spirit Award winner, Time Magazine’s Most Influential People, star of Marvel Universe, Silicon Valley, immortalized as a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy)
- Sean Flannery (Comedy Central, author, Chicago Reader’s Best Standup, The Blackout Diaries)
- Paul Thomas and Seth Thomas (HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival winner)
- Dwayne Kennedy (Emmy winner, United Shades of America, Late Night with David Letterman, HBO U.S. Comedy Arts Festival winner)
- Cameron Esposito (ABC’s A Million Little Things, creator of Chicago’s Feminine Comique)
- Adam Burke (NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, WGN’s Man of the People)
- John Roy (winner of Star Search)
- Beth Stelling (HBO’s Crashing, Amazon’s Red Oaks)
- Kyle Kinane (voice of Comedy Central, Netflix’ Paradise PD, internationally touring headliner)
- Pete Holmes (creator and star of HBO’s Crashing)
- Nick Vatterott (Comedy Central, Real Time with Bill Maher)
- Matt Braunger (Up All Night, Agent Carter, Comedy Central, Netflix)
- Jena Friedman (Late Night with David Letterman, The Daily Show, Borat 2)
- TJ Miller (Silicon Valley, F Is for Family)
- Dan Telfer (@Midnight, Mad Magazine)
- Hannibal Buress (Comedy Central’s Why with Hannibal Buress, Adult Swim’s Eric Andre Show, Saturday Night Live, Just For Laughs winner, American Comedy Award winner, his outspoken comedy was instrumental in holding Bill Cosby accountable for sexual assault)
Wait! Forget that list for a minute because for every comedian who went on to have a name in lights and IMDB, there were others in the group, equally talented folks, who never became famous, whose influence continues to this day. And however impressive this list is, it doesn’t tell the behind-the-scenes secrets of the miraculous creativity and liberation of spirit that catapulted every single member of this alternative scene into comedy history. How the heck did it happen? Why then? Why them? Why Chicago?
Mike Bridenstine provides every exhilarating answer. Mike was a member of that scene himself. Back then, he literally was taking notes, certain that he was witnessing something seismic. When I first began interviewing comedians, most were from this alt-comedy scene and Mike’s name came up again and again as a revered colleague and mentor. But like many of that group, his comedy beginnings were humble.
In the 2000s, Chicago was still reeling from a standup comedy bust. The only surviving venue was Zanies, and Zanies at the time refused to hire anyone other than veteran “safe” comics. The standups drawn to Chicago’s nascent alternative scene fit no part of that definition.
Lacking a venerable home club that would embrace them meant there was no clear path to money or fame. These young upstarts would have to invent their own scene from scratch. They were undaunted. They loved comedy and its potential for self-expression and cheering for others who felt the same way.
They would reject Zanies’ rejection and band together in dive bars, in back rooms of greasy spoons, even performing on top of rickety tables in coffee shops. Waitresses yelled. Drunks (sometimes the comedians themselves) wove through the crowd. El trains roared past. Chaos only fueled the energy. Members of the group like Cayne Collier, Matt Dwyer, Dave Odd and the man who turns out to be the hero of this story, the Lincoln Lodge’s Mark Geary, created open mics and shows like The Elevated, the Midnight Bible School and the Lyons Den that are legendary to this day. None were well-known at the time, but their wild originality attracted drop-ins like Robin Williams, Sarah Silverman, Jordan Peele, Tina Fey, Lewis Black and George Carlin.
But the celebrity drop-ins are hardly the most astonishing thing that happened. Not even close. Mike documents the high-octane comic magic and misery that happened on a nightly basis. Just a small sample:
- The night Bill O’Donnell’s set deteriorated into a shocking health code violation and Dwayne Kennedy, “the Banksy of comedy”, strolled on stage for a typically brilliant rescue
- An incident involving peanut butter and a famous out-of-town cokehead
- When Brian Potrafka, dressed as Santa, livened up a too-serious Christmas sing-along by charging the stage and throwing the performers to the ground
- Nick Vatterott covering himself in white balloons and literally exploding on stage
- The story of the legendary Dave Odd
- The night Kumail Nanjiani met his wife Emily Gordon – an Oscar-nominated match made in comedy heaven – and how Kumail brought an entire audience into his act – let’s just say he had balls
- The pre-fame history of Hannibal Buress that, believe me, you can’t guess
- The tragedy of Adam Kroshus’s stalker and her impact on the entire Chicago alt-community and the U.S. Department of Justice
As Mark Geary would lament, “We realized that we’d given artists such free rein that at most of the shows it was just total anarchy.” As Mike says, it was “the perfect amount of wrong.”
Today Mike lives in Los Angeles with his wife and Bernese Mountain dog. He manages the Lyric Hyperion Theatre and, in the alt-comedy spirit, produces additional popular shows around the city. He kindly Zoomed with me to talk about The Perfect Amount of Wrong, the first and only book to do this scene justice.
Teme: When did you know you had to write this book?
Mike: I had been wanting to write it for a while. I think that I was waiting for some sort of permission that wasn’t ever going to exist. Then I listened to a podcast called The History of Standup Comedy by Wayne Federman. There was a moment when he was talking about the Lincoln Lodge and he interviewed Emily Gordon, who is great, but I thought to myself, “I’m kind of mad.” First of all, I was kind of mad that somebody else did this because I was waiting for permission, and I thought, well, if you were asking about the Lincoln Lodge, talk to Mark Geary.
Then I thought, “What if I tried to do this for real?” It was during COVID. I had not a lot to do. The people that I would be talking to had not a lot to do. I didn’t know if this was going to be a podcast, but it just started slowly evolving and the more people were willing to talk to me, the more it became a thing. I had never written a book before, and so no one told me that I shouldn’t be doing it. No one else was doing it and I would’ve felt depressed if somebody else had done this before me. I couldn’t believe that people were just letting me do it, and so I did it.
Teme: How long did it take to write? How many hours of interviews do you have?
Mike: I interviewed over sixty people and then there were follow-ups with texts. It’s hundreds of hours of interviews. I talked to Josh Cheney first in March of 2021. I continued with interviews throughout 2021, finished in January 2022 and started pitching it. The book sold in August of 2022. Then they said, “This is great. Can you cut forty percent?”
Teme: Will we get to see that forty percent? I would love a Book Two!
Mike: I’m thinking about it. The [Chicago alt-comedy] scene kept going and continued to be great, so there are things that I didn’t get to talk about. For example, Adam Burke. He’s barely in the book, and he definitely could have multiple books of his own.
Teme: You write that when you first got to Chicago, alt-comedy felt strange to you. When did the shift happen and alt-comedy clicked?
Mike: When my jokes started getting laughs was when it clicked for me. My first thought was that I have to be weird to get them to like me. At first it wasn’t natural to me. It was probably beaten out of me in college in Iowa not to be weird. I would say things in college and people would be like, “You’re so weird.” And I would feel like, “Jeez.” But no one said that in Chicago. When I got to Chicago, it was the first place I ever fit in. It was a community that accepted me and there were bigger dorks than me. I loved all those aspects of it.
People wanted you to be weird and creative on stage there. I had to relearn my own sense of humor. In college when no one likes the same thing that you like, you kind of are like, “No, I’m just kidding. I don’t like that stuff.” But then these people are all like, “Give it to us.” Then you unlock that part of your brain. Not everyone was weird, but it was allowed and done often. So I had to allow myself to be more creative and push myself if I was going to compete and hang with these people that were bursting with creativity.
Meeting Jared Logan, it was like, this is the most whimsical and creative person I’ve ever met. Nick Vatterott, covering himself in balloons when I met him. People like Ken Barnard, Brady Novak, Robert Buscemi, T.J. Miller. If you just went up and did basic material, you felt like a loser. You had to perform to the height of your creativity. There was pressure to be creative and different and good because if Nick Vatterott is before you popping his body with balloons and the next guy’s on a stool putting out cigarettes on his crotch, and you go up and say “Dating is hard…”, people are going to be like, “What? This guy’s a loser.”
Teme: That’s the most positive kind of pressure. The pressure to be yourself instead of the pressure to conform.
Mike: You said it perfectly. There was no pressure to conform. There was no, “You can’t do that. You’re not going to get on TV doing that.” The only option was anything except static and what you had seen before.
Teme: Speaking of Nick Vatterott, his set on Jimmy Fallon’s show is one of my favorite late-night sets of all time.
Mike: It’s my absolute favorite. Yes, it was Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on NBC. I was at a show last night and comics were talking about that set. Not in regards to my book or me knowing him. They were just talking about Nick and talking about that set.
Mike: The book is also a love letter to Mark Geary. He would hate me saying this, but I truly believe there should be a statue to him in North Center at the intersection of Irving, Lincoln, and Damon. He should be spoken of in Chicago in the same breath as Del Close and all the comedy legends. He’s done more selflessly for the scene than anyone can possibly imagine. He also has a full-time job …
Teme: Wait, a job in addition to running Lincoln Lodge?
Mike: Yes. That’s not his income.
Teme: Running Lincoln Lodge successfully for so long must be like several full-time jobs. How does he do it all?
Mike: That’s a great question. He has a full-time I.T. job. He has been producing comedy since 1996, oftentimes losing talent to bigger venues. He is a fire hose of giving. Some people give back and some people shun Lincoln Lodge and move on to the Chicago Theatre. But Mark is the guy that I want the city, comedy fans and comedy historians to recognize. Mark is an unsung hero of the scene. Whatever recognition he’s gotten, it is not nearly fucking enough. Lincoln Lodge is the birth of the scene, the torch-bearing home club since the beginning. It is the granddaddy of them all.
Teme: How is “alt comedy” different from traditional standup?
Mike: It was a reaction against club comedy. It was very generational. In the 1980s and to Boomers, standup comedy was a man or a woman usually with a mullet and a blazer with their sleeves rolled up, doing an observational monologue with a brick wall behind them in a comedy club with a two-drink minimum.
Alt comedy or alternative comedy was Gen X and then millennials rejecting that and performing outside of clubs and doing things that you would not show to a broad audience or tourists. It was artsy and supposed to be more intellectual. It was comedy that you wouldn’t have seen in clubs. Oftentimes that meant weird. Oftentimes that meant pushing artistic boundaries. It was making sure that the art form wasn’t getting stale. This was not your father’s standup comedy. And there are lessons. I’ve used lessons from this book in Los Angeles for open mics and for other shows.
Teme: Are there lessons that apply to both life and comedy?
Mike: Yes. I think certainly a life lesson is you can just start doing the thing that you want to do. This book is about a time when the traditional comedy club scene told certain comedians, “You cannot perform here,” so those comedians said, “Well, I’m going to start my own thing.”
If you’re a comedian and you’re not getting stage time, you can just start a show. You can write a book, you can start an open mic, and you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to do that. Dave Odd was ostracized from the scene. He decided to start his own show-
Teme: Or fifty shows, as I learned in the book!
Mike: Or fifty, yes! He started an absurd amount [of open mics and shows]. So after COVID, I wanted to do shows, and I wasn’t ostracized from the scene, but I had been away for all that time. I wanted stage time, and so I decided to start shows, and I took Dave Odd’s lesson from that.
When Cameron Esposito enters the scene in 2007, she didn’t see representation on stage, so she started the famous open mic at Cole’s Bar. I’m now the general manager of a comedy theater. When I began, the owner asked, “Can you fix our open mic?” The first thing I said was, “Well, can you have a female host?” Liz Zagone from Chicago had just asked me if she could host an open mic there and I said, “How about her?”
Adding Liz encouraged more females, more non-binary people, different types of people besides just cisgender dudes to do standup comedy. If you don’t see yourself reflected onstage, you might not think, “this is a place I should be.” Just adding a woman doubled the size of the show. Now people are saying it’s the best open mic in Los Angeles. I only thought of that because all of these amazing women were coming out of Chicago like Cameron, Beth Stelling and Jena Friedman. In the book, they emphasized the importance of diversity. They taught me that diversity in comedy can be achieved by representation. It also makes for a better show.
Teme: What made the Chicago alt-comedy scene so special?
Mike: The sheer impossibility of it. Improv is king in Chicago. When I would say I did standup, people would say, “Do you mean Second City?” They didn’t know what I was talking about. The city didn’t care about it. Standup was culturally dead at that point. The fact that all of this talent came out of it would be impressive even if it was a normal scene. The fact that it created itself makes it one of, if not the greatest scene of all time.
Teme: Could it only have happened in Chicago?
Mike: Yes. At this specific time, it could only have happened in Chicago. Chicago standup was due for a rebirth. Everything had become stale in improv as well. To be doing standup at this point in time, you had to love it. There was no other light at the end of the tunnel.
People were motivated to do weird stuff solely for the respect of their peers, not for “likes” on social media. There was no social media. There was no place to post videos. People were getting good to impress the other people who were good. People were exploring boundaries to impress the other people who were exploring boundaries. There was no reward for this other than getting good and having people respect you.
That’s a very Midwestern, very Chicago thing. I live in Los Angeles now where it’s not always about being good. But Chicago is not impressed with, “I’m from Hollywood and here are my credits.” If you’re going to get people out of their home in the snow, you can’t just be popular. You have to be good.
Teme: I loved your stories of how these comedians thrived on challenging each other.
Mike: That was the culture of it. If you saw somebody do something that was amazing, you thought, “Well, I want to do something amazing, too.” The culture bred competition in a friendly way, and sometimes not in a friendly way. It made people better. There were fewer comedians, but they were all there with no ulterior motives. Nobody was trying to get famous. They were trying to reinvent this thing and what it meant to be good at it.
Teme: How would you define Chicago comedy energy? I’m always blown away by the creativity and kindness of Chicago comedians. If you have a creative goal and reach out, there are people who will support you.
Mike: I think there’s a Midwestern kindness that comes through in Chicago. Not everybody. I mean, you’ll get punched in the face in Chicago, too, in a way that you won’t in Los Angeles. But there’s an honesty to the creative process in Chicago that doesn’t exist on the coast. The coast is where you go to cash in on the thing.
In L.A., it’s about trying to guess what gatekeepers want from you and then you end up losing that creative spark to become whatever the industry wants you to be. There’s more creative freedom in Chicago and creating to create with no ulterior motive. It’s what was celebrated at places like “The Elevated” in Chicago where people like Cayne Collier set the ethos. It was, “We’re here to explore and have creative freedom, and it doesn’t matter how it’s doing with the audience. We just want to see something new and exciting.”
Teme: Is there a Chicago style of alt comedy?
Mike: If somebody is the funniest person in the room in Los Angeles, they’re usually a Chicago comedian. The people that come to L.A. from Chicago seem fully formed. If you’re considered good in Chicago right now, you are good. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.
Mark Geary’s Lincoln Lodge is the future of comedy. If you go to an open mic there and look around that room, you can assure yourself that ten of these people will be nationally known comedians. The scene has produced people consistently throughout the years. It’s just a matter of having that become ingrained in the culture the same way that Second City and iO are known for improv. Chicago standup needs the same PR person as Malort … which was not a thing people even drank while I lived there.
Teme: How did you come up with the title “The Perfect Amount of Wrong”?
Mike: I was trying to figure out what I loved about The Lincoln Lodge, about The Elevated, about the Lyon’s Den. The phrase that kept repeating in my head is that the reason that they were so great is because it was the perfect amount of wrong. We shouldn’t have been there. The original Lincoln Lodge was in the banquet hall of a diner. Everybody was wearing a fez. There was a woman in her seventies working a loud giant cash register. Waitresses who looked retirement age are screaming their orders. There were El trains roaring past outside The Elevated. It’s wrong, but it’s the perfect amount of wrong because it worked.
These were not perfect conditions for a scene like this to arise. None of this should have happened. People should have said, well, standup comedy is done. Or Zanies won’t allow us, so I guess we won’t try it. It was uncool. There was nowhere to go. No one was doing it. Nobody cared. No one in the city even knew that it was happening. The city cared about a different category of comedy entirely, but through all those things that are wrong, it did happen.
It created generationally great comedians, some of whom went on to wild fame and success. And I will scream until the day that I die that others should be more known. But it came out of a completely imperfect scenario. There was a Monday night open mic that would draw as many as fifty audience members. It’s all wrong, but it worked. And so it must’ve been the perfect amount of wrong.
Teme: Wow. What if everybody who reads this book understands that — to never wait for permission or for perfect conditions?! This book shows how magic can arise from that perfect amount of wrong.
Mike: At the end of the book, I relay a story about a comedian I love named George Tracy. He was so rough around the edges that everybody rushed into the room to see this guy. It was so imperfect that people were howling with laughter. If you asked, “Should this guy be on TV?”, most people’s answer would be no, but we would’ve said “yes” in a heartbeat. Sometimes perfect sucks.
Teme: Yes, it does. And it’s distancing also.
Mike: Yes. It’s not accessible. It’s not inspiring. Sometimes perfect is boring. Sometimes the best creativity comes out of terrible situations. Who would know better than the city of Chicago? The blues. The Great Chicago Fire. The Cubs and the White Sox. The aesthetic of Malort. Chicago is called the Second City. This city has a chip on its shoulder. This city celebrates its imperfections.
I feel lucky to have witnessed the things that I did. When I’m asked about career accomplishments, number one is the fact that I emerged from this thing. That I can say that I was there for this. That is something that felt special in the moment and even more special in hindsight.
Teme: How did it feel to write this book?
Mike: The feeling was, “I want to get this right.” I also wanted to make sure that not just the famous people shine. Those people deserve their fame, but there are also people who are not as well known or who quit comedy who I wanted to spotlight who are also immensely talented.
Joe Kwaczala once tweeted, to paraphrase, “When people ask comedians who their favorite comedians are, they’re expecting us to say things like Jerry Seinfeld. But the real answer is it’s usually some guy that quit comedy ten years ago who lives in the woods now.” I love that because that’s true. There are guys like Shawn Cole or Mike Olson who quit years ago but blew everyone’s mind. But it just wasn’t important enough for them to move to the coast and try to become a saleable entity to Hollywood.
Teme: I hate when people use fame to measure success. Fame may happen as a byproduct, but it’s not the point. Like you write about Dwayne Kennedy. Maybe he’s not looking for fame. It doesn’t take away from him being one of the greatest ever.
Mike: And some of these people like Robert Buscemi who are not as well known, but heavily influenced Pete Holmes and Kumail Nanjiani and the rest of the scene during this time. I wanted to make sure that I was telling their story also.
Teme: Who is the audience for this book? It’s about comedy, but it also says something about creativity. It says something about Chicago. It says something about what’s possible in the world. Whether or not you have a lot of physical resources, if you have your mind and a vision, great things are possible.
Mike: That’s exactly right. The book is for comedy fans. It’s for Chicagoans. It’s for anybody who is thinking, “No one’s letting me …” But the message is, “Fuck that. You don’t need anyone’s permission. You can just go do the thing!”
The pattern of how these scenes worked was that a cool thing happens, then gatekeepers decide there will be no new entries into the cool thing. Then the people who didn’t make the cut for the cool thing feel left out, and they go make their own thing, which inevitably becomes cool and so forth and so on. So you can make a new thing if you’re an outsider and a complete divergence from the cool thing. You can become the cool thing.
There are lessons in the book for everybody if you are creative, if you are in business, or if you feel locked out of the industry. If you’re a comedian in any scene and you’re thinking how do I make my shows better, how do I reach more people, there are lessons in this book.
But I think that the core audience for this book are comedy fans. And hopefully, readers discover someone new. I would love it if a fan of Kyle Kinane or Pete Holmes discovered Nick Vatterott or if a Beth Stelling fan discovered Renée Gauthier. There are stories in here that you haven’t heard. There’s something magical that happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s still definitely happening. But it all started with these people and this scene.
Mike Bridenstine’s The Perfect Amount of Wrong: The Rise of Alt Comedy on Chicago’s North Side will be released on September 25, 2023. You can find it at Arcadia Publishing, independent bookstores and everywhere you like to find your books.
Mike will be at Volumes Bookcafe, 1373 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, on Friday, September 29 at 6:30 p.m. for a Q&A with the Chicago Sun-Times’ Steve Heisler at 6:30 p.m. Tickets here.
Meet Mike for a panel discussion with special guests at the Lincoln Lodge, 2040 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, on Saturday, September 30 at 6:00 p.m. during the Future of Comedy Festival. Tickets and complete Festival schedule here.
Mike Bridenstine with special guests at the Lyric Hyperion Theatre, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Los Angeles on Sunday, October 8 at 7:30 p.m.