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Love for Laughs is growing: How the TBS comedy fest got to be the biggest in the U.S.

TBS (tv network)The Second CityJohn OliverLollapaloozaAziz Ansari

You won't find universal love for the Just for Laughs festival in Chicago's comedy scene. But as the aggregation of local, national and international talent prepares to begin its fourth annual run here this week, you will find something close — plus recognition that Just for Laughs, the country's largest comedy festival, has played a key role in tying the city to stand-up comedy.

Since deciding to make Chicago the location for its first American festival, the Montreal company behind the event, officially called TBS Just for Laughs Chicago, has managed to turn mid-June, usually something of a club-going dead zone, into a highlight of the year.

Indeed, Just for Laughs has become the city's top Canadian import that does not come in 12-ounce bottles or earn its pay on a sheet of ice. And the talent concentration is so high that we can even forgive the festival those cringe-inducing coffee-flavored Twix bars that were passed out one year as an event sponsor tried to push a new (and, as it turned out, doomed) product.

"I love it. It's showing that, 'Hey, Chicago is a place to be for stand-up,'" says Kyle Lane, owner of the Comedy Bar, a relatively new venue downtown that will be hosting showcases this week featuringConan O'Brien's writers, Chicago comics and up-and-comers on the national scene.

"You're hearing about the boom in comedy again, especially in stand-up, and I think Just for Laughs plays a big part in that," Lane says.

"The lineup's real strong this year," says Kelly Leonard, executive vice president of Second City, which will see its new UP Comedy Club used for several shows this year. "They've fine-tuned the thing and seem to understand the marketplace better. For a comedy nerd or aficionado, this is a stellar lineup of some of the best people doing this work right now from different angles."

Name-brand performers coming to town for JFL this year include Patton Oswalt, Stephen Merchant, John Oliver, Aziz Ansari, Sarah Silverman and Jeff Ross. They're part of a laugh-seeking tableau that will see 185 performers doing 96 shows in 18 venues over six days, Tuesday through June 17 in front of perhaps, estimating conservatively, 50,000 people. Think Lollapalooza minus the mud, Sundance without the hot tubs, a Renaissance faire with way more references to Facebook and airline food.

And even while the numbers have been growing — the first year saw 54 shows at nine venues, according to Just for Laughs, the second about 150 performers — the ambitions have been changing. This year, for the first time, none of the shows is being taped to air on TBS.

Instead, the cable channel is having its marquee star, late-nighter O'Brien, do a week of shows from the Chicago Theatre.

"Having Conan come and do four nights out of here, that is our television," says Dennis Adamovich, a senior vice president and general manager of festivals for TBS.

Shopping local

The event is having a big impact on local comedians. Of all the performers this year, 92 — about half — are local, according to Just for Laughs.

Even the ones who don't officially get in can sometimes find a way to be part of things. Danny Kallas, a 30-year-old Elmwood Park native who's been doing stand-up for about six years, acknowledged that competition can be tough for the showcase among local comics, who think it might be a chance to be discovered, connect with an agent or get an audition.

"I didn't see one person from the industry at our little thing last year," says Kallas, who was in the 2011 version of New Faces of Chicago (this year at 9 p.m. Thursday at the Comedy Bar). "All it did was cause friction in our little scene," as 20 people were selected while "50 or 60 could have been," Kallas says.

No longer a new face this year, Kallas isn't officially part of the festival, but he has a pretty good slot anyway: Hannibal Buress, the Chicago stand-up who's risen to national headliner status in recent years, personally tabbed Kallas to open for him in his Park West show Thursday.

"I guess I respect Hannibal's opinion more than anybody else's," Kallas says.

Buress says he is donating his proceeds from the show to the grade school in the Austin neighborhood he attended and where his mother works, St. Paul Lutheran.

For a comic, he says, the logistics of a festival are pretty much the same as any other gig, but the concentration of peers means it's a chance to hang out with people you don't often get to see.

Plus, "it's good that it's in Chicago," Buress says. "I'm happy to come home and work."

Comic Greg Proops ("Whose Line Is It Anyway?") agrees about the value of having everyone in one place.

"I have done Montreal and Toronto for JFL, and they are very pro," he says via email. "Fests are fun. You won't get a deal from showbiz, but we all get to see each other and hang out some."

'My stimulus package'

Different club owners have different feelings about the festival. Chris Ritter, when he was running Lakeshore Theater on the North Side (now the Laugh Factory), used to call Just for Laughs "my stimulus package."

Second City's Leonard and Comedy Bar's Lane are similarly enthusiastic about what JFL shows will do for their venues.

"In summer it's always hard to fill butts in the seats in Chicago, unless you've got a beer garden," Lane says. "(The festival) kind of soaks up June for us. We don't do great a couple of weeks before it and after, but the event is so great and so awesome, it kind of makes up for it."

But Bert Haas, who runs the Zanies chain and is not participating in the festival "by choice," says the financials don't make sense for his club. "I'm glad they come to town," he says. But Just for Laughs "is a five-day concert promoter is what they are, and it's great for stand-up comedy because they bring in great acts. What they basically do is they present a year's worth of concerts in five days."

Bruce Hills, the chief operating officer of the festival, says it actually operates on three models: Big shows that Just for Laughs produces, like the Sarah Silverman-led showcases Saturday at the Chicago Theatre; co-productions, as with UP (T.J. Miller, Thursday through Saturday); and smaller-venue shows, for which the festival takes no marketing fee but is instead trying to make sure the wealth gets spread a little bit. (Second City is a creative partner with the Tribune in the paper's "Chicago Live!" stage show, which runs at UP.)

"On a public relations level, it would be a disaster for us not to do something local," Hills says. "And for the depth of the festival, it would be a mistake not to do it."

What is not entirely clear is how big an impact the festival has on tourism. While it is the largest comedy fest in the U.S. and gets a good share of national publicity via TBS programming, plus promotion on the city's official tourism site, most of the marketing is done within a 100-mile radius and organizers believe a great majority of attendees come from the area.

The city's official hotel statistics for the last several Junes don't seem particularly telling. In June 2009, the city had a 77 percent occupancy rate; it was the festival's first year, but also a recession year. The past two Junes the rate climbed to 86 and then 87 percent, but separating out Just for Laughs visitors from others has not been done in any systematic way.

"We are actually talking about trying to determine that," possibly via a commissioned study, says TBS' Adamovich.

Another thing that's not entirely clear is how many people actually attend this multitude of shows. Press Just for Laughs for numbers, and the best you get is a squishy figure that says very little: "Capacity this year is just over 70K, including Conan," Hills says in an email (the official number given is about 69,000). "Hope that helps."

Ask how that compares with previous years and how many tickets were sold in previous years, and you get a set of facts and figures (see accompanying graphic), but not figures on how many tickets were, in fact, sold.

It's a little puzzling because all the anecdotal evidence suggests these shows do very well. The Just for Laughs name helps sell tickets. The Chicago market eats up the idea of a comedy festival, just as the marketing studies and conversations with locals had predicted it would.

After three years, most of the obvious jokes about the city have been made — Barack Obama's from here; the Cubs are not very good at what they do; some of the pizza sure is thick — but whatever jokes are being told, the festival is helping Chicago comedy feel fresh.

"Everyone's fighting for the entertainment dollar," says Leonard. "In the summer it becomes even crazier. Sometimes you just need something different to highlight and contextualize something in a different way to get people's attention, get them to focus in on comedy in Chicago."

He adds, "In the long run, it's just good for the brand of comedy in Chicago, and for Chicago being a comedy capital, which it is."

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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TBS (tv network)The Second CityJohn OliverLollapaloozaAziz Ansari
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