I can feel the heat. Summer in the city is finally revealing itself — and not in the way it does to the masses who revel in the season at the lakefront and the perennial misfortunes of the Cubs. Rather, I feel it as I approach Schubas Tavern Sunday evening and spot comics milling about outside in an unfettered sartorial display of shorts and nerdy T-shirts. Stand-ups are supposed to be a depressed lot and here they are soaking up the sun with smiles painted across their faces.
As comic Logan Nielsen likes to say when his girlfriend is too encouraging, "Who am I going to 'Dark Knight' rise against if you keep throwing the rope down the well?"
It seems not even comics can resist a Chicago summer.
Of course, it could be that they're just happy to be at the monthly "Arguments and Grievances," a spirited and mock-cerebral night of nuttiness in which comedians go mano a mano with one another as they vehemently debate ridiculous topics such as McRib vs. "Macbeth." It's smart, high-stakes tomfoolery disguised in a brilliant, faux-brainy conceit.
Tonight's jousters, for example, include Derek Smith and Peter-John Byrnes debating ham vs. Spam. As the pro-ham advocate, a nimble Byrnes outfoxes Smith with irrational logic like, "Ham is the bacon you don't have to fear cooking naked," or this put down: "Spam is created through pieces of pork shoulder held together with potato flour and sugar which means ham, an actual meat, has the same relationship to Spam as 'When Harry Met Sally' Meg Ryan has to present-day Meg Ryan. It looks OK, unless you get too close."
Meanwhile, poor Aaron Sutherland (looking dapper in a suit) withers in defending a Nebraskan billionaire in the blood match of Warren Buffett vs. Jimmy Buffett. It's not his fault. Sutherland doesn't stand a chance against Joe McMan who waxes effusively about Jimmy Buffett including self-serious lines like, "I'm here to talk about the most important man ever alive," and "He's one of the greatest poets of our time." This show is a riot.
But they are not the only jokers heating up the night. At "The Comedy Attic" at Chief O'Neill's in Avondale on Thursday, Josh Johnson fires up the crowd with this self-deprecating one-liner: "The first time I threw a football, everyone knew I didn't have a dad." Johnson's nimble hosting skills glue together an exhausting night of jokes that includes a whopping seven comics plus a headliner.
Among them is Rob Kuschell, who offers up a piece of advice dispensed to him in college: "Write like your parents are dead and they're not going to judge you for the things you have to say." With that, he attempts to turn that pearl of wisdom into a set of fearless and personal material, but ends up weeping uncontrollably instead. Get it? Then there's African-American comedian Joel Boyd, who talks like he hails from the North Shore: "I have a lot of white friends, as you might know from my speech patterns."
My eyes tonight are on Timmy Brochu who is celebrating a recent engagement, but still reveling in being just an average dude. "Guys, you can probably tell by looking at me that I go to Kmart a lot," he says. "The worst thing about going there has to be the clocking in." This one's even cornier: "Everybody has body issues and that's a problem for me," says Brochu. "Most days I wake up, I go into the bathroom, clean up and then go into the living room and am just like, 'what am I going to do with all these bodies?'"
Mike O'Keefe, meanwhile, talks about the weekly ritual of pumping iron to the "Top Gun" soundtrack with his football teammates. "It's super badass until the song 'Take my Breath Away' comes on," he says. "Then it's all about not making eye contact." Where would comedy be without shame? Just ask Xavier Lamont, our headliner for the evening and a man who both revels and recoils in being heavy. "Xavier, you shouldn't talk about being fat, you're not that big," white women will say to him post-show. "That's white-girl code for I'd still have sex with you," he says with a knowing chuckle. A cake enthusiast — make that devotee — Lamont says he hates being preached to about how his love of sugary food will lead to diabetes. "I grew up in the 'hood," he says. "If diabetes is what takes me out that's a win."
The UP Comedy Club has snagged Nate Abshire as its feature act on Saturday. You can tell the Minneapolis-based joker is fresh from being a contestant on the most recent season of "Last Comic Standing" as he's armed with an arsenal of TV-ready jokes. "Sometimes I like to go to the grocery store and rub my junk all over the olive oil labeled extra virgin," he says. The self-deprecating Abshire also lands hearty laughs with this winner: "People always tell me I have a familiar face and what I really think they're trying to tell me is that a lot of people have let themselves go."
Our headliners at UP tonight are the indefatigable Jason and Randy Sklar (aka the Sklar Brothers) who like to joke that their most distinguishing feature as identical twins is that they frequently die together onstage. I always marvel at their perfectly synchronized rhythm, timing and ability to finish each other's sentences even when dropping one-liners like, "We just found out that rapper Pitbull was a rescue."
Their most compelling yarn of the night is when they describe a first-class flight that ends in a kiss from Fitness guru Richard Simmons. Their adventure starts with the lounge. "We were so naive about what the first class lounge was going to be like," says one. "It's just a room full of old, sad, rich, quiet white dudes. It's like FOX news the night that Obama won the second time." The other first class passengers on the Sklars flight that day include Laura Dern and mother Diane Ladd, and RZA from the Wu-tang Clan. "If this plane goes down we don't even get mentioned in the article."
The Sklar Brothers, noted sports enthusiasts, promise the room that the Cubs will not lose a game while they're in town. Of course, the Cubs were in Milwaukee last weekend, but that's the thing about summer in Chicago, everyone takes note.