Chicago supports a vast, roiling population of young comics tearing up stages around town every night of the week. But for anyone who’s ever gambled on a night of comedy and lost, we identify a dozen who rise above the pack but are mostly still flying under the radar. (We steered away from comedians recently profiled in this magazine, including Hannibal Burress, Susan Messing, and Nick Vatterott, as well as perennial headliners such as the regular casts for The Second City’s Mainstage and e.t.c., the sketch quintet Schadenfreude, and the beloved comedy duos T. J. and Dave and Bassprov.) All five of the Second City performers listed here travel with the Touring Company but appear at the Old Town venue on Saturday matinees and Monday evenings; the box office can tell you when.
MARZ TIMMS, 35
Timms, a Dadaist in sensibility and "nerdy, yet urban," will stop at nothing for a laugh. In the coat-and-tie-wearing percussive duo Tony Symbals and Cocoa, the baby-faced Timms plays only a tiny set of cymbals, accompanied by the imposing Keith Smitherman bashing away at a drum kit made for a child. The two take absurdly long, silent onstage bottled-water breaks between numbers. Timms elicits even more squeals with Pimprov, a dressed-to-kill, so-wrong-they’re-right all-black quartet so funny you’ll shoot beer through your nose. NOW PLAYING: Timms is a member of The Annoyance Theatre. Also, catch Pimprov in an open run Fridays at 10:30 p.m. at the Chemically Imbalanced Theater.
ROSS BRYANT, 27
Manteo, North Carolina Improv/sketch
At a wiry six feet four, Bryant is a born showman who doesn’t take himself all that seriously. "Lately I’ve been playing a bunch of energetic teenage girls and 1920s business magnates," he says. "My real personality falls somewhere between the two." He also mocks his art-school intellectualism as nerdy in the extreme. "I do an impression of Jack Horkheimer from PBS’s astronomy show Star Gazer." NOW PLAYING: Bryant unleashes his signature freestyle raps with the musical improvisers Baby Wants Candy at The Apollo Theater on Fridays at 10:30 p.m. He also performs at ComedySportz and with The Improvised Shakespeare Co. at iO on Fridays at 8 p.m.
MARK RATERMAN, 31
Reston, Virginia Improv/sketch
Raterman tends to play it straight. "I enjoy deadpan," he says. "What I do best is surround myself with absurdity, then find a way to ground it." Like a great bass guitarist, Raterman provides the foundation, adding only—and exactly—what each scene needs. He’s blessed with a knack for one-liners and an uncanny instinct for what should come next. His straight-man idols? "I grew up loving Leslie Nielsen and the Naked Gun franchise. Alec Baldwin, too, on 30 Rock. He’s dynamite." But Raterman’s not all understatement—he can chew the scenery when called upon. NOW PLAYING: Catch him at The Second City, or with Cook County Social Club at iO on Tuesdays at 8 p.m.
MEGAN HOVDE WILKINS, 30
The diminutive Megan Hovde Wilkins has learned to play big. "Over the years performing with people much larger than me, I’ve figured out not to let that dictate how I improvise. I’ve had to make sure I’m not blocked onstage or stepped on vocally—or even actually, physically stepped on," she says. "I’ve been called scrappy, and I’d love for people to think I’m tough." The thrill of watching a small person reveal such a powerhouse personality makes crowds howl. "You can feel the audience enjoying your performance, and that pushes you to be even funnier." NOW PLAYING: At The Second City
HEATHER SIMMS, 30
Cleveland, Ohio Improv/sketch
Lightning-quick and puckish, Simms is so kinetic she makes heads spin, including her own. "I talk faster than my brain thinks," she says. "So I make a lot of bizarre verbal mistakes—which I like." A veteran of the storied three-woman comedy group Triplette, she’s also unafraid to look ridiculous for a gag. Just watch Skinhead Laundry Day, the hilarious short film written by Simms in which she plays a male white supremacist doing some housework, at triplette.net. NOW PLAYING: She performs live every weekend (her showtimes vary) at ComedySportz.
COLLEEN MURRAY, 32
Aurora Sketch/improv/musical theatre
Leading-lady looks don’t keep this improv-and-musical-comedy ace from diving into scenes headfirst, the more ludicrous the better. "I am happiest playing a giant Q-tip with feelings or an old lady who lives in a Reebok high-top," Murray says. She should be every TV exec’s dream—a pitch-perfect blend of giddiness and believability, gusto and grace, charm and chops. Picture a female George Clooney, grounded and sly, solid and silly all at once. NOW PLAYING: At iO with Deep Schwa every Sunday at 8 p.m. or with Virgin Daiquiris each Wednesday at 8 p.m., or singing in Co-Ed Prison Sluts at 10:01 p.m. Fridays at The Annoyance
DANA QUERCIOLI, 29
Chesterland, Ohio Improv/sketch
Quercioli shines brightest when she plays herself. "I try to be as real as possible," she says. "I think that’s when it’s funny. You don’t come by that many people in life who are characters, and I find that making the normal people interesting is a much harder skill." Like the student-council-president-next-door Tina Fey, a predecessor at Second City, Quercioli plays smart but never showoff-y and balances vulnerability with hilarity. Also like Fey, Quercioli wields a mean pen. "I write a lot," she says. "Sketches, a book for my niece who’s three—I’ll write anything, really." NOW PLAYING: At The Second City and on some Mondays with the Theatrical Experience and Hootenanny at iO
ABBY McENANY, 40
San Francisco Improv/sketch
A comedy rip tide, McEnany embodies her characters with such abandon and glee that she sweeps crowds away. To get a picture, juxtapose the superhuman energy of Molly Shannon or Cheri Oteri of Saturday Night Live fame with the downright strangeness of Jim Carrey, all leavened with the sweetness of Gilda Radner. "I just love to perform," she concedes. In response to recent events, McEnany finds the positive angle on government intrusion, saying in her act, "I know that many people oppose the PATRIOT Act, but I Iike that someone is finally listening to me." NOW PLAYING: At The Second City
C. J. SULLIVAN, 31
Cinnaminson, New Jersey Standup
Sullivan, the voice of the hit sports-and-comedy podcast Visitor’s Locker Room, is also a terrific standup. He embellishes his world-weary, seen-it-all act with a self-deprecation so bone-deep and palpable that audiences can sense he’s legit. He’s like watching yourself—flawed, unimpressed, and put-upon, but also unwilling to surrender. He’s a cynical softy, aggrieved and not buying it, but too nice to really run others down. About his surprisingly sophisticated, meticulously wrought bits, Sullivan says, "I like to reveal the absurdity of people’s self-importance. Mine included. Mine foremost." NOW PLAYING: Monthly at Chicago Underground Comedy at The Beat Kitchen, or listen to him online at visitorslockerroom.com.
PRESCOTT TOLK, 31
West New York, New Jersey Standup
A The razor-sharp, razor-thin Tolk makes flying solo look easy, dropping well-crafted jokes about "life’s petty anxieties" on audiences that seem to know him before he speaks, so instantaneous is the rapport he inspires. Tolk says he avoids the more surreal comic waters: "What I admire is often what I avoid—weird, wacky bits. They’re like cowboy boots. They look cool, but they feel incredibly awkward when I try them on." Instead, he "finds the obscure in the ordinary." And it works. He’s just filmed his hourlong act for a forthcoming CD and has been featured on Comedy Central’s Premium Blend. NOW PLAYING: Tolk hosts "Your Sunday Best" most weeks at Schubas. Or catch him monthly at Chicago Underground Comedy.
MARY SOHN, 27
Sohn is so infectiously funny—and her characters so fully realized—that people often laugh before she says a word. She also has a way of attacking scenes with such force you’d think she’d been shot out of a gun. "I lose myself in the scene," she says. "I’m pretty ridiculous and pretty free." And she revels in the figure she cuts. "People like that I don’t look like everyone else," she says. "I’m Asian and kind of chubby, and I think there’s something relatable there. Maybe not to agents or producers, but to audiences. They can see I’m having a really good time." And how can you not like that? NOW PLAYING: At The Second City
JENNI LAMB, 37
Lincoln Park, Michigan Improv
Jenni Lamb, an improviser and playwright, represents a rare package. On one hand, she has the screwball physical exuberance and blazing wit of a vaudeville star. On the other, she’s a natural leader onstage (she wrote and starred in the well-received 2006 dramedy Memento Polonia, about Polish immigrants in Detroit) who can give even an improvised show coherence. "I love to come out of left field and drop bombs," she says. "But I also have a sense of what’s watchable." NOW PLAYING: At ComedySportz on Sundays at 7 p.m. through November 16th. Lamb also plays the hapless Elisabeth Hasselbeck in The Spew, an improvised spoof of ABC’s The View; times and locations at thespewonstage.blogspot.com.
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WHERE TO GO
Check with the box office to make sure a comedian is performing on a given night
The Annoyance Theatre and Bar
4830 N. Broadway; 773-561-4665, annoyanceproductions.com
The Apollo Theater
2540 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-935-6100, apollochicago.com
The Beat Kitchen (on Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.)
2100 W. Belmont Ave.; 866-468-3401, chicagoundergroundcomedy.com
Chemically Imbalanced Theater
1420 W. Irving Park Rd.; 800-838-3006, cicomedy.com
The ComedySportz Theatre
929 W. Belmont Ave.; 773-549-8080, comedysportzchicago.com
iO Chicago (formerly ImprovOlympic Theatre)
3541 N. Clark St.; 773-880-0199, chicago.ioimprov.com
Schubas Tavern (on Sundays at 9 p.m.)
3159 N. Southport Ave.; schubas.com
The Second City
1616 N. Wells St.; 312-337-3992, secondcity.com
Photography: Joe C. Moreno