Every Monday night for nearly two years, stand-ups Samantha Berkman and Tessa Orzech have brought some semblance of summer camp to the Village Tap in Roscoe Village. For CAMP: A Comedy Show, Berkman and Orzech are less like counselors and more like seasoned bunkmates, handing out friendship bracelets to newcomers, leading the audience in games, and offering shots of “bug juice” (a rotating boozy mystery concoction) and a PBR to everyone.
“[The movie] The Parent Trap and the show Bug Juice were major inspirations,” Orzech says. “It was just like, these kids are having the time of their life, they’re free, they’re running around. Summer camp always had this coming-of-age feel where it’s really shaping people and it’s just pure joy.”
This summer, Village Tap’s beer garden opens its roof just in time for two big CAMP milestones: its 100th show this Monday, May 14th, and its two-year anniversary on June 4th. These celebrations will honor people who have been integral to the show’s existence.
Berkman and Orzech, now both 28, met at the beginning of their respective comedy careers, in 2016. Orzech was about six months into performing stand-up, hosting the open mike at the now-shuttered High-Hat Club in North Center, and Berkman was just starting out, doing a set for only her third time at that same open mike. Even though Berkman’s routine ran far longer than the time she was given, Orzech didn’t want to cut off someone she found so hilarious. They both say they met most of their female friends in comedy at that open mike, a place Orzech tried to make as welcoming and fun as possible for anyone who attended.
It was around this same time that women started speaking out about harassment and possible druggings in the Chicago comedy scene. Through hosting the open mike, performing, and attending other comedy nights, Orzech took notice of what to avoid in order to create the best environment for comics and audience members. “We saw at open mikes that there were slimeballs involved,” she says, “and they might be really funny, but they’re shitty people.” She went to Berkman with a vision of the kind of show she wanted to produce, where the theme of “summer camp” would double as a safe space for the local comedy community.
Berkman was a regular at Village Tap and got to know everyone on staff there, including the owner Mike Green, who she says was kind, empathetic, and encouraging. Green offered Berkman space and a time slot for a comedy show, and she suggested that Orzech should run it. “I told [Orzech], ‘Why don’t you do something there?’” Berkman says. “And she was like, ‘No, why don’t we do something?’”
Berkman and Orzech carved their names into a handmade wooden sign displaying the name of their weekly comedy show: CAMP. ("[The acronym] doesn’t stand for anything,” Berkman says, “we just like the attention.”) In June 2016 the show debuted and quickly gained momentum. CAMP operated under the simple rules of having a good time and not being a jerk to anyone onstage or in the audience. Village Tap regulars attended every week, including Green, whom Berkman and Orzech call their “third teammate.” In October 2016, MTV filmed Rell Battle performing at the show for his unaired television pilot. (Battle has since been cast on CBS’s Superior Donuts.)
On October 10, 2017, just hours after a CAMP show, Green had a heart attack and died at the age of 57. Orzech was one of the first to hear the news and called Berkman early that morning. “We were like, ‘Well, what the fuck do we do? We can’t have a show on Monday,’” Berkman says. “And everyone was like, ‘You have to. You better put on a show because we need it. We need things to feel normal and a place where we can laugh.’”
Since starting CAMP, Orzech and Berkman haven’t canceled a single performance—including two weeks after Green passed, when a regular audience member died of cancer. Sometimes Berkman and Orzech feel the need to step away from the space that reminds them of the man who allowed them to realize their comedic vision. At every show, there’s a moment when “bug juice” is handed out to the audience and a toast is made remembering Green, thanking him, and clinking glasses to friendship in his honor.
The upcoming celebratory shows will feature surprise special guests, new audience games, and plenty of PBR. Even as CAMP enters a new chapter, the supportive spirit in that Roscoe Village beer garden every Monday night remains.
“We wanted this to be bigger than just a comedy show,” Berkman says. “It became a community.”