If you’ve ever lived in or been to the Midwest, you’ve heard of the concept of the “Midwestern work ethic,” that hard work and perseverance will pay off in the long run.
There is a quiet humility that underscores the creativity that is breeding within Midwestern comedy.
On a Monday night in Chicago on Irving Park road, one of the seemingly thousands of open mics in the city, a small theater is filled with a laundry list of comedians outnumbering a Duggar family reunion. With notebooks and backpacks, its looks more like students attending seminar than comics ready to try out new material. The Hornet’s Nest Open Mic, a newer mic running late in Irving park mic is hosted by Josh Ejnes and John Eide. A few doors down a showcase is done and another open mic is starting at the High Hat, one of the comedians Sean White has finished his showcase performance and he is already heading over to do another mic at the Hornet’s Nest.
When the average fan of comedy thinks of stand up they don’t think of a club inhabiting a place like South Dakota or Iowa. Perhaps the biggest things you’ve heard coming out of Iowa are Slipknot, Dan Gable, and Captain Kirk. They don’t think of a Funnybone in Des Moines howling with laughter. America loves to laugh and there is a wealth of live entertainment stretched across the country outside of television. It can be hard to imagine comedy happening in a small town in the middle of a landscape covered in farm for some. One doesn’t think of a thriving stand up scene existing in, Detroit, Milwaukee,Minneapolis or Chicago, where improv and sketch has produced a nebula of comedic stars. Many a young comic have stars in their eyes of going immediately to LA and New York and landing gigs, becoming the next big thing. Many comics have cut their teeth in or hail from Midwestern towns, including T.J. Miller, Hannibal Burress, Nick Swardson, Liza Treyger, Natasha Leggero, Eddie Griffin, Kyle Kinane, among others.
Comedian John Eide has found work across the midwest and had interesting turn into comedy. Early in John’s life he started in the Minneapolis hip-hop scene as a battle rapper. He held his own with the wealth of talent there and appeared on a few songs as well. The Minneapolis rap scene is famous for alternative and underground hip-hop that found an audience with thoughtful lyrics about political, economic, and social issues. The Twin Cities hip-hop scene produced such talents as his friend, the late Eyedea & Abilities and the rap group Atmosphere, comprised of MC Slug and DJ Ant.
“People used to come up to Eyedea (Michael Larsen) and challenge him to rap. It was all the time, on the streets, anywhere. I asked him if he hated it. He said why would he hate people trying to challenge him at something he loves.”
(Video: Slug [Atmosphere] and Eyedea [Eydea & Abilities] freestyling on the Wake Up Show circa. 2001)
John related his past experience freestyling to doing stand up, “you should be in the moment, but be aware of what you’re going to say. It’s working both sides of your brain, you have to let go a bit.”
John is pretty humble about his experience, we tried to get him to lay down a couple bars but he wouldn’t relent, instead turning us onto rappers he admires.
“Slaughterhouse, Joe Budden, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I didn’t think Jay-Z and Eminem were amazing. I’m still a huge Eyedea fan, The Many Faces of Oliver Hart is such an amazing album. Atmosphere too, love them.”
John was humble about the wealth of knowledge he has about Hip-Hop, it was like talking to someone with a degree in it that still didn’t think they knew anything about it. Parlaying his quick thinking mind into comedy, John started in Des Moines, IA a few years ago and then found his way to Chicago.
“Chicago is such a sink or swim city. Everyone is good here. You’re forced to get better in such a short time. It’s so intensive. I think Chicago is a great place, even if your goals are to go to New York or LA, Chicago is a great place to be. You come to Chicago to get good.”
As a comedian, focusing on the little things is incredibly important, the open mic is like a gym for most comedians,
“Crowd work is something I need to get better at. I’m trying to get better at turning an audience around when they’re not on your side. This is a great place to do that (laughs) The reason for a comic to host an open mic is to get better at hosting. That’s why I do it. ”
Spending a large amount of time with comedians one can find themselves having difficulty relating with those who don’t do comedy. He told us a story about going to see Rory Scovel for his bachelor party and having to remind his friends to not be that bachelor party at the show.
“I love Rory Scovel, what I loved about Dilation (debut album) he does an insane amount of crowd work, he wanted to have an actual show and that’s how he wanted his album to be. When I’m working a club my job is making sure a crowd is having a good time. I’m getting paid to make an audience laugh. Sometimes you fit yourself for a crowd and other times you do your material. Part of it is learning to have fun. I did a show with Notre Dame college students at a bar, we related a lot about Vin Diesel and Fast and the Furious. I’m a married comedian at 30, we can relate on some levels but not everything. Most young kids don’t care about marriage. I’m also not a political comic and probably never will be but I wouldn’t be a comedian if not for David Cross. Shut up You Fucking Baby is hilarious, its nothing like my stand up but it got me into comedy. I also love Mike Birbiglia.”
John is seemingly a rare unicorn among the comic crowd, a married comedian. The majority of comedians are largely single. The common comedic trope of ragging on relationships and marriage is something most audiences are aware of. Finding time to do comedy is tough let alone with a relationship, John’s wife is a doctor and they both relate over their odd hours.
“Being a married comic is different. I don’t do a bunch of sex material. Most people know who I’m talking about and I don’t want to talk about someone I plan on having kids with in that way (laughs) it’s not just a story. My lifestyle is different. You can’t just be a comic and stay out at 4 a.m. at a diner with other comics. I have someone who cares if I come home at all. Not a lot of comics are married or in serious relationships.”
The room of comedians at this mic are bent over a notebook studying notes and making mad dashes with their pens. When the ink well runs dry some comics return to an old source,
” After about 3 weeks of writer’s block I convince myself that I’ll never write anything funny again.If I don’t have anything new, I go back to an old joke and figure out how to do it correctly. I do sit down and write but . . . with a premise if it comes to me that’s when I write about it. Sometimes I show up to an open mic really early and start writing. What’s so cool about comedy, a joke is never done. Then you click with something else and it works.”
John continues to laud his peers and praises the work ethic of those around him, “Josh Johnson, there is a ton of Josh Johnsons, but you’ll get to know him, he just moved to New York from Chicago, he’s so disciplined with comedy.”
“Check out Comedians You Should Know, I love Danny Kallas, he has away of doing a very well prepared bit in an amazingly effortless way, he’s an amazing writer that probably doesn’t get the mainstream attention because he is so blue collar, but so smart. Also, Keith Paesel, he produces Stand Up Stand Up, he takes growing up in a trailer park with a dad who smoked crack and makes it the funniest thing. Chicago has so many people that force you to work hard and they support you, people care about comedy and they care about the scene. It’s a great place to be.”
The Midwestern work ethic is alive and well.
Written by Gary Miller