No fooling: Illinois produces top stand up comedians

Though it may be April Fools Day, Illinois’ comedy history is no joke. The state’s prominence in the world of comedy began in December of 1959 with the opening of Chicago’s most well-known comedy club, The Second City. Located in the young and vibrant Lincoln Park neighborhood, the Windy City’s first prominent comedy club helped usher in a new form of entertainment that combined elements of other art forms such as vaudeville and commedia dell’arte. Improvisational comedy, both short-form and Chicago’s long-form, gained widespread popularity across the country during the 1960s. As The Second City and improv continued to grow, so did the careers of some of the club’s alumni, including Joan Rivers, Roger Bowen, and Jack Burns. Whereas many comedy clubs at the time were nothing more than small theaters, The Second City focused on the development of those who entertained its patrons. The club found itself to be so adept at bringing the humor out of comedy hopefuls that they began to offer comic workshops in the 1980s.

As a result of The Second City’s success, Illinois soon became home to more and more comic factories, each moving the spotlight onto their new-found entertainers. Standup-centric clubs like Zanies helped solidify the careers of several A-list comedians, such as Jerry Seinfeld, Rosanne Barr, and Jay Leno, who has gone as far as describing it as “the perfect comedy club.” Other clubs such as ImprovTheater have managed to produce several Saturday Night Live stars including Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, and Chris Farley. While each of the state’s premiere comedy clubs has found its unique character, they all share the common goal of making comedy lovers laugh.

While the comedy scene in Illinois has benefited from out-of-state amateurs looking for a chance to make it big, many of the state’s funniest comics have hailed from within its borders. Richard Pryor, widely regarded as one of the most influential and exceptionally funny comedians in history, was born and raised in the vaudeville circuit city of Peoria before moving to New York in his twenties. Despite being afraid of performing, Pryor’s edgy yet witty standup style landed him deals with several prominent record labels, multiple standup specials, and roles in shows such as SNL. Three decades of hilarious one-liners and effortless crowd work earned Pryor the first-ever Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and recognition as the greatest comedian of all time by Comedy Central.

Many of Illinois’ comedy legends such as Richard Pryor are best remembered for their standup careers, but Illinois is also the birthplace of some of the silver screen’s funniest actors. Wheaton native and Second City product John Belushi is best known for his adventure as Jake Blues in The Blues Brothers. Bill Murray helped set box office records thanks to his performance in Ghostbusters. Robin Williams’ time spent as a nanny in Mrs. Doubtfire earned him one of his 4 Golden Globes. Though each of these great actors often took on different roles and made audiences laugh in different ways, all three called Illinois home.

While Illinois’ historic standup clubs and pantheon of past comics alone have solidified the Land of Lincoln as one of the nation’s comedy hubs, the state continues to produce an ever-growing roster of world-class comedians. In recent years, the likes of Sebastian Maniscalco, Jim Gaffigan, Andrew Santino, and John Mulaney have continued to uphold the standard of excellence Illinois’ comics have long been held to. As comedy continues to evolve and comedy clubs continue to cultivate amateur talent, Illinois will remain the laugh capital of America for decades to come.

Photo Credit:  The Second City