Stage 773 is home to quite a bit of fun, funny theater and comedy all year round. This past weekend, though, it saw the invasion of the nerds as the 5th annual Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival opened its doors to the nerd in everyone from Thursday evening to Sunday afternoon. This year’s lineup was the fullest and most varied yet, with tabletop gaming, standup comedy, improv, sketch and more available to audiences from door open to doors closed.
We first hit the festival as it opened on Thursday evening, but due t0 Cubs-game traffic, only caught the end of what seemed to be a pretty successful set by Secret Origins, whose fun and inventive shtick is to create a superhero with the help of the audience and build an improv set around it. Shortly thereafter we were treated to a show by The Wig Bullies. They were as weird and wonderful as we’d suspected, but also provided a serious look at issues in LGBTQ+ culture and society as a whole, as well as having some truly wonderful acting chops. Their comic timing was right on, and Aaron Page’s ending monologue, reaching out to kids who feel different or odd for any reason brought a tear to our eyes.
I was not able to attend last year’s festival so for me, the 9pm standup showcase was the first I’d seen at these fests since their inception. The Chicago comedy scene certainly didn’t let me down, and I thoroughly enjoyed the full lineup of comedians, which included a stellar and energetic opening set by host and comedian Bill Bullock. The lineup included Tyler Fowler, Vik Pandya, Robert Flanagan, Liz Greenwood and Jamie Carbone, who really impressed us with an extremely open set about his life and struggles with depression and suicide, and how his love of gaming helped him through it. It’s tough to take a subject like that and turn it into a shared laugh with the audience, but he did.
Founder and comedian Cody Melcher seems to really embrace acceptance and inclusivity of nerds of any shape or form, and we’re seeing this reflected in the choice of performers, the lineup and the overall feel of the fest as it continues to grow. Saturday was no exception, and we kicked off our evening at the festival with Improvised Jane Austen. Although I’m a great fan of literature, I’ve never been particularly fond of Austen, so it was a hard sell for me, but the ladies in this group were experts at the slow burn, and at picking apart the structure of Austen’s stories in ways that would please both fans and critics of the subject matter. By the end of their long-form set, they had created a sort of chaos and silliness that was both a tribute to and a parody of the author. From there, we were introduced to the fest’s headliner, Brandie Posey, who’d travelled from LA for the occasion. We’re truly glad she did, as it turns out she’s got more than her fair share of nerd cred and absolutely killed her set, which was personal, political and ridiculous in all the right ways. We weren’t familiar with her but will certainly be catching up with her albums and catch her any time she’s back in town.
Clown Car to Sicily was another fun group to see, with more than a little bit of musical talent and good insight into the nerd community. From their opening song, I Am A Nerd, they addressed the new trendiness of nerd culture and the ways that that’s led to gatekeeping and shaming, which was something those who self-identified as nerds prior to nerd culture’s reign fought against. Their act was full of funny interludes anyone who’s a little bit awkward can relate to, a running Hamilton-obsession related joke and more than a little comic-book-related tomfoolery. They too closed out their time with an empowering musical piece about being your own hero and one last zinger about personal space.
Finally, after a well attended (but not well participated in) cosplay competition that featured the likes of Arrested Development‘s Lucille 2 and a very convincing Buffalo Bill, it was time for some nerd burlesque and drag. Side Scroller featured performers from a number of local spaces, like Boy Toy’s Pocket Cabaret , Not Your Mother’s Drag Show, Naughty Little Cabaret and Vertical Sideshow. And while it’s strange to see Spiderman waggling about suggestively, it also helps to open you up to the fun of burlesque and drop your inhibitions. What followed was a bunch of talented folks titillating us with their talents and letting us giggle at the silliness of it all, and any apprehension felt at the beginning gave way to a real spirit of fun going into the after party.
The Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival deserves to be bigger than it is. Though tickets are pricey for the full weekend, it’s worth it to get more than a generous serving of the local comedy scene. Beyond that though, the festival was created by and for nerds, and more than any other event we’ve been to that puts itself willingly in that category, really embraces the audience it claims to be there for. The overreaching festival message was “be exactly who you are, participate exactly how much you want, we’re all friends here!” and while lots of people and places try to engender that feeling, this festival comes by it naturally. You might be watching someone on stage one minute and enjoying a drink or watching a movie with them the next, and you don’t really feel the divide. That, alongside some truly funny, truly talented local and national acts, made this an uplifting weekend to remember and enjoy. We’re already making space for next year’s festivities on our calendar, and suggest that you do, too.