It’s been about a week since the sixth annual Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival. In its sixth year at Stage 773, this festival has always been an intimate favorite, truer to the nature of a gathering of the nerd variety than large commercial cons, and inextricably linked to the theater and comedy scene in Chicago in a way that make it unique to the city.
2018’s show remained true to its roots, with returning favorites like Wig Bullies and Plan 9 Burlesque, as well as the addition of ones not previously seen at the festival before, like belly dance and fire artists, Raks Geek and WGN’s Patti Vasquez, who brought along RedEye’s Elliott Serrano for a bit of a variety/game show that we thoroughly enjoyed. Unlike some previous years, other shows were going on at the same time as the Nerd Comedy Festival, which caused a bit of initial confusion that was soon rectified. All events for this year’s show took place in the Thrust theater on its mainstage, with a show at 9 pm each night that began with the festival’s hearty lineup of standup comedians and finished with the night’s headliner. Since there was tons of nerdy activity in Chicago this weekend, we couldn’t attend all four days, but we were able to jump into the geeky gathering on both Thursday and Saturday night.
We started off our evening on Thursday with the return of the Wig Bullies, who we’d first seen at last year’s festival. They’ve got a gift and obvious passion for bringing the realities of LGBTQ+ life to the stage in a comedic way that manages a gentle poke in the ribs to remind people of the challenges the community faces every day just to go about their regular lives. This year’s show touched on the group’s love for the reboot of Queer Eye, the treatment of gay bars as novelty items for people outside the community, and in an interesting twist, an amusing take on the infuriating decision of some wedding vendors to deny services to LGBTQ+ patrons in which a fed up wedding planner refuses to take on a gay couple’s big day not due to their orientation, but due to their nerdy décor demands.
Thursday’s comedy lineup featured some great standup, too. Mark Rosenthal was an amiable emcee for the night, and talked Star Wars, his obsessive love for and pursuit of the film Congo, and various other takes on staples of geek culture. He’s got a bombastic delivery that verges on yelling but never manages to become offputting. The night’s second comedian, Zack Peercy, was more soft-spoken, but provided a tale of gastrointestinal woe that we won’t soon forget.
Comedy was followed by burlesque, with Shirley Blazen, who we’d also see as emcee for Acrobatica Infiniti the next evening, provided My Little Pony’s “bronies” and gal pals with plenty of PG-13 thrills. Later on in the show, she made another appearance as beloved (?) Simpsons clown, Krusty, in a particularly story-driven piece of titillating performance art.
In between Blazen’s numbers was bit more nerdlesque by local group, the Screwbelles, who would perform as various members from the current cultural glut of comic book and tv characters—anyone from the standard Poison Ivy and Catwoman to Jessica Jones and at least one Ghostbuster. Costumes were great, and you could tell the group had a sense of humor, but especially in contrast to Blazen’s performance, they seemed to lack energy and an excitement factor.
Closing out our Thursday was a special performance by Raks Geek, which featured a Kylo Ren piece beautifully executed by troupe member Kamrah, who was absolutely electric from the moment they took the stage, so much so that we forgot we were at a nerd event entirely, and focused on the amazing art in motion that they were creating.
Founder of Raks Geek Dawn Xiana Moon took the stage next, with her virally massive hit Wookiee bellydance routine, which did not disappoint, despite us having seen at least portions of it all over the internet when it first shot Raks Geek to internet fame. Moon is an incredibly expressive, exciting dancer, and that’s true whether she’s under what must be pounds of fur or not. Her enthusiasm for the art is always evident, too, and she pulled up an unsuspecting festivalgoer for a bit of an impromptu belly dance lesson that was truly amusing.
On Saturday, we arrived just in time for the 9 pm mainstage show and were met with a familiar face in the Chicago comedy scene, Vik Pandya. Pandya delivered a great set last year, and continued the trend this year, making him a perennial favorite that we recommend catching whenever and wherever you can.
Pandya was followed by AK Agunbiade, who for us was one of the highlights of the entire festival. Agunbiade is a Nigerian who immigrated to Indiana at a young age and has led a unique and interesting life as a black Muslim American in the unforgiving political landscape of Indiana. He’s also a doctor, and these combined experiences make for incredibly unique and interesting comedy, from his Nigerian prince dating scheme to his tribulations with basketball and being a Muslim kid in the Midwest who celebrated Ramadan instead of Christmas. He manages to be self-effacing, provide intelligent, humorous criticism of today’s political climate, and relate to a diverse audience simultaneously, and his standup was one of the best discoveries of the fest.
Mike Maxwell provided some family-related humor next, talking about his entry into fatherhood, his love of playing video games with his wife, and how his desire for twins was borne of a desire for childbearing efficiency his wife did not share. Maxwell is a guy you can’t help but like, and his relatability and charm are immediately obvious in his set.
Ian Ager was the final comedian of the night, and introduced the audience to a neat new Chrome extension, Snake People to Snakepeople, that, as you’d expect, changes any instance of snake person bashing into a hilarious tale of life as a snakeperson, making rants about avocado toast and Applebees’ demise that much more tolerable. He also posed two very interesting theories to the crowd—offering up the socialist allegory of the newer iterations of Mario Kart, in which the player in first place gets less helpful items than the one struggling in last (not a bad idea, he posits!) and a general poke at the Potter universe regarding Harry’s use of eyeglasses. Ager was another surprise favorite of the festival, and we look forward to hearing more from him as well.
Once the comedians were off stage, it was time for more headliners. This time, that meant Patti Vasquez, long time host of WGN’s Pretty Late radio show, who immediately won us over with her stories of growing up in Norwood Park as the only Latina, and her use of fantasy to escape from the challenges of being “other.” It’s something we’ve found to be at the heart of what the Nerd Comedy Festival stands for, and the reason we keep coming back. Though these days, it’s cool to be a nerd, many of us remember a time when that wasn’t true, and our love of everything from comic books to Buffy the Vampire Slayer made us weird rejects. Vasquez touched on the reason that escape can be so important for anyone who feels “other” and out of place and reminded us where our passion for nerdy things really comes from—a desire to escape AND a place to share the things we love without judgement. The rest of the show consisted of herself and longtime friend and “Geek King of Chicago,” Red Eye’s Elliott Serrano, hosting a bit of a game show, where audience members would guess whether the item description for what was within the unmarked Amazon box on stage were for a sex toy or a geeky toy, and would then go on to win the prizes from within the box, some of which came from Vasquez and Serrano’s own collection of nerdy nostalgia pieces.
Finally, it was time to cap the evening off with Plan 9 Burlesque. Plan 9 has been a feature at Nerd Comedy Fest going back for years now, and there’s a good reason for that. Their narrative driven show is full of amazing performers who all have talent to spare, a real passion for the nerdy fare we love best, and great senses of humor. All manner of acts came across the stage, with everyone from Deadpool and Daria to a shark attack victim taking already strange things one step further into strange and sexy.
What we keep coming back to when thinking of our time at this year’s Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival is the diversity of it. Whether or not that’s something that’s curated by the founders, it’d be hard to reproduce it for six years running in such a meaningful way. When I initially attended the Nerd Comedy Festival back in 2014 as a writer for Chicagoist, I was skeptical. “Nerd Culture” was trendy and I wondered if this would be just another attempt to capitalize on it.
But as I’ve attended 5 of 6 of the years this festival has been around, I’ve seen that these are truly people who embrace being “other,” whether that means being more into Buffy than the Bears, being LGBTQ+ in spaces where that’s not readily accepted, Muslim in close-minded communities, or Latina, black or Indian where those cultures are not understood or embraced. Everyone is welcome every year here, and everyone finds common ground, whether at the drunken Dr. Horrible singalongs or after-show karaoke, or in the sharing of stories of their favorite things. The Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival continues to be about celebrating what you love in every way imaginable, and leaves its doors and heart open to new things, and that’s why we keep coming back, and recommend that you do, too.
For a full list of the amazing acts from this year’s show, check out this link. It’s a great resource for finding great comedy, art and performances in the city that’ll keep you geeking out happily all year round. Also check out Stage 773’s website for information on the shows that they feature year-round, and advanced information about next year’s Nerd Comedy Fest.