A Fairly Serious History

By Margaret Hicks

History Press


130pp/$31.99/April 2011

Chicago Comedy

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Margaret Hicks has attempted to provide a history of comedy in Chicago in Chicago Comedy: A Fairly Serious History. Rather than starting her exploration with the founding of the Compass Players in 1955, Hicks goes back to Chicago's earliest days, when Mark and Monique Beaubien's Sauganash Hotel served as the first venue for entertainment in a pre-incorporated Chicago. Her careful exploration of Chicago's early theatres and the growth of the city feels a little contrived for an exploration of Chicago's comedy stylings since Hicks is unable to provide specifics about the comedy that was performed at the Sauganash, but it is useful for establishing the entertainment pedigree of the city.

Hicks follows the growth of entertainment in Chicago over several decades, looking, however briefly, at the humorous lectures, plays, and writings through the decades before reaching the twentieth century, when she is able to turn her attention to the nascent film industry and foundation of Essanay Studios on Wells Street in 1907 (just a third of a mile south of the present Second City). Although she mentions Essanay's two star comedians, Ben Turpin and Charles Chaplin, she doesn't spend too much time exploring the typo of humor they worked into their films, only noting that although they had different styles of comedy. From early films, Hicks moves to radio and the Chicago style of radio shows from Fibber McGee and Molly to Amos and Andy. Hicks discusses the fact that Chicago radio was different than radio from New York and Los Angeles.

Once it arrived on the scene, Chicago-based television was also different from shows produced on the coasts, with a lower budget and smaller spaces, it relied on different techniques to create its comedy, being more open about their studio setting than shows produced on the coasts. Chicago radio and television was also more open to improvisation, which, of course, tied in to one of Chicago's biggest mid-century innovations, with the Compass Players and eventually Second City. Hicks gives a brief description of their rise, which has also been covered at greater lengths in other works.

The Second City has proved to be a launching ground for other comedy clubs in Chicago (and elsewhere) as well as numerous careers and Hicks does a good job of discussing the world of comedy that it launched, including the philosophical differences between the different groups and comedians who represent them. What she fails to do is give concrete examples of how some of the sketch work differs between iO, The Second City, Annoyance Theatre, ComedySportz, and other groups. Identifying some signature sketches and comparing how they were built up would have provided a stronger view of the different schools of Chicago comedy.

Concurrent with the rise of the sketch comedy clubs was the growth of standup comedians, such as Shelley Berman, Dick Gregory, Lord Buckley, and Bob Newhart and Chicago Comedy talks about their different styles and ties them into the broader Chicago comedy scene, even if they weren't part of the sketch comedy scene. As with the comedians who came up through The Second City, many of the stand up comedians who cut their teeth in Chicago would eventually find their way to the coasts to gain a more national audience, another trend that occurs throughout Hicks' books.

A couple of early errors, such as identifying the "Four Nightingales" as Chico, Harpo, Gummo, and Zeppo Marx, when the actual line up was Groucho, Gummo, Harpo, and Lou Levy, as well as referring to Galesburg, Illinois as "Walesburg," unfortunately raises questions about the accuracy of Hicks' research. Her statement that Zeppo's friend Jack Benny was born in 1848, 46 years before his actual birth (and 16 years before his father's birth) further strains her credibility. Hicks includes a lengthy bibliography used in writing Chicago Comedy, but including more footnotes might have helped maintain more correct information, or at least provided an easier way to check the facts as presented.

A relatively short book, Chicago Comedy essentially sketches out the history of Chicago's entertainment industry with a focus on comedy. Its short chapters mean that often it only offers a cursory examination of its various topics and the decision to stay away from specific examples of the sketches and jokes that made Chicago comedy influential throughout the twentieth century means the book almost feels like an outline for a longer work and may be best read in conjunction with more specific works like Sheldon Patinkin's The Second City, Jeffrey Sweet's Something Wonderful Right Away, or Donnmrohan's The Second City: A Backstage History of Comedy's Hottest Troupe to give a more full understanding of Chicago's influence.

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