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Guide to Chicago’s 312 Comedy Festival

The close relationship between Nashville-based Outback Presents and Chicago-based Jam Productions dates back to working on the TBS Just for Laughs festival a decade ago, when the major comedy festival reached Chicago. Now the companies are combining the power of Zanies, Chicago Improv and Jam to bring the first-ever 312 Comedy Festival to Chicagoans.

“This means a lot to me,” said Brian Dorfman, owner of Zanies Nashville and co-owner of Outback Presents. “You bring together several legendary institutions in live entertainment in Chicago, especially comedy.”

The festival, which will open Oct. 27 and run for just over a week, represents a new step for Outback Presents, which hosts annual comedy festivals in cities like Charleston and Minneapolis in addition to its hometown Nashville Comedy Festival. Outback Presents vice president Andrew Farwell said they’ve found a successful model for comedy festivals through their work in other cities and are now ready to bring their formula to the larger Chicago stage.

“The Chicagoland area is so great for comedy and there’s so much history there, and now seemed like the absolute right time to do it,” Farwell said. “It’s a no-brainer that so many players come and play in Chicago, and we’re excited to see them all during this great week.”

For Farwell and Outback, moving the festival to a larger city makes things a little easier, mostly due to the multitude of venue options. The festival includes the Chicago Theatre, Allstate Arena and Rosemont Theater in Rosemont, Wintrust Arena, Riviera Theatre, Rialto Square in Joliet, Vic Theatre, Park West, Schaumburg This includes the Chicago Improv in , and of course both the Chicago and Zanies Comedy Clubs. Rosemont.

Farwell said it’s important to make sure the festival doesn’t feel like it’s coming to Chicago and trying to tell comedy-savvy Chicagoans who or what they should or shouldn’t see. They wanted to work with Jam Productions to provide a mix of headliners with people the Chicago community would particularly enjoy (like Nate Bargatze, who will do three nights, six shows at the Chicago Theatre).

Hannibal Buress during 2019 SXSW in Austin, Texas.  He is the festival's headliner at the Chicago Theatre.

That’s why you see comedians like Hannibal Buress and Craig Robinson, both of whom hail from Chicago, in one-night-only performances at the Chicago Theater (Nov. 2) and Park West (Nov. 4), respectively. That’s why this rich comedy lineup also includes shows like Roast Battle Chicago (Nov. 2) and the two-night Chicago’s Most Wanted (Nov. 3-4) featuring a variety of local comedians.

“We were really diligent about it,” Farwell said. “At a major festival like this, you want the supporting comedians to be built around big names. “When it all starts to come together, everything falls into place because people want to be a part of the activity.”

We hope that a special energy will emerge by bringing these comedians together at such a festival. Farwell said he’s seen this happen in Nashville throughout its 10-year history. Not only do festivals give comedians the opportunity to hang out with friends in the midst of busy touring schedules, but producers hope they also provide opportunities for rare moments. With big names ranging from Michael Che and Russell Peters to Nicole Byer and Mary Lynn Rajskub, Chicagoans may see one comedian attend a show while another enjoys the same show. Or perhaps most excitingly, you can give a surprise treat to the guests on stage.

Mary Lynn Rajskub in Los Angeles, California in 2021.  One of the comics on the Zanies stages in Chicago and Rosemont.

As festival producers look to the future, they hope 312 Comedy Festival continues to grow.

“You want to create these festival moments where there is a once-in-a-lifetime show,” Farwell said. “That’s one of the great things about growing a festival like this – take a year to yourself and then keep adding things, getting more creative.”

If you’re looking at the 29 shows scheduled to hit the festival stage, here are a few top suggestions to pencil in your calendar:

Hannibal Buress: Last summer, The New Yorker called Buress “a former stand-up comedian,” detailing his recent shift toward a new route as a rapper and producer. Is it hard to tell what to expect from Rap’s stop at the Chicago Theater? Comedy? Both? No matter what, you’ll be in good hands with this talented and versatile entertainer. 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.

Leslie Liao: This is your chance to catch a rising comedian based in Los Angeles. Liao was named one of the New Faces of Comedy at this year’s Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, and has previously taken his honest, introspective comedy on tour with Fortune Feimster. 7 p.m. Nov. 3, Zanies Chicago, 1548 N. Wells St.

Nicole Byer: Actress, comedian and author Nicole Byer has established a real presence as the host of Netflix’s reality cooking series “Nailed It!” In fact, it earned him two Primetime Emmy nominations. Another Emmy nomination? Outstanding writing for a variety special for the comedy special “Nicole Byer: BBW (Big Beautiful Weirdo).” It’s worth making time to find out what this talented writer and host has in store for Chicago audiences. 7 p.m. Nov. 3, Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine Ave.

Michael Che and Craig Robinson: The most difficult part of festivals is that there are nights when you cannot decide. November 4th is shaping up to be one of those difficult nights. There’s no arguing with anyone wanting to go to Craig Robinson & The Nasty Delicious in Park West to see the former “The Office” star and his band. However, on the same night, at the same time, “SNL” star Michael Che hits the Riviera stage and Russell Peters hits Rosemont. Michael Che, 7 p.m. Nov. 4, Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine Ave. Craig Robinson & The Nasty Delicious, 7 p.m. Nov. 4, Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave.

Wait Wait Stand-Up Tour: Last year, the NPR weekly quiz show “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”, which is regularly taped in Chicago, launched a stand-up comedy tour featuring panelists from the program. Although 312 Festival doesn’t list which panelists will be participating, if the radio show is to be believed, there are no bad options. 7 p.m. Nov. 5, Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine Ave.

The 312 Comedy Festival runs from October 27 to November 5 in Chicago and at venues throughout the area; For tickets and more information: 312komedifestival.com

Jerald Pierce is a freelance writer.

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