There are these things in the Chicago comedy community called "showcases." They're usually held at an odd hour during the day, at a major theater in town, with an assortment of improvisers and sketch comedians, and for someone super important. Like Lorne Michaels or some other bigwig producers. And, usually, people completely lose their shit over them.
Also, unless you're in one, they seem to pop up suddenly, with no forewarning.
They're a great tool to get our amazing pool of talent in front of decision-makers and influential minds in the entertainment business. They also lay bare our aspirations and performers.
After the fantastically funny pair of Vanessa Bayer and Paul Brittain got hired for SNL, showcases in Chicago became a fucking THING, y'all. A gold rush ensued. "Tight five minutes" became the most important three words in our lexicon. Everyone, it seemed, was working on Christopher-Walken-at-Baskin-Robbins bits and refining their solo material at open mic nights. One theater even created a sweepstakes of sorts, inviting countless performers to show their "tight five minutes" over the course of a bajillion weeks, with the vague promise some might get to audition for Lorne.
For a few years thereafter, it seemed like our improv community, built on the ultimate collaborative art form, exploded into a frenzy of every man and woman for him/herself. I myself wrote and performed a solo sketch show and started frequenting open mic sketch nights to throw up solo material. Nothing much came of it, though I was able to mark solo show off my creative bucket list. And I'm plus one really snazzy denim patchwork mom coat.
The gold rush has calmed down, I think, mostly because it's been a few years since any Chicago folks have been plucked into stardom (Allison Tolman notwithstanding, though she earned her success completely outside the comedy system).
I think we tell ourselves a lot of stories. We say we're here for the community, the art of improv, the love of the game. And, for a number of us, I think that's genuinely true, especially among those who know their peak ripeness in the eyes of bigwig SNL producers has passed (as unfair as it may feel. I mean, the fuckers just hired a 20 year old to the cast, so we should probably all just slap on adult diapers and begin to forget faces and mumble about the Korean War and shit ourselves all day long because seriously.)
One of the fundamental experiences of pursuing comedy in this city, after all, is learning to subtly adjust expectations and aspirations.
Yes. We're all seduced by the power of this city, whether we admit it to others or even to ourselves. The famous faces that line the walls of the places we perform impact us in many ways. They may not be a primary driver, but at the very least they've been an inspiration at some point, or perhaps the catalyst for packing up that U-Haul and driving cross country to the Windy City. There's a reason we're all doing improv and not playing sitars or making stained glass art.
I think showcases force us to be honest with ourselves. I think we show our true colors, in a mostly positive way. After all, it's hard not to get crazy excited about auditioning for someone who has the power to change your life, and make you one of those photos on the wall. It understandably makes people crazy nervous, and makes them put all their time and energy into perfecting their John Kerry impression.
I've never been asked to do a showcase, which I know colors my opinion of them. It's always nice to be asked. But I haven't really put the time and effort required to get on that particular radar, both socially and in continuing to foster a solo sketch persona. And, perhaps my peak ripeness has passed. And perhaps people know that I'll just play devastated lady characters and that that's far less marketable than a scruffy-cute young bro who's, like, really sarcastic and does a great Jon Hamm On a Roller Coaster.
And perhaps, even at my peak, my skills in that area may have been far less than what is required for such an opportunity. I try hard, but then again I try hard at basketball and still can't shoot or dribble.
Again, when showcases come around, even when you're not in them (or, perhaps, especially if you're not in them), an adjustment of expectations and aspirations occurs. Maybe this CAN happen. Or maybe it can't. Maybe I'm meant for something different.
And you know what? That's fucking A-OK.