Comedian Pat McGann talks his new TV show, ‘The Chicago Stand-up Project’
So a former White Sox player, an Olympic speed skater, a meteorologist and a magazine editor walk into a comedy club. That’s no joke—that’s exactly what Ron Kittle, Shani Davis, Amy Freeze and Susanna Negovan did, as the first subjects of the new TV show “The Chicago Stand-up Project.” Created by local comic Pat McGann, the 30-minute show places well-known Chicago personalities in front of an audience at Zanies to deliver a stand-up set for the first time. Ana Belaval from WGN hosts and McGann serves as a comic coach for the newbies.
Two episodes of the program are in the can, the first of which premieres this Friday on WTTW after “Check Please,” with the hope that enough people will tune in to justify “Chicago Stand-up” becoming a regular series. Patrick McGann pleaded his case and the show’s concept to Chicago Beat.
Chicago Beat: So how did the idea for this show come about?
Patrick McGann: I’m a stand-up comedian and was always noticing whenever I told people that, they thought it was cool and intriguing. And I started thinking that people have a general interest or curiosity about stand-up. It’s like ballroom or jumping out of an airplane in that people say they want to try that once. So I was thinking it would be cool to see some well-known people doing something out of their element. That’s how it came about.
I pitched it to Bert Haas, the guy who runs Zanies, and he and I talked about it as a web series, and eventually Bert said this would be a TV show. I started to talk to people around town about it and WTTW really liked the concept.
CB: So what challenges did you face putting your first TV show together?
PM: It’s always a challenge to get people to stop what they’re doing. In Shani Davis’ case, he’s an Olympian and speed skater, so his schedule is busy and [Local Fox-TV meteorologist] Amy Freeze is busy, and Susanna Negovan is busy running [Michigan Avenue Magazine], so it was a challenge to line up everyone’s schedule. So once we got the green light, we had in our mind a three-month window and we started to get to the end of the three-month window, and shot two episodes within a week of each other. I would have liked to spread that out a little bit more.
I am lucky. I am the comic that shows up to shoots. As far as getting the right shot, that’s not my responsibility. But I probably take it for granted how smooth things rang [on a TV shoot]. There is a challenge in working a live show for the first time, doing stand-up. You never really want to do a retake on a joke, especially in front of someone who has heard the joke. You wouldn’t get the same reaction the second time. But everyone did their five minutes, the crowd got into it, and no one fell off the track.
I think our producer Eddie Griffin shared the vision I had for the show. He got the concept right away, and I think people will be interested to see somebody they think they know doing something different from what we know they’re doing. Each person talks about themselves and their lives and you end up pulling for these people because they’re putting themselves out there.
CB: Talk about the format of the show.
PM: At the beginning of the show we introduce participants, remind people how they know them, give the background of the person. They talk about what their thoughts. [Former White Sox great] Ron Kittle was not nervous at all, but some of the other participants are nervous. They know its not easy but a challenge. … From there we go into a conversation about what they want to joke about and write about. We see them on stage preparing for their sets, writing their material and getting ready for that big night. They each did 5 minutes, but we edited it a little bit so we don’t have sets front to end. That stuff people can see online, … and people can go to WTTW.com and talk about the show. There’s no judging on the show itself, but we welcome that on the discussion board. A lot of reality TV shows, so much of the time is spent showing judges, so we decided not to have that element. These people are putting themselves out there. They’re not professional comics, there’s a short window of time for preparing. We don’t want to embarrass anybody. People know [from watching] whether they do well or not do well.
CB: On the show, you serve as a stand-up coach. What was that experience like for you, and how did it help your own stand-up act?
PM: Well I have always been a huge fan of stand-up. I’ve watched it, I write about it. Anything that has to do with stand-up I will consume. But I don’t think you can teach somebody how to be funny. My approach was to kind of encourage people what not to do. I just encouraged each person to talk about themselves, to think about things that they love, things that annoy them. I talked to them about being confident in knowing their material. A big part of the battle is being confident. If the audience sees that you’re comfortable, they are going to listen a little bit more.
In an introspective way, as I was telling this to them, I definitely was think about my own act and what I’m trying to focus on now is to talk about my life and not just mundane observations I have and things that are funny, but getting more personal on stage myself.
CB: What are some things not to do when performing stand-up?
PM: Like telling a long story that doesn’t have laugh lines along the way. Sometimes people think, ‘I have a really funny story,’ but it’s a ‘guess you have to be there’ story. You can’t get up and tell the story; it has to be crafted with jokes. And I think this isn’t something run into being on PBS, but one of the things I learned not to do out of the gate for no reason is to be really dirty and really blue. Most people dismiss you as having to do dirty material when you haven’t built a brand for yourself or a reputation. If the crowd knows you, you have a little bit more leeway working blue. But for an unknown starting out, its not always the right way to go.
CB: There are reality shows about comedy, like “Last Comic Standing,” but that one’s a competition, not so much a look at the making of an act. Since the people on your show are learning about stand up, what do you think viewers will learn about it themselves by watching?
PM: Oftentimes comedians can be dismissed as a circus act or some kind of clown, but really what comedians are doing is giving people an escape. And it also reminds people that this is an art form. … It’s not my goal, but I think it will bring a little bit more respect to the art of stand-up.
“The Chicago Stand-Up Project” airs at 8:30 p.m. Friday on WTTW Channel 11. A second episode of the show airs the following Friday, same time, same channel.