Chicago Variety Show Cultivating New Community for Comedians with Mental Illnesses and Disabilities
For many people, improv comedy is a form of entertainment that’s woven into the fabric that makes Chicago the city it is. Recently, one of Chicago’s most notable comedy clubs, iO Chicago, has become home to Who Dis, a variety show that’s trying to cultivate an entirely new crop of comedians, all with a clear message in mind. By featuring comedians from the mental health, chronic illness and disability communities, Who Dis is trying to change the landscape of comedy in Chicago.
“I started the show in April,” said Liz Komos, comedian and founder of the show. “We had our first show and I put it together ‘cause when I moved here from Denver to pursue a career in comedy, I looked around and I realized that I didn’t see a lot of people that looked like myself on stage. I thought ‘well, I can work hard to try to get into somebody else’s show or I can go ahead and produce my own.’”
July’s show included comedy and performances from comedians Nick Graves, Josh Loevy, Simon Collier, Maria Konopken, Meg Indurti, Daniella Mazzio, and as well as Komos.
According to Komos, who uses a forearm crutch to walk and has had a disability since she was a child, there was an immediate positive reaction when she put out the call for comedians that fit the bill.
“When I put up submissions, I had twenty-four people sign up in the first twelve hours,” Komos said. “So to me, it showed me that there’s a need for this type of show. I have different acts every month and I’m booked through September. I try to feature around five to seven people a night, so we need more of this. I can’t keep up with the number of people who want to do the show.”
Several of the comedians who have been in the variety show in the past say Who Dis is unique in the way it addresses diversity and inclusion. Stephanie Perez, a queer comedian who performed in the first show said the show gave her an opportunity to try out some material she’s developing for a solo show she affectionately calls “depression but funny.”
“I thought that would be a good time to try it out on an audience, especially an audience that’s going to be supportive of that kind of content and it actually went really well,” Perez said. “It’s just nice to know that it was so well received which means I’m on the right track with trying to produce something and put content out there.”
For Ditto Jones, a genderfluid, pansexual comedian, there wasn’t a pressure to make her act specfically about her mental illness. Although, Jones says, she felt the freedom to do just that.
“It can be about your day or any material you want and mine just happened to be about a struggle with mental illness,” Jones said. “But I think what I liked the most about it is that I felt it really shook up a lot of what Chicago is into, which is developing improv [comedy] into sketches and creating these really polished shows that run in a sort of cyclical motion. It’s very technical and what I like about [Who Dis] is that’s not just ‘politics is crazy!’ It’s more personal.”
Collier, who performed alongside Komos and Loevy, a blind comedian said that for him, representation is an important factor, being trans and also blind. “For me, at the end of the day, I want to be funny and I want to make people laugh. But it’s more important to me to have someone in the crowd, kind of like, watch me be successful and think ‘I could also do this ‘cause I think that’s the whole point of representation: to make it be accessible.”
In addition to primarily featuring comedians with mental illnesses or disabilities, each month Komos’ show chooses a charity to highlight and raise money for. July’s featured charity was KEEN Chicago, a non-profit organization with one staff member and over 140 volunteers whose main goal is providing youth with disabilities the opportunity to engage in non-competitive exercise and athletics.
“The Who Dis variety show is raising money for us and it’s just incredibly kind of them and helpful to our program because every penny goes back to our athletes and directly back into our program,” said KEEN Chicago executive director Laura Fillenwarth. “We didn’t have to do anything. I’ve been collaborating with the producer of the show a little bit but all I basically had to do was show up.”
Fillenwarth said she is heavily involved in Chicago’s disability advocacy community and has attended previous Who Dis shows which allowed her to connect with Komos for this month’s show. For Komos, choosing to work with KEEN Chicago was an easy but personal decision.
“To me, it hits really close to home ‘cause I was a child with a disability and I wasn’t given access to recreation because it was assumed that I couldn’t recreate,” Komos said. “Like, my body wouldn’t be able to do those things. I was kicked out of gym class even though I wanted to try to take gym and no kids want to try to take gym. I was always like ‘please let me in!”
Although Komos says she’s happy with the success of Who Dis so far and the relationships she built with organizations like KEEN Chicago she’s been able to benefit, she’s already thinking about where she can take the show next. Komos says she has developed a three-tier plan on where to take the show in the future. The first goal is a podcast to go along with the show.
“I do an interview portion at the end [of the show] but I don’t get to fully know the performers,” Komos said. “So I’m going to start approaching people who’ve performed already and do interviews with them in a more in depth way. So maybe 30 to 45 minutes so that we can really get into the heart of their life and their art and what they want to see, what they want to do.”
Komos also plans on having a Who Dis tour where the show goes to different U.S. cities. Her goal is to create opportunities for comedians with disabilities and chronic illnesses living in cities without large comedy communities.
“I’m going to bring performers to a city on tour and then I will help them secure local talent with disability and illness and we will put up a show, benefit a local organization and then I hope to leave them with materials on how to make their spaces more accessible,” she said. Komos also mentioned wanting to start the first illness and disability comedy festival, hopefully in spring 2020, as the third tier of her plan.
Komos says that as Who Dis continues to grow and evolve, her primary goal show won’t change.
“My hope is that the people performing will have the chance to showcase themselves as artists first because I think a lot of times when we know someone has an illness or disability we tag them with that and that's how we define them. I want these artists to define themselves through their art and not to be judged or perceived as an underrepresented group. We aren't underrepresented; we just aren't often seen."