Laughter’s back at Zanies! Talking with headliner Adam Burke
today at 10:06 pm
It’s a tumultuous dystopian hellscape out there! We’re pelted with charred lumps of chaos on the daily. Can anyone offer an umbrella indestructible enough to shield us all? I know who can! Zanies is reopening! To be specific, only fifty of us socially distancing can be sheltered within its welcoming, historic walls at one time. But Zanies has a brand new calendar of shows coming up, each offering a force field of laughter against the stress of our new routines. Be one of fifty to snag a ticket and you can be sure, at least for an evening, of experiencing a rare oasis of laughter and warmth. Headliners this weekend are Adam Burke in Chicago and Marty DeRosa in Rosemont.
Adam kindly spoke with me by phone about the re-opening. Like all of us, he acknowledges that “I’m certainly nervous about returning. Most people are nervous,” but that he’s reassured by the club “going above and beyond” to keep us safe. Zanies is taking extensive measures, including mandatory face coverings and temperature checks, six feet separation between tables, double washing of glassware, hand sanitizer stations, frequent sanitizing of all surfaces and bathrooms, and much more (details below).
Please read on for Adam’s take on our times. He is an award-winning nationally touring headliner. He was named “Best Stand-Up” by the Chicago Reader and is one of our city’s most beloved comedians. He is a teacher, a regular panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! and he wrote for one of television’s best shows, WGN’s Man of the People with Pat Tomasulo.
As I punched in Adam’s phone number, my brain swirled in the midst of its “new normal,” a sense of circling alone in a merciless vortex of uncertainty and leaden sadness. But just a few seconds into our conversation, I found myself laughing, feeling infinitely lighter, and certain that we will get through this together … with the help of our great comedians.
MAKING SENSE OF THE TIMES
Teme: If you could go back to 2019, what would you tell yourself?
Adam: Invest heavily in hand sanitizer! I’d tell myself there are things it’s okay to be surprised about and there are other things that you shouldn’t be surprised about. I don’t know if anyone could’ve seen the coronavirus thing coming. But these other things going on in the news, as a white guy, you can’t clutch your pearls and act astonished. The problems have been going on a long time.
What surprises me in a good way is I feel like we’ve taken the “automobile of state” to the mechanic, and we think just the oil needs to be changed and the mechanic comes back and says, “Well, actually you need to change a dozen other things with the engine.” For once, we have to just buckle down and say, “Well, while we’re at the Jiffy Lube, you may as well fix as much as you can.”
Teme: How would you describe your level of optimism or pessimism?
Adam: Ask me again in 15 minutes! I’m optimistic in that I’m impressed with how people have stepped up when larger institutions have abandoned us and realized that the government has no interest in fixing certain things. People are taking it into their own hands. That’s kind of great.
I’m optimistic about the notion that we as a people can juggle more than one ball at a time, that people were able to come out and say, “Black Lives Matter” at a time when there’s this huge health crisis. Hopefully, people realize the change that they could make and that you’ve got to step up in every way that you can because no one’s going to do it for you.
The pessimistic part is that when there is any sort of state-wide mandate, it’s easier for people just to do what they want. I see certain people trying to be safe and providing events and services in the safest way, and then some people will literally countermand those efforts by going, “Well, I don’t want to do that!”
Teme: I don’t know if people are in denial or if it’s some weird American independence thing.
Adam: I thought about this as well. The people who use conspiracy theories to rationalize their actions might seem selfish. But the thing that’s hard about conspiracy theories now is that they’re not much weirder than the truth. If you were to look at what crackpots were saying, and then the actual facts of what happened over the last ten months, I don’t know if I would be able to pick in a blind test which one was the real one.
It’s almost more comforting to believe that someone is deliberately setting out to destroy the world than it is to believe than we’re destroying the world through indifference, apathy, and clumsiness. It’s easier if there is a bad guy to point to; some evil doctor in a bat-filled lab in China. That might be more comforting than just no one knows what they’re doing.
Teme: Yeah! In some ways it is more comforting to believe that there is some horrible plan. It’s better than everything being random horrible.
Adam: I can’t figure out what the plan is, though. I can follow these conspiracy theories up to a point, but then I get lost. It’s like, now everybody’s dead. Then what? What’s the plan? Who’s the person behind this? How will they make money when there’s no one around to exchange money? I don’t really get the endgame unless we pull up the guy’s mask and it is a bat. That’s the only thing that would make sense.
Or the animals have gotten together to kill us all. That I could believe. But anything involved with a human [conspiracy], I just don’t get where the endgame is where now you’re a billionaire but everybody’s dead. If you can’t even go out and have a nice lunch, I don’t know what the point is.
HOW TO SAVE YOUR MIND
Teme: Even in the midst of the desolation you’re still so funny. I feel like my brain has gone into sluggish COVID hibernation mode. What advice do you have for staying quick and sharp?
Adam: I’ve been doing my fair share of sensory dulling, don’t get me wrong. The booze helps sometimes. I do try to keep writing. I’ve been teaching a class on writing topical comedy and that’s really been helping me because it’s kind of hard to give people assignments every week and then not do those assignments yourself.
It’s nice to have more time to read more angles and more voices. That helps. I never really think of it as being particularly clever, or quick, or anything. It’s just the more stuff that goes in, the more angles you have that can come out. With this downtime you have more chance to read and process more stuff.
A “TYPICAL” DAY
Teme: What has a typical day been like for you in the COVID era?
Adam: Oh, god. I don’t know if I want to admit … It’s gotten a bit better. My girlfriend’s been very good. She’s been keeping me on schedule. The first half of the quarantine I was really bad. I’d gone completely nocturnal, but now it’s a bit more reasonable. I’ve been finding work outside of stand-up so that’s been keeping me busy. I’ve been editing a friend’s book, Sean Flannery …
Teme: Oh, that’s awesome! I can’t wait to read his book!
Adam: He’s writing a very funny book and I get to read it first. That’s been keeping me busy. I’ve been playing a lot of video games. At the age of 44, I’ve finally got to the online video games. It keeps you humble when you get online, play a video game and get completely destroyed by some 12 year-old from Frankfurt.
Teme: Which games do you recommend?
Adam: I’m playing a game called Battlefront 2, a Star Wars game which I love. And I play the Assassin’s Creed games because I convinced myself that they’re educational.
I’ve been doing some virtual open mics. Cole’s has a really fun virtual open mic that Alex Kumin and Carly Kane have been doing a great job running. Then tonight I’m going on stage for the first time since March 14th.
THE SHIFTING OF NORMAL
Teme: What is your most memorable experience of this whole COVID era so far?
Adam: That’s a difficult one because it’s been such a blur. I’m interested in how we’re social animals and how we take our cues from each other more than we think we do, as much as everybody pretends that they’re rugged individualists. I remember when I first went to the store, and I wore a mask and gloves. I saw one other person wearing a mask and I felt like a lunatic. I felt sort of insane. Then within two weeks, the store was spraying down everything and you couldn’t even put your bag on a counter.
It was interesting doing Wait Wait, a show that we used to do in front of a crowd of 500 people and then, the first time we did it [during COVID] there was a few of us in a studio, and the second time everybody was isolated and everybody just rolled with the punches. No one griped, no one groused. We did the best we could. That’s been good.
Teme: Part of these weird crazy times is that I have a favorite face mask. This might seem like a really silly question, but do you have a favorite face mask?
Adam: There’s a blue one I’ve been wearing. It’s got a little, tiny accent on it. It’s very minimalist. It’s quite chic. We just got some new ones with filters that are jet black, and I feel that that one intimidates me because I feel too much pressure to be a badass. It’s like having a full-on Ronin mask, like you’re some sort of shogun assassin. That’s not who I am. I do like the black mask because I like the notion that half of my face is being censored. I haven’t really coordinated any whole outfits. It would be nice to get a mask that matches a tie.
Teme: That would be a very good business idea.
Adam: Okay, we’ll go in on it together.
Teme: It’s a deal! I wonder when fashion shows come back if face masks will be a part of it.
LAUGHTER IN THE TIME OF COVID
Teme: What was the last thing that made you laugh?
Adam: Just today I asked my girlfriend what zodiac sign she thought our pets were, and she got really excited. That made me laugh. I can’t believe it never came up before because she’s into pets and she’s into zodiac signs. She gave it a lot of thought. She had good considered cases for why the dog is a Cancer. She said the cat was a Scorpio.
Teme: That’s my sign! I’m in good company then. Do you think that comedy has changed over the past months?
Adam: I hope it has. I hope it will continue to change. We have to remember as comedians, if you’re a genuinely funny person, if you’re genuinely good at looking at things in an interesting and funny way, then change is never your enemy. It’s always just more material for you.
In terms of who’s getting booked and what voices are being heard, if that really changes, that’s awesome. One of your key jobs as a comedian is to question assumptions. The way a joke works and the reason a joke is a surprise is that the audience has made assumptions about the setup. Then the punchline questions those assumptions. If there are people in the [comedy] community who’ve gotten comfortable, or just don’t realize that they’ve had certain advantages, it’s a rare period where they’re forced to question those assumptions. I personally think this benefits comedy because that’s what comedy is.
Teme: Is it going to be weird that the audience is wearing face masks because you won’t necessarily be able to tell if people are smiling?
Adam: Different clubs are going to have slightly different rules depending on how much space they have to distance people, but even if everyone’s wearing face masks, you often can’t see the audience anyway. You can’t see past the front row, and there’s not going to be anyone in the front row, so it’s basically going to be the same. The laughter might be a little muffled or more sparse. It’s our job to adjust.
Every comedian who’s any good started off playing rooms of twenty-five people anyway. We all started in the back room of a bar where there was like twelve people spaced, and no one’s sitting up front, and some people don’t want to laugh that loud. Well, guess what? We are uniquely set up for the current situation, because I’ve done all that. I’m very used to seeing people not laugh at me.
Teme: Please tell us about your upcoming shows at Zanies!
Adam: I’ll be appearing on Friday, July 17 and Saturday, July 18. I’m excited to see how this is going to work. The club has been really forthcoming with all the precautions that they’re taking and doing this in a responsible way. I’m excited to get back on stage. Sonal Aggarwal is opening for me. She is a friend of mine and a great comedian with really great fun energy. We have a good rapport and I’m looking forward to doing the show with her.
Teme: What topics will you talk about?
Adam: I’ll probably talk about what’s going on. I tend to talk about political stuff in a silly way, so I’ll probably do that. I try to keep a balance between talking about myself and talking about the world.
Teme: How do you think it will be different from pre-COVID Zanies shows?
Adam: Audiences don’t want to feel uncomfortable and they don’t want to feel awkward and it’s our job to impart the sense that it’s okay. We’ll just figure it out, and we’ll just keep on moving on, onwards and upwards, and just being respectful and careful while trying to be funny.
Teme: I know it’s going to be a great show. When you walk into Zanies, you feel like you’re part of comedy history and these times are definitely historical. For audiences, I think it’s going to be great to be part of that continuum of great shows at Zanies where so much has happened. There’s definitely something magical in there. It’s just got some kind of amazing energy inside those walls.
Adam: I think it’s all the residual cocaine from the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Teme: That’s a powerful force! Speaking of Zanies, what is your favorite memory there so far?
Adam: There’s so many. I’m not going to mention the comedian’s name, but I remember there was a show once where there’d been some misinformation. I think the comic gave out the wrong date for his show, so he had this really lowly attended show. I think it was eight people in the audience. Initially, he seemed bummed about it, but then he ended up telling this completely scandalous story that involved this bizarre photo, and after the show he went around and individually showed everyone in the audience this photo they needed to see in order to understand the story.
I also have great memories of Pat McGann and Kevin Bozeman. They are really good to watch perform together. They have a completely bizarre rivalry that the audience always seems kind of confused by, but I find hilarious. They’ve even done it at fundraisers which I find incredibly hilarious. They’re two of the best comedians in Chicago.
MORE PLACES TO FIND ADAM!
Teme: Where can people find you when you’re not onstage?
Adam: I’m teaching topical writing classes online through The Lincoln Lodge and I’m also writing topical jokes for an online thing I’ve started on Instagram and YouTube called “The It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere News.”
Teme: I saw the one from last week. It was so good!
Adam: Oh, cool, thanks. One of the things I’ve done in lockdown is build up this nice cocktail area. I’ve been trying to learn how to make more cocktails, and I was just trying to marry that with something else, so I have this very short three minute show where I make the cocktail and talk about the news.
Teme: I loved it. It was like being at a happy hour. Writing topical humor seems like a really specific talent that takes a lot of skill. As a teacher, do you think everyone has the potential to succeed at it?
Adam: Oh, totally. One of my students asked me, “Why do you teach the class?” I’ve just had friends over the years who were asked to put together writing packets or submissions for shows, friends who are very talented comedians, and they would say, “Well, I can’t really write topical material. Topical material is not my bag.”
It’s one of those things where it’s such a good skill to have, and once you figure out the formula for it, or you figure out an approach to it, it doesn’t have to rock the planet. There are hundreds of jokes pumped out with these late night shows every week. There are ways to tackle just about everything as long as you keep developing that muscle.
THIS WEEKEND AT ZANIES:
Friday, July 17 at 9 p.m. Saturday, July 18 at 7 & 9 p.m.
$30 plus a 2 item minimum
Headliner: Adam Burke (NPR, Doug Loves Movies podcast, WGN TV & radio)
Feature: Sonal Aggarwahl. Host: Jayson Cross
Friday, July 17, 9:00 pm. Saturday, July 18, 7:00 pm, 9:00 pm
Headliner: Marty DeRosa
All tickets need to be purchased online at www.zanies.com
No tickets are available at the door.
More upcoming shows at www.zanies.com
ZANIES SAFETY MEASURES:
*Hand sanitizer stations located throughout the club
*The club will be disinfected between performances
*There will be six feet of separation between tables including patrons and comedians
*Glassware will be washed 2 times before use
*Mandatory temperature checks for staff, performers and patrons
*Staff will wear face coverings at all times
*Patrons are required to wear a mask to enter the club
*Patrons will be required to wear a mask when they’re not at their seat
*Bathrooms and surfaces will be sanitized several times an hour
*Tickets must be bought online at Zanies.com. No ticket purchase at the door.