For most attendees, there may not be much to say about the Playground Theater. Its pitch-black walls and floors encapsulate the room in practically complete darkness, with a sole ceiling light shining among a lonely mic standing center stage.
The three-row seating amongst the back wall fits a solid 60, with a few standing stragglers here and there. It’s cozy and tight-fitting, but comfort isn’t essential here.
The small theater isn’t decorated much outside of some colorful Christmas lights, and it has no reason to be. The only source of entertainment is emphasized by the stand-up microphone directly ahead of the audience, but whether that entertainment coming from the mic is good or bad is up to those onlookers. From a noiseless crowd drawing the theater completely still, or a roaring cackling and laughing audience overdrawn by their own applause, the fate of each comic lands in the judgement of each audience member.
This is the experience every Thursday night at the Playground Theater, when at 10 p.m. the fairly new standup show, Undergrad Underground, takes over. Created last winter by three DePaul students, along with a former student from Columbia College, the show has continued strongly throughout the academic months as a place for local stand-up comedians – big and small – to practice their craft amongst a college audience.
“We’ve had students that have only been doing stand-up for a year or so that come here and perform,” said Josh Ejnes, a DePaul junior and one of original producers of the show. “And then we’ve got comedians that come from the Laugh Factory down the street, that come to this show to test out jokes with the crowd. It’s a great show to see if certain jokes land or not before you try them in front of a larger audience.”
Along with Ejnes, Max Shanker returns this year as one of the original producers, and was last week’s host of the 90-minute stand-up show where he took the reins of transitioning and introducing each new comic after every set. New to the gang is Austin LaFond, originally from Upstate New York, now a student at Northeastern. Ejnes had met LaFond at many of the city’s open mics.
“I met him last summer and we started hanging out a lot because we were both under 21, which is pretty rare in Chicago comedy,” said Ejnes. “We became good friends and then after Marty and Jaboukie (former producers) left, Max and I asked him to join the show.”
Running for almost a year now, the producers of Undergrad Underground have said they’ve come a long way since the stand-up show’s first few weeks. With word spreading across the city and new comedians pouring in and out, the show which includes a lineup of seven to nine comics each week has found no trouble in finding new talent.
“The show’s definitely grown, we have a new lineup every week, new people headlining and being featured and it’s been great,” said LaFond. “You get comics from all of the city and sometimes out of state comics just visiting, and they’ll come perform here.”
The show has gained so much popularity, comedians have begun taping sets at the stand-up show to send in across comedy networks.
“We definitely have more comedians reaching out to us about doing the show since it first started. We got lucky last year because Ramon Rivas taped a Comedy Central submission tape at our show and ended up getting a half-hour on the network this year, so he’s been paying it forward by sending some good NYC and LA comics our way,” Ejnes said. “We have some good names coming up on the show in the next few months.
“Our audience has also grown and there’s a lot of people that consistently come to the show that I don’t actually know outside of the show, so it’s nice knowing that people enjoy what we’re doing that are outside of our immediate friend groups.”
The audience is made up a rambunctious crowd of college students, where even in the worst of sets, they’re never quiet – the Playground being a BYOB theater might help with that. Be it someone dropping their Barefoot wine on the floor behind you, or two people to the side of you having their conversation of critics, the crowd is always lively.
“We usually don’t get hecklers. The audience is always interacting with us which is a lot of fun,” said Shanker. “Just tonight, you had that guy in the audience drop his beer and watch it roll onto the stage during someone’s set, and then some random audience member from the other side of the chairs comes and grabs it and drinks it. The audience can be a lot of fun.”
And while the audience can certainly be a bundle of fun as they laugh with your jokes, for any comic there are always occasions where some jokes fail to land. Though for Ejnes, and the rest of Underground Undergrad crew, those times are not only lessons in their craft but a motivation to continue what they’re doing.
“It’s easy to get jaded after a bad set or after you are passed over for an opportunity you would have liked, but you have to keep going,” said Ejnes. “That’s why people who enjoy the craft of stand-up end up doing better than people who are more in it for glory/career reasons.
“There’s times where you’re going to be miserable but your love of comedy has to keep you going.”