Comedians bring laughter back to Chicago


Nate Burleyson

Comedians Johnny Cosmo (left) and Greg Bartusiak (right) started Out in the Open Mic in late June to provide an in-person open mic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many people’s hobbies and professions became impossible to do if they wanted to comply with stay-at-home orders. Lots of people were hit hard but smoothly transitioned to a digital environment to get their fixes and stay active. Live comedy was one of those things. Yet comedy, like any live and intimate performance, is rather terrible on Zoom.

Take it from Greg Bartusiak and Johnny Cosmo, two comedians who, in June, had enough of Zoom comedy and found a way to safely but effectively bring live comedy back to the circle of comedians in the city. 

“Yeah, [Zoom comedy] is not very enjoyable, so we ended up just grabbing a PA, and coming out and going to a park,” Bartusiak said. 

This birthed Out in the Open Mic, a random start-up project that Bartusiak and Cosmo realized was a golden ticket to the feeling of live comedy once again. It began with Cosmo and Bartusiak telling jokes at random parks before growing into fully-booked open mics. Their Instagram @outintheopenmic now has close to 600 followers and their turnouts have grown to fully-booked performance sign-ups.

“I was listening to some interview with Dave Chappelle and he was saying that he just did [comedy] in parks and then I just had this like lightbulb being like, ‘Why don’t we just do it in parks?’ And so that’s kind of how it started,” Cosmo said. 

Cosmo, 24, is originally from Naperville, Illinois but moved to Chicago and began doing comedy while taking classes at the Second City Film School. He and Bartusiak have known each other from the Chicago scene, and took on this project together in June. 

The location varies, starting in Albany Park and moving all around to Logan Square, Lincoln Park and more neighborhoods. 

“Wicker and Logan Square is usually where the comics are concentrated and they’ll want to come out,” Bartusiak said.

Bartusiak, 30, was born and raised in Chicago and resides in the city after a brief stint doing radio in Northern Wisconsin. He started doing stand up comedy about five years ago. Mainly used to open mics at smaller dive bars, he notices the good and the bad of comedians working on their material out in public. 

“We’ve had people hear a bad joke here and there and they complain to us,” Bartusiak joked. “But that’s what comedy is you know, tragedy plus time equals comedy and right now it’s a very tragic time so we try to make some comedy out of it.”

Those problems aside, the bigger issue Bartusiak and Cosmo faced was making their outdoor comedy safe. If they didn’t accomplish that, then the project wouldn’t have worked. This meant finding a way to encourage social distancing and masks, as well as wiping down the microphone with disinfectant wipes. 

“Yeah, hard to get ahold of [wipes], but I got them though,” Bartusiak said.

The first official open mic they did saw about 15-20 people come out to perform, with more flowing in and out of the park to watch. It’s further spawned into a series of spontaneous, laid back shows with plenty of funny people. 

“Yeah, we’re just two dudes with the mic and a PA so like, you know, we’re going to easily move to different spots and whenever we want to do it we’re just kind of like, ‘You wanna tell jokes today?’ and we’re like, ‘Yeah let’s do it,’” Cosmo said. 

There is plenty of organization, but keeping to a day-by-day basis has its benefits. 

“It’s always funny because whenever people ask me, ‘When’s the next open mic, when can I sign up?’ It’s like, I don’t know, that’s on the weather and also how Johnny feels that day,” Bartusiak joked. 

The way they run the open mic is safe enough for Nick Kuntzman, a comedian who was eager to get out and perform again after the shutdown but didn’t find a viable option until August, when he saw what Out in the Open Mic was doing. 

“I was very reluctant, very slow about getting back out there,” Kuntzman said. 

It was seeing how Cosmo and Bartusiak were running Out in the Open Mic that brought him back out to do more comedy. He also sees the benefit of doing outdoor comedy into the future, even if all ends well and the pandemic fizzles to an end in the United States. 

“This is one of the weird, like, oddly positive things I see about this is that there’s like this cultural shift away from bar culture, having to like exclusively local places where you’re spending money,” Kuntzman said. “It’s like people are kind of finding how to do things, you know elsewhere. And so it’s kind of neat to see this revitalization of public art.”

Kuntzman, like many Chicago comedians, is used to an abundance of open mics throughout the normal weeks. This allows for more practice and reps and developed bits. Cosmo shares this idea of young comedians needing live practice that Zoom doesn’t offer. 

“Especially for people just starting out, like go to the mics immediately,” Cosmo said.

And there are actually plenty of opportunities popping up around the city. Other than Out in the Open Mic, other open mics have come up outdoors in Chicago. 

One of those is The Comedy Pickup, a show where people perform from the back of a pickup truck which grew to 2,200 followers on Instagram. The show spawned a tour that is currently out east planning to end in Colorado. 

Out in the Open Mic isn’t exclusive to open mics either. They also try to book popular comedians in the area to do more developed sets. Their latest one was on Friday, Sept. 18. 

“During those shows we’ll give them more time because they’ve already had built up material ready to do a show,” Bartusiak said. 

The show has grown further than Bartusiak and Cosmo originally intended, although it has been a play-it-by-year process with weather and location complications to note. 

Overall, things have worked out in their favor. They made a great space for comedians to practice their craft. And more importantly, they created a space for people to laugh and enjoy themselves in a time where that is ever too difficult.

The burning question is, what will happen when it’s freezing? 

“That’s the one thing we’re figuring out like what to do in the cold, but I think we’re just gonna try to focus and do this further, you know, and the idea is like even though we weren’t the first people like it just ricocheted into everyone starting their own thing and figuring out how to do comedy again,” Cosmo said.