Women comics show their chops at humor fest
For comedian Michelle Slonim, coming to Chicago to participate in the fourth annual Chicago Women’s Funny Festival has a special meaning.
When Slonim was in college at the University of Michigan, majoring in theater and Spanish, a friend from Chicago told her she should be a standup comic.
It was not something Slonim – one of a number of Jewish comedians participating in the festival, which continues through Sunday, June 21 — had considered. Although she had been performing from a young age, she styled herself as a “comedic character actress,” she said during a recent phone call.
“Standup is its own skill set,” she says. “It’s not acting. The skill set of being a standup is something that takes years” to learn and perfect.
Chicagoans can view many of those who have already done that at the Funny Festival, taking place at Stage 773 on Belmont Avenue in Chicago and featuring all forms of comedy, including standup, sketch, solo, vaudeville, improvisational and musical, with more than 500 performers, 161 groups and 83 shows packed into four days.
As for Slonim , she points out that there is one family member who has gained a certain amount of comedic fame without the years of training – her father. A lawyer, he is one of many “old Jews” to tell a joke for a series of videos connected with the play “Old Jews Telling Jokes.” The “performance” is on Slonim’s website and elsewhere.
“I had to push him to do it,” she admits. “He had a career in law for 35 years, and now when you Google him the first thing that comes up is ‘Old Jews telling Jokes.’”
Slonim herself, brought up in Manhattan, was “always entertaining people.” In camp the fictional character she was voted most similar to was Miss Piggy. “I was very insulted, but it was supposed to be because I was fun,” she says.
After college, she took the advice of her Chicago friend and transitioned from acting to standup comedy. That was about 10 years ago.
“It was a completely male-dominated world,” Slonim says. “Guys talk about gross things. It’s all they know. (Woman) comedians are a little more mature. I had to acclimate myself to being around guys a lot.”
She rates her own comedy as “PG-13.” “I don’t like to be too dirty, I really don’t know why,” she says. “If I can make a point without cursing – why be dirty if you don’t have to be? It’s not my style, not who I am.”
Who she is depends heavily on her Jewish background, although she doesn’t play or appeal exclusively to Jewish audiences, Slonim says.
“I imbue Jewishness, whether I’m talking about it or not – my mannerisms, my perspective. It’s just a part of who I am,” she says.
She has performed in Chicago for the Association for Jewish Theatre, a performance that led to her getting cast in one of the many popular iterations of “Date Me” in Chicago in 2011.
“What’s funny is funny,” she says of the experience of playing in front of different kinds of audiences, “but you can also play to a certain crowd with Jewish references, a Yiddish word. They get it on a different level if you’re Jewish. It kind of alters who I’m playing for.”
In comedy, she says, “how you make a name for yourself, there are two things: You have to be good for sure, but you also have to be business savvy. It’s a business. You’ve got to know how to maneuver. You have to create your own opportunities.”
This often involves producing, she says. “I’m good but I also produce. You have to make it happen.” She cites Tovah Feldshuh producing her own one-woman show, “Golda’s Balcony,” about Golda Meir, which set a record for longevity on Broadway.
“In acting you have to get cast, and you’re waiting,” Slonim says. “In comedy in some respects I’m a master of my own fate.”
Being in the Women’s Funny Festival for the first time “will be good,” she says. “I say, rock on women who are funny. I’m not like a feminist (she puts on a strident voice), ‘We’re going to take over!’ It’s just that we’re funny too,” like her all-time favorite and role model, Carol Burnett.
So why should a Chicago comedy-lover go to the Women’s Funny Festival?
“To have fun,” Slonim says. “Why else would you come?”
The Chicago Women’s Funny Festival continues through Sunday, June 21 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. For tickets, $15, call (773) 327-5252 or visit http://www.Stage773.com.
Her website is: http://michelleslonim.net/