Why Is Chicago Funny?

by Dave Schuler on April 20, 2014

A bunch of psychologists at the Humor Research Lab (!), which itself sounds like a punchline, have produced a highly suspect ranking of America’s cities which ranked Chicago as America’s funniest city. Without looking closely at their methodology, just accepting their finding at face value, are there reasons we might believe they’re right?

Chicago’s Second City improv club which has fostered so many Chicago comedians over the years and conditioned what we think of as funny probably has something to do with it. However, I think it boils down to people. Chicago has a lot of funny people.

Steve Allen once observed that humor is pain plus time and I think that’s about right. Chicago has lots of Jews, Irish, and blacks, all oppressed people, for whom humor has historically been an outlet. Indeed, Chicago is one of the most racially segregated cities in America, something I don’t think is irrelevant.

But so does New York. Perhaps the title of this post should have been “why isn’t New York funnier?” Maybe it’s as simple as land use. While New York has plenty of venues for the highly successful, those who’ve already “made it”, relative to Chicago it has fewer places where a young comic can get started. My guess is that it’s just too expensive.

Or maybe, again, it’s people. New Yorkers may just take themselves too seriously now.

If I could do one thing that I can’t, it’s write humor. I think that’s not only a high art but a wonderful gift, one I don’t have. It’s not that I’m not funny. In life, I’m very funny. And I certainly have pain a-plenty. But I can’t write humor. It’s just not my gift.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

TastyBits April 20, 2014 at 9:59 am

How friendly is Chicago?

Guarneri April 20, 2014 at 10:07 am

New Yorkers may just take themselves too seriously now.

Only those living east of the Hudson. ;-)

... April 20, 2014 at 10:17 am

Chicago has Affordable Comic Formation.

Modulo Myself April 20, 2014 at 2:29 pm

I don’t know–Boston’s comedy is more of the Harvard/National Lampoon. So oppression is definitely not necessary for humor.

Modulo Myself April 20, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Also, big working-class families might produce more comedy, simply because the middle siblings need to get noticed. We’re going strictly on stereotypes here, obviously. So more working-class Catholics equals more funny.

michael reynolds April 20, 2014 at 3:51 pm

In terms of birthing comics: Seinfeld, Larry David and Eddie Murphy are NYC natives. Dangerfield was from Long Island.

Sarah Silverman is from NH of all places. Tina Fey from PA. Marc Maron is a Jersey boy, Patton Oswalt’s from Virginia. Chris Rock, SC. Carlin was from Los Angeles, Bill Hicks from Georgia. Kinison from Washington state.
Cosby is from Philly. Degeneres is from Louisiana. Steve Martin from TX.(!) Richard Pryor is from Peoria, close but still not Chicago. Steven Wright comes from the Boston area.

But Louis CK and Dave Chappelle are both from DC, as is Colbert though he grew up in SC. Notice what we don’t see? Chicago. It looks to me as if NYC and DC are the two birthplaces of comics.

Chicago is just improv, which is to say more awkward and forced than actually funny. In terms of building comedy careers, clearly NYC dominates, followed by Los Angeles and Boston. The road to comedy success still runs right through New York City and Los Angeles. Sorry, Chicago.

PD Shaw April 20, 2014 at 5:57 pm

@michael, an interesting list with some surprises, but I’m not sure where one is born is the best metric. I was standing outside of Sun Studio in Memphis this morning, pointing out (*) that the guys who “made it” here, weren’t from Memphis. Presley was from Mississippi, Cash was from Arkansas, Orbison was Northern Texas, Lewis was from Louisiana. A lot of upper South boys that had to go somewhere.

Colbert, Fey, Poehler and Seth Meyers went to Chicago either to go to school or become funny.

(*) to my children who certainly weren’t listening, but I’ve found an opportunity to recycle my observation

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