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How Elise Fernandez broke into Chicago's comedy scene

An "emotional Labor Day" party was key

In 2016,  with a recent string of failures in my wake, I was at a crossroads. I had spent the greater part of the last few years stringing together jobs between tours with a friend's band, Red Francis. Three stinky boys, a cherry-red van, and the dive-bar concerts dreams are made of. I was hooked, but the t-shirt stand under the exit sign was not where I wanted to be. My lack of musical prowess — aside from an occasional karaoke slay — had failed me. Soon after I returned to Chicago, a friend encouraged me to try stand-up at a Friday open mic at Elaine’s; after a group of encouraging friends had been assembled, there was no backing out.

Absolutely terrified, I took to YouTube, studying how comics carried themselves on stage. I listened to how they transitioned between bits, how they set up a joke, how few words they used to build a whole world for the audience, and how long they let a laugh marinate before moving on. (I am a Girl Scout for life and am nothing if not prepared.) I spent a week running jokes while pacing in circles around my apartment, and somehow, three-and-a-half rambling minutes of material were born. The open mic went fine, but then came the hard part.

Like any other artistic medium, comedy takes discipline and practice, but it also takes participation in the "scene" around open mics and shows. Soon after my Elaine's debut, a friend introduced me to Sam Berkman, a dazzling woman with beautiful curly hair and a big laugh who hosted an open mic on Irving Park Road with her friend, Tessa Orzech. I became a devout weekly participant. Soon, Tessa and Sam started CAMP — an insanely fun weekly show at Village Tap — and invited me to join the first lineup. It was my first real show. Severely underprepared, I stumbled around for six minutes on stage and left feeling absolutely electrified. If I was really going to do this, I needed to strengthen my material and build my community. But sometimes, it felt like my new friends were also competition, because many lineups only featured one woman.

On Labor Day 2018, Sam, Tessa, and I decided to invite 50 female comedians to an “emotional Labor Day” party in my backyard. The day of the party, it was pouring rain. Everyone packed into my 3-bedroom apartment. Women comedians were sitting on the floor, covering every surface in the living room, talking, laughing and feeling no pressure to impress anyone. It was amazing. At one point, some guests started taking off their bras, just hanging out with these women who, weeks prior, intentionally or not, they had been kind of cold or transactional towards. Seeing the power of connecting people was a real a-ha moment, because we realized we didn’t need the permission of the old guard to build a new scene.

I met enough people through the “emotional labor day party” I could start producing shows. When Alex Kumin and I started Diamond Comedy Hour at the Laugh Factory, we were determined to create an environment for women and non-binary performers to thrive. We made it an *event* from the moment you entered: photo booth, raffle prizes and the best comedians in town. We embraced and encouraged celebration there because it WAS a celebration. After all, isn’t comedy supposed to be fun?! The show was an instant success, and helped me to connect with talent from all over the country.

By March of 2020, I was performing four nights a week, producing shows and guest hosting all over the city. I wrote for Cards Against Humanity, and planned to launch a podcast. All of that stopped, of course. During the early days of COVID, Chicago comedy talent started migrating to the coasts. My sweet dear friend Sam passed away from cancer, and I was diagnosed myself. As you can imagine, not much was funny for a little while. Now, exactly three years after it all came to a grinding halt, I am slowly coming back to life and comedy.

That brings us to the present. With Gertie, I look forward to introducing this audience to some insanely talented performers, new venues and discovering new community for us all. I want our city’s comedy culture to be an inclusive, fun, experience where people feel like they can feel a full spectrum of expressions. I think that’s the ultimate goal. For me, I just feel like there is so much fertile ground here. And so many people come here to learn and hone their craft. That's where you really see people blossom.

I don’t want to have to leave to “make it." I’d rather make space right here.

-Elise Fernandez, @dads_new_girlfriend

"Proximity" at the Lyric Opera
GERTIE x SoHo House

Join us for an evening of cocktails, conversation and opera. GERTIE will be hosting a talk at Soho House ahead of the opening of "Proximity" at the Lyric Opera on March 24th.

"Proximity" is a gripping, powerful trio of new works confronting some of the greatest challenges affecting our society: yearning for connection in a world driven by technology; the devastating impact of gun violence on cities and neighborhoods; and the need to respect and protect our natural resources.

As the story zooms in and out from the individual to the community to the cosmic, we find ourselves in a compelling snapshot of 21st century life, with all of its complex intersections and commonalities.

We will have pre-show drinks and chat with the folks at the Lyric and Zealous, a national advocacy and education initiative working to topple the historic imbalance of power over criminal justice media and policy.

Tickets for this event cost $75 and will include tickets for front main floor seating (valued at $190), a drink, and the talk at Soho House.

WHEN: March 24th, 5:00 PM
WHERE: Soho House; we’ll shuttle over to the Lyric Opera around 6:15 PM

NOTE: if you skip the talk at SoHo house and go straight to the Lyric Opera, please arrive by 6:45 PM.

Want plans this week?

“Chlorine Sky” is playing at Steppenwolf until TONIGHT.

TONIGHT, catch the Slo Mo Party at Sleeping Village.

TONIGHT starting at 9:00 PM, the SOUND STATE dance party is happening at The Post in Woodlawn. It goes until 5:00 AM :)

TOMORROW,  Cellar Door Provisions is hosting "Food of the Italian Islands: Appertivo with Katie Parla." It's a collaborative dinner in honor of Katie's new book. Reserve a spot here.

On Tuesday, March 14th at 8:00 PM, you can listen to six of Chicago's top comedians at the Super 6 Showcase at Zanie's.

On Wednesday, March 15th, GERTIE contributor Antonio Robles Levine's intentional, care-based dance party FORTUNE is happening at Podlasie Club in Logan Square. Come through! All the details are on Instagram.

On Thursday, March 16th,  from 5:00 PM to 6:30 PM at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, Malik Purvis will be hosting Art After Work. In the in-person workshop, participants will experiment with three methods (sketches, collages and paintings) to create abstract landscapes. Art After Work is for everyone, including beginners and people who say they "are not artists." Get tickets here.

Next Friday, March 17th, Color Club is hosting Dish Diaries, "a dripping wet variety show hosted by tiny baby comedians, Kristi Durkin and Brigid Broderick."

Next Friday, March 17th, starting at 9:30 PM, the Buen Viaje dance party is happening at The Whistler, 2421 N Milwaukee Ave. Details on Instagram.

Every Saturday at 3:00 PM at The Green Mill, you can catch the live-magazine comedy show Paper Machete.

Catch the Lincoln Lodge Show — the nation's longest running independent comedy showcase — every Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM.

Every Friday & Saturday at 10:30 PM and every Sunday at 7:00 PM The Infinite Wrench is performed at The Neo-Futurist Theater. 30 plays in 60 minutes. It's just as intriguing as it sounds.