The journey of a Black comic in Chicago is not always a joking matter. For some comedians, it’s the struggle of finding spaces where they feel welcomed and their art is appreciated. Kellye Howard is among this group of nomadic Chicago artists searching for a home in the absence of a Black-owned comedy club in the city.

“Since Jokes & Notes left, there is no Black-owned comedy club,” Howard says. Raised in Harvey, the comedienne boasts a solid resume, having appeared on NBC’s Last Comic Standing, Fox’s Laughs series and Wanda Sykes Presents Herlarious on OWN.

But Howard still thirsts for the thriving funny community Chicago once had for comedians of color.

Chicago comedian Kellye Howard
[The TRiiBE/Morgan Elise Johnson]

“You can go to these one-off spots,” Howard adds, referring to alternative rooms for comedy such as the Island Bar or Tommy’s Place. Both bars are located in Blue Island, a south Chicago suburb. “But you’re not going to a venue where you’re getting Black comedy five days a week that people can relate to.”

Chicago is a longtime mecca for emerging comics. The Northside’s Second City is the birthplace of improv, launching the careers of stars like Dan Aykroyd, Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Jane Lynch, Bill Murray and Martin Short, since its doors opened in 1959. 

The 1990s, however, gave birth to Chicago’s comedy noire with the city’s first Black-owned comedy club, All Jokes Aside, where anybody who’s anybody in Black comedy has told jokes. Many legends – from Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac and Steve Harvey to Jaime Foxx, Sommore and Mo’Nique – graced the stage of the South Loop spot owned by Raymond Lambert and Mary Lindsey. It closed after nearly a decade in business.

Lindsey bounced back with another club, Jokes & Notes, in the Southside’s Bronzeville neighborhood. The comedy club would see the likes of Hannibal Burress and Deon Cole. But it, too, eventually shuttered in summer 2016. According to the Chicago Defender, Lindsey said the lack of foot traffic in the neighborhood, crime and other establishments hosting comedy nights forced the closure.

“You need places like Jokes & Notes because when opportunities come here – like, let’s say Last Comic Standing or BET wants to do a showcase or Comic View wants to do another season – they come to clubs like that because they know that’s where they’re going to get that raw talent from,” says T.Murph, a Chicago-based comedian.

Though T. Murph has been featured on shows like Chicago Fire, Comedy Central’s Key & Peele and a 2014 reboot of BET’s ComicView, he called Jokes & Notes his home. He auditioned for the Just For Laughs comedy festival at Lindsey’s club when no other comedy venue in Chicago offered the opportunity. He also regularly hosted a Thursday night showcase and performed there on weekends.

Profile shot of comedian TMurph
[The TRiiBE/Morgan Elise Johnson]

“When you look at Def Comedy Jam and you saw Martin Lawrence and he was just funny as hell, those are the people you’re going to see when you go to an establishment like Jokes & Notes,” T. Murph says. “Whereas, when you go up to the Northside, or you go to one of these alternative rooms where you’ve got a crowd full of hipsters, you’re not going to hear that.”

According to both comics, Chicago’s comedy scene mirrors the city’s blatant segregation – with whites mostly living and hanging out on the Northside while Black and Latinos frequent the South and West sides. A goal for most comics is finding a happy medium across all audiences, though, sometimes that can be harder than it seems.

“I had issues with migrating to the Northside,” Howard says in reference to Zanies, a popular standup comedy venue on Wells Street. “I still haven’t played a room. I haven’t booked it up and I’ve headlined across the country. I’ve been in the paper. I’ve been on TV. I’ve done a lot but they [Zanies] still have not booked me.”

Howard also hasn’t performed at the Improv in Schaumburg, another notable comedy club. Meanwhile, according to T. Murph, some venues make comics perform – without pay – in front of 10 to 20 people, restricting them from talking “dirty” during their show, before deciding on whether to book them.

“There are clubs that won’t book me on the regular but I’ve taped TV shows at their club,” T. Murph says. “So eventually, you’re going to have to book me. You’re going to have to pay me to headline your club, and pay me what I ask. It’s an ugly game.”

Despite these experiences, Howard and T.Murph emphasized the need for comics to put more focus on honing their crafts. Then, that’s when more opportunities will roll in. In hopes of providing more opportunities for Black comics who haven’t performed at mainstream venues like Zanies, T. Murph started his own comedy showcases at various venues. Every first Sunday, he produces a show at Comedy Bar.

And his routinely sold-out show, Faded by T. Murph: A Lit Ass Comedy Show, is held at The Revival Theatre on E. 55th Street in Hyde Park once a month.

“There are a lot of comics who want work but they can’t work outside of that [urban] scene,” T. Murph says. “Every show I have I try to incorporate comics that I [worked] with at Jokes and Notes to keep the scene thriving.”

Other comedy shows (w/ Black comics) to check out:

  • A Dope Ass Comedy Show, produced by Dave Helem

Every Third Friday at North Bar in Wicker Park

  • Parlour Car Comedy, a free weekly standup comedy show

Every Thursday in the backroom of Bar DeVille in East Village.

is the editor-in-chief of The TRiiBE and a 2023-2024 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow.