Without a doubt Jim Belushi is a household name. An icon of comedy, acting, and music, he is best known for his roles in About Last Night…, Red Heat, According to Jim, and his revival of The Blues Brothers band. As a Chicago area native and Second City alum, Belushi comes back to Chicago whenever he can. As a new partner in The Comedy Bar, we can surely plan on seeing him around town more often.
Kyle Lane, a friend of Jim’s son Robert, is the owner of The Comedy Bar (157 West Ontario Street in River North). Lane is an actor, comedian, and successful entrepreneur. Thanks to Lane’s vision and work ethic, The Comedy Bar took off at an incredible pace not too long ago, and he began looking for investments and ways to take it to the next level. As a friend of the Belushi family, he had discussed it with Jim over time and eventually the partnership became official.
The Comedy Bar celebrated its official re-launch (Oct. 18 & 19) as a dual partnership between Lane and Belushi, complete with stand-up, improv, and Belushi’s rendition of Sweet Home Chicago. I attended the event and it was incredibly fun with lots of laughs and an outpouring of support from fans and the community. Before the show on Thursday, I had a chance to sit down and talk with Jim, Kyle, and Robert about how the partnership came about and what they are most looking forward to.
Laura Vogel: So I’m here with the incredibly talented and very well-known Jim Belushi. Thanks for chatting with Sarah’s Backstage Pass!
Jim Belushi: Well, thank you.
LV: In terms of connecting with your hometown of Chicago, is this the first project you’ve taken on in terms of staying in tune with the city, or do you have other Chicago partnerships?
JB: Well, you know, Danny Ackroyd and I are partners in the House of Blues. We’re about to celebrate the 20th anniversary so I’m here a lot for the House of Blues. I have a band called the Sacred Hearts, and Danny joins us when we do the Blues Brothers. And we opened the House of Blues as the Blues Brothers. We were here this summer at Ravinia with over 9,000 people. It was an incredible homecoming. So I’m always doing some charity function here or corporate event with the band. I did a lot of my film projects here, “Red Heat,” “About Last Night…,” so, you know, I’m really connected here. I just walked out of Portillo’s. I had a great hot dog. I’m really connected to the food.
LV: Yeah, I had lunch there last week. It’s definitely good! Sometimes it can be interesting working or doing a business partnership with friends. What was it about Kyle that gave you the utmost confidence in him going into this venture?
JB: Well, I’ve gotten to know Kyle for the last three years through my son Robert; they’re like best friends, and we watched him develop this idea into this really cool space, this really cool club – a great model for comedy. And, at a certain point, he wanted to make it a little bigger, and he asked me if I wanted to participate. So Robert and I partnered up with Kyle, and I thought it would be a great idea. Kyle has great vision. He’s got a work ethic that rivals mine, and I’m insane, and we have a lot of fun together. But, he’s running the thing. I’m answering questions and giving him certain ideas, consulting with him on… but he’s the main man.
LV: You’ve done a lot of intros, like the Rosebowl, written a book, hosted Cubs rallies, and done voiceover work. Is it sort of a natural inclination to want to branch out from acting and do other things? Is that what keeps it fresh in a career as long as yours?
JB: Doing improvisation in front of a live audience brings me back to my roots, which is improvisation, and I connect deeply to it. So, being part owner in this club, I can come here and do improv stuff anytime I want. It keeps things very fresh. It’s also a great place to see talent rise. Chicago is the birth of comic talent. Their sensibility… the comic sensibilities of Chicagoans are so great that they train all us actors to be funny, and then we go out into the world and we are funny. So it’s great to come back to the source and re-energize.
LV: And your son has just joined us…
Robert Belushi: Too soon?
LV: No, no. Do you want to say hello and tell us about the project?
LV: Tell us how you got involved.
RB: I got involved… Well, I’m just really along for the ride. You know, Kyle’s been a good friend of mine for a long time, and I watched him build this club out of nothing. And I’ve always kept my dad abreast of what Kyle’s doing because my dad’s always loved Kyle. He’s a jerk in a great kind of way. And now he’s here, dressed like a female Bill Cosby. This is Kyle Lane, the owner.
Kyle Lane: Hi!
RB: I was just talking about you… Kyle and I have just been the best of friends for a long time. He started this out of nothing and it came to a point where he was really killing it and was looking for ways to grow it. I knew that my father was looking for investment opportunities and things he believed in and it just made a lot of sense – comedy, Chicago, Dad, Kyle’s relationship that was already grounded… So, I just put them together and then watched the financial pornography.
LV: I have some questions for Kyle. You’ve accomplished a lot as a young person. I was wondering if there was someone in your life who drove you to succeed and kind of set an example?
KL: Yeah, definitely, my grandparents. They took me in when I was twelve and was raised in rough times, and as soon as I moved in was washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant. My grandmother made me get the job and my grandfather, as soon as I got home from that job, sent me out in the yard to pick up sticks and rake leaves and that work ethic just stuck. So, ever since then I’ve been really working my ass off in anything I do.
LV: That’s great. A question for all of you guys – what do you look for in new talent? What makes someone funny? Do you have a gut instinct or…?
KL: You know, a lot of it is, you can in comedy especially, I think, especially the stand-up world, nobody’s ever funny in the beginning. You may see talent, you may see rawness, but in anything with comedy, I think you have to work. You have to work hard. You have to get up there, and you have to fail a million times and you can see that difference. You can see the difference between a funny person, and you can see the difference between somebody who’s worked years and found their voice, developed their act, and turned it into a product. So it just takes a long time to get good, especially in the stand-up world.
JB: I’ve had people come up to me and say, “I’m funnier than you.”
LV: (haha) Okay.
JB: And I say, “You know what, you probably are funnier than me.” I bet when there’s a party they’re going, “Is Bruce coming? Is Bruce coming? He’s so fun! He’s so funny!”
KL: Bruce is hilarious!!
LV: You’ve got to meet him!
JB: “Bruce, you going to be at the party?! You’ve got everyone in the living room cracking up.” I’d say here’s the difference between you and me – if I gave you a million dollars and said make these people laugh, you would break out in a sweat and start to stutter.
LV: That’s true, yeah.
JB: You give me a million dollars, and I’ll have them rolling on the floor.
RB: And if you give me a thousand dollars, I will go and be an assassin for hire.
LV: Kyle, I’ve recently seen some tweets about the Red Line. I just wanted to ask about that and…
KL: My tweets?
LV: Yeah, because I also ride the Red Line and…
KL: Man, it’s so funny about my Twitter account. For being in the comedy world I’m terrible at it. I just, I hate it. I’m not the Internet person but all my friends have like a million followers. But, the Red Line, yeah, it’s the worst place in the world.
LV: It is.
KL: It’s awful, and that’s why they stick it underground…(lots of laughs and banter)
LV: And Jim, I was reading that you went to Albania in 2008.
JB: Oh, yeah.
LV: Yeah, you got the Honor of the Nation award…
JB: Yes, me, Bill Clinton, and Mother Theresa.
LV: Oh, wow.
KL & RB: Woah!
LV: So I wanted to ask, what’s the Albanian comedy scene like? Or is there one?
JB: Uh, I haven’t found it yet.
LV: You haven’t found it yet, ok.
RB: You know, they have a show called Portokalli out there that’s similar to Saturday Night Live. It’s like a sketch… portokalli means orange in Albanian. And it’s very wacky, wacky, but that’s kind of like the big show in Albania.
LV: Kind of like Ab Fab or is it something like that?
RB: Yeah, yeah. Exactly, it’s very Eastern European.
LV: Ok, I think that was pretty much all I had, but if you guys just want to each say what you’re excited for about tonight and…
KL: Well, I’m excited for the new partnership and how far and how fast I think this is going to grow. I’m excited for that.
JB: And I’m excited that there’s a new room in Chicago. And we’re going to be one of the highlights of the Chicago comedy scene.
RB: Honestly, I’m excited to be part of it. These guys know what they’re talking about, and I’m just going to do a great job for them tonight.
JB: And the thing I’m really looking forward to is Portillo’s beef. It’s right down the street.
RB: We just came from there!
JB: I know, but I only had a hot dog. Tomorrow I’m going to have the beef.
LV: I was reading something about how when you come here from California you like to go out to eat, and you said that Gene and Jude’s if your favorite?
JB: Oh, that’s the best hot dog. Gene and Jude’s is absolutely great.
RB: You know, something that’s really cool about this club, just to leave on a quick note is that, you know, downtown Chicago has become a very expensive place to hang out. It’s not the working class city it used to be. And I love Kyle’s comedy bar, The Comedy Bar, because it’s such a high… it’s such a sophisticated space and sophisticated product that you can get for less than most people charge for valet downtown.
LV: That’s true, that’s very true.
RB: So, it’s welcoming. It’s a very Chicago sensibility with a very high standard.
KL: That’s incredible.
LV: Yeah, that’s a good point.
KL: People should have a good time, really. And have fun in Chicago and bring comedy downtown. And everybody that comes through… we want them to have a great experience.
LV: Absolutely. Well, thank you guys and good luck tonight!
All: Thank you.
The Comedy Bar
(Photo credit: Heather Scholl)
As show time approached I made my way down to the main room and realized my seat was right in front of the stage. In comedy this can mean only one thing – getting picked on – all in good fun, of course. Before the crowd filled the room Jim came out and we had a chance to chat for a few more minutes, and I was struck by how down-to-earth he is. Though his work keeps him in Los Angeles most of the year, and he is quite the Hollywood mainstay, his real loyalty is to Chicago. He cares genuinely about the talent here and really enjoys seeing the local comedy scene develop. As we finished chatting I found myself stating (and regretting) five fateful words: “Please don’t pick on me.” But it was too late and my destiny awaited.
The Thursday night show opened with a few remarks from popular local comedian Adam Burke and then went into stand-up sets, improv games like Four Square, and a fill-in-the-blank sketch of which I was chosen to participate. All of the talent got lots of laughs and were true professionals with a solid comedic voice and great delivery. Special guest Larry Joe Campbell from According to Jim added a unique blend of comedic styles and was a huge hit.
Friday night’s set was a stand-up only format that included several hilarious local comedians. Derick Lengwenus and Mike Lebovitz were the highlights for me. Lebovitz, with his signature handlebar mustache and corduroy blazer, covered everything from people thinking he is a 1970’s actor who just can’t get out of character to his fears of being a terrible parental influence. Lengwenus had an honest and subtle approach mostly based around his German father asking him every morning, “Why are you not smiling?” in a thick accent and one arm placed behind his back. He also covered topics such as Sesame Street characters battling addiction to Big Bird having gender identity issues. The crowd could barely catch their breath in time for another round of hysterical laughter.
It was truly a treat to be able to see such high level talent in that intimate of a space. The Comedy Bar’s farthest seats are within 15 to 20 feet from the stage, so it has the cozy feel of a best-kept secret while also attracting droves of people who know they can expect an incredibly polished product. The ticket price of only $10-15 is unheard of, particularly in the increasingly trendy River North area. As Robert Belushi summed it up best, you can come to The Comedy Bar for a whole night out and pay less than some places charge for valet.
Laura Vogel © October 30, 2012