Now in its fourth year in Chicago, the Just For Laughs festival is reaching critical mass. Its lineup, chock-full of amazing stand-ups, improvisers, and puppet shows, is almost an embarrassment of riches. That’s great and everything, but spend six straight days seeing at least two hilarious shows a night, and weird things happen to the brain. Fortunately, The A.V. Club is willing to endure laugh torture in the name of journalism and managed to make it out to a bunch of shows throughout the fest. Our favorites and least favorites are below, so please excuse us as we retire to our laugh-regression chambers and watch History Channel documentaries about WWII.

Most embarrassed family: The Offermans at Nick Offerman: American Ham at The Vic
Nick Offerman is a great performer, a handsome guy, and—thank God—a real-life meat lover. He’s also not at all skittish about embarrassing his suburban family members, about 12 of whom were in the audience at Saturday’s early showing of his one-man speech/performance, American Ham. Granted, the show was meant to be seen by thousands of Parks And Recreation fans, not Offerman’s farm-owning, church-going parents. But watching their faces as Offerman explained to them what he meant when he said wife Megan Mullally would be “taking it in the pale,” or used euphemism after euphemism for wiping ejaculate off a face, was almost too much. Offerman was amazing and inspirational live, but he’ll probably have to buy his family a whole new living-room set after his bit about how he and his holy-roller high-school girlfriend graphically and vigorously sullied every ottoman, recliner, and afghan in the house growing up. [ME]


Best advice: Patton Oswalt at The Vic
Patton Oswalt spent a good chunk of his early show at The Vic taking some brand-new material—some of it apparently written that very day—for its first onstage test run, sprinkling in a couple more well-honed jokes and an old favorite or two, including a shout-out to his bits about the KFC Famous Bowl and its successor, the KFC Megaleg. In between, he did a solid amount of crowd work, at one point stumbling upon an aspiring filmmaker in the front row. When asked for specifics, she told Oswalt she actually wanted to make a film for Pixar one day, inspiring the voice of Ratatouille’s Remy to lay out the formula for Pixar storytelling success: “You gotta think of one thing that wants to be another thing and have it go on a journey.” [GK]

Best use of a masturbating puppet: Henson Alternative’s Stuffed And Unstrung at the Bank Of America Theater
Much to the dismay of the older-looking women in the audience who didn’t seem to get the memo about the “adult” nature of the show, Henson Alternative’s Stuffed And Unstrung wasn’t all Sesame Street and sing-alongs. While the ladies squirmed and shook their heads in disbelief, the rest of the audience roared as the improv puppet show delved deeper into blue territory than Kermit ever dared go. Led by Brian Henson (son of Jim), the puppeteers performed improvised sketches at the whim of emcee Patrick Bristow and the audience. While the audience ideas occasionally proved more eye-rolling than inspired, the Henson team churned out a fantastic and hilarious show, using their puppets to bring to life scenes like two otters checking out an introductory film to starring in pornography, a caveman performing a prostate exam on another puppet, and a strange scene that played out in a sperm bank. All the scenes were projected on screens at either end of the stage, but still visible to the audience was the group of puppeteers, running and thrashing to make their puppets come to life in a peek behind the curtain that was a show unto itself. [MG]


Best Conan bit: Elementary school students learn the blues
During his four-episode stint at the Chicago Theatre during Just For Laughs, Conan O’Brien presided over a number of funny gags: jumping stuff over the partially raised State Street bridge; bringing a 40-foot Chicago-style hot dog into the theater; “giving” the city a 17-foot bobblehead statue of himself; and Triumph, and Jack McBrayer visiting insult-happy hot-dog stand The Wiener’s Circle. Jumping stuff over the bridge had the flair of vintage Letterman and provided some of the show’s splashiest moments—sometimes literally, when something didn’t make it across—but a visit to a local elementary school with Jimmy Vivino to teach students about the blues paid the biggest comedic dividends. O’Brien and Vivino improvised blues songs based on student suggestions, leading to some hilarious interactions and a joyous dance party on the Chicago Theatre stage. (Conan loses points for saying of Chicago’s many landmarks, “None is more loved than The Wiener’s Circle.” Nope! Maybe “none is more filled with crappy food and uncomfortable racist undertones.”) [KR]

Best class reunion: You Made It Weird at The Hideout
Saturday night’s You Made It Weird event featured a raucous assembly of comedians with whom host Pete Holmes got his start in Chicago, including Hannibal Buress, Matt Braunger, Robert Buscemi, T.J. Miller, and Chicago-based comics Sean Flannery and C.J. Sullivan. As is the case with all live You Made It Weirds, much of the show consisted of the comics taking turns dressing down Holmes with sharply placed barbs of brutal honesty in between half-told stories and derailed tangents. The evening climaxed with Miller proposing each guest share his impression of a young Pete Holmes, much to the delight of the show’s masochistic host. [MB]


Best chance to see professional comedians sweat: Set List at The Lincoln Lodge
Billed as “standup without a net,” Set List was created by Paul Provenza and Troy Conrad to give comedy fans a chance to see their favorite comics forced into performing new material. Not surprisingly, the comics with a more improvisational bend to their normal material, like Maron and Glaser, fared well, while the cerebral Brent Weinbach and one-liner machine Amy Schumer struggled at times with the occasionally lame source material. For especially obsessive comedy nerds, this show was a sort of anthropological study, illustrating how each comic performs when greeted with a topic that may not be inherently funny. [MB]

Best crowd worker: Jimmy Pardo
Veteran comedian Jimmy Pardo has always had a quick wit, but he’s honed his skills even further warming up Conan audiences every day. That job is built on crowd work—the process of talking and joking around with audience members—and Pardo is a master. Whether commanding attention in the cavernous Chicago Theatre or hosting the Conan writers’ show at The Comedy Bar, Pardo was in fine form, mocking himself as much as he teased the audience, and scoring big laughs in the process. New fans would do well to check out his podcast. [KR]

Most beautiful disaster: The Eric Andre Show at The Hideout
Though it’s decidedly lo-fi in execution, The Eric Andre Show still has some basic level of production value. Unfortunately, for much of its brief runtime, the live version of Andre’s new Adult Swim show was marred by technical difficulties. Andre handled the onslaught of minor disasters like a champ, however, heckling his own short films as they were screened out of order by a genuinely perplexed tech guy, and leading the crowd in a chant of “fuck Michael Jackson” when a guest who was supposed to appear in character bailed on the show. [MB]


Best audience baiting: Aziz Ansari vs. guys in button-down shirts and backward baseball caps at The Chicago Theatre
As his two shows at the 3,600-capacity Chicago Theatre Friday night proved, Aziz Ansari is bigger than ever, which means he has long since surpassed performing in small venues for fans of the insular alt-comedy scene. Like every counter-culture type before him who grew popular and famous, Ansari seems a little unnerved by some of the people in his audience. In one of his bits, he mentions that if you wear a button-down shirt and a backward baseball cap, chances are he hates you—probably knowing all too well that plenty of those kinds of dudes were in the audience. [KR]


Biggest nerds: The Nerd Show at Up Comedy Club
Any bill that includes Pete Holmes, Brian Posehn, and Dan Telfer is probably going to literally be the biggest comedy show that night, as all three comics easily top the 6-foot-3 mark. But while all three also helped raise the average height of The A.V. Club’s [REDACTED] show on Thursday, they were really able to fly their nerd flags high—so very high—at Wednesday’s The Nerd Show at Up Comedy Club, which also included sets from less towering (but no less funny) figures Brent Weinbach, Hari Kondabolu, and Mike Lawrence. The six comics on the bill covered subjects spanning the spectrum of nerdiness, geekery, and dorkdom: Telfer’s fear of wildlife, Lawrence’s preference for Marvel superheroes, Posehn’s uncontrollable Star Wars rage, and much more. Host Pete Holmes kept the night appropriately weird with his manic chatter, alternately alienating the crowd and winning it back with his signature dorky silliness. (“PIERCE! GET BEERS!”) [GK]

Best world première of a documentary about a comedian: The Bitter Buddha at the Gene Siskel Film Center
Eddie Pepitone has a reputation as a comic’s comic—one of those guys admired by people far more famous than he—and he has a problem with that. He has a problem with a lot of things, actually, hence the nickname that gives director Steven Feinartz the title of his film, which made its world première at Just For Laughs. Like his pal (and frequent sparring partner) Marc Maron, Pepitone didn’t find wide success for much of his life, but has enjoyed a late-career surge. Feinartz’s warm, well-assembled film delves into the perpetually crushed idealism that fuels Pepitone’s raging persona, but doesn’t shy away from its subject’s inconsistencies. (As friend and podcast co-host Sean Conroy points out, Pepitone rages at injustice, but “I don’t think he even votes.”) Although the film stalls a bit in its final act, it has a surprisingly moving climax. If nothing else, it’s an excellent window into the mind of one of comedy’s undervalued treasures. [KR]

Most thinly veiled character showcase: James Adomian’s Conspiracy Theory Live at The Hideout
Like the more freewheeling episodes of Comedy Bang! Bang!, many of the biggest laughs during the maniacally silly Conspiracy Theory Live With Jesse Ventura came when a performer broke character. While James Adomian’s talents as an impressionist make hosting an hourlong show as Jesse “The Body” Ventura look easy, many of the other guests, including Eddie Pepitone as a European banker, Janeane Garofalo as an overly politicized version of herself, and Matt Braunger as a murderous model best known for his work as the Brawny guy, occasionally struggled to remain on-book. [MB]



Best sharing of the spotlight: Conan Writers Live at The Comedy Bar
Conan O’Brien has a reputation for hiring comics to be writers for his TBS show, and the Conan writers’ show gave them all a chance to perform. Chicagoans Jimmy Pardo and Deon Cole killed, but everyone had a strong showing: Todd Levin performing one-act plays re-creating awkward sexual experiences, Andrés du Bouchet appearing as a “mentortainer” who farts when people shake his hand, and jokes from all the performers about the weird décor of nightclub-moonlighting-as-comedy-venue The Comedy Bar. [KR]

Most clever act of defiance: Scott Adsit, Kevin Dorff, and Jon Glaser’s freestyle improv at iO Theater
Before launching into a wondrously goofy set anchored by improv masters T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, as well as former Chicagoans Kevin Dorff and Jon Glaser, Scott Adsit closed out his introduction with a twist on a phrase heard at nearly every improv show: “What we need from you [the audience] is… to watch!” Folks with even a passing familiarity of long-form improv probably know that shows traditionally begin with a solicitation for an audience suggestion, and Adsit’s playful neglect was the first shot in a dizzying display of comedic chops from this spontaneously assembled quintet, dubbed “Ramrod” earlier in the evening. [MB]


Best 10 minutes on pancakes: Kyle Kinane at Up Comedy Club
Kyle Kinane and Janeane Garofalo’s Wednesday night stand-up show began with a coin toss to see who’d go first. Garofalo lost, and not having to follow Kinane turned out to be a huge boon for her. The comedy veteran’s scattershot material paled in comparison to Kinane’s unapologetic and hilarious assholery. The suburban native was sharp and on-point his whole set, but the highlight was the closing bit, a gruff, tear-inducing 10 minutes about a guy Kinane spotted on a recent flight eating silver-dollar pancakes—without syrup, the maniac—out of a Foot Locker bag. It was sharp, unrelenting, and even funnier than the exposition suggests—and that says a lot. [ME]

Hardest-working person at JFL: Whoever’s in charge of signage
JFL’s pointy green mascot and TBS’ “very funny” logo adorned pretty much any and all surfaces that could accommodate them, right down to the carpeting in the elevator of the Hotel Sax, which served as festival headquarters. This is JFL’s fourth year in Chicago, and if branding is the only indicator of success, it was the fest’s biggest year yet. [GK]

Best fake book launch: The Delocated Witness Protection Program Variety Show at The Hideout
Jon Glaser hosted The Delocated Witness Protection Program Variety Show as “Jon” from Delocated, rocking a mesh hoodie, American flag boxer shorts, and his signature black balaclava, hyping up the crowd through a voice-modulated microphone. The show featured one of the best lineups of the festival, including Patton Oswalt, Kevin Dorff as Deep Dish, a male stripper who mostly just eats pizza onstage, and The Flea And Rake, a band also in the witness protection program that sounded suspiciously like The Sea and Cake, save for the pitch-shifted vocals. However, the evening’s highest high came early, when “Jon” introduced the crowd (which included Glaser’s real-life mother and step father) to Ready… Set… Cum, an instructional sex book inspired by Kim Cattrall’s Satisfaction: The Art Of The Female Orgasm. Glaser delighted and horrified himself, utilizing the word “cooze” several times per minute, in front of his thankfully game family. [MB]


Best civilian guest set: Dr. Jeff Kastner, rocket scientist, at Beat Kitchen
The Blackout Diaries, a monthly show at Chicago’s Beat Kitchen, invites comedians and regular people to share stories of bad decisions they’ve made while incredibly drunk. This Just For Laughs edition featured stories from Kyle Kinane, Matt Braunger, and Hannibal Buress, as well as Dr. Jeff Kastner, a rocket scientist and friend of the show’s creator and host, Sean Flannery. Kastner shared a story of a debauched night spent in Gander, Newfoundland on September 12, 2001, as a part of a group of displaced international travelers who became the inspiration for the warm and fuzzy book and made-for-TV movie The Day The World Came To Town. Unfortunately for Kastner, but fortunately for The Blackout Diaries’ crowd, he hung out with the folks who were vilified by the book’s author, those jerks who had the nerve to hang out and get drunk at the only bar in the tiny Canadian town rather than retire early to their temporary church-basement home. [MB]

Most courteous treatment of a historic venue: Conan at The Chicago Theatre
When the Conan crew tasked representatives of the Vienna Sausage Company to bring the “world’s longest Chicago-style hot dog” to the stage of The Chicago Theatre, the scene was set for relish-splattered, celery-salt-flecked disaster. Luckily for the 91-year-old Theater District landmark, the 40-foot, 37-pound wiener made it to the front of the theater without incident—save for the single pickle spear that flopped out of the dog’s lengthy metal trough and onto the stage floor. Recognizing that such an indiscretion could not stand, Andy Richter quickly swept in to return the spear to its proper place, thereby preserving the dignity of the theater and the talk show that devoted much of its time in Chicago to launching objects across the State Street bridge. [EA]


Best chemistry: Scott Adsit and Jet Eveleth at iO
Scott Adsit and Jet Eveleth’s midnight set at the iO theatre was nearly perfect. Their 45-minute show consisted of five slow-burning scenes where expertly drawn characters interact in unexpected and fascinating ways. The pair seems to share one razor-sharp comedic mind, which always makes for high-quality improv, and their fascinating, subtle physicality brought the show to quietly mind-blowing levels. [MB]

Most distractible: John Oliver at The Vic
Any comedian who’s best known for being on television is going to draw some questionable audiences. Friday night’s early set by Daily Show correspondent John Oliver drew masses of half-drunk people anxious to hoot and holler or “correct” the incredibly smart comedian. It was annoying, but what was more aggravating was how Oliver absolutely refused to shut them down, instead engaging with each asshole, ultimately encouraging more interruptions. Toward the end of the show, Oliver even spent a good five minutes having some shouter explain to him exactly who George Burns was and why he played a better voice of God than Morgan Freeman. That might be interesting for those two guys, but for everyone else, it’s just a drag. [ME]

Cheapest date: Five comedians for $5 at Secret Big-Time Local Comedy Showcase at the Beat Kitchen
While not officially the first show of the festival (that honor goes to Stuffed And Unstrung, a dirty-joke-fueled puppet show), the Secret Big-Time Local Comedy Showcase acted as the unofficial launch party for the festival. Between sets from some of Chicago’s finest local comics, the crowd was treated to guest appearances from Jeff Garlin, Hannibal Buress, Pete Holmes, Kyle Kinane, and Eddie Pepitone. This marathon show was both exhilarating and exhausting, with a lineup that could easily justify ticket prices 10 times the $5 door charge. [MB]


Most underwhelming set by a 6-foot-7 creator of The Office: Stephen Merchant at Park West
Stephen Merchant is a comedy legend. He’s created and participated in some of the best projects in modern memory, including but not limited to The Office, Extras, and The Ricky Gervais Show. That kind of reputation should pack a theater, but Merchant’s Thursday night “sold-out” show featured more than a few empty seats. Perhaps it was for the best, considering the lanky comedian just performed his already-released DVD, Hello Ladies, nearly word for word. Yes, there were funny parts, and yes, it was surely cool for some people to be in the guy’s presence, but bits on British texting slang just don’t translate that well, no matter how well-intended they might be. [ME]

Best sporty MST3K homage: Schadenfreude at Lincoln Hall
Chicago’s comedy ensemble Schadenfreude had previously brought together a bunch of funny people back in the fall to give a running commentary of the Chicago Bears-Denver Broncos game, Tebow and all. The show went off so well they decided to bring it back for the fest, this time taking on Chicago’s baseball teams who had simultaneous games the night of the show. As the group flipped between the games on the big screen, a rotation of local and national comedy luminaries and writers, including comedians Hannibal Buress, Brian Babylon, and The A.V. Club’s own Claire Zulkey, took the stage for a few minutes to riff on the game, the players, and sometimes topics that had nothing to do with baseball at all. Baseball games can be a bit of slog, especially in the later innings—or when the Cubs are involved—and the event consequently got a bit bogged down toward the end, but there were still plenty of inspired bits of humor throughout the night. [MG]

Most disruptive audience: Sarah’s Pro-Choice at The Chicago Theatre
It goes without saying that a Saturday night late-show crowd might not be perfectly attentive, but the audience at Sarah’s Pro-Choice—a show hosted by Sarah Silverman featuring “choice” comedians Reggie Watts, Marc Maron, Natasha Leggero, Kyle Dunnigan, and Hannibal Buress—was exceptionally flagrant. In addition to the typical alcohol-induced, attention-seeking hoots, hollers, and shouts—and a constant stream of nonchalant bathroom-goers—an audience member at one point halted Silverman in the middle of a bit to ask her a question. On top of all that, though, a man wearing a bright blue shirt with a matching hat and flip-flops took his seat in the very front row a half hour after the already-behind-schedule show began, and then proceeded to text through the next two acts. Silverman handily and thoroughly humiliated him, but not before he did his part in accentuating the inevitably staccato rhythm of such a jam-packed show. Fortunately, the same alcohol that fueled incidents like that also helped loosen up the crowd and made it receptive to all of the comedians’ uniformly strong sets. [CG]


Best incorporation of social commentary into a comedy set: W. Kamau Bell at The Hideout
Tackling the sticky issues of race and racism are hardly new in comedy; doing it well, though, is hard. Lucky, then, that W. Kamau Bell brings an intelligent perspective and the perfect balance of social commentary and humor so that his set at The Hideout got neither weighed down by subject matter or undermined by jokes. Instead, he mixed the two seamlessly using the aide of slides to help get his point, and humor, across. Tackling subjects from The Hunger Games (and unsuspecting audiences who didn’t know Rue was black) to the Trayvon Martin shooting (displaying George Zimmerman’s homepage onscreen and commenting, “Only a racist is this bad at HTML,”), Bell never let his set get away from him. But he also played well off of the audience’s reactions, making them part of the act and, in turn, an ongoing social experiment. Bell has a new show debuting later this summer on FX, and if his set is any indication on what’s to come, it should be fun to watch. [MG]

Best comedy show ever: The A.V. Club and The Hideout present [REDACTED]
It’s probably best to throw all objectivity out the window for this one and just say: BEST COMEDY SHOW EVER. The lineup read like a comedy fan’s most ardent dream, if that dream includes a lot of body humor. From Cameron Esposito’s torn ACL to Amy Schumer’s morning-after pill, from Brian Posehn’s deadly gas to… Well, that’s enough farts. Patton Oswalt told jokes about Germans and Jews; Hannibal Buress told stories about not quite getting mugged; Kyle Kinane shared how to make a your gravestone hilarious; Pete Holmes acted as youth minister; Eddie Pepitone studied the intensity of a laundry-soap audition; and Janeane Garofalo attempted shenangians. Up until about midnight, we were pretty sure the show was going to end with Buress at about 1:30, and we all would have been delighted. Then Aziz Ansari showed up and sent us all home with a brilliant 25 minutes—a hell of a surprise and a great end to the BEST COMEDY SHOW EVER. Thanks for coming, and thanks to Dan Telfer for hosting and also being funny as hell. [JM]