CHICAGO — While there is still Bill Maher and a handful of smaller shows tonight, last night’s Bob Newhart performance and the round of killer stand-ups at Stage 773, pretty much wrapped up the Just For Laughs– Chicago festival. With a surprise set by Maria Bamford, some statistics from The Drinking Institute by Sean Flannery, and a punk rock cabaret from Bridgette Everette, 773 was popping with an exhaustive marathon of comedy that has left my abs cramping the following morning.
Fifty-five years in, there’s clearly still plenty of joy to be gleaned in stand-up comedy for Newhart. While many novelty throwback acts are reluctantly trudging themselves from stage to stage to pay off tax debts or divorce settlements, the delight that Newhart feels in relating stories both old and new, real and fiction, can be read on his face like a billboard.
“Televangelists have been going through a bad patch lately,” said the 83-year-old comic, speaking with a small jazz band behind him not unlike a Vegas lounge act. “Oral Roberts, you know him? He’s a televangelist. He’s written three books, and it was in his third book that he wrote about the time he met Jesus. Now . . . if I had met Jesus, that’s in my first book. That’s something that stays with you.”
While a good majority of the crowd were Greatest Generation retirees that probably once owned the original LP of The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart (the first comedy album to reach #1 on the charts), there was no shortage of Millennials like myself more familiar with Newhart through PBS documentaries and Nick At Nite reruns. The material still remained universal, though, with the world’s first “solo straight-man” entertaining all with his classic “Driving Instructor” routine, as well as a video history of the Newhart family, which was half sketch comedy and half clips of Newhart’s most beloved moments of stage and television.
Down at Stage 773, Sean Flannery killed with his Bukowski style anecdotes of hard drinking on the streets of Chicago. Curated by Team Coco, Flannery was performing on the A Tight 60 With . . . stage, which unleashed Conan stand-up alumni into a format without the boundaries of time and cleanliness. Giving a breezy and hilarious slide-show presentation, Flannery delivered commentary on classic beer ads, the time he walked off a three-story building during a blackout and landed on his feet, as well as some incredible statistics on national drinking habits. “According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, hangovers cost the US economy 223 BILLION DOLLARS in loss of productivity. You know how useless we are when we’re hungover? Cancer, in terms of loss of productivity, only cost seven billion dollars.”
It was a pleasant surprise for the crowd when Maria Bamford appeared for an unannounced set later that night. I’d seen her a month earlier in a large theater back in Denver, and it was refreshing to catch her tense, minimalist act of whispered voices and awkward pauses in the 45 seat room. “Did you know, it’s possible to run out of genocide documentaries on Netflix?” Bamford said, informing us that when that happens she switches over to Say Yes To The Dress– Atlanta before characteristically altering her voice to a maniacal Southern bride. “It’s my day! I want, I want . . . I want a dress that GROWS. A dress that covers THE WORLD.”