What happens when you take six comedians at the top of their game and put them on a stage for one night? The Comedy Battle Royale happening Thursday at the Chicago Cultural Center. Six comedic All-Stars battle for the title of best city. Co-hosting the Comedy Battle Royale is Chicago native, comedian Dawn B. She has displayed her talents on a variety of comedic stages across the world and is known for delivering a “straight-no-chaser” comedy style from a woman’s point of view. Known as the “King of New York Comedy”, Talent is known for his off-the-cuff humor and for reminding fans that “It’s just comedy”. George Willborn is a legend in Chicago comedy, with a career spanning over 30 years. In addition to his legendary career in comedy, he is a successful actor and radio host currently serving as a co-host of the nationally syndicated Rick and Sasha Morning Show featuring George Willborn. These hilarious comedians join co-host, Ed Lover, and comedians, Tony Woods, Marshall Brandon, Ray Lipowski and Marlon Mitchell for an epic comedy battle. I had a chance to talk with these three comedians about their craft and upcoming appearance at the Harold Washington Cultural Center.
Danielle: Thank you so much for speaking with the Defender today.
George: I grew up on the Defender. I grew up on 66th and Ingleside in Woodlawn then moved to the Gresham/Englewood area on 85th and Aberdeen. I used to deliver the Defender Newspaper as a paperboy. It was a big deal back then. I know the history, and I feel good about making sure we keep the history of something that important thriving and alive in our communities.
Danielle: Absolutely! What a great piece of history! Talk to me about the Comedy Battle Royale.
Talent: It is like a comedy barbeque. It is going to feel like a family reunion.
Danielle: What can the audience expect from Thursday’s show?
Talent: Something special is going to happen that night that none of us can plan for and that is the beauty of having this caliber of talent on stage.
George: We all work without a net. 70-80% of my show depends on the audience. This show has many layers. We are doing this for the hometown, going back to our “All Jokes Aside” days. We say it is a battle, but it is just us getting ready to have a great time with one another and turn it out.
Danielle: I have to ask you, do you feel restrained in light of the climate we are in now? It seems like comics, in particular, are scrutinized now more than ever about their content. In this age of “cancel culture,” do you feel the need to adjust your shows or the subjects you talk about?
George: It is about knowing what and how to do something. I am never restricted, and I do not feel restrained; however, I do have a level of compassion that comes with my craft.
Danielle: So there is a level of responsibility in the art?
Talent: The one thing about veteran comics is that they always make sense. You may not like what we say or even agree with it, but it makes sense. Right now, we (comedians) are holding the baton. Where do you go for information and opinions about how to react? People have lost integrity in churches, in politics and so many other places. The roar of a comedian’s voice is clear and unlike any other art form, music, etc.; our voices cannot be drowned out with a beat. It is raw and unfiltered, but real.
Dawn: It is a matter of opinion, and we all have one. If you do not want to hear an opinion, you should not be at a comedy show.
Danielle: I think that’s part of Chicago’s comedic legacy. I was always told that comedy and improv are some of the hardest things to do because it is spontaneous even when you try to prepare for it.
George: Absolutely! It is one of the hardest art forms. It is just our words and that mic. It is how we express and communicate it to the audience. Chicago and New York are serious when it comes to comedy. Shows like Def Comedy Jam put many Chicago comedians on the map and opened doors. That all happened in New York, and many of our relationships were built from that platform. Chicago comedians came to Def Comedy Jam and tore New York up, but we also made these incredible friendships. We made sure they knew who we were and where we were from.
Danielle: What are some of the differences between Chicago and New York comedians, if any?
George: Chicago comedians are very distinctive and rare in the connection we have. It is a close community. We had clubs, like “All Jokes Aside” and “The Cotton Club,” that housed all of these incredible comedians and gave us a platform so we could congregate and grow together. There was the cream of the crop built from stand up in some cities and New York and Chicago have always reigned supreme when it comes to that. We run the gamut of different styles of comedy, but those styles from Chicago and New York have always been harmonious.
Talent: The camaraderie in New York is very similar to Chicago. Chicago and New York comedians share that common bond in our experience, and that raw energy reflects on one another. Our shared experiences are relatable. It is how we came up and the grind we all shared coming up. We were so similar even during the Def Jam days if the MC did not say, “give it up for ____ from Chicago, we assumed they were from New York! That’s how similar the styles were.
Danielle: Do you think the difference between comics then and now was the grind and how you pursued building your following?
Talent: These are what I call microwave days; everyone wants something instant. You still have to pass the test that is that stage. Knowing your crowd is something that you cannot learn on social media. You have to give your crowd credit. The crowd knows good comedy. They know what they are coming to see. Are you able to get your crowd to come back out to see you? To purchase another ticket? I would rather start with a small audience and build my way up.
George: The grind we experienced created a different kind of comedian. We learned by doing and experiencing. Anything can happen on stage and we are ready for it because we were prepared. A mic can go out, an audience member could be drunk, or we could have a heckler in the audience, it doesn’t matter. We are always prepared to adjust because we were trained on the comedy stage. That prepared us in a different way versus now where people want instant gratification on social media. I am an old school guy and consider myself a “comics” comic, but I have always been willing to extend a hand. Back then, the old school cats like Reynaldo Rey and my mentor, Rodney Winfield, would not talk to you if you had not committed to comedy yet. If you still had a day job, you could not get their phone number or even have a conversation with them. It is different now. You have guys that have 20 minutes of material and 2 million followers on social media.
Dawn B: You could not even contact these guys if you were not funny! I remember! I went bankrupt paying dues with these dudes! [Laughter] But this is why I handpicked the comics for this show. It is not a battle in the sense of beef, but you get to see what we do when we hit the battleground called this stage.
Danielle: Talent, prior to coming to Chicago for the first time, what did you hear about Chicagoans that you learned later was true?
Talent: People always said I would love Chicago because it was a city that showed love. I did not realize what they were meant until I did a show with George at All Jokes Aside. Chicago definitely shows love to its comedians when you give them your best.
Danielle: What about you, George? What did you hear about New York that you learned to be true when you were there?
George: When I left Chicago, I moved to New York. New York is a grinding city that never sleeps. There is a grind that New York comedians have. They will hit three different clubs in one night because they did not have an “All Jokes Aside” or Comedy Click in the city like we did. The grind and the hustle of a New York comic are obvious.
Danielle: When you come to Chicago what are a few things you have to have?
George: Italian Fiesta and Garrett’s popcorn.
Talent: I am very chill until it is time to hit the stage, catching up on movies and rest but once I’m out, hide the liquor cabinets. [Laughter]
Dawn B: Every Chicago comic goes to Francis Cocktail lounge when they come into the city.
George: You gotta go to Francis with my man, Marlon Mitchell. He is such a brilliant comedian. I have seen him come up from the beginning to now. He has a special style of comedy, it is natural. That is what I love about this lineup. You have natural comedians and those who learned how to do comedy. This lineup is full of natural comedians. These comedians are at the top of their game.
Danielle: So the camaraderie and friendship are evident, but this is still a Battle Royale? New York Vs. Chicago?
George: Not really! New York knows! Everybody knows! Chicago is at the top, and we have the best comics. Everyone knows that! Now you are just trying to start some mess! Now you are trying to get the hype going for the fight!
Danielle: Well, it is the battle in Bronzeville!
Dawn B: Ain’t no friends on the stage! [Laughter]
George: We are always going to get up there and do our job, so there is a competitive spirit but it’s not to outdo each other. If the comic before you is killing it on the stage, you feel obligated to get up there and keep that energy going. That is how the game goes. That will be evident in the show for sure.
Talent: For this kind of show, you have some of the greats on stage, and I am happy with the level and caliber of talent.
George: Right! When you have this level of talent, you are going to have a good comedy show, and everyone is going to have a great time.
Dawn B: They are being very diplomatic right now, but when they hit the stage, it goes down!
Talent: Like we don’t even know each other [laughter]
Dawn B: The show is going to be dope, and I am honored to have these comedians on the stage. The lineup is crazy, Marshall Brandon, Tony Woods, Ray Lipowski, Marlon Mitchell; they are all top-notch and solid! We are ready for all of this. It is a love battle, and we cannot wait.
Talent: I completely agree. We are going to have a great time! I look forward to seeing everyone.
Danielle: The show sounds like the perfect kickoff to All Star Weekend.
The NBA All-Star Weekend Comedy Battle Royale presented by Life of the Party Events, happens this Thursday, February 13, 2020 at The Harold Washington Cultural Center. Hosted by Ed Lover and Comedian Dawn B, six comedians battle for the title of Best City. Tickets start at $25 and are available on Eventbrite.
For a full listing of all events by “Life of the Party”, click the link.
-Danielle Sanders-Contributing Writer