Second City may be a really big fish, but it isn't alone in the pond. If you're a fan of improv comedy, check out these other laugh-inducing spots, which house everything from family-friendly troupes to midnight showings popular with bachelorette parties.
It's hard to think "improv" in Chicago without thinking of this venue and its running list of famous alumni. The theater contains two stages, both of which showcase ever-changing comedy revues fashioned around politics and current events. The ensemble is full of seasoned comedians who bring a quick-witted, polished persona to the stage with each production. Most Second City shows sell out a few days in advance, so be sure to make a reservation.
Donny's Skybox Studio
Can't afford to shell out the dough for Second City? Donny's got you covered. The upstairs cabaret theater, named for Don DePollo, one of the Second City Training Center's most influential teachers, offers sketch comedy and improv shows on a weekly basis. It's often used as a practice performance venue for students of the Training Center, and it is regularly rented by up-and-coming comedy writers looking for an affordable way to present their craft. Tickets are often priced in the single-digits, but the cost doesn't reflect the quality. For around $5, you can see pants-wetting comedy four nights a week.
Laugh Out Loud Theater
Billed as "comedy like no other," Chicago Comedy Company (which hosts the productions at this club) takes it to a level most improv companies avoid like the plague: comedy without the aid of offensive language. Its mantra of "clean comedy" sets it apart from the normally raunchy art form in an attempt to appeal to both G- and R-rated crowds via its "always hilarious" humor (the addition of a full bar a few years ago does help in this respect). The company allows audience members to provide fodder for the act. Call ahead to tell the company a little about the group you're bringing, and they'll work that info into the show.
Comedy Shrine Theater
Naperville's first resident improv comedy troupe includes veterans from pillars of the Chicago comedy scene: The Second City, IO, Noble Fool Theater and more. The comedy house is a traditional one, with a full bar, short stage and small room packed full of tables and chairs. The theater usually shows a combination of short-form and long-form improv shows, in addition to a weekly open mic night.
Red Team vs. Blue Team, GO! ComedySportz houses a weekly battle royal of resident comedians, where the ensemble is divided into two teams that face off until a referee determines a winner. The troupe presents a regular long-form show, too, which is oftentimes "adults only." Shows occur multiple times per night on the weekends, and there is usually a midnight show.
Gorilla Tango Theatre
While the majority of the Gorilla Tango's shows are sketch comedy-based, the troupe also includes a limited schedule of improvisational shows. When the ensemble isn't encouraging you to BYOB, it's offering free cupcakes to its audience members or generally wowing viewers with an amazing variety of comedic talent.
IO is probably the second-most notable venue for improv in Chicago, after Second City. The theater is known for its long-form shows and its long list of celebrity alumni, many of which got their start at the Second City Training School and went on to appear on Saturday Night Live. The schedule is a mind-boggling one; shows range from comedic musical theater to sketch comedy to game shows and everything in between. On Wednesday nights, IO's signature show, "The Harold," is free.
The Playground is the country's first and only non-profit co-op theater dedicated to improv, and its formula has proven a successful one: the group recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary. The theater is home to 14 ensembles ranging in age and experience who all perform on a volunteer basis. The small theater is intimate, which can often add to the spontaneity of live comedy. While you may not leave every show in stitches, The Playground is home to quite a bit of experimental comedy that can't be found elsewhere in the city.
Located in the former Frankie J's space, this venue has taken on the "something for everyone" mentality. Part restaurant, part live-music venue, part bar, The Spot seems a likely location for an improv troupe to set up shop. The schedule varies from week to week, but patrons can always rely on "The Uptown Getdown," a variety show of improv and sketch comedy, in addition to music, art, poetry, dance and other talents that happen to show up.
Annoyance Theatre and Bar
A comedy troupe that isn't afraid to call itself "unsavory" raises a red flag with some, while enticing others. Annoyance prides itself on pushing the envelope, which some feel is, well, annoying. If you can handle a musical based on cannibalism or a play starring "Super Hitler," this is your place. The weekly improv show "Messing with a Friend" stars Susan Messing and is referred to as "dirty funny" by the ensemble. The theater keeps the prices cheap, with some shows priced at $8, and the redesigned space ensures that there isn't a bad seat in the house.
Chicago improv troupe pH Productions, which holds down the stage at this Lakeview performance space, isn't afraid to mess with its formula. While the group's original show, pHrenzy (a sort of comedy "Survivor" where the players get voted off, one by one) is still going strong, there have been a number of offshoots over the past few years, including pHrenzy PG and pHrenzy pHucked (kid-friendly and adults-only versions), pHamily the Musical (with improvised songs!), pHarm pHresh (aimed at the college crowd) and Wheel of pHortune, where even the performers don't know what kind of show they'll be doing. No matter which show you go to see, bring your thinking cap - creativity gets rewarded here.