Rebecca O’Neal and WCIU premiere Chicago’s One Night Stand-Up on New Year’s Eve

Chicago comedy fans! A dream comes true this New Year’s Eve. You can enjoy stand-up from some of the city’s best comedians in the comfort of your home. No frozen steering wheels. No wind-blasted hair. No parking hassles. Just a happy evening of laughter in your living room with the talent that makes Chicago a worldwide comedy destination.

Chicago’s One Night Stand-Up is a holiday gift from Weigel Broadcasting’s WCIU (“The U”). This world television premiere airs in Chicago on New Year’s Eve at 9:00 p.m. with encore performances at midnight and on New Year’s Day at 8:00 p.m. The show will also be available on Weigel stations in Milwaukee and South Bend.

Rebecca O'Neal

Rebecca O'Neal

Chicago’s One Night Stand-Up features eleven of Chicago’s stand-up stars. The program was filmed earlier this month in front of a sold-out crowd at Zanies in Rosemont. Host Rebecca O’Neal is “funny and smart,” says the U’s Head of Local Programming, Steve Bailey, who conceived the show. “You’ll really see what I’m talking about when you watch the show. Her content is relatable and it is Chicago.”

The show reflects WCIU’s commitment to viewers and passion for celebrating Chicago. In addition to Rebecca’s comedy, you’ll see sets from Schmitty B., Steven Haas, Kellye Howard, Michael Issac, Alex Kumin, Michael Larimer, Kristen Lundberg, Pat McGann, Martin Morrow and T. Murph. Comedians’ credits include Late Night with David Letterman, Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, Second City, OWN Network, Chicago Fire, The Lincoln Lodge and too many comedy festivals and awards to count. (You can see all performer details here.)

Not only are the comedians all Chicago-based, “this show has a lot of Chicago content in it. That’s what sets this show apart. It will leave people laughing out loud,” Steve told me. Melissa Kennedy, Weigel’s Marketing Manager, mentions another benefit: the show ensures that people in the suburbs will have easy access to “the same quality of entertainment and stand-up that people in the city get.”

So, is Chicago’s One Night Stand-Up a one-time phenomenon or could it become a series? “Fingers crossed,” Steve says. It depends on viewer feedback. Tuning in, sending feedback to the station, and posting on social media will boost the show’s chance to become a gift that keeps giving to fans and performers.

When I heard that Rebecca was hosting, I knew I had to ask for an interview. Just between us, I’d hoped to speak with her for a long time. She is one of the scene’s fastest rising comedy stars, an established writer and producer and the opening act of choice for Maria Bamford, Hannibal Buress, Cameron Esposito, Janeane Garofalo, The Daily Show’s Al Madrigal and Saturday Night Live’s Sasheer Zamata. But it’s not only her credentials that make her remarkable. She is known for her honesty about life’s struggles, including severe depression, navigating the road back to health and all the obstacles and triumphs in between and beyond. She kindly took time out from a busy holiday schedule to talk by phone about her career, comedy’s life-saving qualities and the groundbreaking television show you should watch this New Year’s Eve.

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Teme: How did the show come to be?

Rebecca: WCIU is venturing more into original programming. The station got a new program director, Steve Bailey, earlier this year. Chicago One Night Stand-Up is one of the first shows that he conceived.

I auditioned for them before, for an interstitial ad between shows and didn't get it. But I got a call a couple of weeks later saying, "We're doing this new show. Do you want to host it?" It all came together within about a month-and-a-half. From the first I heard of it to filming, it was two months max. He put it  together very quickly.

Teme: How did you decide on the line-up for this show?

Rebecca: They had open submissions for comedians. WCIU put up the release around the internet and asked me to help spread the word that they were looking for people who could do a clean ten minutes.

I think the station was a little overwhelmed by the volume of submissions. Once they started sifting through them, they were also overwhelmed at the level of talent they saw in Chicago. Throughout the submission process, they asked me, "Everybody's good. What do we do?"

But it all went great and happened pretty quickly, too. From the time submissions opened to when they closed was maybe two weeks. The scene caught word and sent their videos in to Chris Jackson, who also produced and conceived the show.

Teme: What is your favorite thing about hosting the show?

Rebecca: Oh my goodness. Everything. From the first time I heard of it, I was so excited. There's not anything like it at all.

I'm just excited that it exists and that people in Chicago and around the Midwest can see what the Chicago comedy scene is all about. Even people who don't go out to see comedy shows will get to see the level of talent. They won’t have to wait until individuals become famous years later.

I'm happy that this show is going to take the comedians who are hilarious and working every night in Chicago and put them on TV so everybody can know what’s going on out there. These people are really, really, really funny. I'm glad I get to host and show off the Chicago comedy scene.

Teme: So true. Chicago comedy should be spotlighted all the time.

Rebecca: I agree. There's so much. You can pick a night of the week and there are probably five, six, seven - that’s just on the low end - shows you can catch. A lot of them are free. Not everybody can get out and do that all the time, so I'm enjoying the fact that this show is going to exist.

WCIU really did a good job reflecting the comedy scene. Without leaving your couch, you can turn on your TV and see some of the best comedians Chicago has to offer. Then google their schedule and go see what they’re up to in person.

Teme: It sounds so fantastic. What would you say are the keys to hosting a show?

Rebecca: My main job was to set the show up. Since it’s Chicago's One Night Stand-Up, about eighty-five percent of the jokes I tell are about Chicago. I am a Chicago native from the South Side, so I poured all my love and all my complicated feelings about Chicago into a hot ten minutes at the top of the show. My family was there, so I talked about them a little bit.

My job was to set the tone for the show and keep up the energy between comedians. The taping went about four hours, so I facilitated the energy and made sure everything went smoothly, especially later in the night.

It went well. Also, it was one of the few shows I invited my parents to because it was squeaky clean. I was very happy about that.

Teme: How did they feel about being part of the comedy?

Rebecca: I actually didn't talk about them during the televised part. I have a bit about my sister which I think will make it to air. Before the taping began, I did a warmup. I talked about the audience members and mostly riffed on the spot so everybody would be loose and I explained the rules. During that part, yeah, I talked about my parents a whole bunch. It was super fun. They're divorced, but they sat together and I talked about that for ten minutes until they looked like they wanted to kill me. It was hilarious. I wish I could have done more of that on television, but there was profanity if I remember correctly.

Teme: It really sounds fun. How did you find your voice in comedy and when did you know that you'd found it?

Rebecca: That's a great question. Comics who are dedicated to improving ask themselves that question every day. I want to believe I have found my voice in comedy. I've been doing it for a little less than five years now and I go up a lot. I'm relentless with it. I go up literally every night, multiple times a night if possible and I give it everything. I don't really censor. Well, on television I do.

I'm very dedicated to representing myself as precisely and accurately as I can on stage. Everybody has a different style. Not everybody is as confessional as I am.

One of my goals is to represent the way I think and feel so that I'm getting across ideas that might be a little complicated, but in a way that the audience can process and laugh at. As long as I'm doing that, I feel like I'm doing a great job. I want to represent myself accurately while being funny. That's what I consider my voice.

Teme: What does your comedy say about you?

Rebecca: My comedy, hopefully, says exactly who I am. It is one-hundred percent about my real life and everything that I'm going through, which is always a lot. I would use the word "confessional," absolutely. Sometimes "oversharing," maybe. But funny, first and foremost. I value truth in comedy. There's a catharsis there for me, but the first priority before trying to do therapy is, "Is this funny?"

I also try to take complicated feelings and experiences and make them as universal as possible. I take things like growing up on the South Side of Chicago, and the experiences of being a writer and of dealing with depression, which a lot of people individually have dealt with, but I don't know that there are a ton of voices like mine. I want to make these experiences universal for the people who are paying money to come out to comedy shows and see me tell these jokes.

Teme: You've talked about  experiencing depression where it was hard to leave the house. I related to that because my health is up and down and I can go for a week without leaving the house, at least. Then when I do, it’s almost like I'm backpacking on Jupiter. Everything feels really weird. What are the steps you recommend for going from a more isolated place to where you are now?

Rebecca: It was not an overnight thing, that's for sure. I had a three year-long, major depressive episode that lasted until a month after my 25th birthday.  I started [comedy] on Groundhog Day at the open mic I host now.

Literally the day before that, I was an agoraphobic shut-in. Over the course of being depressed, I gained ninety pounds. I was in cognitive therapy to learn how to "Whack-a-mole" the negative thoughts that were affecting my behavior.

Once I had those tools and once I was just being a grown-up, trying to watch what I ate, take care of my body, those things set me in motion to rejoin society. It got to the point where I stopped paying my phone bill, so I didn't have a cell phone. I really let my life fall into ruin. The first steps were literally just taking care of my body and my mind so I could rebound from that. Then from there, comedy did the rest.

I went up for the first time that Wednesday night at Cole’s. Then that week, somehow before I knew it, I hit close to 10 open mics. Since then, my life has been completely different. Since that day, comedy gave me something to focus on.

I was a writer at the time, but all you need to write is yourself, a wi-fi connection and a laptop. I was doing that in complete isolation for two or three years.

I took the skills I had from doing that, applied them to comedy, took all my spread-out interests and became super laser-like. I really would attribute my recovery to comedy and stand-up.

Teme: What is it about stand-up?

Rebecca: I used to tell my parents when I wasn’t doing well that I didn't know what I was supposed to do with my life. In retrospect that's crazy because I was writing for Vanity Fair and I was editing Splitsider, which was a new comedy website at the time. So I was doing things that should have given me a sense of accomplishment, but I still felt aimless.

In college I did event promotion for rappers and sneaker companies. That was super fun, but after I stopped I was like, "Well, what was that about?" Then when I was writing, I didn't really love it with my whole heart so I was like, "What was that?"

I’d also worked at a political fundraising firm where I had to find out how to reach specific people, which is how I learned to build my email list. I have an email list of almost a thousand people who love free comedy shows in Chicago. I learned those skills from working in political fundraising and at an auction house, where you had to find people who were into very specific things.

We did estate sales for vintage toys, for example. I would scour the internet and find people who loved vintage toys and tell them that this auction was about to happen.

Comedy is an event-based art form that requires you to write every single day.  Once I found comedy, it was the thing that incorporated the skills that I had randomly picked up throughout my life and used them in a way that makes the most sense.

I feel this is where my entire life has been leading. I haven't had a day job in six months, so I really took the leap of doing it for real. Once I decided this is what I wanted to do, all my past experiences lent themselves to it, so I couldn't help but feel there was some providence involved and that I'm supposed to be doing this. I can't imagine I'll find anything else that's a better fit.

Teme: That’s so cool. When you first did Cole’s open mic, was it when Cameron Esposito and Adam Burke were hosting it?

Rebecca: Yes. They started it several years before. The first night I ever did stand-up, Adam was there, but not Cameron. I did just four minutes of who-even-knows, and he was so nice. I didn't drink at the time, but he tried to buy me a drink because he said my material was so good. I was like, "What?" First of all, I was so shocked that I even did it. Also, I loved Adam Burke. I'd interviewed him before for Splitsider. I knew who he was and I really admired him. He's still one of my favorite comics in the city.

Before I'd ever done comedy, what he was doing seemed magical to me. He's got a literary style. He's very smart while being hilarious. At the time, that was what I was going for. For him to say anything positive about what I'd just done on stage, I thought, "Well, I'm going to keep doing this." I don't even know if I've ever said this to him. It was a great moment and it definitely encouraged me to keep trying.

Teme: That's so great. I know when I finally get out in the world I feel like I'm going to say the wrong thing after so much time at home. I can't imagine getting up in front of a whole room.

Rebecca: The adjustment from not speaking to humans except my mom and then talking on stage, I actually wrote a lot of material about that adjustment. From literally being an agoraphobe to rejoining society. I had to get a cell phone. I had to get a new bank account. I had to get my state ID again, because I had been out of the system so long. There was no record of me in the state of Illinois.

Comedy allowed me to not just process all these things, but to have a reason to do so. Who even knows how long it would have taken, if it would have ever happened, had I not found comedy.

I had a check from Vanity Fair that I couldn't do anything with because I didn't have a bank account. Comedy allowed me to express that and to share with people. I was forced to be around people all the time, and that really just re-socialized me pretty quickly. I was weird for a while.

Teme: I understand. Re-socializing is something I could benefit from.  What is your advice to comedians who are coming up?

Rebecca: My advice to new comedians is to work very hard. Work hard, as hard as you can. Write as much as you're inspired to write, and then a little more. Go up as much as you can. If this is what you love, there's no such thing as being too ambitious or working too hard. If you work hard, you can accomplish a lot of things in a short period of time. I would recommend that to anybody.

I host a lot of open mics. I host every Wednesday at Cole's, where we put up sixty people. I get to see a lot of new comics as they show up on the scene. I host The Laugh Factory open mic every other or every third month, depending on the schedule. I see a lot of new comedians, and the ones that really stand out to me and to other people on the scene are the ones who every week are working on a new four minutes of jokes. You can see demonstrable improvement every week and you can see they're committed to improving.

Beyond that, write a lot, go up a lot. When you can, take in a show. Take in some of the more popular shows in town, so you can see the comedians who are getting booked. If you're only hitting open mics, you're only going to see open mic-quality comedy.

I would definitely recommend, once in a while when you're not beating the pavement and trying to work on your own material, catching Comedians You Should Know. It's one of the best shows in the city, or a show at a club. So yeah, write a lot, go up a lot. Once in a while, catch a great show.

Teme: Wow, did you say you put up sixty comedians on an open mic night at Cole's?

Rebecca: Oh, yes. This format was in place before I took over the mic. The first night I ever did comedy, I got there very early. Technically, it was February 1st, but I went up after midnight, so I consider Groundhog Day my start date.  I didn't go up until Thursday because the mic goes from 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday until 2:00 in the morning when the bar closes. Now I usually get there around 9:00 and the mic starts at 9:30. When I get there, there are usually over thirty people already on the list.

As other shows end, comedians trickle in and we fill the list in more. We give an abridged set after midnight – three minutes instead of the usual four. We try to get everybody up who's on the list. It usually hovers around sixty people on a regular Wednesday night.

It's really a chaotic situation, but it's also the only place you’ll get to see this. The stand-up varies wildly in quality and experience. For some, it's their first time doing stand-up comedy. But you can see everything there. Hannibal Buress was there four or five times over the past two months. People who are in town for bigger shows pop in because the legacy of Cole's has existed for over ten years now, so they know to come there. Also last week, we had four comedians doing stand-up comedy for the first time. It takes all types at Cole's.

Teme: Do you have a lot of comedy fans in the audience as well as comedians?

Rebecca: Oh, yes. It happens every week. The bar owner, Coleman Brice, as far as venues go, he is the most supportive person in the Chicago comedy scene who isn't doing stand-up. He pays comedians who do shows there. He gives away drinks to the audience at the mic to make sure they stay for the whole thing. It's just an awesome environment to try out new material. He prioritizes the comedy.

It's a great environment for a new comedian. There's no barrier for entry. Anybody who writes their name on the list can walk in off the street and do four minutes in a full room. There's nothing like it. I'm really glad it's the first place I did comedy. It made me want to do more.

Sarah Sherman hosts with me. I don't think she started there, but I saw her for the first time there. Now she's performing all over. She's so incredible. She's a Cole's girl, too.

Teme: I remember hearing about the Cole’s open mic when Cameron and Adam started it.

Rebecca: When Cameron was hosting, there was a culture of being inclusive. It’s very important that we keep it going. Sonia Denis, who moved to New York recently, was co-hosting with me last year. We made sure there was nothing that would make people not want to come there.

Comedy can be a boys' club. You will hear things at Cole's that can be inappropriate. But you better believe I'm going to go up and roast the person who said it.

I'm not going to trample on anybody's right to say anything. You can say whatever you want, but I also want to make sure that if someone is going to make people feel uncomfortable, that I'm going to make them feel uncomfortable so that they think twice before using hate speech. I don't think I've ever witnessed an actual slur at Cole's. I think people know better than that. Sexism, racism and intolerance aren’t tolerated at Cole's.

Teme: It sounds like a great night.

Rebecca: It's a long night. These things do happen, and I think part of the show for comedians, too, is our sense of humor gets skewed after doing this for so long. It takes more to get a rise out of us. When things go wrong, the comedians have a great time. Whenever somebody who doesn't know yet goes up and says something crazy, I can just feel the comedians looking at me like, “What is she going to do?” Personally, and this is not even a Cole's rule, but I personally have zero tolerance. I'm black and a woman, and not exactly straight. I don't want to hear none of that. I just speak from the heart and hope people get the message and are entertained.

Teme: Yeah, it sounds like a great place where people connect, the comedians and the audience.

Rebecca: I've met amazing people there. Cole's has a lot of regulars too. It's like Cheers, like a local bar where everybody hangs out every night of the week. It opens way too early and people just hang out there. It is a dope spot. Come out any Wednesday, 9:30 to 2:00 a.m. It stays good until about 12:30. After that, there are still people there, but they're all drunk and so are the comedians. Good things happen, but it's just unpredictable in that 1:00 hour.

I'm so happy, too, that people come out in this weather. Sometimes I can't believe it. I expect the worst, then I get to a show and I'm like, "Wow, you guys are all here. Incredible."

Teme: I’ve wanted to ask you, too, what are some of the most memorable events of your career so far?  What was it like opening for Maria Bamford?

Rebecca: She was one of the reasons I started doing stand-up. I was a super depressed girl. I found the Maria Bamford web series online. It's about her being so depressed that she moves in with her mom and rebuilds her life, which is exactly what I was going through at the time.

From that, I found her stand-up. I followed her everywhere on social media. I didn't know you could talk about being depressed in this way. I didn't know it could be that funny and buoyant. It transformed my idea of what comedy could be. Then I opened for her three years into comedy. I just couldn't believe it.

I also opened up for her earlier this year in Chicago at the Athenaeum Theater. She's been so supportive of me and my career. Before I met her, she was a positive force in my life, but actually knowing her now … None of this would have ever happened without comedy. I'm extremely grateful for that.

Chicago’s One Night Stand-Up is also one of the best things that has happened.  I'm looking forward to this so much. Again, because people are going to get to see this, and because there are not a lot of opportunities for TV in Chicago comedy, crazily enough. Chicago is the third biggest city in the country and the comedy scene is one of the premier comedy scenes in the world.  There are so few opportunities to be on TV without leaving town. I'm excited about this for the audience and for the comedians.

Teme: I can’t wait to see it. This show seems like it was meant to be. Like it has to be.

Rebecca: Yes. I hope a whole bunch of people watch it and we have many more episodes.

Teme: There are so many shows filmed in Chicago, and yet not about the comedy scene. This show should be a regular weekly show.

Rebecca: I hope so. That would be great. We definitely have no shortage of talent to populate future episodes. The casting department hasn’t even seen everything we have to offer. I was so proud of Chicago when I was talking to WCIU during the selection process. They truly did not know what to expect and now they're like, "Who knew that this was here?" I'm like, "We knew." Now everybody will know.

Teme: The station has a treasure here.

Rebecca: I'm excited about it. I'm sure you're familiar with these people because I read your blog and you write about them. There's Martin Morrow, one of the top comics in the city. Kellye Howard, who has been on a whole bunch of shows already. Pat McGann, who is so funny, so relatable. Alex Kumin, she started a year after me and she is just such a powerful performer. Kristin Lundberg is on the show. She incorporates music and really got the crowd pumped. There's literally something for everybody. I'm really happy with their selections. They couldn't have done a better job.

Teme: What are you looking forward to in the New Year? I don't really like resolutions. But do you make them?

Rebecca: I have never made one. I'm not against them, it just seems a little arbitrary. I do always try to improve myself. I'm about to be thirty right after the new year, so I want to refocus on taking care of my body and being less passive about how I eat and how active I am.

It's not about changing the way I look. I want to make sure I am well for what's to come. I'm excited about what comedy could potentially bring into my life this year. Every year since I started comedy has been better than the last. I'm looking forward to what next year has to bring. That's where I am right now, just excited anticipation. You really cannot plan your life with comedy in it. Something new pops up every couple of months.

Teme: Thank you for bringing in the New Year with this wonderful show.

Rebecca: I hope everybody loves the show because we're all very, very excited about it. The station is excited about branching out into this type of programming. I don't think they knew what it would mean for the comedy scene, but when I explained, "You guys, there's nothing like this!," they were like, "Okay, we get it!" They know there are a lot of people excited about this and they are, too. I just can't wait until New Year's Eve.

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Chicago's One Night Stand-Up airs on WCIU on New Year’s Eve, Saturday, December 31, 2016 at 9:00 p.m. with encore broadcasts at midnight and New Year’s Day at 8:00 p.m. and on January 7 at 7:00 p.m. on The U Too. Channel guide here.

The program will also air in Milwaukee on WMLW, The M at 10 PM CT on  New Year’s Eve. On New Year's Day, Sunday, January 1, the program will premiere in South Bend on WCWW, The CW25 at 10:30 PM ET.

More behind-the-scenes info about Chicago’s One Night Stand-Up here.

You can follow Rebecca on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Subscribe to her list of free weekly comedy shows by emailing Rebeccaonealcomedy@gmail.com with “email list” in the subject line.

Rebecca also hosts The Laugh Factory’s Top $10 Tuesday and Congrats on Your Success.

Filed under: Entertainment, Interviews

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