Is the Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival for you? Take this quiz to find out:
- Is there a topic in this world that inspires your passion and enthusiasm?
- Are you interested in learning about other people’s passions?
- Do you want to laugh, share your enthusiasm and learn something new?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you belong at the 5th Annual Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival. Follow this link for tickets before they sell out. Better yet, show up in person because if you come to the box office dressed in cosplay, you’ll get $5 off a Festival pass or $3 off tickets to individual shows. The Festival runs from Thursday, September 14 through Sunday, September 17 at Stage 773.
But wait! Before you click on the link, meet Cody Melcher, the Festival’s producer.
The word “nerd” has traveled an unusual path. Cody told me that in the early 1900s, it was not a flattering term. Back then, “nerd” meant stupid or crazy. By the 1950s, nerds were “square.” Remember the Happy Days episode where Joanie nicknames Potsie “Dren” because he’s the opposite of nerd? The 1980s saw nerds reclaim nerd culture in movies like Revenge of the Nerds and Real Genius. Nerds are now rightly revered as people who combine joy in exploration with the ability to invent and innovate. Nerd comedians? They make nerd culture even better by ingeniously adding laughter to the mix.
“You can be a nerd about anything,” Cody explained. “I have a tendency when I'm at a party to start randomly telling people about the Anabaptists Rebellion, which was a German rebellion in the 1500s. I have friends that are really into video games. I have friends that are into cinema history from the early 1900s. There are people who are really nerdy about conifer trees. Being a nerd really is just do you have a thing that you're really, really interested in? The big thing with Nerd Fest in general is shared enthusiasm.”
That’s what you can expect during Nerd Fest, a gathering of smart, interesting people sharing smart, interesting comedy. Cody describes it as “C2E2 meets Sketch Fest.” In addition to a multitude of sketch comedy stars, there will be more stand-up this year with two full shows, plus a headlining show by Brandie Posey who is flying in from Los Angeles. Brandie’s comedy has been featured at festivals around the country and she recently made her film debut in The Worst Year of My Life. She will also judge the cosplay competition on Saturday, September 16 at 10:00 p.m.
I got a dazzling preview of the power of Nerd Fest when Cody kindly took time out to speak with me by phone. I wanted to hang on to every word as this dashing polymath spoke about creating this year’s Festival, his heartfelt commitment to each performer and audience member, his favorite nerds in history, and how to know if you’re a nerd, too.
Teme: How did you get started in comedy?
Cody: I was in the improv troupe “Gigglepants” at the University of Texas. Then I did improv and sketch in Austin, mostly with the Institution Theater. About six years ago, I moved to Chicago and started doing stand-up.
Teme: How did the Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival begin and how did you get involved?
Cody: The festival was created by Katie Johnson-Smith and Stage 773 in 2013. Chicago has a great nerd arts and comedy scene. There's the Chicago Nerd Social Club, Bit Bash, Otherworld Theatre, and Cards Against Humanity which also does so much. The idea of the Festival was to bring it all together.
I was brought on as the stand-up headliner for the Festival’s second year. I fell in love with the Festival so much that I asked to be a part of it. The next year I was a board member. Last year, I was a co-producer, and then this year I'm sole producer.
Teme: What made you fall in love with it?
Cody: The sense of community, the audience’s excitement, and the interplay between the audience and the performers. Everyone either enjoys the same stuff or is open to finding out what others enjoy. Nerd Fest is about sharing the interests that you’re passionate about.
Teme: One of the things I love about Chicago is opportunities like this to become part of a community.
Cody: The Chicago arts community, especially, has always been about working and building together which, I think, is why you have a huge improv community. If you go to New York or Los Angeles, you get more of knocking each other over to be the biggest and best. Here it’s more about building up ... the "rising tide raises all boats" situation.
Teme: How do you decide which acts to accept at Nerd Fest?
Cody: Quality is important, of course, but the big focus is on diversity. We’re looking for different types of voices and different types of fandom and interests. The point of the Festival is shared enthusiasm and bringing people together.
We want a wide variety. This year we have some groups who have been with us since the beginning, including Improvised Jane Austen, the Stuntmen, which is an action-packed sketch group, and Clown Car to Sicily which is a musical sketch group with a lot of cultural references.
Teme: “Foz the Hook” was another name and description that caught my eye!
Cody: They’re a Chicago band. They perform on Wednesday nights before the open mic at Cole's Bar. Foz works at The Lincoln Book Shop, an antiquarian book store. They're a great band. It's a piano, upright bass, saxophone. They’re a band that you imagine would be at a jazz club, but the material is very different.
Teme: I love their description of their act: "cheerful songs about shame and disgrace.” I was like, that sounds like the songs playing in my mind all the time except for the “cheerful” part.
Cody: They're fantastic. They're playing in the Festival cabaret on Friday night, September 15.
Teme: What happens behind the scenes at Nerd Fest that people might be surprised to know?
Cody: One of the things I’m focused on is how to mix a festival and a con [convention] together. The Festival isn’t a straightforward festival where we just book acts. We also have panels, a game day, and after-parties both for the performers and the audience. So one surprising thing might be the challenge of folding in all those different layers to create the right balance.
We also make sure that we create a good atmosphere. It’s important for me to focus on making sure that people enjoy themselves, feel comfortable and have a good time.
The reason “nerds” were a thing and have become even a bigger thing is that it’s a sense of community and of belonging that people may not have had growing up or in other parts of their lives or society. So that aspect is a big deal for me, making sure we include everybody.
Teme: How do you help everyone feel included?
Cody: We put up signs with our non-harassment policy. We reserve the right to adjudicate harassment, which is a very unfortunate thing that happens in situations when you get large groups of people together. So that's a big part of making sure that people feel they're safe and welcome.
I'm there from the beginning of the week until the theater is swept clean. I am there every single minute, one hundred percent. I like to check in on people. Performers and audience. Last year we had people who drove in from the suburbs for every single show and had been coming for years, and I loved meeting them. I always love meeting people and talking to them about the festival, about how they're doing and recommending which of the shows they should check out. Last year, I was running around giving people water bottles and making sure everyone was eating.
I always like to make sure that people know it's going to be a fun and welcome experience from top down. I'm not just running the Festival from backstage.
The after-parties are another way we include everybody. This year, Thursday night’s after-party is performers only, but on Friday night everyone is invited to go out to a bar together. On Saturday night, we're doing a DJ party at the theater for everyone.
Teme: What's one of your favorite memories from the Festival’s past years?
Cody: There’s so much. Jackson Bird was one of our headliners last year. He is a YouTuber and a member of the Harry Potter Alliance, a nonprofit that mobilizes fandom for social justice. His big YouTube show is "Will It Waffle?" and at the Festival he waffled a bunch of things, including a flip-flop. He also waffled some crayons, and he waffled Malort because he’s from New York and everybody kept telling him about Malort. His show was fun and interactive, and the audience really got on board.
Last year’s game night was also memorable. A bunch of performers and audience members and I stuck around way too late at night playing the games. It got raucous, but in a fun way. The best memories are a mix of both watching the performances and interacting.
Teme: Who are famous people in history who would be considered nerds today?
Cody: I definitely have my personal favorites. Pretty much all of the Puritans. In the best way. They were just very pedantic. John Adams is definitely a nerd. Thomas Jefferson was definitely a nerd. Socrates was a nerd. Plato is definitely a nerd and so was Aristotle.
Any scientist. Einstein is a nerd. Any science fiction writer. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov. I would even consider Alexander the Great a nerd. He was tutored by Aristotle. The Libraries of Alexandria, for the most part, were all him. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor is definitely a nerd. He was a classical Stoic.
Pretty much anybody who founded this country in the 1600s is a nerd because you had to be to be that specific about your religious preferences. Most of the Virginians had massive libraries. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are huge nerds. They started the University of Virginia because they thought that everybody should be educated. John Quincy Adams, who's my favorite president, is a major, major nerd. Hardcore nerd.
Teme: What makes him a nerd?
Cody: Oh, man. Spoke several different languages. When he was a teenager, he worked in foreign diplomacy for several different foreign nations, including Russia. Then he came over here and became a senator. Then he became president. He couldn't get all of his public works plans passed because it was just too much. He had overthought his entire plan. But he still got a bunch done. Then he tried to retire to write a biography of his father, but felt he wasn't serving the nation well enough. So he went back and ran for Congress, and became a congressman for the rest of his life until he died on the floor of the House. If you read his diaries, he's incredibly perceptive.
Teme: I’m seeing the threads here. Nerds are people with big vision.
Cody: Nerds see and they analyze. That's what I mean by the enthusiasm. The Festival is all about sharing it. Everyone has their thing. We make jokes about the difference between jocks and nerds, but if you look at fantasy football, it's just Dungeons and Dragons for football.
Teme: So true!
Cody: Or my friends who like baseball and can quote statistics and talk baseball history, that's just as nerdy as talking about the Anabaptists Rebellion.
Teme: Yes, vision and curiosity.
Cody: Definitely. If you're curious and you've got something you're curious about, there you go. You’re a nerd.
The Chicago Nerd Comedy Festival takes place at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago from Thursday, September 14-Sunday, September 17, 2017. Schedule, tickets and all details here.
For more about Cody, his comedy, his podcast, Tomefoolery, and other projects, visit codymelcher.com.
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