She may not have known it at the time, but Denise Medina was well-prepared to become one of Chicago’s fastest rising comedy stars. Now 52, the mom of two teenage daughters has blazed her own path since she was a student at Northeastern Illinois University. Back then, she envisioned becoming an intern at one of her favorite television shows, Wild Chicago. Problem was, the show did not hire interns. Undeterred, she contacted an NEIU alum at WTTW who put her in touch with a Wild Chicago producer. The producer was impressed with Denise’s warmth, creativity and smarts. The internship was hers.
Since then, her path to comedy success has been unconventional yet undeniable. Before she married, moved to the suburbs and became a full-time mom, she studied at the Players Workshop of the Second City with Josephine Forsberg, the Workshop’s iconic founder. Denise’s next decade was committed to raising her daughters, now 15- and 19-years old. As they grew, Denise was dedicated not only to staying close to her kids, but also to reaching out and making genuine connections in her community. She led her girls’ Scout Troop, volunteered at their school, and made herself available to neighbors who needed assistance.
But despite an engaged and busy life, something was missing. The Bucktown native continued to feel the magnetic pull of Chicago’s vibrant comedy scene. What happened next was a testament to Denise’s comedic talent, perseverance and natural ability to connect with others.
Denise kindly took time out of a busy schedule to talk with me by phone about her path back to the stage and to becoming a sought-after creator, producer and performer. Her new show "D’s Mixed Nuts" debuts this weekend, chosen by the prestigious Lincoln Lodge to kick off its first Saturday at its brand new location.
Teme: I’d love to hear more about your time at Wild Chicago. It was one of my favorite TV shows!
Denise: It was one of mine, too. Will Clinger was the host and later it turned out, he was one of my instructors at the Players Workshop. Ben Hollis [the creator and original host of Wild Chicago] was the director of our Players Workshop graduation show.
Teme: I love that about Chicago. All these extraordinary creative folks and enterprises are accessible.
Denise: If you ask, if you volunteer, if you show interest and pursue it, people are really generous and offer to help. I really like that.
Teme: What was your favorite thing about working at Wild Chicago?
Denise: It might sound a little strange, but one of my favorite things at Wild Chicago was when the mail came. I opened all the mail for the show and prepared it so the producer could decide where he wanted to dig deeper. They kept everything. Maybe something wouldn’t work for one season, but they always had it in their file for another time. I enjoyed opening the mail because I was able to give my input and also because I'm kind of nosy.
THE PLAYERS WORKSHOP
Teme: How did you decide to go into comedy?
Denise: I started kind of late in the game, but I've always been very interested in comedy. My brother gave me a flyer for the Players Workshop. I took the year-long class with Josephine Forsberg. I graduated in 1999 when I was … three years-old.
THE POWER OF STAND-UP
Denise: After Second City, I took a break for a period of years. I moved to the suburbs. I was raising a family and didn't know how to do all those [comedy] things in the evening when I had babies. I was hoping that I would be content to not be involved anymore. I thought, “That was then and now I’ll just move on."
But as the girls started getting older, I always had a nagging feeling like, "Oh, I miss it!” I wondered if I could get back in once the girls were a bit more independent. In 2010, I saw an advertisement for Dobie Maxwell's Method of Stand-up Comedy.
He was teaching in Libertyville and I saw an email for a free class. I went and I loved it. So I signed up and took his course. Then I didn't really do anything with it, but it was always on my mind.
Then I saw Kelsie Huff on Twitter. I guess I kind of stalked her on Twitter. And then I found The Kates and [the stand-up class] Feminine Comique at the Lincoln Lodge. Kelsie was teaching the course. Ever since then, I've been moving forward and trying to build momentum.
Teme: How did you develop the ability to see the world through a funny lens?
Denise: Oh man, that's a great one. I’m like, “Oh, have I developed an ability?” I think by trying to translate my daily life in an authentic way. It also helps to remember why I'm doing this. It's fun and I love to connect with people and make them laugh.
I'm trying to create as many of those positive, fun moments as possible because maybe in some weird way when we leave this Earth, maybe that's what we're going to be able to take with us. And maybe those moments transcend politics and religion if we can all come together for a few minutes or an hour for one evening and get along and have fun. I like to contribute to that.
BUT WHAT'S FOR DINNER?
Teme: When you were getting back into stand-up, how did you do it with kids growing up and the crazy hours that comedy requires?
Denise: I have a very supportive family. We're all very fortunate that my husband is able to work from home. Plus, I have two teenage daughters. It helps that my oldest daughter is a driver. So I get a lot of help. Before I book a show or before I do anything, I make sure that they're settled, that dinner's ready because for some reason I'm the cook in the house. I don't know why. That's my assigned role. I should have rejected it. I should have burnt the toast right away.
Teme: Yeah, dinner's a hard one.
Denise: What’s for dinner? Oh, that question! It drives me up a wall because I don't know! It's like, “You guys, nobody here is helpless. You can all figure it out!” But many nights I let it go and I don’t let them figure it out, although I'll recruit them for help because we're all helping each other. That's how it is because we all live here.
It helps that my kids are older and more independent. I get a lot of support from my husband and my dad lives close by so he helps out and, yeah, it makes a world of difference when you have people supporting you and helping you.
Teme: I really admire parents who do comedy because comedy is so demanding in itself.
Denise: Everybody has different arrangements, but it just seems to me that a lot of that responsibility falls on the mom. I don't know if it's because moms take it on instead of saying, "Have cereal!" I'm sure plenty of dads help out, though I don't think I should even say “help out.”
Denise: It seems weird to say that. You know what I mean. I get tongue-tied sometimes.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Teme: What is a typical day like?
Denise: A typical day is waking up in the morning and getting everyone out the door and off to school. You think your kids are older and don’t need you anymore, but they always need you. Running the household, running errands, writing, booking gigs, prepping for those gigs, promoting those gigs, reaching out, and trying to make comedy connections. That’s before the day starts getting away from me. I have jokes about "I have no idea what I do all day, but it takes me all day to do it.” The kids suck up a lot of my time. That sounds awful! But we're fortunate that we're able to have that time and flexibility.
The afternoon is picking up from school, taking kids to soccer and the daily things that need to be done with the household. I'm lucky that I can do that throughout the day as opposed to trying to do an eight-hour shift and then come home and trying to do all those things.
For the longest time as a stay-at-home mom, I’d take on all these additional responsibilities thinking, “Well, I’m home. I can do it.” And then before you know it’s like “Whoa! I don’t have time!” I was busy all day. Now comedy is my full-time job. People probably have this idea that, "Oh, I'm just sitting around all day watching TV and eating food." And I'm like, "that sounds great." But a typical day is not having a typical day. I’m always running around doing something somewhere for someone. I'm not complaining. I like to help my neighbors. I like to help out the community. If I'm home and available and can do something, I'll do it.
Teme: When you're writing, what do you do to keep the creative thoughts and energy going?
Denise: I struggled a lot with, "How come I didn't have more material? How come I haven't worked on this piece? I've had plenty of time. What am I doing?"
I finally discovered that the way I create is when I'm out and about walking and talking. I'm not the kind of person who sits down and goes, "Okay, think of something. Start writing." Now as things come to me, I make a note. Then I come back to it and edit and develop it.
A SNEAK PEEK AT NEW MATERIAL
Teme: What is something you recently observed that will make it into your material?
Denise: I’m working on material about how I wanted a new phone but I didn't want to pay for it because I'm cheap. When you're a new customer, they give you better deals. So what we do at my house is we'll cancel the service in my name and then we'll set it up in my husband's name. So now he is the new customer and we're getting the deal. We play this game every year and I'm like, "I can't be the only person who's going through this!"
D’s MIXED NUTS!
Denise: Kelsie encouraged me. She’s heading up the Lincoln Lodge Training Center and she told me that they’re looking for producers. I have four shows scheduled so far. Then we’ll review. Do I want to keep doing the show here? Do we need to tweak it? Do they still want it?
The Lincoln Lodge is so supportive of artists which is really exciting. I wasn't sure what I wanted to call the show, so I came up with that weird “D's Mixed Nuts.”
Teme: I love it!
Denise: It made me laugh just to say it. When other people heard it, they started laughing. I thought, "Whatever it is, people are laughing at the name. I'm just going with that!"
Teme: It's a great name! How did you come up with it?
Denise: People have called me “D” throughout my whole life. I want to book a lineup of lots of different people. I thought, "I'm going to mix it up. So what if I just keep it simple and just call it ‘D's Mixed Nuts.’" People call comedians nuts, so why not?
Teme: What will you look for in the comedians you book?
Denise: Funny first, and diversity because it makes for a better show when you have different perspectives. It will be people I find funny, that I enjoy working with and who are committed to the craft. Each comic will do fifteen minutes and then I'll do fifteen minutes.
HOW TO RISE IN THE COMEDY WORLD
Teme: You're a member of two of Chicago's great comedy groups, the Kates and the Momedians. How did you get involved with each and what is your advice to up-and-coming comedians who would like to have that success?
Denise: When I found Kelsie she was teaching Feminine Comique. I let her know, "I love what you're doing [with the Kates]. I want to be part of this." Then she decided to have a dedicated cast and I was selected to be one of the members. Just a year or two before I had been on Twitter trying to find out about comedy in Chicago. I reached out and then not only was I a part of it, but I became a cast member. I couldn't believe it. It was so exciting for me. Like here I was wondering if I could even ever do a show and now I'm one of the cast members helping to produce the show.
The Momedians of Momedy came about because Kat Herskovic was having a baby and she wanted to continue her career. She saw a need for a show where all the stand-ups were moms. So she came up with the name the “Momedians of Momedy.”
My advice to comics is just keep at it. Focus on what you're doing. When you get an idea, pursue it. Ask people. There are people out there who are very helpful.
COMEDY AND LIFE'S BEST MOMENTS
Teme: What does your comedy say about you?
Denise: That I'm a quirky weirdo. I don't know what I'm doing. I mean, I do and I don't. I want to have a good time. I want to make people laugh. I find certain things funny and I want to share that with other people. Maybe they find it funny, too. I’m like, “Let's all have fun and chill out.” Life can be a struggle. Sometimes we have to step back, get some balance and reboot.
When I was a kid, it was so much fun to hang out with friends and things didn't have to be so serious. That's how I see comedy. It's a channel back to a time when you had fun and didn't have worries and troubles, and you could just enjoy life. I realize childhood isn’t always like that. But if we could capture those moments or create more of them, that’s the best. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Teme: That’s so great. I love the energy at a comedy show between the audience and the person on stage, and the way the audience feels connected to each other.
Denise: My hope is that people want to keep doing that and keep connecting. When people feel connected, it builds community and people are nicer to each other. We realize, "Hey, we're all just doing our best to figure it all out.
HOW TO GET THERE FROM HERE
Teme: What would you advise new comics? What got you from the very beginning to here?
Denise: So I guess I'm very motivated, very driven. I don't always know the path to get from where I am to where I want to go. Everybody has their own path. You can create a new path. I set small goals for myself, realistic goals. I didn't go from, "I'm going to do my first stand-up set” to “next week I'm going to have an HBO special." I set goals like, "I want to do ‘x’ amount of open mics this week." Or, "I want to work on this bit and at least have all my thoughts written down." Or, "one day I want to perform at the Chicago Improv." And it wasn't “I want to be the headliner there," although that would be great. Maybe one day. But I didn't start off like that. I set attainable goals. At least I thought they were attainable. I try to work on one at a time.
Also, always keep your eyes and ears open for opportunity. You never know what could become an opportunity. I get crazy ideas in my head like, "I want to produce a show with this company." But I don’t know how. So I’ll look up the company and find out who’s in charge. But also not stressing or focusing too much on one thing. If something doesn't work out, then move on to the next thing. And if you really want that first thing, circle back or find out what you need to do the next time. Keep at it. Keep going forward.
Look to the people that you think are doing good work and use them as a guide. It's okay to find mentors and ask what you want to know. I wonder how many people are out there who would love to help, but nobody asks them, even questions like “how do I get a booking at this club?” It's a simple question but you know, it surprises me that sometimes people don't even ask the simple questions.
Teme: There's something hard about asking. I don't know what it is. It really shouldn't be so hard.
Denise: I say go for it!
Teme: Great advice! It’s really been wonderful speaking with you! Thank you!
Denise: Thank you for taking the time to interview me. I know I ramble but you know what, I was like I’m just going to be me, but sometimes I'm awkward.
Teme: You're not at all! But I feel that way myself, so I understand what you're saying. I don't feel like you're awkward at all, but I feel like I'm awkward all the time.
Denise: Then you get me. Kindred spirits.
D’s Mixed Nuts debuts on Saturday, February 8 at the Lincoln Lodge, 2040 N. Milwaukee Ave., at 8:00 p.m. with Denise, Lia Berman, Colleen Brennan, Soli Santos and Scott Duff. Tickets and details here.
Future shows are on March 14 and April 11 at the Lincoln Lodge.
More info about Denise’s shows (including with The Kates and Momedians) at denisemedina.com.