I’ve always wanted to know how Christopher Piatt creates a once-in-a-lifetime show every single week. For over a decade, I’ve also been curious about the name of that show: Paper Machete. What does it mean? Does it mean that like paper, the show is essential to civilization, discourse and the arts? And like a machete, it’s sharp and exact as heck, cutting through all B.S. and pretense to deliver the most on-point social commentary, most original hilarious comedy, and the kind of music where post-show, your first order of business is adding that fresh singer or band to your favorite playlist. Paper Machete is all of that magic.
And if that weren’t enough, several years ago, Paper Machete landed at the famous Green Mill Cocktail Lounge on Broadway, which is so gorgeously Chicago that Al Capone ensconced himself there in his own booth and it’s still got murals on the wall and a cash register that goes sprring-thonk! It’s a lonnnng space that manages to feel welcoming, vibrant and steeped in history all at once.
Paper Machete is at 3 p.m. every Saturday when the sun makes the sidewalk shine. Navigating the old-school double doors of the place, it’s darker inside, shadowy. But the energy is so bright you almost have to shade your eyes. If you arrive for Paper Machete any less than forty minutes early, you’ll find all seats taken and it’ll be standing room only. The performers will be Chicago’s best, quite often mixed with visiting celebrities.
Did I mention that every Saturday, admission is free? To keep it that way, on Sunday, May 22, Christopher debuts his new solo show of musical essays, “chronicling nine pioneering women in American media over two centuries—ranging from Dorothy Parker to Ann Miller to Phyllis Schlafly to Jessica Hahn and more.” This fundraiser will include special musical guests, the Irving Sisters. This exclusive Sunday Salon will happen at 3:00 p.m. at The Green Mill. Tickets are limited, so reserve your place now.
Since 2010, I’d been dying to know how Christopher does it. With this email interview, I finally got a chance to ask him.
What were the stepping stones in life that led you to Chicago and creating Paper Machete?
I was always absorbed by the nerdiest extra curricular activities growing up, and was such a hardcore speech team geek that I competed for the Kansas State University speech team, which is how I first learned about different forms of communication rhetoric and assorted genres of performance literature, a lot of which informs the various genres within the Paper Machete.
Our coach, Craig Brown, was/is a critical thinking sensei and very avuncular ball-buster, and he had/has the most encouraging barrel laugh and salty sense of humor. There’s a college speech event called “after-dinner speaking,” which is essentially this highbrow-but-bawdy, old-world, Mark Twain-y genre of public address, one that specifically uses humor to convey a point (the most high profile example probably being the White House Correspondents’ Dinner speeches from the pre-berserk times). Craig has coached a number of national champions in this competitive event, and I’ve always quietly remembered and tried to maintain that his rule for this kind of comedic speechwriting, which is that the source for the joke/comedy should be the story itself, and not some outside extraneous bit.
I learned so many vital life lessons from being on my college speech team that inform the Machete. But that particular wisdom, I think, remains especially resonant, and relevant to the show’s editorial voice.
That said, I was a theater major in college, and wanted to be a playwright/actor/director type. I hadn’t really ever thought of being a theater critic, cuz how tragically square does that job sound, especially to a college student? But at some point some of my professors entered me in criticism contest that was part of the American College Theater Festival. Through that contest I won a fellowship in theater criticism at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Festival, where I was mentored by a number of New York theater critics, as well as an arts writer and editor named Kevin Nance, who would eventually end up as an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times a few years after I’d moved here after college. Kevin encouraged me to come on as an occasional stringer to review storefront plays.
And a few months later, the global listings company Time Out launched a weekly magazine here, and they tried to hire mostly unknown, untested people to write and edit it. So, in 2005 I was, completely by happenstance, accidentally the correct nobody at the correct moment and geographical coordinates to become the theater editor of Time Out Chicago, which is a gig I held for about five years.
What was it like to be a theater critic in Chicago? How did you know when it was time for the next chapter?
So, in retrospect–and I can truly only laugh about this after a decade+ plus of processing it–I can truly say that, when you are a theater critic, everyone fucking hates you. What’s more, I can absolutely understand why, and I actually have more empathy than ever for artists who feel like they’re at the mercy of inept, underqualified dipshits with media power. (To be clear, this has never actually happened to the Paper Machete, and we’ve actually had a handful of lovely mentions, but I’m only allowing that the older I get the more aware of what an inept, underqualified dipshit I so frequently was when I was reviewing plays.)
That said, in retrospect, another kinda hilarious part of the Time Out Chicago experience is that I got my journalism training-slash-education by helping launch a weekly print magazine in the year 2005. So many of our essential editorial practices of getting our words professionally printed onto pulp and mass distributed by truck drivers are now unequivocally Flinstonian. A number of ball-busting editors were required to get said words into professionally printable shape (in this nomenclature, obviously, the gender of both the balls and the editors are irrelevant).
This is just to say I had very, very few qualifications to be at Time Out Chicago, but over time my editors kicked my ass into shape, and eventually I guess I was kinda qualified, and I’m pretty sure this is how American journalism generally functioned from about 1833 until about 2006 or 2007-ish (but I’m obviously spit-balling here).
Meanwhile, all Chicago theater critics understand a native reality of the gig is that there are going to be a small handful of literally magical nights and mystical matinees a year that make your life worth living in a charismatic, Assembly of God Church-member, evangelical kind of way, and now you get to share your excitement with theater lovers who might buy a ticket. And the rest of the time you’re usually trapped in rooms with presentations and pageants so alternately, ludicrous, dull, vulgar, inscrutable, or otherwise nimcompoop-y, you know the average citizen might not credibly believe what you’ve witnessed if you described it to her/him/them, and yet now this is your literal job.
I’m pretty sure this has always been one of the hilarious spiritual paradoxes of Chicago theater, though I also suspect it is generally more broadly, implicitly understood than ever individually, explicitly stated (surely in part due to our collective midwestern ranch-dipped passive-aggressiveness; see how I slyly dropped this into a parenthesis?). Anyway, so while I miss attending and writing about the annual handful of spectacular Chicago stage achievements, man oh man do I not miss any of the rest of it.
On the other hand, the other crucial craft I was taught at Time Out was feature writing. Being assigned to write about other people, and discerning who and what to write about, and how; this enterprise has to be governed by flesh-and-blood humans, and it was just invaluable for me. While I was only ever a cultural journalist and never a hard-news reporter, it bums me out and freaks me out that so many of the human machinations that teach one to write well in the third person have been stripped out of the assembly line. (That said, I can also testify that The Chicago Reader still has monastic human editors who essentially still govern the prose as horticulturist-horologists, but also I’m hugely biased because I only learned that from a handful of rigorous freelance experiences.)
Meanwhile, I should say that I saw the original production of Bruce Norris’s play The Pain and the Itch at Steppenwolf three times, and I also saw David Cromer’s famous basement production of Our Town three times. I also loved going to a comedy theater called The Factory, and the soul singers at the Black Ensemble always knocked me out and sometimes made me cry the way some people do at the opera.
I should also note that I was 24 when I moved here in 2002, and that I was obsessed with the Neo-Futurists and their latenight show Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind. One of their alums, Dave Awl, ran a monthly spoken-word salon series called The Partly Dave Show at the No Exit Cafe in Rogers Park. The Partly Dave Show only ran a few years, and because it was so deliberately fringey it wasn’t seen by a ton of people, but it’s hard to overstate its influence, because so many people who were in it or saw it, myself included, eventually started shows like it.
I attended the first one he ever produced in 2003 because I was a Neo-Futurist groupie and knew his name, and I was completely knocked out by it. It was on David Bowie’s birthday, and the whole thing was a Bowie tribute salon show, including a shredding rock band called the Sonnets. All the writers seemed brilliant to me, and I just couldn’t believe how dope the overall formula and vibe of the show was. When people come to the Machete for the first time, I kind of want them to have that feeling I got at Dave Awl’s Bowie Birthday Bash.
I went home after the show that night and wrote Dave a gushing, glowing fan letter, and he put me on stage in literally the next Partly Dave Show. I cannot express what a leap of faith he was taking on me, because I was truly no one, with zero resume or chops. And while I would never put someone on stage based on a well-crafted mash note, a 2002 Rogers Park cafe Wednesday night spoken word series was definitely, exactly the ideal time and place for such leaps of faith. The Machete has always kept a rule that each show has at least one performer who’s never been in it before. It’s called the Dave Awl rule, and that’s why.
Another unexpected piece of being a theater critic, at least for me, was that over time I realized that when I would attend the comedy shows my jagoff buddies from college and my jagoff pals from office jobs were producing and performing in, I was so much happier at the end of the night than when I’d attended a play. During my theater critic years, in the back of my head and depths of my heart I always secretly yearned to run my own theater company, but I also didn’t completely know what kind of company I’d run.
That said, there was a weekly Saturday midnight satirical talk show that ran for a few years at the old iO upstairs called The Late Night Late Show, which at the time was like the most brilliant thing I’d ever seen. There were also two long-running comedy competition series called Don’t Spit the Water! and Impress These Apes run by a marvelous comic and producer named Steve Gadlin. These were all shows I only originally attended cuz my friends were in them, but they were also all cult hits cuz they were great. They were utilitarian and produced weekly from scratch, and they all produced a slew of prominent comics and working comedy writers, and, like Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, they all essentially functioned as creative writing workshops that were still fun AF to attend. All the comics and writers I saw in those shows during those years have their fingerprints all over the Machete, whether they know it/want it or not.
After about 5 years as a theater critic, sometimes seeing 5-7 shows a week for months at a time, I hit a burnout level I’d call “To a crisp.” This crested around the 2008 presidential election, in which I fiercely believed that Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers had effectively been light warriors and helped Obama win the White House. Wicked political satire was kind of at its zenith. Jon Stewart and the original Colbert iteration were also at the peaks of their powers. At the time this all somehow seemed quite glamorous and noble to me, as some part of me will always be an almost inexcusably naive small-town Kansas bumpkin.
Anyway, l left Time Out in 2009 because I literally, foolishly believed that comedy had helped bring America hope and change and that these were all actually true and real things to be a part of, and now it was time to finally launch my secret dream theater company.
I apologize for what a tedious, navel-gazing answer this is, but I’m told that life is short, while art is long.
How did you come up with the name “Paper Machete”?
Thank you for asking. I knew I wanted the name of the show to have the word “paper” in it, but for no particular reason. “The Paper Machete” popped in my head one day, and it sounded cool to me. Whatever you want it to mean is chill by us.
When did the idea for Paper Machete come to you? How did you get those first shows off the ground?
So the concept of a “live magazine” was inspired by Hallie Flanagan, who in the late 1930s ran the WPA’s Federal Theater Project, which produced plays around the country free of charge to the audience. The Federal Theater was a kind of punk-rock entity, and it only existed for four years before the government shuttered it for its rumored communist leanings. But during that time one of the things Hallie Flanagan basically invented were “living newspapers,” which were essentially staged documentary plays that dramatized current headlines. We incorporated lots of elements of the shows I already mentioned, as well as lots of other influences. But the “live magazine” framework and general concept start there.
We launched in January of 2010. For the first year and a half we were in the back corner of my favorite tavern in Lincoln Square, Ricochets. We basically incubated it there and ran it for a year and a half, though there wasn’t a sound system and the room was not exactly set up for performance. But the vibe felt so cozy and clandestine. Also, while many, many of our worst shows were still yet to come, enough of them happened at Ricochets that it’s of course now embarrassing to think about. We’re so lucky they never booted us (though occasionally they literally, deservedly booed us).
During the Ricochets years live music was a rarity, because we weren’t really set up for it. But sometimes we’d have great bands, including especially Bethany Thomas and Jonas Friddle, and eventually it became clear that we needed a venue where we could showcase them. (Besides, my not-so-secret goal was always to get it into the Green Mill.) So we moved into a now-defunct country bar on Lincoln Ave called the Horseshoe. There was a horseshoe-shaped extension attached to the actual bar, and part of the reason we chose the venue is because this spot seemed like a perfect stage/perch for Chad the Bird.
The Horseshoe was where we codified the alternating-stages concept (which I always was secretly dreaming we’d one day be doing at/inside the Green Mill). It’s where Josh Zagoren proved he could do Chad every week—which seemed insane then but now of course is a thing of Weiner Circle sign-level civic consistency (if that’s not too blasphemous)—and how to fully incorporate the musical acts into the show’s two-hour formula.
But again, my goal from the beginning was to get the show into the Green Mill. Over the summer and fall of 2012, we did three one-off afternoon shows there, all of which drew good crowds. After the third one, I wrote to the owner, Dave Jemilo, suggesting/requesting a Saturday afternoon residency.
He said, yes, obviously, and we started our run on December 1, 2012, and have been there every Saturday afternoon since (with time off to slow the spread, natch).
How has Paper Machete changed over the years?
In the beginning, I and the other producers mainly knew people from the worlds of live-lit, storefront theater and the improv training centers, so that’s who was in the first few years. We’ve since tried to incorporate as many different kinds of comics and performers from as many different backgrounds and worlds as possible, and the spread is so much broader now. Our board president, JC Aevaliotis, coined the term “Comedy Switzerland” for what our overall approach to the community to be, and that’s been a very helpful analogy to work from.
As for aesthetic changes, we started one year into the Obama presidency, and so much of our satire was based on the Tea Party and, over time, Birtherism. (Are we capitalizing it? Did we/he/she/they ever capitalize it? I honestly can’t remember, and also the meanings of lots of words, letters, numbers, flag colors, political movements have curiously changed since then.)
The point is, this was the early 2010s. By the time we were in the Green Mill, we were at the start of Obama’s second term, and the first few years were just so ecstatic to be there that it was easy to run on the fumes of anti-Tea Party comedy. But of course everything became more apocalyptic and surreal and angry when Trump started running for office. That said, it’s clearer than ever how dumb the once-common assumption was that Trump would be broadly good for comedy, because unfortunately I feel like there’s actually a lot of evidence to the contrary. Within the relatively clandestine, offline world of our Saturday matinee workshop, a ton of comic artists definitely sharpened their knives on MAGA America. These results varied over time, as our cast changes literally every week, as of course did the mood of the country, our talent base, and our audience.
There were lots of smashing gems, and performances that I’m certain will always be well remembered and even cherished by the audiences who were there. That said, frankly, in retrospect, I’m also conversely embarrassed that I was big enough a dummy to believe that the pee tape was real and other contemporaneous corn-syrup cable hogwash, and the Machete produced many comedy segments that seemed to believe they were sharply satirical, but were actually often crummy hokey MSNBC off-brand minstrelsy.
I’d like to go on record that these pieces, if you ever saw any of them, were essentially 100% my fault. Like, can I claim it’s 17,896% my fault? I’m notoriously crappy with numbers, but that’s how mortified at the confidence with which I greenlit so many such segments. But this happened in plain sight of tens of thousands of people over many years, so now it just feels just honest to claim it, and acknowledge how many times I steered comics into taking dumb, obvious liberal bait for a quick laugh. That said, I also just described a lot of other, far more powerful American comedy shows from the same period, and I’m relieved to see lots of comics and voices who also want to move past the low-hanging fruit smoothies of the Trump years.
Fortunately, in the Biden years, which have of course been dreadful chaos so far, we’re basically using many of the same technical apparatuses and theatrical devices we originally built to take on Trump, et al, and now we just do our best to logically and ethically apply them to the oddly similarly shattershot and seemingly unsympathetic current regime. Yesterday one of our best satire writers remarked to me that a recent Jen Psaki quote sounded nearly identical to Kellyanne Conway Doublespeak, circa 2018. So while I wish Trump’s election hadn’t caught everyone so off guard, at least now we have a tested toolkit and deep bench for mocking leadership that seems to be mocking us.
As for the non-political comedy in the Machete, which is still a lot of it, we still try to adhere to the no-1st-person voice/no-storytelling rule from the earliest days of the show, and it’s mostly served us quite well. I’d also add that the music programming became especially enriched over the years by the producer Leah Munsey, who incorporated hip-hop into the show, and other new genres of performance.
Meantime, while the entertainment landscape of the city continues to grow, the local talent base continues to deepen. Most people move away when it’s their time, whatever that means (and which I mostly try to stay out of, as folks come and go with random abandon). Chicago is often still hilariously a one-horse cowtown in lots of ways. But we certainly have the talent base of a midsize cowtown, and how lovely! In seriousness, we’re up to our tits in outstanding, decadently over-talented content creators.
So that’s also been helpful.
Why did you decide to keep admission free?
The Federal Theater’s living newspaper plays were free, as were most of their productions. We wanted to honor that. But also we have a certain contract with our audience; they didn’t pay to get in, and they intellectually understand we just finished writing it because it’s based on the week’s headlines. In exchange, we get to say/do/try whatever we want. That’s the implicit pact.
Plus, we’ve always just wanted it to be as populist as possible. This way anybody over 21 with an ID can get in.
How does Paper Machete reflect the unique spirit of Chicago?
The show is, for the most part, made by and for Chicagoans (although we want it to be something visiting guests also get a kick out of). Chicagoans are famously physically cold and desperate for warmth, corruption-weary to a fault, notoriously slightly over-confident of their importance in the world, and many have this curious glint of human hope in them, at least in my experience.
For some reason I feel like our show often has those qualities. But that’s just off the top of my head, and I could be wildly wrong.
What are the keys to Paper Machete’s success? I’ve been to several shows and there’s something magical about each one … how do you do that?
I so appreciate your saying that, and as cheesy as this will sound, I truly fully believe that because I had a very wholesome, Capra-corny childhood growing up around small-town Kansas community theaters, that energy is part of the DNA of the show. In community theaters, the audience is rooting for the show to work in a really specific way. There have been some exceptions, but for the most part the Machete’s audience is rooting for us so hard, some days it almost feels like we’re cheating. Between that, the fact that the Green Mill is such an enchanted venue, and the fact that it’s on Saturday afternoons (a uniquely relaxed time of week for most people) and the audience is day-drinking, you have to squint harder to notice when the show is under par. But again, you’re sweet as hell to ask the question in that way, and on behalf of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of wickedly gifted people who’ve been excellent in the show over the years, if and when I ever see any of them again, I’ll pass along the compliment.
How did you and Josh/Chad the Bird meet?
Chad the Bird was the discovery of Ali Klingler, the show’s original co-founding producer and one of its first regular contributors. Chad was originally created for a sketch revue at an iconic downmarket storefront theater called the Cornservatory in North Center. I know how shabby and ratched this venue sounds, but I’m quite certain they’d want you to feel this way about it, and in fact so many Chicago artists’ careers started out in the portal that is the Cornservatory. I’m actually happy as a pig in shit to have played a small role in platforming surely one of their most prestigious alums. Although again, Ali was the original crafty yenta there; she and Josh Zagoren originally met while acting together in a Holocaust play about the Rosenbergs. (No joke. That is, it’s true information, and also I’m obviously terrified to make a joke about that.)
Josh did his first Chad in July of 2010 in the back of a pub called the Grafton, because there were more World Cup fans in Lincoln Square back then than there were Machete fans, and Ricochets needed to host them, so we were floating/squatting that week. There were probably less than 25 audience members, tops. But all of us kind of immediately understood that the puppeteer crouching behind a chair was a star. Like, instantaneously.
When did you know that Paper Machete had made it?
Name dropping is tacky business, but a person who used to live in Chicagoland and occasionally perform in the Machete is Julia Sweeney, one of my absolute performance heroes. At some point she started coming to the show occasionally just to watch. I had naturally always been incredibly nervous when she was there because I adore her, and I specifically remember her having been present at shows I feared had been at least somewhat uneven. But she still kept popping up once in a while just to support us. She’s very modest and incognito, but when it became clear she truly understood what we were trying to do and liked attending (uncoerced!), even when it could be somewhat messy, this was a quiet but major vote of confidence. Not sure if this counts as an answer to your question, but it comes to mind.
How did you choose the pioneering women that you’re featuring at the Sunday Salon? What intrigued you about them?
My segment of the weekly Saturday show is the opening essay. Unlike most of the show’s writers, I’m not really a comedian at all. But my segments are usually history essays underscored by music. I especially dig doing origin stories of media characters. Over time it occurred to me (and my co-producer, Lauren Kapinksi) that, if we stitched some of my extant pieces together from the last year’s worth of shows, we might have a really full solo show on our hands chronicling various compelling women in American media stretching over two centuries. Dorothy Parker and Ann Miller and Phyllis Schlafly and Jessica Hahn are all on the menu, and some lesser-known names.
The show is meant to be an old-fashioned, old-world salon. Hopefully fun and enlightening and not too lecture-y. The musical guests are the Irving Sisters, who cover 1930s pop vocal arrangements and vintage tight harmonies like a dream.
The event is a fundraiser to pay Machete talent. We’ve never tried anything like it, so we’re equal parts terrified and delighted.
The Sunday Salon with Christopher Piatt is Sunday, May 22, 2022 at 3:00 p.m. at The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, 4802 N. Broadway at 3:00 p.m. Tickets and details here.
The Paper Machete is every Saturday at 3:00 p.m. at The Green Mill. For lineups and all details: