We originally published this on January 20, 2015. We’re republishing it today because over the weekend a woman uncovered a two-way mirror in the bathroom. Oh, Cigars and Stripes. -ed.
Meredith Kachel is a Chicago based stand-up. She thrives in rooms where people enjoy alternative comedy yet still performs where people hate words like alternative and comedy. She’s one of the producers of Hoo HA comedy, running every Tuesday night at Rockit Burger Bar.
Berwyn, Berwyn, the shittiest town. The more you’re there, the more you frown.
To use a totally cliche anecdote, Berwyn is Chicago’s butthole younger brother. Like if Chicago is the cool-teen-smoking-cigarettes-sitting-on-his-Camaro-impressing-Seniors-when-he’s-a-Sophomore, Berwyn is the shirtless-weasel-faced-psychopath-torturing-whatever-animal-he-catches-in-his-primitive-traps-in-some-gross-fort-he’s-built-in-the-woods-little-brother. Berwyn doesn’t have any shirts without holes. Berwyn smells like he doesn’t know how to wipe properly, or maybe he knows how but refuses to “because Obama”. Berwyn is the kid other children avoid, except for his fat friend Alsip.
So why the fuck wouldn’t I run a show there?
I’ve been producing a show at the spookiest bar in the near-Western suburbs, a place in Berwyn called Cigars and Stripes for two years. Part cigar shop, part horror themed saloon, it’s once a month obligation of mine, and my other wonderful and fabulous producers on my team. We trade off. Which is great, because I try not to average more than four gypsy curses by someone-who-claims-to-be-a-“descendant”-of-Al-Capone-but-is-also-proudly-from-Ecuador in a year. I dread going, but I also don’t. Because here’s the thing: a third of the time you have THE BEST TIME OF YOUR LIFE. You have “Suburbs Fun!”, which is when you make friends with strangers and everyone bums you Newport cigarettes, and there is Italian beef because Berwyn is basically your high school graduation party where you parents had to invite the weird neighbors who all have shaved heads and got you high outside the bouncy castle. Another third of the time, you have a night like…a night like, for example, you bring one of the best comedians in Chicago, who also happens to be black, to perform and the “Reject Rain Men” who are filled with Old Styles (and don’t know the definition of “actually” but use it often in social media) yell at her during her set “OBAAAAMMAAAAAA!” like it’s a heckle during her set about her grandma, and you are so embarrassed you stop sleeping for a week. And every once what the fuck third, when the Blue Moon is risen and your sign has Saturn in it’s sights, you have an Iron Balls night.
Now let me explain. Let’s set the scene: when you walk into this basement-your-schizophrenic-uncle-lives-in, you’re greeted by a doorman who is asleep. He is asleep. He will be asleep for a long time, until he wakes up and glares at you and yells “YOU ARE WOMEN COMIC? SIGN IN WOMAN COMIC. ALL.”. Then you sign a clipboard which he promptly puts down and goes back to sleep. There’s a portrait of him on a refrigerator they keep in the room with the weird smell. He’s small, 81 assumedly Polish, and a local celebrity, so I wouldn’t kick him out of bed, you know? Once you pass this easy first boss, you meet Second Boss. Second Boss is a kind, uneducated woman who works behind the bar. She remembers you, and she asks you your favorite drink. I made the mistake once of telling her my favorite drink was a whiskey sour, which she did not know how to make. Because she is a bartender…in Berwyn. Not a lot of mixed drinks in Berwyn. The next time she saw me, she told me she learned how to make a whiskey sour. She then proceeded to drop two sugar cubes in a glass, pour a full glass of whiskey on top and then finish it with a spritz of orange soda. I drink three a night because she is so fucking nice, and also they are free and I feel too bad to order anything else.
And then Third Boss: The Owner. The Owner is a small man. An Angry Man. A Berwyn Man. This man has smoked so many Marlboro lights in a garage in the middle of January, badmouthing some guy named Steve who fingered his ex, Debra. The Owner has a ponytail. He lives above the bar. He tells you facts and figures about how the “fucking idiots” inside are “sick cheap losers and I taught we was gonna keep more of um after da game”.
But all the crusty syphilitic symptoms aside, you always get onstage with a smile, try to make fun of the fact that you’re a woman (they love it) and that you’re from Chicago (huge laugh). Then you bring your girls on and you grin and bear it through all the hecklers, and you embrace them or hate them. It’s all in a weird room, any comic can tell you.
And then: Final Boss.
The dear invaluable oddball Iron Balls MacArthur.
Irons Balls is a man who is in his sixties (or a rough late fifties) whose only claim to fame is that he feels nothing in his genitals. Or so he fucking claims. His jobs, his only two jobs, are Tarot card readings in the backroom at Cigars and Stripes, and, I’m not joking here, getting kicked in the balls.
He demands to go onstage after each show, because that’s how shows work: the comics go on, there’s a headliner, and then the host goes on to explain there is an eccentric pervert who would like the challenge the would-be-strippers on the crowd to fuck his junk up for shits and giggles.
And he repeats the same spiel every time you meet him: he loves getting his dick kicked in so hard it makes an audience cringe and want to die, that “one time Elvira kicked him in the dick”, and that he wears a Steampunk top-hat and also silver denture fangs. He gives you your fortune (spoiler alert: you always fall in love with an Italian dude), and if you DON’T like your fortune: you *get* to kick him in his balls. His Iron Balls. And you do. And then you and your roommate drive him home to the house he shares with his mother and he makes you stop at a gas station and he asks if he can pay you gas money in hot dogs.
It’s not that this is my worst time doing comedy. I’ve had worse. It’s that my worst set happens to me four times a year. Because the comics are so distracted, and I am distracted trying to distract the comics from the horrible essence of Berwyn. That the audience constantly yells “FUCK I WANNA FUCK YOUR TITS CITY LADY” or fight one another over a shared fiancé.
And I think it’s one of the most interesting things about my life.
So Cheers to Chicago’s little weirdo brother. I will support you, even when you tell me that the government is run by lizard people, and “Hitler wasn’t a bad guy.” Bad shows, bad towns, and bad assholes are the most entertaining part of America. God Bless Cigars and Stripes. I can wait to see you again.