By Bob Chiarito
It’s a hard challenge to articulate what makes someone funny. Some comedians stand out for obvious reasons – often physical appearance or a willingness to act goofy. Some can be described as “smart” or “dry” while others are more in-your-face and obnoxious. Amy Thompson is a melting pot of all these labels, and perhaps most impressive, she has the ability to steal a scene without saying a word.
Though not a commanding physical presence at 5-feet tall, she has an intangible quality that cannot be taught. Audiences, especially a discerning one such as in Chicago where countless comedy stars have started, know it well.
On the surface, Thompson’s story isn’t much different from dozens of other young comedic actors in Chicago. She grew up in California, graduated from Brandeis University in Massachusetts with degrees in acting and English, then moved to Chicago to study at Second City’s Comedy Studies Program. She also took classes at the Annoyance Theatre and Improv Olympic. Not a household name yet, Thompson cut her teeth performing midnight shows at Improv Olympic while working a day job for a ACT/SAT tutoring company. The major difference between her and the many who give up after awhile seems to be a combination of hard work and talent.
After a recent performance, Thompson was complimented on making the audience crack up without saying a word. While others spoke and moved around, she stood silently, only moving to make a few facial expressions. And that was enough to steal the scene. After being complimented about her expressions, she responded, “I’ve heard that. One time after one of my solo shows someone said I’m like Jim Carey with my face. I think it comes from having done theater as a child.”
Jeff Griggs, a 14-year Second City veteran and currently the director of the touring company that Thompson is a part of said her enthusiasm and excitement make her a pleasure to be around.
“Amy is one of those people who everybody roots for and cheers for,” Griggs said. “She has great instincts as a performer and portrays strong emotions and plays strong characters, forcing people to really be engaged.”
The youngest of four, Thompson’s love of performing began at an early age, when her physicist engineer father and consultant mother began working with a local youth theater in the Silicon Valley, where she grew up.
“The youth theater was like a family theater. My dad helped make the sets and my mom eventually became the president of the theater’s board of directors. Even now, she’s still there,” Thompson said.
Although Thompson’s first love was musical and dramatic theater, she said she grew up watching I Love Lucy and The Simpson’s which may account for some of her wit and sarcasm.
“I was raised on The Simpson’s, being born in 1989,” Thompson said. “My brother was 8 years older and loved them. I remember dinner table conversations where I’d say something a little precocious and my parents wouldn’t ask, ‘Where did you hear that?’ They’d ask, ‘Which Simpson’s episode did you watch?’”
Growing up and until she travelled across the country to attend Brandeis University, dramatic acting and musical theater was Thompson’s first love, but soon sketch comedy would be her calling.
“High School and college pushed me away from musical theater. I thought of myself as a straight theater actor,” Thompson said. “Then when I went to college, I did a little straight theater acting but sketch comedy and improv started to take over. English was my major, theater was a passion and I combined those two.”
Thompson, now 28, said attending classes at both Second City and Improv Olympic helped her to really hone her comedy. According to her, the differences between Second City and Improv Olympic is that “I/O is all about improv as an art form in itself. At Second City you do improv but it’s often used for material generation. Comedy in Chicago is what you make of it. The scene is saturated with talent and diversity and so many wonderful people, all you can do is work your ass off.”
Working her ass off is exactly what Thompson has been doing since moving to Chicago. In addition to the midnight shows at the Annoyance, Thompson performed with a live lit sketch group called Cassandra at the Hopleaf Bar in Andersonville; began working with the city’s only queer improv comedy group, Baby Wine, which is ongoing and performs every Friday night at the Annoyance; and last year wrote and performed a one-woman play called “Boofgall,” about dying young.
“It was about how you’re perceived, working hard as an artist,” Thompson said. “It was about if I died at 27, would I join the 27 club? Does my life have any merit?”
After working four months to write the show, Thompson said she cut it down and had 52 minutes of material. The show was well received and ran for 8 weeks at the Annoyance.
How others perceive Thompson may not define her, but it is something she thinks about. She said she’s proud to call herself a “queer comedian” and while her comedy is funny to all, Thompson said one of her goals is to make all people feel welcome, especially those in the LGBTQ community.
“It’s a very important facet of my comedy and my life. I’ll happily identify as a queer comedian,” Thompson said. “No one wants to be pigeonholed, but conversely, representation is so important. I want the one queer person from Iowa who comes to Second City to say, ‘Ok, yeah, we are everywhere.”
Thompson said the presidential election has caused her to focus a bit more on activism in her work and acknowledges that her path was made easier by those who came before her and hopes her presence in the comedy world can make it easier for others in the future.
“It’s easier [now than in years past] because a lot of people threw themselves on swords. There’s no commerce without sacrifice. So if I have to go down in flames for the comedians of the future, I’ll do that,” Thompson said.
Although it may be easier now to be a queer comedian as opposed to 20 years ago, hurdles still remain. In December 2016 after homophobic and misogynistic slurs were all too often shouted by audience members, Second City was forced to address the issue by posting signs at its entrance that read the company “has a zero-tolerance policy and does not allow hate speech of any kind whether it’s directed toward our artists, employees or patrons.”
And although it’s 2017, Baby Wine remains the city’s only all-queer improv comedy group.
“Baby Wine is a labor of Love. A bunch of like minded, queer people. It’s the only all-queer group regularly performing in the city. We started at I/O but then moved it to Annoyance,” Thompson said.
Baby Wine begins each show with sketch comedy and then makes way for others to entertain the crowd before they end the show with another sketch comedy piece.
“We have people performing for us who don’t usually perform on stage and we also have people like Mitchell Fain, a super-seasoned veteran, testing out new material and it’s great. It’s so nice to to meet new people every week,” Thompson said.
After juggling “regular” part-time day jobs for years, Thompson finally was able to focus solely on her comedy about a year ago.
“I wanted to work for the Second City Touring Company from the age of 20 and had so much relief when I was hired,” Thompson said. “I got what I wanted and worked my butt off to get there. So for now I’m staying here to figure out my next goals.
Griggs said whether or not Thompson ever because a national star takes a combination of things.
“It’s a combination of being talented and being in the right place at the right time. There are so many amazing, talented people who have performed at Second City and some can translate that into a career that makes them millions of dollars. It’s a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck,” Griggs said.
Thompson said she intends to stay in Chicago until she figures out her next set of goals. She said television or movie work is something she’d definitely consider in the future, and intends to keep writing no matter if she’s on stage or behind the scenes.
Asked if she wants to be on a cereal box one day, Thompson laughed and joked, “That’s my goal. I want to knock Tony off and be the next tiger.”
Looking at her future more realistically, Thompson said she wants to stay involved in comedy, no matter her role.
“I don’t know if performing on TV is in the cards for me, but I’d love to write or be involved,” Thompson said. “Everyone’s path is different. Comedy comes from people you meet. That’s how you find your voice, but how you use it is a completely different part of the story. There’s no true path, you just have to find it. A lot of people say ‘Find your voice’ and I can’t say I have but I can make people laugh and that’s a start.”