“This is four-dollar hot water. Welcome to Logan Square!” Meredith Kachel, Chicago comedian, storyteller, illustrator, and anything-goes freelancer, quips over her tea at the newly re-opened and reimagined Johnny’s Grill as we discuss the rapidly changing landscape of this previously Hispanic neighborhood.
Although this is our first meeting, Meredith and I are soon giggling over mystery meat, sharing crust punk and New York horror stories, and digging deeper into her life as a lady comedian. Since Meredith started stand-up four years ago as part of a New Year’s resolution/bet with a buddy, she has formed her own group of female comedians, will soon be mentoring a lucky Chicago youngster, and says her life now involves knowing one hundred weirdos at any given bar. “It’s like my own version of Cheers, but Cheers is just my whole life.”
Meredith applies her sense of humor to multiple freelance projects, some commissioned by “people who just want to fuck around and like the lighter things in life” as well as collaborations with other artists and friends. “I’m poor as shit,” Meredith adds when I ask how she gets by freelancing. “Like, I’m so poor. But whatever. If I keep my website updated, then my parents don’t worry about me. That’s how they check in. They don’t even call. They’re just like, ‘Oh, she did another wedding illustration!’”
Unlike many other comedians who get their start in Chicago, Meredith, who grew up just outside of the city in Plainfield, Illinois, isn’t planning to head to a coast anytime soon. “I love Chicago! It’s my home. I don’t need to get famous. It’s not on my goal list. I’m happy. I have good friends and a cool boyfriend. My parents are alive. Life’s fine,” she concludes, then, taking a bite, “Man, this is a fucking good-ass English muffin!”
Join us as the hilariously honest and inspiring Meredith and I discuss the stand-up comedy scene in Chicago, making it through art school with a sense of humor, fearing death, building totem poles, and rolling with a bunch of bad bitches.
What’s the comedy scene like in Chicago aside from Second City?
Yeah, that’s what everyone knows it for, right? People who are outside of the scene think that improv is the only way to go, and I just don’t zip-zap-zop. I’m not playing with an invisible ball. And those classes are, like, $400!
The stand-up scene, though…it’s so dope, dude. It’s the best. We’re all friends. There’s a north side and a south side, and there’s some people that go in-between. It’s a little weird in that way, but Chicago’s weird in that way, where it’s hyper-segregated. That sucks. We’ve got a few big clubs, like Zanies, Laugh Factory, and UP, but what I like to do is back rooms at bars, lofts, basements…any place where you can come in and just have a really, really good time.
People come to Chicago before they go to the coasts because it’s where you incubate, get really good, and get a voice. You’re not trying to impress the press because we don’t have any here. So everyone I know is just doing the weirdest shit, and that’s fucking great for creativity and great for comedy.
Plus, they’re so goddamn supportive. Last year, I found out that a t-shirt company called Chi-Town Clothing ripped off one of my illustrations. When I found out, I just posted about it on Facebook, like, “Don’t steal other people’s art!” The comedian community went fucking berserk. They tweeted at them until they took the shirt down and apologized. I had a lawyer talk to them, and they paid me for everything. I was like, “Thanks guys! Thanks for being a bunch of dicks!” And they are, they’re a bunch of weird dicks. But I wouldn’t change those dudes for anything…and the ladies. The ladies are the best.
Are there a lot of lady comedians around?
There are, but we’re outnumbered. I think there are, like, roughly 50 that are bookable, solid comedians that you want on your show. The women in this city are some of the funniest people on earth. People like Beth Stelling came out of here…Liza Treyger, Megan Gailey. They’re very much, like, take no shit. Do no evil, but take no shit.
When and why did you start Hoo HA Comedy, your all-female comedy collective?
Three years ago I was kind of floundering with stand up because, if I’m being honest, it isn’t my first love. Performance? Sure. Stand up? Bits? Trying to dumb down my entire existence into a hot ten? It’s just never been my thing. So I was feeling lost as my peers were sort of rocketing around me. Comedy is a lifestyle, and I just wasn’t feeling like I fit in. Then my girlfriend Erin Lane asked me if I’d like to run a show with her out in Berwyn at a place called Cigars and Stripes. Running a showcase was always on my agenda as a comedian. In Chicago, you put in your dues running rooms so people can get time being funny in front of audiences so they can either go to NY or LA and you can never see them again. It’s just what you do.
So I said yes, and she asked Kristen Toomey, who has become such a good friend and idol to me, but at the time was kind of a storied drunk. Now, she’s the funniest woman in Chicago, quote me on that!
Erin asked Kristen Toomey and me to run this show in this shitty bar and only book girls (a policy I don’t really believe in because I think it’s sexist as fuck, but so is the world so who’s judging, you know?), and we did. And it was…ok. We did…fine. Then we brought on two more girls, Reena Calm and Colleen Farrell, and Reena and I are still running this bitch almost three years later. We’ve gone through some cast changes and some venue changes, but the basics have always been: be funny, take no shit, give opportunities to everyone, and mostly have fun. Also intersectional feminism. Squad goals, you know?
Hoo HA is defining part of my comedy career, I suppose. They lift me up and make me funnier. We listen to each other’s bits so much and STILL laugh at them. It’s like the Babysitters Club, except we’re all sexually active and smoke weed and talk shit and try to be better and measure ourselves against one another. So not at all like the Babysitters Club. Reena, Lainie, Deanna, and Ali are basically family to me. They are my ride or die bitches. In comedy, it can become difficult to navigate yourself around so. many. god damn. drunk. men. But with my girls, I’m not just a girl in comedy. I’m a boss bitch.
Women together will change the world, one tiny showcase at a time. And I’m really grateful to them for giving me that identity and making me stronger. Who runs the world? Girls.
Speaking of girls…the internet told me recently that you’re going to be a mentor for young ladies next year with Ag47. Congratulations! Can you tell us a bit more about that group and what you plan for your mentees?
Ag47 is a really special group of women/what most Republicans’ worst nightmares are made up of: brilliant young riot grrrrls. Like I said, I love a band of bitches. They make me stronger and make me thrive and wanna scream “YAS QUEEN” all day while listening to Kathleen Hanna and Nicki Minaj, you know?
This is my first year with Ag47. It’s an all women run arts and mentorship program for girls 11-17 to be paired with working female artists. We’re all paired with a girl and spend time with her, whether that be texting or going to the movies or being a sounding board…whatever your natural relationship is. Then, we meet weekly as a group, all mentors and mentees, and make fucking art. Each week we have a guest artist, also female, and each week we explore a part of our ongoing theme. This year we decided on Timelines, exploring ourselves and humanity in time. The projects are bonkers, and the women running this thing are BEASTS. I’m obsessed with them. I want to naked pow wow with them every week and burn names. Instead of that though, we will inspire young ladies to be actual working artists like we are; to dissect life and pull it apart and put it back together as you’d like to see it.
I’m excited to meet my mentee. I’m excited to show her how wonderful and terrifying adulthood can be and ways to cope with it. Art has always been the answer for me. I’m thrilled to share that with other young women and feed the fires in their hearts and brains and baby-makers.
That’s so exciting! So let’s talk about our teacher experiences. We share our alma mater, SAIC, and that place takes itself pretty seriously. How did they react to your artwork being more humorous? Did you find people to support you?
Oh my god, right?! You know! I had two really great professors that I loved. One, Brian Torrey Scott, taught my first English class there. It was called “Ridiculousness.” There were so many weird classes at SAIC. Like, “Gender and Death!” What does that mean?!? But that class was very funny. I really loved it because it wasn’t a bunch of jerk-offs drawing triangles in charcoal being like, “It’s good, right?”
I had another professor when I was a junior, Andrew Falkowski. He was the best. He had us bring in all of our past work on the first day of class so he could look at it, and he was like, “You’re funny. Let’s focus on that.” So I started getting into what humor was. I went at it in a very academic, SAIC way where I was like, “What is humor?” Humor is deflection. “What is humor deflecting?” For me, it’s an anxiety about death and dying and losing myself and hate. A lot of it was hate at the time. So I started researching hate. [Laughs]
That’s a fun Google search.
It was a fun Google search! I fell down the fucking Wikipedia rabbit hole and found out that certain tribes of the Pacific Northwest Indians, if someone wronged them or owed them a debt or something, they would carve a totem pole of why that guy was a dick and put it in their front yard. They’re called shame poles! I was like, “I’m making a shame pole.” I made this 9-foot-tall pole of everything that I hate, which is undercooked food, control-top pantyhose, women who give you dirty looks at parties for no reason, crotch rockets…any number of things. That set the bar for where I wanted to go—big projects, do weird stuff, try to make it funny.
My next thing was an an animation called “Bonerkiller.” I started doing other animations after that. I did one about how I got hit by a car and the guy who saw it sent me a Craigslist ad and called me a dude. It was an M for M. I did one about a tattoo request that I got that was, like, the dumbest thing—that was the first animation I did that went viral. Well, viral at the time. Viral four years ago is not viral today. It’s still got, like, 200,000 hits as opposed to…
Justin Bieber’s new video?
Thank you! Why am I not Justin Bieber? [Laughs] I’m a 30-year-old woman, why am I not Justin Bieber? If I could just be Justin Bieber-meets-Bette Midler-meets-Divine, I will be the happiest person ever. [Laughs] Really, I just want gay people to love me, apparently.
Before we move on, I have to ask because I, too, share this fear lately: How does comedy help you deal with or deflect anxiety about death? Any tips on this are much appreciated!
[Laughs] Well, I mean if you want to talk about it, let’s get into it. I’ve been terribly anxious about death since I was a kid. It peaks and ebbs but it’s always on my mind. Every morning I wake up around four, and I sit and think about my body’s functions and how I drink too much and what a lung looks like and what it must be like to be a mortician and what it must feel like to die and what my last thought will be and how I hope it isn’t fucking bullshit like, “Oh shit, did I ever finish watching Cheers?”
Sometimes I’m just awake at night by myself perusing Facebook and crying thinking about these people dying, or their children dying or everyone they know dying. It’s really pathetic. I feed it to myself, and I indulge it. Like anything you overindulge, it becomes a fucking joke. Like, “I watch too much TV, I’m a slug!” or “I eat too much, I’m a balloon!” or “I drink too much, I’m a fish!” Humor, for me, basically puts a spotlight on my fears and insecurities and makes them not scary.
Now I can joke about how I used to watch my parents sleep to make sure they were breathing. I did that for years. And it’s fucking insane and hilarious. Just a child standing next to a sleeping adult like, “Oh my presence and lack of CPR training is definitely going to delay the inevitable!” I can joke about how when I was ten I shit my pants on my tenth birthday because I realized I’d never be a single digit age again nor a triple or quadruple digit age ever, and that scared me so much that poop came out of my butt and into my pants and then onto the carpet, because it’s funny to be scared. It can’t hurt me if I’m laughing at it. Of course death will probably hurt. A lot. If I’m being honest with myself, it’ll be cancer. But Julia Sweeney made that funny, and I’m fine with it now.
I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, and in, I think, third year they had to battle boggarts in Defense Against the Dark Arts class, which were creatures that would become your biggest fear. You had to humiliate it to defeat it. To humiliate your fear is to defeat it. It’s how I feel about death. All I want to do is wave my wand and call it a dweeb and see it pee its pants. In a way, the fact that death comes for us all makes it the most relatable, silly thing. I’ve come to embrace death as the weird Kramer in my life: barging in constantly, reminding you of his presence.
Also, I think in a sick way…well, I guess I’ll just talk about it. My high school boyfriend, Zack Kiernan, killed himself my senior year about two weeks before graduation, and it really fucked me up. I was the last person he talked to, and there was this romance that only teenagers can find in death. He pasted a picture of me to his chest with his sweat and wrote me this horrific note. I bought us wedding rings. I was basically never alone after he died. My friends created this cocoon around me until I emerged a few years later. So in a weird way, I equate death and attention and love. I equate tragedy with an all-encompassing love and have become obsessed with making the most of life and telling everyone I know how much they matter and also being told that as well. Zack was the funniest and most loving person in the world to me. That’s his legacy for me: being so funny and also being so, so tragic. I guess I just try to emulate that now. Does that make any sense? Sometimes I just find reasons to talk about him, and I guess this is a good example of that. I don’t want to be forgotten. I don’t ever want him to be forgotten. I guess I want both of our legacies to be joy in the face of terror. Yeah. Joy in the face of terror. Suck my Fuck, Terror. Tell terror to suck your fuck, Kerri. It’s very freeing!
Wow, I’m so glad I asked more about that. There’s a lot I can relate to in your response, and I hope our readers feel the same way! So how about we go from death to self-doubt? Was there ever a point that you doubted that you’d be able to do what you’re doing now?
Yeah, of course! A million times. In stand-up comedy, every day is different. One night you could be on fire and be like, “I’m living my dreams!” and go home riding on a pony, and then the next night, you can hit a crowd so mean and so not into you, you’re just like, “Well, I guess I could do the wrists or sit in the car…” You get down, but…it’s so cliché to say, but you just do shit and it picks back up. It’s going to be fine. And it’s probably going to suck again. It’s just part of it.
But have I ever gotten to a point that’s like, “Fuck this, I’m going to give up and go be a nurse practitioner”? No. I haven’t gotten to that. I’m not going to learn data entry. I feel like if you try hard enough and keep putting enough stuff out there, somebody’s going to notice. Someone’s going to give a shit at some point. In the meantime, I’m just having a bunch of fun.
Let’s put a bow on this: do you consider yourself successful? How do you define success?
Short answer: Yes. Very. Long answer? Not for a fucking minute. [Laughs]
Measuring your success is really tricky and can really fuck you up if you’re doing it wrong. When I think about a successful life, I don’t necessarily think of Tina Fey first. I think about my parents. They’re just really happy Midwestern folks who were both Special Ed teachers, who focus on their hobbies and being good friends and having a good relationship with one another. They’re just really happy people, you know? Not financial superstars or world-renowned, nor are they perfect. My mother can be dramatic and my dad can be quiet and pessimistic. But they did everything right. That’s success to me. They pooped out two cool kids and didn’t lose their minds. Success.
I consider that my measure of success: do everything to make yourself and others happy. You don’t need awards to be successful. I’m not exactly one to push myself very hard to be THE BEST. I just know my strengths from falling down so often. I’m a good artist, and I know that. I’m a funny person, and I know that. I’m a good friend, and I know that. So yes, I’m successful in your basic building blocks of being a dope person.
I don’t know if I’m any authority on anything, but I know that if you asked me what makes a person successful I’d say it’s honesty. With themselves and others. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll weed out what’s not working in your life so you can make yourself stronger and happier. If you’re honest with others, you’ll help them find clarity where they might be lacking and help them become their best selves. So I try to be honest and that makes me feel like a CEO.
But do I feel like I should be doing more? Of course. I have fits of depression or anxiety that put me in bed for days at a time and all I can think of is things I could be drawing, books I could be reading, exercise I could be doing, jokes I could be making…instead of just re-watching Parks and Rec and eating salsa without chips. Who doesn’t?
Success is also knowing you’ll be okay when you miss a few days. Or fuck up a project. Or owe someone something. It’s easy to feel miserable and I should know: I’m miserable a lot. But success is knowing yourself and doing what makes you “you,” you know? And whether you do that with writing or dumb cartoons or babies or nursing or being President, I don’t care. Just put yourself out into the world. It’s the only possible way to be successful.
So short answer yes. And long answer, I suppose, is yes as well. Although I’d really like more money. Money is the best.
Check out more of Meredith’s work, in all its forms, on her website, and keep up-to-date with Hoo HA shows on Facebook!
Feature photo by Fausto Fernos for Feast of Fun.