Amy Shanker - From Chalkboards to Punchlines

November 19, 2023

Photo Credit

Comedy Records


Valerie Lopez


Valerie Lopez


You can learn a lot of valu­able lessons while speak­ing with Amy Shanker. Which isn’t ter­ri­bly shock­ing giv­en our comic’s 13-year tenure as a teacher in inner-city Chica­go. Shanker grew up in Kansas, attend­ed the Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas for both an under­grad­u­ate and a master’s degree in edu­ca­tion (and even­tu­al­ly a sec­ond master’s degree in school admin­is­tra­tion). The under­grad­u­ate path was some­what of a hap­haz­ard choice hoist­ed upon Shanker who, by her junior year had not yet com­mit­ted to a major. The coun­selor chose the less­er of two evils between jour­nal­ism and education. 

I spent ten years liv­ing in Chica­go and I’ve seen those inner-city schools. I’ve men­tored kids whose sole escape from a dif­fi­cult home life is the school. One can imag­ine that after a stereo­typ­i­cal exis­tence in Kansas, the cul­ture shock of mov­ing to Chica­go and teach­ing in these envi­ron­ments would be daunt­ing. Shanker was famil­iar because she had spent a lot of time work­ing for a group home for delin­quent boys who oth­er­wise would end up in juve­nile deten­tion. And Shanker was pro­tect­ed by arma­ment that not all of us are born with – being Jew­ish. Shanker shares that the love lan­guage among her fam­i­ly was rip­ping on each oth­er. While she’s not admit­ting to doing this to her Chica­go stu­dents, her pro­tec­tive shell had already been shaped by the time she stepped into those class­rooms, enabling her to sur­vive the most chal­leng­ing of situations. 

But the pro­tec­tive armor didn’t last. Wit­ness­ing a shoot­ing occur­ring out­side the school, observ­ing the cor­rup­tion and fraud by a prin­ci­pal in one of her schools, and the exhaust­ing admin­is­tra­tive ele­ments that comes with being a school­teacher led her to think about oth­er options after so many demor­al­iz­ing years.

When Shanker per­formed at her first open mic, she had three dis­tinct advan­tages: 1) grow­ing up in a Jew­ish home where com­e­dy (and famil­ial rib­bing) was her family’s love lan­guage, 2) teach­ing in an inner-city school where pre­sent­ing and learn­ing to con­trol an audi­ence was part of her dai­ly life, and 3) she start­ed com­e­dy lat­er in life when her sense of self was already well established.

Being your most authentic self on stage gives you an advantage, because who else can do that?
Amy Shanker

When she start­ed to per­form standup com­e­dy, she real­ized that while she was new to com­e­dy, she wasn’t new to being on a stage, in front of peo­ple, con­trol­ling a crowd. After her first open mic, she let the expe­ri­ence sink in for a few months before try­ing again. But with that next try, she com­mit­ted ful­ly to being a standup com­ic. The com­bi­na­tion of a life­long sense of humor meant that with­in six to sev­en months she was passed at Chicago’s Laugh Factory. 

Chica­go is famous for its hot dogs, cor­rup­tion, and last, but not least, its improv and sketch cul­ture. When asked if she had tried out improv, Shanker, despite 13 years of shar­ing her­self as a teacher, quick­ly admit­ted this is all mine, I’m not a shar­er (of the stage).” Giv­en how quick­ly and how far she’s come in her com­e­dy career, we can’t blame her. 

With her sense of self well-estab­lished, Shanker nev­er felt the need to be a char­ac­ter on stage and she’s quick to encour­age oth­ers to be their authen­tic self because for her Being your most authen­tic self on stage gives you an advan­tage, because who else can do that?” Les­son num­ber one in the School of Shanker.

With a rapid tra­jec­to­ry in Chicago’s com­e­dy scene, Shanker was ready for a move after end­ing her career as a teacher. Giv­en the choice between Los Ange­les and New York City, for Shanker, the choice was easy. In New York, Shanker’s writ­ing got more pre­cise and she learned to trim the fat from her style of comedic writ­ing she had per­fect­ed in Chica­go (she was also a life­long writer hav­ing been encour­aged to read pro­fuse­ly and write book reports by her father as a child). There was abun­dance of stage time and, before she knew it, she was land­ing book­ings on shows all over the city. She even land­ed a spot on the inau­gur­al Skank­fest at Creek and Cave which at the time was in NYC. She hasn’t missed a Skank­fest since and has been wit­ness to its phe­nom­e­nal growth (in 2023, the fes­ti­val was held in Vegas with record crowds).

There’s a com­mon per­cep­tion that when you fall in with the Skank­fest crowd, you are a cer­tain type” of com­ic – a no holds barred, no top­ic is sacred, I can say what­ev­er I want with no con­se­quence type. It should be said that the comics who head­line Skank­fest fes­ti­vals are comics who’ve been per­form­ing for 10, 15, 20 or more years. They’ve put in the work to fig­ure out how to be fun­ny while talk­ing about top­ics most of us cringe think­ing about. Shanker is no dif­fer­ent, she’s worked hard to fig­ure out how to talk about dif­fi­cult, uncom­fort­able top­ics in a way that is first and fore­most fun­ny, but also makes you think about the soci­ety we live in. 

Do the things that make you happy cause life sucks.
Amy Shanker

While dis­cussing how she goes about the writ­ing process for jokes on sen­si­tive top­ics, Shanker shares, If I knew a joke was caus­ing peo­ple pain, I would rethink the joke a lit­tle bit because I don’t go on stage to make peo­ple feel bad, I want them to laugh. I want them to be hap­py when they leave.” Which is Les­son num­ber two in the School of Shanker. Yes, you can take sen­si­tive top­ics to the stage, but you have to put in the hard work to make them fun­ny because with­out that work, you will alien­ate your audi­ences. A byprod­uct of the pan­dem­ic helped her learn that lesson.

When NYC com­plete­ly shut down and she need­ed to escape a black mold infest­ed apart­ment, she decid­ed to fol­low her friend Rebec­ca Trent who had recent­ly trans­plant­ed her Creek and Cave club to Austin, Texas. She drove to Austin and made stops per­form­ing along the way. She cred­its this expe­ri­ence of dri­ving back and forth per­form­ing in front of dif­fer­ent crowds with help­ing her fig­ure out how to make touchy top­ics fun­ny on stage. 

Spend­ing more time in Austin also led to gain­ing a new set of skills. While New York helped sharp­en her writ­ing, she observed that Austin audi­ences need­ed a lit­tle more cod­dling before she start­ed deliv­er­ing punch­lines, so she learned to incor­po­rate more crowd work into her set. 

Does Shanker have a favorite city at this point? Not real­ly, she’s hap­py to split her time between New York and Austin and to con­tin­ue learn­ing from audi­ences every­where in between. When asked to reflect on the time she spent teach­ing ver­sus becom­ing a standup com­ic, she doesn’t regret teach­ing. She grew up shy while also lov­ing atten­tion and teach­ing helped her achieve the atten­tion. She wish­es she hadn’t spent thir­teen years doing it. Because with com­e­dy, she final­ly found the thing that made her hap­py (and shame on the col­lege coun­selor for not sug­gest­ing a career in comedy!). 

Lead­ing us to Les­son num­ber three from the School of Shanker: do the things that make you hap­py, cause life sucks.” 

Fol­low Amy 

Amy can be seen and heard:

  • Unbe­liev­able — Debut Spe­cial (released sum­mer 2023)
  • The Most Expen­sive Joke Show — 1st and 3rd Sun­days, 6pm Creek and Cave
  • Bri­an Holtz­man & Friends — Tues­day Novem­ber 218pm 
  • Chicago’s Laugh Fac­to­ry — Novem­ber 24 – 25
  • Fort Worth — Decem­ber 7
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Amy Shanker