Jeff Jenkins has done it all. He has performed on the same stage as all time greats like Bill Murray, Chris Farley and Gilda Radner. He’s produced shows for the legendary comedy troupe Second City in Chicago, opened comedy clubs, taught classes on improv and was a co-founder of the local late night show The Mystery Hour. After making people laugh all across the country, Jenkins has come back to Springfield with big plans: “My goal is to put Springfield on the national map for comedy. Why not us?”
We recently caught up with him at his new venture, Monk’s Social Club, where he will put those plans into action.
Jenkins has been doing comedy professionally since 1996, but his passion started in high school after discovering improv comedy. Due to the frequent moving around that comes with having a father in the military, he quickly discovered that if he made people laugh, they didn’t want to rough him up for being the new kid. Jenkins got his first chance to step on stage with a group called Four Day Weekend in Fort Worth, Texas. “I bombed,” he said through a laugh. “I was trying to be too funny.”
He learned quickly that the secret to good comedy is just to be yourself and tell your story, something he says takes all the pressure off trying to be funny. By 2001, he was traveling all over the country, performing in speakeasies and clubs alongside other touring comedians every night. He entertained dreams of writing for SNL or network TV, but soon realized what had stuck with him through his career: he loved talking about comedy with other comedians, sharing ideas and experiences he had on stage, and helping other funny people find their voice.
After his life on the road, he returned Springfield to complete his degree at Evangel and found a bunch of really funny people right here in Springfield. Soon Jenkins and nine others began holding shows for fellow students at the university and grew an audience pretty quickly. In 2004, they opened the first location of the Skinny Improv, on the square in Downtown Springfield. Jenkins also taught improv classes to new performers who wanted to be involved. Tons of talent came through the Skinny; local comedians Chad Harris, Jeff Houghton, Sarah Jenkins, and Chris Rochelle all took classes there. Jenkins also taught national acts like Nick Semar and Tyler Snodgrass. Over the years, thousands of students have worked under the Skinny Improv name, many of whom have gone on to major comedy markets like Chicago and LA. The Skinny is also where the idea for The Mystery Hour was born. Jenkins and Houghton first developed the idea as an improv late night show that Jenkins describes as “Hey mom, we’re going in the backyard to make a comedy show,” but has since evolved into an Emmy-winning program, for which Jenkins is still listed as a producer.
“I’m so proud of what they’ve done with it. It started small, but now it’s slick.”
With the success of the Skinny Improv, Jenkins decided to pursue something bigger. By this time, he had done tens of thousands of shows. Wanting to see how far that experience could get him,he left Springfield for Chicago and landed his dream job as producer at Second City, an establishment famous in the entertainment world for launching the careers of a murderers’ row of comedians: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carrell among others. Jenkins says it was a surreal experience.
“Do what scares you. The best things in life are always on the other side of yes,” he told us.
He did tons of shows in Chicago, all the while hanging out with some of the most exciting comedy prospects in the country. As a producer he had to focus on how many seats were selling each night, what costs were involved in putting on the shows and other stressful details of show running. That hectic life began to catch up with him, and, most of all, he wasn’t teaching. Jenkins had gotten divorced before moving, too, something that weighed heavy on his mind throughout the time he lived there. Things weren’t going well for him personally. He became so depressed that he even contemplated suicide.
“You can only poke so many holes in a board before it cracks,” he said. One day, walking down the streets of Chicago, it hit him. He wanted to come home. He wanted to find himself again and start something new.
Jenkins returned to Springfield and found work in teaching improv again. He also started doing corporate events using the principles of improv comedy in real life situations because, according to him, “life is exactly like improv. Work situations, school situations all of it is simply reacting to other people.” After settling back into life in Springfield, he spoke with a friend about starting a new club, but didn’t want to hurt any of the existing efforts in town, which are now all run by his former students. He found a new idea, Monk’s Social Club, named after his quest to find himself again. He designed the space to look like a 1920’s speakeasy and developed an area in the upper level of the space called the Gypsy Lounge, which opened in March and has since been hopping most nights.
The downstairs area will have nightly entertainment featuring jazz music, open mics, stand up comedy and plenty more. The lounge will also be available for rental. Jenkins beams when he talks about his plans for Monk’s in the future, listing ideas so fast we couldn’t even write them all down. There will be a women’s show called Chatty Cathy soon, featuring some of the best female comics in the area. The club now has a diversity scholarship to provide free improv classes for the duration of the program. Plus, Jenkins might have the next Mystery Hour already up his sleeve with the sketch comedy troupeThe Breakdowns, who will be performing regularly in the club.
Most importantly to Jenkins, though, is the teaching. He’s got a new crop of talent learning in the club now and he couldn’t be any more excited to introduce them to comedy lovers in Springfield.
“We have quite a few that I could see writing for a network TV show in a few years,” he said, describing the new group. “I’m always looking for that. I’m always looking for the next Jeff Houghton, the next Sarah Jenkins, and I think we’ll find them right here in Springfield.”
Jenkins’ passion for comedy is palpable. You can feel what he feels just by listening to him speak. You can plainly see his enthusiasm for sharing his experience with others, whether on stage or in the classroom. After all he’s been through and all he’s done, he’s back in Springfield and his plans are taking shape.
“I feel like I’ve lived seven lives in the last 25 years and it’s been tough more often than not, but I’m still standing, dreaming, and growing. I’ve learned a couple things and I feel this time around it’s going to be even more special. Because…why not us?”
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