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Has Milwaukee become a Comedy Mecca?

Jul. 30, 2013
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Shepherd Express? Is that a fast herd of sheep or something,” asks Dick Chudnow, who co-founded ComedySportz with Bob Orvis in 1984. Orvis recalls those early days: “We’d go out and people hadn’t even seen improv yet. There were the Dead Alewives, Rip Tenor and his Cavalcade of Top Bananas. But they were mostly doing short sketch comedy.”

Stand-up comedy clubs came and went in the ’80s, but ComedySportz was always the city’s funny throughline, laying groundwork for the annual Milwaukee Comedy Festival, a rise in comedy specials filmed locally and an increase in shows citywide—from Downtown stages to neighborhood open mic nights to restaurants and music clubs and annual festivals.

ComedySportz has already started celebrating its birthday. Plans for 2014 include bringing the annual ComedySportz World Championship (June 19-21, 2014) home to Milwaukee next summer where the concept began. The competition pits ComedySportz franchises from 22 cities against each other in laugh matches.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Comedy Festival continues to grow in its eighth consecutive year, according to Matt Kemple, founder and producer. Next Act Theatre will host the festival Aug. 1-4. Featured Milwaukee performers include stand-ups Sammy Arechar, Erik Koconis and Ryan Mason.

The festival “started almost as a mistake,” says Kemple, who oversees submissions with co-producer Patrick Schmitz. “There was a small underground community. We got everybody together and called it The First Annual Sketch and Improv Festival. A couple hundred people showed up.” Last year attendance increased into the thousands. “So this year, we added live music and food from Skyline Catering. Plus, burgers and brats outside,” Kemple adds. Advance ticket sales have soared along with nationwide interest. More than 130 comedians from around the U.S. and Canada applied for slots in the festival.


Comedy Comes to Brewtown

Operated by the Pabst Riverside Foundation, the Pabst and Riverside theaters and Turner Hall Ballroom aren’t just concert halls any longer. The roster of comedy stars and acts that have performed at those venues includes Bill Cosby, Jerry Seinfeld, Lewis Black, Craig Ferguson, Gabriel Iglesias, George Lopez, Tracy Morgan, Kevin Smith, Wanda Sykes, Chris Tucker, Flight of the Conchords, Funny or Die and the Capitol Steps.

On the docket for later this year: Dane Cook, Bill Maher, Dennis Miller, Joe Rogan and David Sedaris.

According to talent buyer Matt Beringer, some 400 shows a year are held at the Pabst, Riverside and Turner.

“And believe it or not, 30% of total ticket sales are comedy,” he adds. “The highlight for me was the night when Jon Stewart was at the Riverside, and we filmed Ralphie May at the Pabst. It was like the start of a new era. The old thinking was: ‘You don’t want to run a comedy show vs. a comedy show on the same night.’ But it’s just not that way anymore.

“We sell more comedy tickets for our size and demographic than comparable markets, easily,” Beringer continues. “We’ll increase comedy shows in 2013. One cool thing about Milwaukee: we have the luxury of audiences willing to try new things.”

Several specials for cable and home viewing have been recorded at the Pabst and Riverside, including the Grammy-winning Louis C.K.: Hilarious and Jeff Dunham’s A Very Special Christmas, the most-watched Comedy Central special of all time. Kathy Griffin (Bravo), Ralphie May (Comedy Central), Spinal Tap (Unwigged and Unplugged DVD) and Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” have also recorded here.


Comedy Is Flourishing

 The digital revolution has made comedy more accessible, Beringer says. In the last decade “there has been a huge influx in ways to access comedy. So more comedians are getting hired. Twitter was the basis for Louis C.K.’s tour last year. He was concerned about ticket fees and scalping, and wanted to guarantee his real fans got in. So he cut big lead-ins and pre-sales. That is financial suicide. Then he tweeted, the night of the show when tickets were available on his website. They all sold out. We eventually added a third show.”

Comedy has also become more diversified. “There is alternative or indie comedy,” Beringer continues. “Jon Stewart and Bill Maher are political. Louis C.K. and Dennis Miller do intellectual. Sedaris is literary.” And then there are Asian, African American, Latino and Arab comedians.

And yet, comedy can cut across barriers. “If you’re going to spend $30-$40 for a night out with friends, everybody has to be on board,” Beringer says. “Comedy is an easy sell. Genres of music are more divisive.”


Off-Stage Relationships

 Among comedians and agents, Milwaukee is known as a great comedy town. “We have a nice variety of venues, and we build up from smaller Turner shows to the Pabst to the Riverside—a larger room, with bigger play,” Beringer says. Witness Amy Schumer, who sold out Turner Hall early in her career and returned to sell out the Pabst. Since then

Schumer has been seen on Comedy Central.  “Louis C.K. started here as a standup,” Beringer adds. “He filmed Hilarious at the Pabst. After his FX show, he did the Riverside. Now, he’s firing on all cylinders. So we did three shows at the Riverside, sold them all out immediately. Seven-thousand-plus sold. Instantly. Of course he’s coming back to Milwaukee.”

Is there an identifiable Milwaukee comedy audience? 

Orvis doesn’t hesitate. “I think so. Audiences are really aware. You don’t lose them; they follow you. They’re patient. They go with you. And they’re active, too.

“And despite all that, we don’t get hecklers, really. I mean, every once in a while you get someone who is, let’s say, ‘socially awkward,’” he laughed. “But whatever. I love Milwaukee audiences.”

Mary Baird of ComedySportz agrees. Milwaukeeans may get bored. But they don’t get vulgar, vile or venomous.

“The types who come out are fantastic,” she says. “They become avid fans, quickly, and then come repeatedly. They like building relationships.”

“I don’t get too into that: ranking and comparing and all,” Kemple said. “Is Milwaukee a good audience? Absolutely. Every show, we have a great audience.”


“We Just Have Fun”

Will the day come when Milwaukee exports as much humor as it imports? Waukesha’s Frank Caliendo is among the best-known local comedians. Shorewood’s Zucker brothers are doubtless the longest enduring. Brian Green, Tim Higgins and Dobie Maxwell are veterans. Johnny Beehner and Ryan Mason are among the fresh faces.

Can a Milwaukee style of comedy be discerned out of all the laughter? “Milwaukee?” Orvis says. “We just have fun. We’re not out to prove things. We’re more relaxed.”

A Milwaukee style? Maybe a little less bitter, jaded and cynical; a little less worshipping of references and namedropping; less likely to complain or gripe, more likely to be humble? Baird noted that many ComedySportz players head for the coasts. “And they say there is definitely a Midwest style,” she insists. “It lends itself well to film and TV. It’s more of a giving style. Maybe a little keener on teamwork.”

There definitely is a Milwaukee style, Kemple said. Watching submissions, “You can tell: ‘This guy is Chicago. She is East Coast for sure.’ Milwaukee is starting to come out. The audiences and comedians are getting better. Really, they’re getting better, together.”


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