Griffin and C.K. photos courtesy of the Pabst Theater
When Dick Chudnow moved back to Milwaukee in 1982 from comedy mecca Los Angeles, he noticed the city’s lack of laughter.
“There were no comedy clubs,” he says. All-local stand-up sets at Teddy’s (now Shank Hall) were the only shows of the sort in town. “As far as improv, nobody here had even heard of it. It was like explaining to a blind person what green was.”
But Chudnow kept talking and founded ComedySportz in 1984. A local improvisational comedy institution that also offers public improv classes, it counts among its alumni “Community” creator Dan Harmon, “Sarah Silverman Program” director Rob Schrab and “MADtv” cast member Eric Price. Other clubs followed – Jokerz on West Silver Spring Drive and Comedy Café on Brady Street – and played host to a growing influx of touring talent.
Today, comedians say, Milwaukee’s scene is stronger than ever. It’s an obligatory stop on the tours of many big names, and more are choosing the city as a site to record specials and albums. Jeff Dunham filmed his Christmas special at the Pabst Theater in 2010. Modern legend Louis C.K. used the Pabst for his album Hilarious, which won a Grammy earlier this year. And Kathy Griffin shot a special at the Riverside Theater in 2011. It’s a far cry from 1972, when the late George Carlin was arrested after a Summerfest performance that included his famed “seven dirty words” bit.
As recently as a few years ago, the Pabst, Riverside and Turner Hall weren’t booking comedy acts, says Pabst talent buyer Matt Beringer. Then came the “Whose Line is it Anyway?” improv troupe. The first show sold out and prompted an immediate second. Now, the three venues stage about four comedy shows a month, more than ever before. Jim Gaffigan even has a standing agreement to perform at the Pabst each New Year’s Eve.
“I’ve been in town for almost 10 years now,” says Milwaukee comedian Matt Kemple. “I’ve never seen the comedy scene like this. It’s just crazy.”
In 2006, Kemple and some friends hatched the first Milwaukee Comedy Festival, originally dubbed the “Milwaukee Sketch and Improv Festival.” It sold out. “Our whole goal,” Kemple says, “was to help foster the comedy environment.”
The two-day, all-local event spawned five more increasingly popular renditions. The seventh incarnation, proof of the festival’s growth, is slated for Aug. 3-11. Meanwhile, its affiliated website, MilwaukeeComedy.net, touts as many as five or six productions a month in local venues.
Then there are the open mic comedy nights that are common at watering holes such as Karma Bar & Grill, Sugar Maple, the Miramar Theatre, Carte Blanche Studios and Art Bar.
Milwaukee-based comedian Johnny Beehner cut his teeth at open mic nights more than a decade ago before starting to tour nationally. The city, he says, has great crowds – smart but not snobby. And even the state as a whole “has a great reputation among comics,” he adds. “Most love performing in Wisconsin.”
If only Carlin had lived to see it.