How Viral Video King Charlie Berens Became Wisconsin’s Camo-Clad Culture Ambassador

Meet the man behind da guy.

Photo by Sara Stathas

Charlie Berens raises a rotisserie chicken speared on a plastic fork up to his head. He holds it over a red plastic cup with a bright green celery stick poking over the rim.

“The first rule of bloody marys,” he says in a thick Wisconsin accent. “If it fits on a stick, give it a lick.”

His producer, Max Larsen, hunches in front of him, looking through a camera mounted on his shoulders, filming the scene. Berens is standing in front of the open bed of a pickup truck in a nearly empty Lambeau Field parking lot. He’s across the street from the Resch Center, the 10,000-seat arena where he’ll perform to a sold-out crowd a month after this video shoot.

Berens glances past the camera, and his bearing changes: the comically strained expression fades, replaced by a genuine smile, his tight posture relaxes, he lowers the big chicken on a stick, and the accent weakens as he calls out: “Hey there, folks.”

Standing a few yards across the lot, a couple with two toddlers has been sheepishly watching him for the past few minutes. “We’re big fans,” the mother says. “We live in Zurich, Switzerland. We just flew in.”

Berens puts the drink down on a folding table and joins the family to pose for a picture. Wearing boots, a Packers jacket over a Packers jersey, and a blaze orange winter hat that reads “Ope” across the front, he’s completely in costume. It’s the third time in an hour that someone passing by the parking lot set has recognized him and stopped to say hello.

“It happens basically wherever he goes,” his younger brother John Berens says.

Photo by Archer Parquette

 

 

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Meantime, Larsen stares into the viewfinder, checking the footage they’ve been shooting for a “School of Tailgating” sketch, scheduled to be posted to Charlie’s YouTube channel the next week. The rest of the cast and crew – Colleen Muraca, Dante Williams and John, all employees of Cripes Inc., Charlie’s company – wait while Charlie’s brand agent, Brent Beck, takes the photo. 

The mother tells Berens how her Wisconsin family members always send her his videos; Berens thanks her for watching. Once the picture is taken, he returns to the tailgate. 

“Did we get that shot?” he asks Larsen.

“Let’s do it one more time,” Larsen says. 

Berens picks up his Solo Cup, balances the impaled chicken over it, and slips effortlessly back into the character that’s made him famous.


THAT CHARACTER – a camo-wearing, Packers-loving, Bears-hating, brat-grilling, ice-fishing, deer-hunting, beer-drinking epitome of all things Wisconsin – first came to life far from Berens’ home state. 

It was June of 2017, and Berens had turned 30 two months earlier. He was living in Los Angeles, where he’d been since 2014, working as a red carpet host, interviewing celebrities at awards shows and events, for @Hollywood, a now-defunct celebrity news site, and Fox. But what really mattered to him was comedy: doing standup at LA clubs and taping short comedy bits for his YouTube channel.  

He had one viral success in 2016, a video titled “If Jack Dawson Was Really From Wisconsin,” dubbing Leonardo DiCaprio’s lines in Titanic with an over-the-top accent. The video garnered over 13 million views on the comedy website Funny or Die.

Talk to Berens at length and it’s clear he shares the ‘Manitowoc Minute’ anchor’s positivity and enthusiasm, just with the volume turned down. 

But his standup career was moving slow. More than once, he bought all the tickets for his show and gave them away free, and still the seats were empty when he went on stage. 

That June night, he was doing a set at The Comedy Store. He had eight minutes of material, a mix of observational humor and a dive into his background as a Wisconsinite trying to make it in comedy and broadcast journalism. He had been experimenting with a Wisconsin character who played up all the stereotypes of the state, but it hadn’t coalesced into anything.

Charlie Berens shooting a video with Max Larsen in his Milwaukee home; Photo by Sara Stathas

During the show, he asked the audience if anyone was from the Midwest. Hands went up and he called on a man.

“He was from Manitowoc,” Berens says. “This guy was going back and forth with me during the show. … Something along the lines of ‘Oh, you ever get down to Sheboygan? You see them waves they got? It’s better than Malibu.’”

The accent-heavy bit got the most laughs of the night and gave him an idea. 

The next day, he filmed a 95-second video of himself sitting behind a local TV news-style desk, wearing a camouflage jacket over a shirt and tie. “Let’s get these headlines done real quick once,” he said, in that exaggerated accent. “Seven percent of U.S. adults say chocolate milk comes from brown cows. Oh my gosh. Come on now. You gotta be kidding me here, guy.”

Within a few days, “Manitowoc Minute” had surpassed any other video on Berens’ YouTube account. He posted four more episodes over the rest of June and July, each one reaching six-digit views. 

In mid-July, only a month after the first episode, Turner Hall Ballroom invited him to headline a live show. Still having only eight minutes of standup material but unable to say no to such a sudden, major opportunity, he got to work on more, all while posting new videos to his channel every week.

“From that point on, that was my job,” he says.


WHEN FIRST MEETING BERENS, his Midwest politeness and friendliness are immediately noticeable. Seconds after we met for an interview, he noticed that the jacket I was wearing was too thin for the cold day and ran back into his house to find me a warmer one. 

And his normal speaking voice absolutely contains the noticeable nasal inflections of a born-and-bred Wisconsinite, but it is a step down from the exaggerated accent the “Manitowoc Minute” anchor employs. During normal conversation, he slips briefly into the harder accent for quick jokes and asides, such as while we’re driving up to Green Bay and a car speeds rapidly up to his bumper. “OK, OK. I see you, guy. 90? Nice,” he said, moving to the right lane. “Got somewhere to be? Is that a Michigan plate?”

Even when the comic accent fades, the character is still close. Berens hunts, loves the Packers, enjoys a brat, knows the value of pinching a penny and has a deep love for his home state. 

“That mentality is the mentality that I grew up with and that my family has,” he says. “There’s not a whole lot of gap there [between the character and myself], which I think is why it’s very easy for me to slip in and out of it.”

Larsen also notes the similarity between his friend and the character he captures on camera. “As I’ve gotten to know Charlie over the years and gone up north to go fishing and hunting with his family – that’s all a very big part of his life. It was never manufactured for the character. … It’s more or less a caricature of him.”

Charlie with Andy and Grandpa Bob circa 2000; Photo courtesy of Charlie Berens

Talk to Berens at length and it’s clear he shares the “Manitowoc Minute” anchor’s positivity and enthusiasm, just with the volume turned down. He talks extensively and eloquently about culture and politics, turning a discussion about being a Jon Stewart fan into a thoughtful analysis of comedic news, serious journalism and his dislike of cable news and media that “intentionally divides.” 

It’s hard to imagine Berens’ character getting into that topic without peppering it with a couple of “cripes,” or at least an “oh my gosh.”


BUT THE WISCONSINITE character is more than just a parody or observational humor; it runs in Berens’ blood.

The second-oldest of 12 children, Charlie grew up in New Berlin and Elm Grove. His father, Richard Berens, is an anesthesiologist at Children’s Wisconsin, and his mother, Molly Berens, works in PR and currently handles Charlie’s merchandise and promotions.    

Richard remembers Charlie as a mimic from an early age. He would go on a jog with his headphones on, and Charlie would plop half of a foam donut over his head and run along after him, aping his stride. “He was very good at watching what was going on,” Richard says. “He would pay attention to what was being said, why it was being said. … I think he uses a lot of the stories he’s learned, sewing those into the fabric of his characters.”

A 7-year-old Charlie, left, with brother Andy, sister Betsy and father, Richard; Photo courtesy of Charlie Berens

One of the people Charlie watched closely was his grandfather, Bob, Richard’s father. 

“You listened to him talk, you listened to his fishing buddies talk, and you had a bit,” Charlie says. 

“They had just the thickest Wisconsin accents,” his brother John says. 

“Cripes Alfrighty” – one of the phrases Charlie’s “Manitowoc Minute” character made famous – came straight from the mouth of curse-averse Grandpa Bob. 

Charlie and his siblings were also raised devout Catholics, and the signs of that upbringing are apparent. At one point during our interview, Charlie dropped a curse word, and immediately stopped mid-sentence. “Do you print swear words? You can just say ‘an expletive I can’t print because Charlie’s mom will make him go to confession.’”

Attending Marquette University High School, he was drawn to performance. He sang and played guitar with several garage bands, and for a few years, wanted to become a musician. He also started working on the school newspaper while his older brother was the editor-in-chief. He took over the top spot after his brother graduated, and then majored in journalism at UW-Madison, where at one point, three of his siblings were studying at the same time.

Charlie, 16, playing for his family; Photo courtesy of Charlie Berens

“[Journalism] wasn’t necessarily something I wanted to do,” he says. “I did it because I thought it was a good opportunity. … I wanted to perform.”

His junior year, during the 2008 presidential election, he got a job with MTV as a “Street Team ’08” correspondent, a limited-time position that offered the memorable experience of spending a night in jail after being arrested along with protesters and other reporters outside the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

In 2011, two years after graduating, Berens found a job that combined his journalism experience and performance hopes at “OneMinuteNews,” a Jon Stewart-style comedy news program aimed at drawing in a millennial audience for a fledgling South Carolina-based YouTube channel. 

He wrote, edited and produced content as a correspondent for close to two years, but when the channel’s funding was pulled, his pay was cut down to next to nothing.

“People would be very right in saying that he’s similar to his character, even though obviously that’s a caricature.” 

— ZURI HALL

That led to possibly the most bizarre entry on Berens’ long resume – freelance producer for China Central Television America, the state-controlled media wing of the Chinese Communist Party. “It’s part of their soft influence campaign,” he says. “I needed money. … It was awful. I thought, ‘I gotta do anything other than this.”

He was commuting between South Carolina and Washington D.C., where CCTV was based. He didn’t have a place to stay in D.C., or the money for a hotel, so he would spend the night in his car parked outside a Sleep Inn. “I would go in and eat the continental breakfast and swim in the pool – that was my shower,” he says. 

The higher-ups at CCTV sometimes redlined stories and refused to let him do anything other than produce. Even voiceover was out of the question for a simple reason – they thought his Wisconsin accent was too thick. He quit after three months. 

His next gig took him to Dallas, where he was tapped by the local CW station to host a new hourlong live show that he describes as “the news with punchlines.” He became fast friends with co-anchor Zuri Hall, a young reporter from Ohio who is now a host and correspondent with “Access Hollywood” and “All Access.” Hall remembers many late nights spent writing up the next day’s program. One such newscast saw Berens blasting a tune on a harmonica, while Hall sang a song about the day’s headlines, including Randy Travis’s naked DUI arrest. 

“Charlie is, and I say this lovingly, the whitest white boy out of all the white boys I know – and I know a lot of white boys,” says Hall, who is Black. “People would be very right in saying that he’s similar to his character, even though obviously that’s a caricature. … He’s a good guy at the end of the day. In an industry that we’ve both been in for more than a decade at this point, you don’t meet a lot of good people trying their best to do good through their work.”

After a little less than a year, Hall left for a new job, and Berens stayed on. The station soon decided that the comedy angle wasn’t working for the show, and Berens switched over to a straighter take on the news. That stint as a reporter ended up netting him a local Emmy in 2013 for a segment on the rising price of water in drought-stricken Dallas. 

He left that job in 2014 to move to Los Angeles for the “shadow career” in celebrity news while following his comedy passion at night. Before that show at The Comedy Store when “Manitowoc Minute” was born, he experimented with different styles of comedy, jokes about everyday life that he now calls “hacky.” 

“You have to go through that when you’re first doing standup – what’s my perspective?” he says. “What would always save my set when I was bombing was that Wisconsin character. … Eventually, I was able to figure out who I was through this character. The character really allowed me to just be me, but to have that plausible deniability. If people didn’t like it, being like, ‘It’s a character.’”

He kept saving money from his job and other hosting gigs, and eventually, with about enough to live on for six months, he quit the day job to make one big go at comedy. That first “Manitowoc Minute” video went viral before he ran out of savings, and it was followed by the offer to headline at the Turner Hall Ballroom. After that, his career took off fast. The character hit a comic niche that wasn’t being fulfilled – a full-throated sendup and embrace of every Wisconsin stereotype. 

Even, some would say, the negative ones. That’s far from Berens’ intention, and Hall sees the character as something more than a parody. 

“I’ve always been very impressed because I found it to be a really smart, really thoughtful representation of the quote unquote, Wisconsin man,” she says. “Sometimes when I see ‘Manitowoc Minute,’ I see a guy who looks like he would be the opposite of anyone who would advocate for anything that has to do with my people’s plight or the concerns of me, being a Black woman of a certain socioeconomic background in America. And yet when you watch closely and listen, there’s so much underneath that obvious top layer – the bells, the whistles, the funny outfit, the camo – and he’s really speaking his truth.” 


A CHARLIE BERENS shoot is loose, fun and relaxed, but still professional – especially when a brand partner is involved. The cold, overcast November day when Berens shot the “School of Tailgating” sketch, he arrived at Lambeau and parked alongside a brand-new, sparkling clean Chevy Silverado that Chevrolet’s marketing team had brought for the shoot. Chevrolet – one of 10 Berens brand partners, including Duluth Trading Co. and Fleet Farm – sponsored the video. 

The day’s work is broken down into two sections. First, Larsen shoots Williams, Muraca and John Berens playing students. Charlie reads his lines from the script off-camera, and they respond. He directs ad-libs and asks for different interpretations of their lines. This takes about an hour-and-a-half, and then they reset to shoot Berens’ side of the scene. He stands in front of the Chevy tailgate, behind a table with a handle of vodka, bloody mary mix, a case of Leinie’s, and a stack of copies of his new book, The Midwest Survival Guide.  

Midway through a take, while Berens is wielding a pair of grilling tongs at the camera, a tornado siren blares. Larsen hesitates. “No, keep rolling, keep rolling,” Berens says, and then starts yelling over the noise. “There’s your bell. Class dismissed.”

Despite some moments of improv, the “Tailgating 101” shoot is still far more scripted than most. Kristin Brey, the founder of digital media company As Goes Wisconsin, worked with Berens on “Midwest Horror Film,” a parody with Berens’ Wisconsinite character as a disturbingly polite maybe-slasher. It was shot with no script, and each scene came about on the spot.

“The camera turned on and he just turned into that character,” Brey says. “He just went for it and came up with some comedy gold on the spot.”

Berens’ fan base doubled, tripled and kept growing after 2017. Fully embracing his Wisconsin roots, something that once seemed like a hindrance to his career, was now paying dividends. He started doing other Wisconsin-spoofing sketches. Videos like “Midwest Nice” and “Midwest Voice Translator,” riffing on Midwest lingo and excessive politeness, raked in millions of views. 

In 2018, about seven months after his first “Manitowoc Minute,” Berens moved back to Milwaukee, buying a home in Washington Heights. “If it wasn’t good for my career, LA was not where I would have chosen to live,” he says. “I love Wisconsin. This place is beautiful. … People complain about the winters. They’re just not wearing enough clothes.”

He started posting regularly on Facebook and Instagram, and eventually TikTok after his sister told him, “If you’re not on it in three months, you’ll be irrelevant.” When COVID hit in March of 2020 and all of Berens’ live shows were canceled, he doubled down on videos. Larsen and Berens shot in Berens’ kitchen or outdoors away from others. With movies and television on pause and many other online creators taking a break, Berens’ content started to break through faster than before. “Every day, he was getting thousands more followers,” Beck says. 

Berens’ sister was proved correct about TikTok. He now has 1.6 million fans and counting, just behind his 1.8 million followers on Facebook. Larsen estimates that TikTok will soon take over as Berens’ biggest platform. 

In November of 2020, Berens released Unthawed, a comedic album with Adam Greuel, the singer/guitarist of bluegrass band Horseshoes & Hand Grenades. A year later he published The Midwest Survival Guide – a sort of Berens bible. 

“The more diverse you are, the more you’re able to ride out a dry patch,” he says, noting that revenue from YouTube and Facebook can fluctuate dramatically from month to month.

During that same period of growth, Berens hit a personal rough patch, ending his marriage of five years to Alex Wehrley, who also creates Wisconsin-centric videos, in the fall of 2020. He prefers not to talk about it but says he and Wehrley are on good terms going forward.

Last fall, Berens went back on tour. The tour covered Wisconsin, of course, but also extended to Maryland, Florida and Colorado. A few years ago, he couldn’t give away tickets to his shows, and now they’re selling out. He added a third performance at Milwaukee’s Riverside Theater this month to meet demand.

“Eventually, you say, OK, I can get these punchlines, now can I tell them who I am?” he says. “That’s a longer process. I wouldn’t say that I’m there yet, but I think I’m getting there.”

Berens playing the wife in his “Midwest Couples Therapy” sketch; Photo by Sara Stathas

“Cripescast” has been a major step in revealing more of the man behind the character. The interview podcast launched in June of 2020, and while the comedy is still there, it showcases Berens more as an interviewer, with guests from a spectrum of fields beyond entertainment. In September, he spoke to Eduardo M. Garza Jr. of the Center for Veterans Issues about mental health awareness for veterans. In July, he spoke to April Stone, the last black ash basket weaver of the Bad River Ojibwe tribe. 

“It’s raising awareness to these issues without everything needing to be a political thing,” he says. “I think when people stop fusing their identity to a politician and start fusing their identity to their fellow man, when they decide that their love for people outweighs their love for a political identity, then I think we’ll find change. And I do think that’s happening.”

“If any real change is going to happen in this world, it’s going to be people deciding to be people.” 

— CHARLIE BERENS

If you only watch the occasional sketch, it might be surprising to hear Berens talk about the state of politics and culture. But ever since he first gained an audience, he’s used his position to raise awareness for issues and support charitable causes, like selling face masks to raise money for the VFW or donating his merchandise revenue to Hurricane Ida relief. Hall describes Berens’ style as a “Trojan horse,” with his desire for a better, more unified social and cultural landscape woven into his comedy.

“If any real change is going to happen in this world, it’s going to be people deciding to be people,” Berens says. “People are going to have to rise above the political system and structures. They’re going to have to unite on some sort of common humanity and make change that way.” 

One of those sources of common humanity, as Berens sees it, is comedy and conversation, and as he goes further with his career, he hopes to do what he can to help create those “common touchpoints.” 

As far as what that future looks like, Berens wants to keep his videos coming, but he’s also open to new approaches – longer-form shows, a standup special, and right now he’s working on an animated series. One thing he’s adamant about is staying in Wisconsin. He’s been to LA, and he’s not planning to go back. 

“Really, I just want to keep making content that brings people together,” he says. “I’m not going to sit here and say comedy can fix the world. But if telling some jokes or putting out a funny video helps people laugh together, then that’s a step in the right direction. … It’s about people. It’s about love. It’s about community. It’s about embracing who you are and where you’re from, and everything else will fall into line.”  


This is MilMag managing editor Archer Parquette’s first narrative feature.


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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Archer is the managing editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Some say he is a great warrior and prophet, a man of boundless sight in a world gone blind, a denizen of truth and goodness, a beacon of hope shining bright in this dark world. Others say he smells like cheese.