The Comedy Issue: It's no joke

IAN POWER-LUETSCHER | Updated 10/11/2012

A surging Twin Cities open mic scene is producing comics faster than ever.

It's a chilly Wednesday in September and outside of Grumpy's Bar, rookie comics smoke cigarettes after their sets at the downtown staple's notoriously icy open mic. "Grumpy's room can be brutal," one comic says, his voice a mixture of excitement and disappointment.

In the Twin Cities open mic scene, the two dozen or so rooms where comics go to get stage time, newcomers have to be gluttons for punishment because, inevitably, you're going to bomb. But the occasional highs outweigh the lows and tend to resonate deeply. "Once you do standup, it spoils you for everything else," veteran comedian Doug Stanhope told Philadelphia Weekly last year.

So when one young comic is asked why he keeps coming back to Grumpy's, his answer comes as no surprise, "This is great! Cold rooms can be good -- they make you a better comic." That's more or less the mantra of the Twin Cities open mic scene -- and it's an approach that works.

Because now, maybe more than ever, it's an exciting time to be a local comedian, and a lot of that has to do with open mics.

CONFIDENT AT THE TOP

Louis Lee is an affable guy who smiles politely more than he laughs and speaks with a subtle intensity born out of knowledge. He has owned Acme Comedy Co., Minneapolis' flagship standup club, for nearly 21 years. Lee says the booming Twin Cities scene isn't just because of the number and size of the open mics (Acme's is arguably the nation's largest), but also because of the quality.

"Normally, for a brand-new comic to start and to get ready to go on the road, it takes four or five years. Now, because of the amount of stage time available, they mature a lot faster," he says, adding that as the scene grows, it breeds inspiration and creativity. Unlike many other cities, Lee adds, local comics aren't told to stay loyal to one venue.

Cy Amundson, a former Acme regular who moved to L.A. in January, agrees with his old boss.

"The open mic scene anywhere else in the country is not as good as it is in the Twin Cities," he said.

And you'd be hard pressed to find a Minnesota comic who doesn't agree.

crowded at open mics

Dan Schlissel, owner of the Twin Cities-based comedy record label Stand Up! Records, says increased stage time hammers home three simple rules for growth: Write new material, get on stage and keep at it. With at least two or three rooms to choose from every night of the week, the local scene is firmly set up to accommodate that.

Chris Maddock started the Grumpy's open mic 10 years ago and he's been running it ever since. National acts such as Todd Glass and longtime Minnesotan Maria Bamford periodically make impromptu stops when on tour. Maddock, who makes up one-third of the popular Comedy Death Squad and tours regularly, says that although he tries to get as many beginners on the list as he can, his 20-slot list at Grumpy's consistently fills up across the board.

It's the same at Rick Bronson's House of Comedy in the Mall of America, where the list for Mike Brody's 12-slot night is made out two months in advance.

Ditto for Ken and Becky Reed, a married couple who own St. Paul's Joke Joint, where the list is filled until December and they offer a free workshop for greenhorn comics prior to the Wednesday open mic.

SUPPORT IN THE SCENE

It's Friday night and Comedy Corner Underground is packed. The club, in the basement of the Corner Bar on Minneapolis' West Bank, has become a sort of clubhouse for the supportive, tight-knit group of established and up-and-coming Twin Cities comics. Bob Edwards, the mastermind behind the room, is also spearheading the 10,000 Laughs Festival, the Twin Cities' first-ever standup fest, to be held in October.