Grumpy’s Death Comedy Jam: “Where old comics go to die and new comics come to quit,” said the perpetually animated Chris Maddock over a beer on a frosty Monday evening at Grumpy's Downtown.
Maddock, 34, is one of the most revered and deft standups in the Twin Cities comedy scene. He's the longtime host of Grumpy’s infamous open mic, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary with a free comedy marathon Wednesday. The open mic was founded by Maddock and Dan Schlissel, president of locally based comedy label Stand Up! Records, which has represented everyone from locals like Maddock (his 2012 debut "Point of Entry" received high praise from Doug Stanhope) to heavyweights such as Hannibal Buress and Marc Maron.
For the uninitiated, Grumpy’s is not only the longest running Twin Cities comedy open mic, but it also has a long-held reputation for being one of the most challenging and brutal rooms in the city. There’s some myth and hyperbole attached to that notion, but it’s not completely unjustified. The performance space is a dimly lit, narrow strip that’s separated from the main bar area. On one end, you’ll see a throng of local comics murmuring and meandering listlessly in the back. On the other, you'll find a few – if you’re lucky – jaded-yet-attentive audience members.
“It can be a hard room, but it's a super fun room,” Maddock said. “I love it. I woudn't change a thing about it. It's got a reputation as a tough room and obviously an awkwardly shaped room, but it's my little bus-shaped closet of comedy.”
Despite the stigma, Grumpy’s open mic remains one of the most regularly attended in Minneapolis. It has evolved into something of a social hub for local comics new and old. It’s even become rest stop for nationally renowned standups - including Paul F. Tompkins, Tig Notaro and Stanhope – all of whom have performed at Grumpy's.
“One time Todd Barry came through and made fun of me for holding a stop watch to time him, Maddock remembered. "I remember him saying ‘I've never seen a guy whose sole job was to time people.’”
The room has also become a sort of rite of passage for committed amateurs. When you break your standup cherry at Grumpy’s you feel as if you’re walking some sort of proverbial plank that consumes you with dread (my first time up, the cord fell out of my microphone and I ended up, in a mortifying display of ineptitude, leaving the stage minutes before my time was up).
“Other comics basically told me that if you're ever going to be worth a damn, that's where you need to go - that's where you learn to bomb,” said Grumpy’s regular Jack Boyd, who started just over two years ago. "I've eaten shit there countless times. A lot of comics talk about learning how to control a room, which I don't think is possible there. But one thing you learn is how to control yourself and how you respond to a cold room.”
Schlissel, whose label is sponsoring Wednesday’s event, sees it the same way, more or less.
“Generally the [local] comics you see who don't show up to do that room take a little dip in their career. If you're a comedian, you should never be above a gig at all, no matter how shitty it is,” Schlissel said. “And if you can't do it, maybe you should be touring the alternative circuit. Because then you're not trying to entertain audiences - you're just trying to entertain yourself and your buddies.”
But not every Wednesday at Grumpy’s is a dismal affair. The audience turnout fluctuates week-to-week and Maddock keeps the show from flying off the rails – most of the time.
“A long time ago, I punched a hole in the ceiling. I was mad at the crowd," Maddock recounted. "The place was full and I was so embarrassed. Danny Bevins – who now lives in L.A. - physically handled me after a show because I was a prick on stage. [He] told me I wasn't allowed to do that and smashed his forehead into my forehead.”
Of course, Grumpy’s is just one of many weekly comedy open mics in the Twin Cities. But it’s a distinguished landmark of the scene where really anything (or absolutely nothing) can happen (just last month a disruptive audience member almost physically assaulted Maddock after being chastised). But for all it’s supposed gloom and doom, the comics keep lining up and Maddock doesn’t see that ending anytime soon.
“I don't know why they come back. But I know I do it just because it pays off just in spade. You'll find yourself in situations on the road that are just as worse - or even worse," he explained. “It’s had its ups and downs, but this place is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Grumpy’s Death Comedy Jam 10th Anniversary
When: 11 a.m. to close Wed.
Where: Grumpy's Downtow, 1111 Washington Av. S., Mpls.