Madison isn't exactly a well-known name on the comedy circuit. It's easy for our city to be eclipsed by nearby Chicago, home of Second City and Saturday Night Live spawning ground. Further afield, comedians go to New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles if they want to catch their big break.
But Madison has always had its fair share of sketch, improv and standup acts - not to mention being the hometown of comedic titan Chris Farley. And these days, there's a flourishing scene taking shape here, one that offers a supportive community for those wishing to flex their funny muscles.
After a period of relative disorganization, there is comedy here most nights. You can enjoy a happy hour with "The Dan Potacke Show"'s weird and wonderful live talk show, every other Monday at the Frequency; hit up the new Comedy Club's Wednesday night open mikes; grab a slice and check out Friday evening improv at Glass Nickel Pizza with the Monkey Business Institute; or roll with Atlas Improv every Saturday at the Electric Earth Cafe. The Comedy Club hosts touring and regional comics every weekend, and more and more famous comics hit venues like the Barrymore Theatre, Overture Center and the Majestic Theatre.
These days, whenever you've got a hankering for a show, live music and theater aren't your only choices. There's laughter, too.
Madison comedy has seen its ups and downs. One of the longstanding open-mike nights used to be held at the Klinic on Park Street. It was never a great fit. The audience, when there was one, usually consisted of a handful of bar regulars, who weren't particularly interested in the jokes being made on the stage.
For a while, the Wisconsin Stand-Up Comedy Project, or WiSUC, organized regular comedy nights. But that endeavor fizzled out, the Klinic closed, and few other venues were willing to take a chance on standup. Things were looking pretty grim.
Joe Buettner, promoter and talent scout for the Comedy Club on State saw the sorry state of things for local comedians and took action. After years of pushing for a regular open-mike night, he finally convinced the club owners to start the Wednesday event. Since its inception earlier this year, crowds have grown, the number and quality of comedians have increased, and Buettner has become a key figure in Madison's comedy renaissance.
Even big names have stopped in to enjoy and sometimes participate in the open mikes, Buettner says. When the likes of Shane Moss, Tommy Thompson and others swing by the club for tour dates, you might see them warming up alongside Madison's own at the event. Sometimes even comics performing at larger venues stop in, like veteran Carlos Mencia, who came to the club after a tour stop at Overture Center. He was so impressed that he's since made a habit of doing surprise shows at the Comedy Club almost every time he's in town.
The club is on something of a roll, in fact. The owners recently took a bold step when they moved it into a new space, in the newly rebuilt Associated Bank building on the corner of State and West Dayton streets. The new place has a swank but cozy feel, with greater capacity than the old location across State Street, a respectable bar and rows upon rows of headshots from past performers lining the walls.
On a recent Wednesday night, a crowd of people showed up at the club to watch a slightly unwieldy but very entertaining crew of locals. Established and up-and-coming Madison comics were there to test new material: Adam Waldron, Rick Yoose, Mike Schmidt, Mark Kump.
There were hits and misses, awkward use of note cards and, in one case, jokes apparently written out on the back of a hand. Some bits tanked or went on so long that the show runners had to signal with a flashlight. Even then, the audience and fellow comedians were supportive, the ribbing always good-natured rather than rude.
And many comics had people in the audience rolling with laughter. David Pickett, a large, gruff gentleman and apparent new dad, quipped, "I think babies are cute so we don't leave them outside when they cry." Schmidt, an unassuming but sharp-witted comedian with a steadily building reputation, bemoaned the lessons of his youth: "My mother always told me that talking to strangers was a great way to end up with a weirdo's hand in your flavor place, but that's bullshit! I've been talking to strangers all week and got nothing!"
There were plenty of similarly crass observations, but not all of the humor fell into pearl-clutching territory. Waldron announced that, were he part of the animal kingdom, he'd like to run for lion: "Mosquitoes, we took a vote and decided that you need to find another planet. Three-toed sloths? You just keep doing what you're doing, you're awesome."
Another comedian who took the stage that evening was Alan Talaga, perhaps better known by the name of his alter ego. Every other Monday, during happy hour at the Frequency, 121 W. Main St., Talaga transforms into Dan Potacke, a bumbling, divorced, ill-prepared nincompoop Sconnie with delusions of talk-show greatness. Each edition features an opening standup act by a local comedian, followed by faux commercials for failed Potacke business ventures, game shows (the Wheel of Fantasticness segment is always good for a laugh), and interviews with prominent area movers and shakers. Talaga as Potacke approaches the whole affair with a sort of blindly earnest clumsiness.
The host's biggest coup to date was getting Mayor Dave Cieslewicz to appear on a bill alongside the Mustard Museum's Barry Levenson. There were so many people in attendance for the May 18 show that, had it not been free, Potacke might have sold the place out.
The Dan Potacke character dates to Talaga's time with the Public Drunkards sketch comedy troupe, which he helped form in 2006. When members went their separate ways, Talaga spent a few months not performing before deciding it was time to act.
"I had started doing a little bit of standup, and I would sometimes break out the Potacke character," Talaga explains. "I was also thinking about doing some sort of serious Madison talk show on one of the local stations, so I think the two ideas just came together and turned into its own thing."
He cites The Colbert Report as a major influence, but concedes that "The Dan Potacke Show" probably won't ever see a wider audience. "As a format it's very Madison-specific." The regularity, popularity and ingenuity of the show have helped to motivate other comedians, though, who say they've been inspired to seek out new venues and styles for their work because of it.
"'The Dan Potacke Show' came around and I think really shamed all of the comics in town," says Waldron. "It's a fun, simple idea - executed to perfection - that someone should have done a long time ago."
Meanwhile, several improv groups put on shows around town, including Atlas Improv Company and the Monkey Business Institute. Matt Sloan, Monkey Business member and co-creator of the popular Internet series "Chad Vader," points out that "a lot of great comedians and funny shit have come out of Madison and still do.Madison is a funny town."
Crossover between comedy formats isn't unheard of. Sloan recently took the plunge and put together his first standup routine, convincing a few of his fellow Monkey Business comedians to do the same. "Standup has always been something I idolized," he explains, "but I never really tried to do it, and I don't know why. So I started writing my own stuff and was surprised at how easily the material came out.The show turned out great, and we're thinking of incorporating standup as a regular feature of our improv show."
Sean Moore, a member of Monkey Business' secondary troupe, Out-On-A-Limb-Prov, performs both improv and standup, and sometimes he does character bits on "The Dan Potacke Show." For a recent sketch, he rolled into the Frequency on a bicycle and presented a series of safety and fashion tips as a slightly exaggerated version of the hipster biker. His commitment to playing affable, but stoned and pretentious, endeared him to the audience. Moore's skills also impressed Sloan and "Chad Vader" co-creator Aaron Yonda enough to write a character - the Marshmallow Bandito - for him to play in the series.
Sketch comedy in Madison has its own storied history, and a current incarnation can be found upstairs at Genna's Lounge once every month or so. Full Nelson-Reilly, the brainchild of Sean McKenna, Jay Moran and Anthony Wood, performs scripted sketches in the guise of live, old-time radio. A recent show included a spoof of This American Life, complete with an over-the-top Ira Glass impersonation about, yes, auto-fellatio.
With all of the options for live comedy springing up around town, plus several Madison comedians gaining notoriety out of town and through the Internet, people agree that the time feels right for Madison comedy to finally come into its own.
"The inspiration and experimentation level around here have been very vibrant lately," Waldron says. "There are some weird ideas being tossed around that I'm really excited about, and if any of them show up in some events, I think we're looking at the beginnings of a great alternative comedy community here in Madison."
Talaga agrees. "I feel like comedians have come out of their shell a little bit and have been more willing to mix it up."
Regular venues, performance troupes, viral videos and all the rest help to create success, but ultimately success is about the hard work and perseverance of the people involved. After years of residing in the shadows of the Madison arts community, the comedians are ready for their close-ups.
Funny in Madison and beyond
You can catch Madison comedians plying their trade around town on almost every night of the week. But hometown talents have also seen success further afield.
Under the banner of Blame Society Productions, Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda's Internet series "Chad Vader" won the George Lucas Selects award at the 2007 Star Wars Fan Movie Challenge. Sloan was later asked to provide the voice of Darth Vader for the LucasArts video game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed. Episode 9 of "Chad Vader"'s second season is due out by the end of October, Sloan says, and a season 2 DVD will be available for the holidays.
Randy Chestnut was asked to perform for the first two Comics Come Home standup events co-sponsored by Comedy Central, with proceeds going to benefit the Chris Farley Foundation. Farley, who died from a drug overdose in 1997, was born and raised in Madison before going on to major success as a cast member on Saturday Night Live and in several motion pictures.
Getting his start alongside the likes of Farley and Joan Cusack at Madison's Ark Improvisational Theater, comedian David Gray enjoyed a degree of success before his death in 2002. He was featured several times on ABC's America's Funniest People and opened for a number of big names, such as Adam Sandler.
Busy Chicago-based comedian Kevin Bozeman is from Madison, and every year he returns for his Turkey Day Eve Comedy Bash. Catch the show on Nov. 26 this year at the Comedy Club on State.
Get your funny on
Monkey Business Institute
Glass Nickel-Atwood, 2916 Atwood Ave., Fridays, 8 pm
Atlas Improv Company
Electric Earth Cafe, 546 W. Washington Ave., Saturdays, 8 & 10 pm
The Dan Potacke Show
Frequency, 121 W. Main St., Monday, Oct. 26, 6:30 pm
Madison Comedy Collective Open Mike
Comedy Club on State, 202 State St., Wednesdays, 8:30 pm
The Comedy Club on State also hosts touring and local comedians every weekend. Adam Waldron appears with Mike Schmidt and Brian Green on Oct. 29.