Minneapolis, it turns out, is a very good town for comics. Given the brief life expectancy of comedy clubs, the fact that the Acme Comedy Co. on 1st Street in the North Loop is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week, and by all accounts is going stronger than ever, counts as no small accomplishment both for the specialized art of stand-up comedy and for Louis Lee, Acme’s owner. Lee, a native of Hong Kong, opened the club in 1991 in a desperate attempt to pull himself out of debt — and bravely did so at a time when comedy clubs around the country were officially declared dead.
What has he built over two decades? We visited Acme on a recent Friday night, the first of two shows: The room (capacity: 275) is packed with people of all ages, from college all the way to 83, this being Vivian (no last name given), who bought tickets for her six children and their spouses as a belated Christmas gift to the family. Seated in the front row, Vivian, naturally, became an ongoing part of the show. “I thought I had Betty White sitting here,” says Joe Larson, a comic from New York.
The audience is in a good mood. The emcee, Trevor Anderson, a likable 23-year-old local comic who looks like a tall Dana Carvey, opens the show with a snappy 18 minutes. (“I like my presidents the way I like my coffee: with a cigarette in it.” Each comic does his own version of the joke.) Anderson introduces Larson — a little older, more experienced, more acerbic, more New York. (“You don’t become Catholic; it’s something you have to be molested into.”) Larson goes over big, as does the headliner, Patrick Keane, whose smart, lively style is a kind of rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness.
After the show, Larson points to a grid that covers a backstage wall on which each comic who has performed at Acme has signed his name. Larson first signed the grid in 2007. He calls Acme one of the top three comedy clubs in the country, one of the others being the Comedy Works in Denver. “I’m so lucky to get here,” he said. “You fight to get booked into this club. The place is a dream, and the audiences are smart. Louis has carefully built this audience.”
‘A restaurant guy’
Lee, short and slight of build, calls himself “a restaurant guy” rather than a comedy guy, and indeed, in conversation, he’s thoughtful but clearly not someone compelled to make others laugh. Arriving in the U.S. in 1977 at age 18 accompanied by six brothers and sisters, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota and worked as a waiter and a busboy in restaurants around town, and later managed several restaurants and comedy clubs then owned by Scott Hansen. By 1991, his latest venture had gone belly-up, leaving him severely in debt, most of it owed to his family. If he was ever to pay the money back, he figured he would have to run more than just a restaurant. So he signed a lease on a comedy club on 1st Street that had folded, Dave Wood’s Rib Tickler.
“It was, like, my last chance,” he said. “And then, right after I opened this place, the comedy business started to go downhill. By ’94, ’95, there were just two clubs left in town, this one and Knuckle Heads in Mall of America (now Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy). In a couple of years, the market hit rock bottom. Every day seemed like might be my last one.”
It’s easy to forget how strong a force stand-up comedy became in the late ’70s and through most of the ’80s. It was a time when comedy, as was commonly said back then, “was the new rock ‘n’ roll” or before that, “the new disco.” Richard Zoglin sums up the zeitgeist in his book “Comedy on the Edge.” “In the ’70s, stand-up comedy moved to the center of contemporary culture and defined the shape of a distinctly American art form.”
When the boom hit its peak in the late ’80s, Zoglin says, there were at least 300 full-time comedy clubs in the country and 1,500 people making a comfortable living doing stand-up. Steve Martin played to 15,000 a night in hockey areas; audiences did his punch lines along with him. The Twin Cities boasted at least eight comedy clubs back then. Hansen, who might be called the godfather of local stand-up clubs, ran six of them in the Twin Cities at one time and 25 more throughout the state. In failing health, he sold everything in 1996 and now runs a small Comedy Gallery in Arden Hills, books comedians, performs for conventions and corporate gigs and teaches comedy at an arts center in Maplewood.
Maybe a third remain
Lee figures that there are maybe 100 comedy clubs that survived the crash. The reason for the decline: too many clubs, too many comedians, many of them not ready for prime time, and, as a result, mediocre shows. And the clubs, in his view, were focused too much on the 21-to-35 crowd, forgetting that people in their 30s were having kids and, for the most part, not going to comedy clubs anymore. One of the first things he did was open his doors to 18-21-year-olds, which meant, because of liquor sales, everyone had to be carded. “I realized that we had to train a new young audience — college students. You get the 18-year-olds, give them a discount and get them hooked on comedy at 21 and 22, and they turn into loyal customers. So, even though you’re losing the 30-year-olds, every year, you’ve got a new batch of students coming in to replace them. And then every summer we do an amateur contest for young comics. We went from 20 people signing up 18 years ago to over 200 this year.”
In a good week, Acme draws about 1,600 people, Lee says. Many will have dinner before the show at the adjacent restaurant, Sticks. Unlike most clubs, he charges no minimum, and his Open Mike Nights on Monday, which usually draw about 250 people, are free. “The business is relatively healthy now,” he says. “Most of the clubs I know are doing pretty well. They have learned from the mistakes of the past. And the audience is a lot hipper today than it was 20 years ago, and I think it’s because of TV, like “Comedy Central,” and the Internet, especially YouTube. You Google a comic, and you get 10-15 video clips.”
As for the comics, they’re better than ever, Lee thinks: more creative, more professional. “They can make really good money working in clubs, but now they can also play theaters or casinos. It used to be that a comic needed a sitcom in order to be successful, whereas now they can become a concert comic. They don’t need a network show.” A headliner who’s a good draw can earn between $5,000 and $15,000 for a week’s work at Acme (a week being either four or five nights), Lee said.
Many Acme alums have become stars: Lewis Black, Arj Barker, Patton Oswalt, Jim Gaffigan (who sold out four shows at the State Theater last month) and Louis C.K., who Lee says is the hottest comic working today. Lee’s favorite: Dana Gould, formerly a writer for “The Simpsons,” who has made numerous appearances at Acme. (In honor of the club’s 20th anniversary, from Thursday through Saturday, Acme will present 20 national headliners performing their best 20 minutes of material.)
The hardest kind of comedy to do these days is political, he says. Audiences are increasingly divided — and passionate — about their allegiances. “Most of the political comics are liberal,” he says. He mentions Will Durst. “If you are conservative, you don’t have a career. Stand-up comedy is tightly close to the arts community and the entertainment industry, and so it’s hard to get across certain ideas, like right-wing views. People think it’s not funny.”
Mondale joke didn’t go over well …
He recalled an engagement by Tim Slagle during the 2002 election. Slagle, who identifies himself as a libertarian, made jokes about former Vice President Walter Mondale, then running for the U.S. Senate, arguing that Mondale was too old to run for the position. “During one show, 250 people walked out, almost the entire audience,” Lee said. “I lost a lot of money on that one.” Even so, he said he’s never cautioned a comic that he or she has gone too far in their jokes or points of view.
It may be appropriate that Minneapolis today ranks near the top of the comedy-club food chain — that, apparently, is the way it started. Back in 1977, when a handful of funny local guys began telling jokes at Mickey Finn’s, a bar on Central, near University Avenue, the local stand-up scene was born. Hansen went there one night because a friend had entered a comedy contest. When he heckled some of the weaker performers, the owner suggested he return the following weekend and get up on the stage himself. “I was scared shitless,” said Hansen. “I had done some acting, but I was uncomfortable in front of an audience.” He eventually got over his nerves and became part of a group of regulars at Mickeys, which at that time he says was one of only five clubs in the country doing stand-up comedy. Among many who got their start at Mickeys were Louie Anderson, Jeff Gerbino, Joel Hodgson, Jeff Cesario and Bill Bauer.
Though Hansen no longer presides over a comedy-club empire, he says he’s as busy as he wants to be. “Comedy always seems to come back,” he said. “Right now I’m getting more calls to book shows than I did last year. The thing about comedy is everyone likes to laugh, whereas, you book a band and some people won’t like the music.”
Acme Comedy Co. 20th Anniversary. 20 comedians Thurs-Sat. Nov. 3-5, $20. 708 No. 1st St., Minneapolis. 612-338-6393.