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Local politics, ‘but entertaining’: a Q&A with the creators of ‘Minnesota Tonight’

‘Minnesota Tonight’
MinnPost photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
"Minnesota Tonight" producer Sally Foster and executive producer Jonathan Gershberg

In a video clip uploaded on YouTube last September, Jonathan Gershberg broke down the debate over the Southwest Light Rail project the best way he knew how — by making fun of it. 

Halfway through the clip, the comedian explained to a crowded audience at the Minneapolis Telecommunications Network what he thinks might be the main reason the project isn’t going anywhere.   

“Like everything in government,” he says, “this issue is split up on party lines led by Gov. Mark Dayton, a man who looks like he told dad-jokes before he had kids … and [House Speaker] Kurt Daudt, a man who looks like he’s still haunted by the fact that his high school football team never made it to state.”

That clip is part of an episode of a show — “Minnesota Tonight” — that Gershberg founded two years ago. Today, he serves as the show's executive producer and the host, which is held every fourth Wednesday of the month at the Brave New Workshop in downtown Minneapolis. 

Since its 2015 debut, the show has taken on marijuana laws, Sunday liquor sales, opioid addiction, the state’s prison system and President Trump’s immigration executive orders, among other things — all as a part of Gershberg's effort to make “Minnesota Tonight” a “comedy show that keeps you up to date on your state.”

MinnPost sat down with Gershberg and producer Sally Foster last week to talk about what spurred them to create the show, what it takes to produce it, and what the future holds for “Minnesota Tonight.”

MinnPost: How did the idea to start “Minnesota Tonight” come about?

Jonathan Gershberg: It’s inspired by satirical news shows such as “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah, “Full Frontal” with Samantha Bee, “Last Week Tonight” with John Oliver and “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert — shows that tackle mainly national politics through a comedic lens.

There’s a real need for some sort of comedy show that deals with local issues that people, for the most part, are not hearing about. Recently, there was a lot of news about national elections, but not about the school board elections that ultimately affect the lives of local residents. 

In summer 2015, when we started “Minnesota Tonight,” a lot of really important local issues were happening, and I felt like they were not talked about in a way that was entertaining. So, I wanted to try to do that work.

MP: It’s been about two years since the show was launched. What have you seen in terms  of its growth?

Sally Foster: When we first started, people watched it for free. Jon was personally financing the show [buying beer and pizza for attendees], and we weren’t making any money.

And then, Jon brought me on in the fall with the intent of growing the show, increasing its production value and moving to a new venue. I would say we’ve seen an enormous period of growth in the past six months.

JG: The first episode, we had a total staff of four, including myself. These four people were the writers, producers and camera people. Now, we have 25 staff members, including writers, producers and editors — all working to produce this show. “Minnesota Tonight” has become so much better because so many people’s viewpoints are represented.

Minnesota Tonight, season 1, episode 6: Marijuana Laws, Marcus Harcus, Sin7

MP: Jon, you’re the founder and the executive producer of the show. How did you become a comedian?

JG: I’m not a Minnesota-native, but I love Minnesota. I’m originally from Connecticut. I went to Macalester College and graduated from there in 2013. I was one of the founding members and the editor of the school’s humor magazine. After college, I did open-mics for stand-up. I did improvs, got really invested in local issues and wanted to combine my interests. So “Minnesota Tonight” is sort of the crystallization of those interests.

MP: How do you decide what topics to talk about and who to interview for each show?

SF: Jon determines those, mainly. He sets the topic, and then, usually works with the head researcher, Michael Weingartner, to determine who the guests should be. We currently have the next five or six topics, roughly, that we would like to do in the future. Usually, as soon as one show ends, we start working on the next show. It’s very quick turnaround.

MP: What is it like to put together a full show? Walk me through the process.

JG: From a writing standpoint, we first come up with a topic. Then we compile issues within that topic. Then we do a lot of research to learn more about the topic before the show.

We value funny segments, but we also want those segments to be well researched and factually accurate. Our team meets every Saturday, and we go through a lot of drafts of everything we write to make sure that it’s up to our standard, both from a comedy and narrative and research perspective. By the time it gets to the stage, it’s been seen by a lot of people, it’s been workshopped and we feel really confident that the information is accurate and the jokes are funny.

SF: Also, we put a lot of thought into who’s going to perform and how can we create equitable space on our stage for women and people of color. In every show, we make sure that we have women performing, and not in supplementary roles, but in main roles. We also make sure that people of color are involved in all segments. We really never want people to come to our show and feel like “OK, they’re doing this whole episode on refugees and inequality and people of color — and it’s all white people up on the stage!”

MP: How many segments does each show have, and what are the crowds like?

SF: We have 10-13 segments in a show — including a monologue, a correspondent piece, an intermission, an interview, a pre-recorded video and band songs. In April, we had about 100 people. Our election show, we sold out. We’ve grown 10 percent every month in the past five months.

MP: Are you doing it full-time?

SF: No. We don’t get paid. No one on our staff gets paid. We do this for the love of politics and comedy. Our time commitment is probably a full-time time commitment, but we both have regular jobs. I’m an underwriter at a major lender.

JG: And I’m an educator at a museum.

MP: Where do you see “Minnesota Tonight” in the next 5, 10 years?

JG: Not only do I want people to watch “Minnesota Tonight,” but learn about important issues that impact them — and hopefully, that causes them to act. I remember hearing about an audience member from one of our previous shows who learned about the limited affordable housing and donated to a nonprofit that helps affordable housing communities. I would like for that to continue. I would love for “Minnesota Tonight” to be a driving force that can push Minnesota to be a more welcoming place for all. 

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