Big Local Chuckles

thanks to a unique open mic experience at The Plus, the local standup comedy scene is beautiful, growing

Cullen Ryan

Cullen Ryan
Cullen Ryan

I climbed out of bed with a splitting headache, no clean socks, and shoes so beat up they’ll mainly be tape and glue until my next payday. But today is a great day – I get to see live comedy.

In two and half years, Sean Jones has transformed The Plus’ Tuesday Night Artisan Evening into a singular experience. A wave is rising. Where water once trickled, a mighty flowing stream spews flotsam on the shores of the Chippewa Valley. A gargling waterfall of chuckles, a cascading rain of wit, and a typhoon of poorly mixed metaphors about water and comedy spin a laugh sailboat into happy human hearts.

I had moved to Eau Claire in the spring of 2012 and was anxious to dive into the comedy waters. I jumped from open mic to open mic, finding landing on The Plus – mostly because I liked the host, Sean Jones. He clearly cares deeply about people and performers in a way that makes me jealous.

When the sound system shuts down, clapping hands fade, and the smiles and hugs wander out to the bar or onto Barstow Street, my first thought is always, “I can’t believe I got to see this for free.”

So I started yammering my jokes to a barely attentive crowd every Tuesday night. I was the only one doing stand-up for the first six months. There was something special about performing 10 minutes of conversational, rambling comedy to six or seven people: The kind of special you hope finds a large garbage hole to fall in.

I started stand-up in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I’d go to my day job, then spend four nights a week trying to get stage time in the best comedy rooms in the country. I’d arrive at open mics sometimes three hours early, drinking too much and hoping for a three minute set out of pity. I wanted desperately to be good. I most certainly wasn’t. I was never going to say a word about my personal life on stage – I was going to be an absurdist – I’d be the clown the world deserves, then turn smugly to the crowd and say, “Who is really the clown here? Me? Or is it society?”

I was embarrassingly wrong. There’s a lot of bad advice out there for new comics, and none worse than the advice new comics give themselves.

My first few months in Eau Claire were sloppy, but I was still having fun. Sean usually threw me on at the end of the show so I didn’t interrupt the flow of musicians, which I appreciated profoundly. This model still persists at the Plus and means both comics and musicians get full attention without wild tonal shifts. My rambling sets turn into to slightly better rambling sets. I talked about my day, my kids, my tastes. Ideas were given room to grow and develop and turned into actual jokes – jokes that told a story and had a point!

About a year into the Plus’ run, five or six people started showing up to perform stand-up comedy every week. I was having more fun than ever. Suddenly I could be a fan again. I had feedback to give and receive, and comics to watch who made me laugh harder than I’ve ever laughed in my life. Some of these people had bits that made my early stuff seem like a macaroni snowman. I was in second grade and I was finally seeing some art.

My nerves and amateur status made me too discouraged to approach the Minneapolis elite, but in Eau Claire, where I somehow lucked into being some sort of old guard – I could just chat about a funny idea and make friends. I insisted upon it. I want to hug comics – I can’t bear not to. I love performing comedy, but I love watching it just as much. I got so excited hearing someone tell a joke 10 times, and on the tenth time finally get the pacing and wording exactly right, sending an entire room into convulsions. No one I was watching mimicked or used another’s style. These were unique and valuable voices in front of me and it was a sight to behold.

The crowd took notice. Another year later and the few people at the bar on Tuesday nights has become a full backroom. More new voices have emerged. Local improv artists have tried out stand up and been wildly successful. There are more than 10 performers every week now, sometimes more. It is an all-ages show that makes the most out of the half-priced appetizers and draft beers. It is better than any comedy open mic I ever went to in Minneapolis, I promise. The level of talent can only be called an act of defiant exuberance against a world gone mad. When the sound system shuts down, clapping hands fade, and the smiles and hugs wander out to the bar or onto Barstow Street, my first thought is always, “I can’t believe I got to see this for free.”

And I do. Every Tuesday. And then we close out the night with a group hug before we wander off and think about what will come the following week. A swirling tide of giggles has washed ashore.

I’m the first to feel wary labeling anything happening at The Plus “a scene” (I think the term is too self-serving and deserves eye rolls from any outsider), but I can tell you this: There are a bunch of really funny people who take the act of doing comedy in this town really seriously – and a lot of them are really good and getting better. And it is clear Eau Claire loves becoming a part of it.

I implore you to put on some dirty socks, take some headache pills, glue your boots on, and come see some comedy.

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