Something Funny Is Going On Here
Eau Claire comedian and V1 Editor Eric Christenson gives an inside look at the local standup scene, from its desolate beginnings to its explosive growth
Something about The Plus’ Tuesday night open mic brings out a diverse array of weirdos, all in the name of creative expression.
You’ve got strung out freestyling rappers mumbling passionate bars over iPhone beats, consistently shiny dudes strumming their way through Top 40 country knock-offs, and a guy who politely plunks out a Vince Guaraldi tune or three on a portable keyboard, then leaves.
You’ve got legions of college-aged friends getting tipsy over pizza and cheese curds, good-natured bartenders straining to keep up, friends of friends in packs.
All the while, a crew of stand-up comedians sit together – arguably the weirdest weirdos in the room – drinking beers, eating guacamole, bouncing new jokes off one another, notebooks in hand, riffing, smoking cigarettes outside, and waiting for their chance to make the entire bustling room laugh at the end of the night.
But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, for a while, it wasn’t anything.
A Slow Build
I started doing stand-up at the open mic at The Plus almost exactly a year ago, and at that time I was one of about six or seven comics who regularly did it. Music would start at 9pm. and once all the musicians were done performing, the comics got to go up, usually around 11pm. Sometimes you wouldn’t even get to the comedy until after midnight.
The mic was scrunched in a corner so close to the bar that if you wanted to, you could probably high-five the patrons who were only there to enjoy half-price apps and taps while watching a closed-captioned SportsCenter.
General indifference was thick in the stuffy air, and the bar noise was so dense at times it was like doing jokes for airplane turbines. At other times, the place was so ghostly quiet and abandoned that whole room could hear the toilet flush from the nearby bathrooms between jokes.
Two years before that, it was even more desolate, with only a small handful of comedians – Cullen Ryan, a jovial dad; Jordan James, a good-hearted ranter; and Christina Wolff, a singing absurdist – telling jokes to, well, usually nobody.
“It was dire, but it was the only chance we had to do anything in town,” Ryan said.
So why not give up? Well, it became a way for the people sharing that desperate stage to bond and form real friendships. It became a hang-out opportunity, where at the end of the night the comedians had a chance to try out some new jokes.
“We stuck it out ’cause we had kinship with each other,” James said.
It took a very long two or three years before people started noticing that, yes, there are stand-up comedians who exist who aren’t Bill Engvall, and, yes, stand-up comedy is happening here.
A couple more comedians such as Ryan Kahl, a young and dedicated jokester, and Justin Schenck, who’s dry and hilarious, surfaced. A few more musicians started playing. Everyone brought their friends, those friends brought more friends, and last summer, 100ish people would routinely show up, pay attention, and most importantly, laugh.
“I don’t think it was any one thing that took it from 15 people being indifferent and a handful of performers to consistently full rooms and more performers than can get up in a night. I think it was a slow build,” James added. “Then it snowballed.”
Standing Up, Getting Down
Fast-forward to February of this year at the House of Rock. The stage room was completely packed. The bar literally ran out of vodka. Somebody got a little overzealous with a borrowed fog machine. A Toppers delivery guy crowd-surfed and the sweaty crowd couldn’t get enough of it.
It wasn’t a KISS concert, you guys. It’s The Standup Getdown, the biggest party of the year for the local stand-up scene. A crew of eight or nine comics doing sets of varying lengths, music from our friends, and free admission make for the stand-up crowd of your dreams: People who are ready to have fun, laugh, and get crazy.
From the stage, you really couldn’t see past the first row of people in the haze, but you could hear booming laughs come from beyond it.
To go from half a dozen folks with their backs turned to pushing capacity at the House of Rock with thunderous approval is an amazing turnaround.
“It’s like stumbling through the desert for a long time and running into a waterfall,” James said.
The Getdown was a result of tireless promotion efforts, giving out handbills, putting up posters, social media engagement, word of mouth … and most importantly a slew of eight or nine funny and dedicated comics who, more than anything, want the entire room to burst with laughter.
None of it would’ve worked – twice now – if the jokes weren’t funny, precise, and able to capture the attentions and funny bones of 300 loud, drunk fans.
“Laughter is important. It’s another form of connecting with people and communicating and reaching people on a new level,” Wolff said. “In that way, you can make a community better ... or worse depending on the comedy.”
Our Own Night
After every comedy show – even open mic – we do this thing called “Fingers.” All the comedians who performed gather outside in a circle, some with cigarettes pursed between their lips, and touch fingertips with the comedians on either side. You stand silently and close your eyes until you “feel it.”
“It,” of course, is completely abstract. It might be a flicker of energy; it could just be bullshit. Either way, it’s tradition. It’s reflective. It’s meditative. It helps. It’d be like prayer, if nearly everyone in the circle of comedians wasn’t a staunch agnostic.
“Not only do I get to work on my own stand up, but I get to help develop a scene. That’s not something every city can say.” – Justin Schenck, Eau Claire comedian
“A lot of other comedy scenes are competitive and all about being the funniest,” Wolff said. “That’s what ‘Fingers’ is about. We’re in this thing together; we’re making this thing grow.”
On recent nights, The Plus’ open mic was overflowing with comedians, sometimes nearly a dozen comics hoping to squeeze a five-minute set in the allotted hour block. With some real traction from stellar open mic showings, benefit shows, and the high-profile Getdown, the scene was outgrowing its open mic presence.
And now, in perhaps the biggest signifier of our legitimacy, The Plus has set aside every Thursday night from 8 to 10pm for a $3 comedy show that we book ourselves, made up of hand-picked touring comics (most recently John Conroy from Washington, D.C.) and comedian friends from bigger cities such as Minneapolis, all with strong local openers that have tested out their material at Tuesday’s open mic.
“A lot of the comics are taking it more seriously now. It’s mutual thing. The audience is serious about it, and the comics want to deliver,” Kahl said. “It challenges you to write more and to write smarter.”
Where open mic is a crapshoot, Thursday night shows have more quality guaranteed. The idea is that by bringing in more touring pros and showing them what we have here, it can grow larger and go further.
“We want to establish it as a fun room that has a reputation of treating performers well and putting them in front of a good crowd,” James said. “Stand-ups remember that, they’re gonna want to come back, and they’ll talk about that to other comics. They’ll go out of their way if it’s gonna be a good experience.”
Eau Claire's Niche
When I talked to Kahl, who moved from Eau Claire to Minneapolis a few months ago, he compared Eau Claire’s scene to that of Fargo, N.D., which has a strong and burgeoning comedy scene for its size. Eau Claire could be that fun little outlier between Chicago and the Twin Cities, or it could be a Midwestern powerhouse of comedy. It’s an advantage to not know exactly what’s going to happen.
“We’re not a metropolis; we’re just a place where you get started and we’re trying to be as good as we can. We’re all trying to get better and be good at this without caring about the end results of it,” Ryan said. “Steps A, B, and C are ‘get good,’ ‘get good,’ and ‘get good.’ ”
Week after week, the comedians here strive to put on good shows, ones that are offbeat, different, and – most importantly – completely hilarious. It takes work, dedication, teamwork, consistency, creativity, and invaluable friends to pull it all off.
But the scene is here. It’s growing, it’s beautiful, and I implore you to check it out.
“My favorite thing about starting in Eau Claire is not only do I get to work on my own stand-up, but I also get to help develop a scene,” Schenck said. “That’s not something every city can say. Chicago, New York, L.A., Minneapolis, Houston – any big city in this country already has a well-developed comedy scene. We have the opportunity to be groundbreaking and start something from the bottom.”
For more information about the stand-up scene, upcoming shows, events, and everything else, please check out Clear Water Comedy on Facebook.