If you were to imagine the worst possible place and time to perform stand-up comedy, I assume that place would be Milwaukee, Wisconsin and that time would be during a Packers/Vikings playoff game.
That is exactly where I found myself on January 5, 2013, performing at the Northern Lights Theater at the Potawatami Hotel & Casino–on a stage that has hosted such memorable acts as Ringo Starr, Don Rickles, Willie Nelson and B.B. King–in front of an audience of 12 people.
It was my first real weekend on the road. A fun little run of casino shows that took me from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, down around Lake Michigan to Milwaukee, and back to the Upper Peninsula for some reason. I got the gigs because my friend and fellow Fancy Boy Matt Drufke turned them down. He made the right choice.
The first stop on my “tour” was the Kewadin Casino in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan on January 3rd. Without even MapQuesting, I knew it would be a far drive as the itinerary went to such great lengths to stress how important it was to not miss the exit, as the next exit was on the other side of the Canadian Border.
I was threeish years into comedy, less than one year removed from college, and full of a youthful optimism that has long since been extinguished. I had dreamt of being a comedian from the first time I saw Mitch Hedberg’s Comedy Central Presents special in middle school, and now it was finally happening.
But, there was one small problem. My Alma mater, Northern Illinois University, was scheduled to play Florida State in the Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida the day before.
If you don’t know college football, you should know this was a big deal. The small, corn-fed school from DeKalb, Illinois had broken through and earned a shot at one of the big boys, in one of the biggest bowl games of the year. The BCS was like an ultra-exclusive club, and the NIU Huskies had found a secret way in behind Heisman contending QB Jordan Lynch.
College fans and commentators across the country were not pleased. It is a weird feeling to experience the greatest moment in your school’s history while simultaneously being shit on by Kirk Herbstreit.
“The fact that Northern Illinois is in the BCS in 2012 is really a sad state for college football,” he said on national television just seconds after me and my fellow Huskie fans received the greatest news we could possibly hear. “To put them in the BCS is an absolute joke.”
[Sadly, the video of Herbstreit’s rant is now private, so his asshattery will be lost to the sands of time.]
When you go to a school like NIU, you don’t expect good things to happen. Sometimes you climb your way to #10 in the polls after beating the great Alabama Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, and then don’t even get invited to a bowl game. [Fun fact: NIU leads the all-time series against the Alabama. So take that Nick Saban.] When you root for a team like the Huskies, you have to take advantage of these once in a lifetime opportunities when you can.
I wanted to go to that game so bad. I spent hours searching for flights, rental cars, and any other way that I could make it work. But it couldn’t be done. It was just too much travel.
I had a choice. The game, or comedy. The Orange Bowl in Miami, Florida, or a 9-hour drive to perform in almost Canada, followed by a quick 7-hour drive to perform in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during a Packers playoff game.
I chose comedy.
Off I went, armed with a shitty, eleven year old Ford Focus and a notebook full of milk jokes. I was ready to make all my comedy dreams come true.
The Thursday night show started as all the best shows do, with the bar manager walking on stage, telling a racist joke, then stumbling through the intro I’d written out for him. Shockingly, those Yoopers were not impressed with my Mat & Lewis vs The Internet featuring Jack Baker podcast credit.
The show was surprisingly good. The crowd was loose and fun. My 30 minutes breezed by and the headliner capped it off with a really strong set.
A weird quirk in the schedule left me in Milwaukee on Friday, January 4th without a show. But, as luck would have it, some friends were on a show at Karma Bar and I was able to pop in for a fun little guest spot.
Things were looking up. Two fun shows in two days. This was everything I was hoping it would be.
Saturday started off great too. They put me up in the Milwaukee Athletic Club, a big fancy hotel downtown. And the theater where I was performing was bigger and fancier still.
The green room was beautiful. It had big leather couches, a giant flat-screen TV, and a fridge that was freshly stocked with all the Wild Cherry Pepsi your heart could desire.
The staff was friendly and helpful. The manager even gave me a secret code word. If there were any hecklers during the show, all I had to do was ask for some ice, and he would personally come out and remove them. It was a real professional operation.
When sitting backstage before the show, the headliner turned to me and said, “Now this is show biz.” It was kind of an odd thing to say, but he was old and kind of an odd dude so I think he genuinely meant it.
I get why real headliners would want to perform at the Northern Lights Theater. When that room is full, it must be great.
But on this night, January 5, 2013, it was not full and it was not great. This was Wisconsin, and the Packers were playing the Vikings in the NFC playoffs.
If you made a Venn Diagram of all the people in Wisconsin who don’t like the Packers, love going to casinos, but don’t have any more money left to gamble, you’d get an intersection of exactly 12 people. This was our audience…and they were not a happy bunch.
The headliner intro’d me from backstage, and I walked out to complete silence.
As I looked out across the giant room filled with next almost no one, I thought to myself, “I got this.”
My opening joke fell flat.
My comment about the opening joke falling flat also fell flat.
My attempt at crowd work ended in a sad, lonely ramble that went nowhere.
I in no way “got this.”
When you’re threeish years into comedy and booked to do your first full-length feature set, you learn very quickly that you have much less material than you previously thought. It’s amazing how quickly you can get through your act when you don’t have to stop for laughter. Bits that had taken five minutes just two days before were now over in a minute and a half. I was supposed to do 30 minutes, which meant I was telling all of my jokes, regardless of whether they were working or not.
I started them off with some dating jokes. Did not work.
“Those Renaissance Faire jokes should work,” I thought to myself. The crowd strongly disagreed.
I started to panic. I was nervous and sweaty. Much sweatier than normal. I still had more than 20 minutes to go and nothing was working.
“Time to pull out the big guns and hit ’em with the milk jokes,” I thought. “If I can’t win them over with these, I’ve got nothing else.”
And that is when the heckling began.
“I’m allergic to milk,” I started…
“No one cares,” someone said. A typical Wisconsin response.
“I’ve been allergic to milk since I was…”
“Are you also allergic to being funny?” someone else asked, in an admittedly good burn.
The plan was to just power through, continue telling my jokes, and not let the hecklers get to me.
But then, all of a sudden, from the back of the room, some lady yells out, “You’re Gay!”
“Yeah, it’s cuz you’re from Chicago,” her husband added.
As I stood there onstage, I was dumbfounded. It was a strange, quick exchange, not related to anything I, or anyone else, had said that evening. And unlike in the joke I later wrote about this particular audience interaction, I had no witty retort at the time.
There was no snappy comeback. No great line that put them in their place.
I had nothing.
The only thought going on in my head was, “I should have gone to the Orange Bowl.”
As those two drunk Wisconites questioned my sexuality, I did not ask for ice, because at least they were engaged. The ten others were just there.
Someone on the staff removed the hecklers anyway, and the remaining 11 of us sat through the rest of my set. Our silence only interrupted by my defeated attempts at humor.
There was another show back in the UP that Sunday. It was in some dirty casino that I don’t remember much about. The crowd was huge and full, but they did not enjoy me. The only time they laughed during my set was when I said I looked like a nerd. Everything else was met with collective disappointment.
As I sat there watching the headliner destroy with the crowd that had absolutely hated me just moments prior, I was defeated. Luckily, I only had an 8 hour drive followed by a full day of work in my immediate future.
I learned an important lesson about comedy that trip: choose life. There’s always going to be more shows, but NIU only gets to play in the Orange Bowl once.
Don’t miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do stand-up comedy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during a Packers playoff game.