Local comedians weigh in on the Fox Cities’ growing stand-up scene
The ‘70s and ‘80s was a time comedy clubs ruled the nightlife in Los Angeles and New York. As the Vietnam War brought in a wave of counterculturalism, young Americans craved the raw entertainment that could only come from up-and-coming stand-up comics. Some, like George Carlin, leaned into the postwar edgy humor, while others – such as Freddie Prinze, Richard Lewis and later Jerry Seinfeld – introduced a personable “observational” style bringing hilarious distraction in a turbulent time, but all brought fresh talent into the entertainment industry.
As stand-up comedians became household names through media exposure, comedy clubs popped up in smaller metropolitan communities like Milwaukee, and there seemed to be no limit in stand-up comedy’s growth, but starting in the mid-90s the bubble had to burst. While comics still enjoy a dedicated subculture, experts agree the industry declined when comedy got too big for its own good.
“A bunch of comedy clubs popped up, got oversaturated and kind of got old,” says Lyle Sidney, producer at Fox Valley Comedy. “There’s been quite a few comedy clubs in Milwaukee over the years, but they all shut down. There’s only one full time club that just opened up last year, The Laughing Tap.”
But with death comes life, and comedy’s nationwide decline gave space for a talented stand-up scene to flourish here in the Fox Cities, recreating the raw hilarity New York and L.A. clubs popularized in decades past.
“The scene is definitely growing,” Sidney says. “There’s been a lot of really awesome comedians like Tracy Schroeder, Mike Merryfield, and Rob Breakenridge from the Appleton area that have had success all over the nation.”
The Fox Cities enjoyed a modest comedy scene since Skyline Comedy Club opened its doors in 1994, but Sidney says the scene took off within the past few years, and now more than ever local comedians are bringing their own Fox Valley flair to the stage, in the Cities’ comedy clubs and beyond.
Through Fox Valley Comedy, Sidney meets all sorts of up-and-coming stand-up comics. If he has a good feeling, “I’ll give them a chance at a show,” Sidney says. The organization not only promotes open mic nights at local comedy clubs like Appleton’s Skyline and Oshkosh’s The Backlot, but Fox Valley Comedy also does its own shows at local restaurants and bars such as Appleton Beer Factory and Bare Bones Brewery.
“There’s a few that have aspirations of being full-time comedians touring the nation,” Sidney says. “But then there’s a big chunk of people that just do it for fun, and they enjoy doing it.”
Comedians have all sorts of motivations for getting up on stage and trying to make audiences laugh.
“It’s a defense mechanism from my youth,” says Kristin Lytie, a comic based in Green Bay.
“Narcissism,” explains Appleton comedian Danijel Kaurin. “Some people will tell you they do it because it’s a calling, or that it’s the last bastion of pure self-expressive freedom, or whatever they heard their favorite comedian say in a podcast one time, but in the end every comedian craves validation from drunken strangers that they matter.”
Others, like Sean Patrick Moore, hear about their local open mic, give it a shot, and find that they can’t stop until they’ve found their place in the annals of comedy history.
“I want to die a legend,” Moore says. “I want to … have up-and-coming comics say stuff like, ‘Sean Patrick More is my favorite comedian.’”
Connections make another valuable part of starting out as a comedian, as most benefit from an encouraging voice and starting points to network. Tracy Schroeder got into stand-up after taking an improv class in Milwaukee.
“The lady that taught the class was a talent agency booker. And she said, ‘you know what? You should really do stand-up,’” Schroeder says.
In the Fox Valley, most comedians currently have day jobs to support their passions onstage. When he’s not doing stand-up, Moore tends bar, which often becomes a source for material.
“My son is the main reason why I’m still bartending and not jumping into comedy as a full-time career yet,” Moore says during a show. “When my son was born, I made myself a promise that I would give him everything in life that my dad gave me. So I’m gonna be an active fundamental part of his everyday life. Until he’s 12, then I’m gone.”
Lytie is a stand-up comedian and a union organizer. As she uses humor to calm tensions during organized strikes and protests, and because her stand-up material is based in progressive politics, Lytie says these two jobs often collide.
“I do use comedy as an opportunity to talk about very dark things, and if you can make people laugh about really terrible things, then I feel like as a community, we can be more honest with each other,” Lytie says. “I’ve been on picket lines, and people will show up, just [really angry]. If you can make them laugh, then you can have this moment. I think humor is beautiful in that it can de-escalate the situation.”
When writers write, usually we imagine them holed up in some tower, locked in their smoke-filled writing rooms churning away on typewriters. For comedians, that’s far from the case. But for Kaurin and Lytie, raw and unpolished material is where stand-up shines most.
“In my experience if I sit and write for an hour the outcome very rarely sounds like my authentic voice,” Kaurin says. “It’s mostly a random thought that I think could be fleshed out and honed into something cohesive. But most of the time it’s a lot of talking into my phone while pacing around my apartment like a maniac.”
Lytie says, “I make little notes on my phone I think are funny or write down bullet points, and then I just work it out on stage. A lot of comics try to do their polished best to get noticed, but I would urge people as well to take chances at open mics.”
Schroeder, who Sidney describes as “the old-timer” of the Fox Valley’s comedy scene, says the industry was a much different place when she first started out. Since 1994, Appleton’s Skyline Comedy Club has hosted industry giants including Gilbert Gottfried, Louis CK, Daniel Tosh, Amy Schumer and Larry the Cable Guy. While the average show lasts 90 minutes – featuring the headliner and two opening acts – often from established local comedians, Skyline didn’t have an open mic night for aspiring comedians until 2018.
“I was 28. How old am I now? I think I’ve been doing stand-up for about 20 years,” Shroeder says. “There was no industry back when I first started. I either had to drive to Milwaukee or Madison to do an open mic when I first started. There were like three, maybe four other comics that lived in this area.”
“There wasn’t a chance for an amateur comedian [to] have the space to grow, and until two years ago, there were few open mics,” Sidney says.
Sidney explains that open mic nights provide important opportunities for new comedians to practice, develop their comedy styles and get their name out for fans and producers. The more open mics around to perform at, the better.
Neenah’s Comedy Quarter, which closed in 2013, was the first comedy club to host open mic nights, followed by Cimarron Bar & Grill in Menasha and Fond du Lac’s Top Shelf Sports Bar’s former open mic events. Today, amateur comedians perform open mics at The Attic Bar in Menasha, the Ambassador Lounge in Appleton and Bare Bones Brewery in Oshkosh through Fox Valley Comedy, at The Backlot Comedy House in Oshkosh and, as of 2018, Skyline.
Skyline general manager Bridget Friel says the open mic addition was a game-changer for new comedians, who suddenly had a weekly avenue to perform at the largest comedy club in the Fox Cities.
“Since establishing our open mic … we have been able to give local comics the opportunity to perform on a real stage in front of an actual audience,” Friel says. “It has been wonderful to watch comics grow and evolve and really improve – many of them are even getting booked on weekend shows now.”
In recent years, Schroeder has seen the changes to local comedy firsthand.
“It’s a great stepping stone for comedians to be in the Fox Valley, because there’s so many open mics now,” Schroeder says. “And there’s really a lot of talent now, as opposed to 15, 20 years ago.”
Lytie, who has ventured out of Northeast Wisconsin to perform in Chicago, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Austin and more, says performing in the Fox Valley has perks distinct from large metropolitan comedy scenes.
“Sometimes in Chicago, I was doing, like, 20 shows a month. But you get longer sets up in Northeast Wisconsin,” Lytie says. “It’s an exchange.”
Our comedy scene has come a long way over the decades, but Kaurin says there’s still work to be done to make comedy viable as a full-time career without relocating to New York or California.
“It is a pretty great area to start in,” Kaurin says. “But it’s still not enough stage time to get to a point where I could consider looking at this as anything other than a hobby.”
Through Fox Valley Comedy, Sidney has plans to further develop the stand-up industry, including bringing more open mic nights to area bars and restaurants, as well as rolling out an annual comedy event.
“I’m not going to [copy] Madison Comedy Week or the Lucky Eagle Comedy Festival,” Sidney says. “I want it to be a fun event that’s unique to the Fox Valley, so I got some things in the works for that to happen in a couple years.”
Another goal for Sidney is spreading awareness that open mic nights can make for a really fun evening.
“A lot of people are pleasantly surprised,” Sidney says. “I get customers every show [who] come up to me afterwards and tell me [they] loved it and what they liked about the show.”
For those worried about being bored, Kaurin, who runs Skyline’s open mic, says the cringe value of an amateur bombing on set can make the whole experience worth it.
“Regardless of a few outliers most people that sign up are great and honestly watching someone bomb can be a funny and cathartic experience.”
So far, though, Schroeder says the exposure of performing in the Fox Cities has led to opportunities she never expected, like the time she opened for Charlie Berens, comedian and creator of “Manitowoc Minute.”
“I thought I was going to pass out before I got on stage,” Schroeder says. “But that was honestly one of my favorite times performing, and to perform in front of that large venue and that large of an audience was amazing.”
To Lytie, the life of a comedian can be strange, and not without its challenges, but nothing beats a great performance live on stage.
“It’s just so joyful and refreshing to make people laugh, you know?”