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Justin Leon, photo taken and provided by Diego Avila

What Are You Laughing At? A Look at Milwaukee Stand-up

Oct. 3, 2023 at 3:39PM

Six years ago, I moved to Milwaukee. Before that, I lived in Los Angeles for ten years, where I helped run a comedy theater and was an improv teacher and performer. Before that, I lived in Chicago for five years, studying improv and writing at Improv Olympic and Second City.

I love comedy, and when I moved to Milwaukee, a city I had barely spent time in, I was fascinated to see what the “scene” would be like.

The first two pieces of comedy I encountered were ComedySportz and Charlie Berens. ComedySportz I knew about. It’s an improv staple. It’s what they call short-form improv, games, Whose Line Is It Anyway. You get it. There are now 28 cities with ComedySportz venues, but the Milwaukee ComedySportz was the first. Started in 1984. And they know it.

In my experience, outsiders are not always welcomed with open arms. They are a tight-knit community and aim to keep it that way. They have a way they do things, and that’s the way they do things. If you want to perform on their stage, you’re going to have to start from scratch. It’s going to take lots of putting in the time, the effort, paying for their classes, hanging out in their circles, and proving yourself to the old guard.

Next up was Charlie Berens and The Manitowoc Minute, which were new to me. I watched the videos I was supposed to watch. I saw comedy for people who grew up here and were already in on the jokes. It was all inside baseball, and I did not get it. I was lost and confused and not laughing. Sorry.

I started to think that Milwaukee comedy is for Milwaukeeans. Not me. Bummer.

So I joined the improv scene and performed at a local long-form improv theater, which transitioned from Mojo Dojo to Ampersand, then changed hands to become the Interchange Theater Co-op. Long-form improv is more like a play. You get one suggestion and put on a 30-minute show created in the moment. It has also spread to include a lot of “genre-prov” like sci-fi musical, and soap opera shows.

I am an improv guy, but I love good stand-up. I’ve seen my share of amazing up-and-coming comics, and I was craving it. But I couldn’t find a good scene. Yes, there were open mics and shows here and there, but I couldn’t quite find the heart of it. The places I found were pop-ups. But where was the dedicated space for comics to congregate? A place to call their own? To tell stories, work their craft, vent, and say the shit to each other you could never say on stage? I learned later that comedy clubs had opened, but just as quickly, they had closed.

That’s where Kaitlin McCarthy, Matt Kemple, and Greg Bach came in. The three of them had produced shows for the Milwaukee Comedy Festival for several years, as well as shows at bars, breweries, and other random venues around the city. They set up a five-year plan for themselves to open their own venue. They found the perfect location two years in and started painting in October of 2019. On January 10th, 2020, The Laughing Tap in Walker’s Point had its grand opening.

Since then, they have had big, hilarious acts grace their stage regularly, like Laurie Kilmartin, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Jackie Kashian, and John Caparulo. And about a hundred other touring comics you’ve probably never heard of but write for your favorite shows, are on your favorite podcasts, and are just plain hilarious. Plus, another hundred local comics who are absolutely killing it.

Jackie Kashian, photo taken by David Szymanski Jackie Kashian, photo taken by David Szymanski
John Caparulo, photo taken by Diego Avila John Caparulo, photo taken by Diego Avila
Bobcat Goldthwait, photo taken by Matty Field Bobcat Goldthwait, photo taken by Matty Field

Kaitlin McCarty explains, “We’ve been able to build a reputation in the bigger cities … We’ve got comics reaching out to us all the time saying they’ve heard good things and would love to work with us.”

Speaking of local comics, the question still lingers: What is “Milwaukee comedy?” What’s the scene like? Does it have its own style? And, as we often ask about things here in the Brew City, how is it different from Chicago?

I aimed to find out. Was answering this question just a ploy to hang out with comics and see comedy shows? Yes, yes it was. But it was also fascinating!

First, let’s break down the Milwaukee scene:

Greg Bach describes it as “an amazing place to get your chops … The vibe is laid back and welcoming. It’s not a cutthroat scene, it’s not ‘every comic for themself!’ We like to help each other and make it a real family feeling.” 

Comic AJ Grill calls it a “classic mid-major scene. Enough rooms to get up each night of the week but not quite big enough to warrant more than two mics a night.”

You’ve got your newbies, your open mic regulars working their way up, and your headlines, the well-known comics who can do longer sets and are pretty much a guarantee for laughs. The problem is the more veteran you become in a scene like this, the more likely you are to move to a bigger city with a larger comedy scene, like Chicago, Atlanta, or Denver.

So, what is “Milwaukee” comedy?

After talking with comics, watching sets, and sitting through some local open mics, I discovered that Milwaukee comedy and its audiences are more diverse.

In Los Angeles and Chicago (the comedy scenes I know best), you and your audience almost always start on the same page. You have similar mentalities, viewpoints, and political leanings. Similar “big city” attitudes. Your audience is people who have chosen to live in crowded, urban areas with fast-paced, hustle-culture lifestyles. For the most part. There are always tourists and bachelorette parties, but those are the hecklers, and as a rule of thumb, comics hate them. But in those “major market” cities you can assume that your audience and you both “get it.” Which is important when setting up a premise and a point of view.

Also, in Chicago, you can be eccentric. Or surreal in Los Angeles. They love the outlandish, the weirdos who stick out. They are probably that weirdo back home. That’s why they left for the big city. So, they respect it. Edgy? Alt? Bizarre? Bring it on. There’s pride in being unshockable.

But Milwaukee is not that simple. Audiences are a mix of city and suburb and rural. A Milwaukee comedy audience probably leans left politically but has good friends and family that don’t. So, you have to be a little more careful. In LA, almost everyone is in “the industry.” In Chicago, there’s a good chance that most of your audience works downtown or at least in an office building. In Milwaukee, who knows? Maybe they work for a college, or the parks department, or they’re a lawyer, or own a construction company. Maybe they’re like AJ, whose day job is teaching kids about nature at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center. It’s a total crapshoot.

What does that mean for the comedy?

Stand-up comedy is about a surprising point of view. It’s about understanding your audience's subconscious and calling out what they may be nervous to say or even think. It’s about meeting them where they feel comfortable and then taking them one step past. Or maybe a giant leap.

What does that mean for the comics?

As AJ Grill says, “Being in a mid-major scene forces you to do rooms in more suburban/rural areas where you know going in that you do not have the same lives and in some cases, sensibilities, as the audience. This forces you to have to set yourself up before you challenge them.”

In other words, to do well in Milwaukee, you have to be good. Real good. You have to know your audience. Your entire audience. And be one step ahead of them. You need to be strong enough with setups that everyone is on the same page as you and bold enough with your punchlines that you can surprise them. The big-name comics that stop by the Laughing Tap? They get it.

They’ve toured the country where their act needs to work for everyone.

But the local comics have to hone that craft fast. They need to find their style, angle, attitude, look, and on-stage persona while ensuring that a wide variety of potential laughers is all on board.

So, they better be good. Better than Chicago-good, they have to Milwaukee-good. Performing for a PBR drinker, a Third Space Hazy IPA drinker, a craft cocktail drinker, a brandy old-fashioned drinker, and someone who had to stop drinking, and making them all laugh hard-good.

Sometimes, that just means understanding the room you’re in. Alecia Altstaetter tells me, “In cities I can talk about women's issues—health care, abortion rights—but in small towns I talk more about parenting and my kids.” 

Kaitlin McCarthy has a joke about Marquette students that does pretty well that she’s done in Milwaukee and Green Bay but not Chicago. 

Greg Bach says, “As a non-Chicagoan I try never to get too deep into Chicago culture in my set, as I’ve seen it happen and the audience knows you’re not from there and it can go bad … That being said, ketchup on hot dogs for LIFE!!!”

And I personally saw AJ Grill tell a joke that involved a “burn pile,” which killed for the local audience but might not land for a Chicago crowd.

Alecia Altstaetter, photo by Diego Avila Alecia Altstaetter, photo by Diego Avila
Kaitlin McCarthy, photo taken by Diego Avila Kaitlin McCarthy, photo taken by Diego Avila
Greg Bach, photo taken by Matty Field Greg Bach, photo taken by Matty Field
AJ Grill, photo taken by Diego Avila AJ Grill, photo taken by Diego Avila

There is definitely still some work that can be done to create an even stronger comedy scene in Milwaukee. One comic describes the scene as a bit of a boys club. They hope more women get involved to change that, but newcomers can sometimes feel uncomfortable—like an outsider or a weird novelty—and don’t come back.  

Apparently, being able to land a joke with a diverse crowd is possible, but to male comics, women can still be a mystery. That isn’t a uniquely Milwaukee problem; that’s very much a Chicago and Los Angeles problem as well. Some things don’t change, no matter what city you’re in.

But places like the Laughing Tap are working hard to make a comedy home for all comedians. Kaitlin McCarthy tells me, “We just love comedy and want to put on great shows. We want to make sure the comics are taken care of. Greg and I are comics, so we know how we’d want to be treated.”

I think we’re lucky to have such a strong stand-up scene here in Milwaukee with tons of open mics and a local club. I’ve been constantly surprised by the level of talent.

If you get a chance, check out AJ Grill, Chastity Washington, Justin Leon, Raegan Niemela, Dana Ehrmann, Chris Schmidt, J Tyler Menz, Alecia Altstaetter, Luise Noé, and probably a ton of other absolutely hilarious local Milwaukee comics I just haven’t had the pleasure of seeing yet. Or I just forgot to list and am going to feel absolutely awful about later.

Thanks for reading my breakdown. Now, go see for yourself. Check out some live comedy in Milwaukee. Sure, you can go see the big acts at Milwaukee Improv in Brookfield, but do yourself a favor and check out some of our locals and headliners at The Laughing Tap. I’ve literally never seen a bad show there. And if you really want to support, there’s definitely an open mic happening somewhere near you tonight.

Photos in the article courtesy of Diego Avila, David Szymanski, and Matty Field.

Featured Photo of Justin Leon taken by Diego Avila.

More Articles by Mike Betette

About the author

Mike Betette

Mike is an improviser and writer who has performed with The Second City, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and was a writer/director for Epic Rap Battles of History. He’s currently a senior copywriter at an ad agency in Milwaukee and loves to be outside.