Comic See, Comic Do – Advice from the Café

Comedy Cafe open mic
Shortly after the 1980s comedy boom, Milwaukee’s Lower East Side brought a wave of laughter that has rippled throughout the city for the last 26 years. Milwaukee’s Comedy Café, fashioned on the intersection of Water and Brady streets, provides live professional standup comedy and a venue for amateur comedians to reach for the stars. Milwaukee Comedy had the chance to speak with Chris Alburg, general manager and an employee of the Comedy Café for 21 years, about comedy as a career and Milwaukee’s comedy scene.

Comedy has gone through numerous changes over the years, but today’s trends seem to have “a more lackadaisical appearance” compared to the heyday of comedy in Milwaukee, according to Alburg.

“There’s been a more relaxed feel to the stage,” says the club manager, in a suit and tie. “Comedians don’t dress the part as a comedian. There’s no indication. They look like an average person in everyday clothing talking about everyday things.”

The appearance of comedy has changed – a sea of plaid, facial hair and sarcastic views of personal insecurities. Comedy still has its fair share of poop and dick jokes; however, today’s typical audiences want more intelligent humor and crave to be challenged for their laughs. Most people want comedians to walk them up to controversial lines, sharp and fast wit or offer unique perceptions of ordinary outlooks on life. Audiences today have heard it all, and comedy thrives on breaking molds. This is achieved by recycling similar styles and structure through a more modern and relevant point of view.

Alburg has taken pleasure in appreciating these changes toward a “more intelligent, well thought out humor with a good solid punch line. Comedians like Drew Michael, Nate Abshire, and Darryl Lenox” are examples of up-and-coming performers developing a path for more performers to follow in their footsteps.

The stage has always been “a privilege to be on”, Alburg says.  “Comedians have to capture them (the audience) and keep them entertained for the entire show.” The club manager’s advice insinuates that comedians require creating a consistent flow of strong material in order to develop into strong performers. Basically, try to build up each joke into its most mature and strongest version.

Although, there has been some drift from the traditional methods of comedy, Alburg mentions, “Not all the comedians’ jokes have to work. And when a joke doesn’t work, then they will try the next one…Where comedians used to make every joke work.” However, today’s comedians are developing more material than those of the past because they live in an industry that thrives on social media – a tool that helps express people’s thoughts freely. So comedians are in constant struggle to develop an original idea. Though, an original idea or concept is not necessarily the top priority for young comedians. Rather, open mic comedians are developing their voice more than their material.

Alburg has been observing local comedy talent grow and often challenges local comedians to push themselves to pursue their careers on the professional stage.

“Milwaukee is beginning to pump talented comedians” and the scene has been “growing outrageously good,” Alburg says. “More local comedians are taking these opportunities to commit to their careers. Milwaukee’s scene is only getting bigger and better.”

And that’s true. The local comedy scene has been metamorphosing into a slight boom in the comedy world – thanks to contributors such as Caste of Killers, Milwaukee Comedy, Comedy Show Comedy Show, and the many others pushing the scene forward. Although the scene is definitely growing, its main growth has been to accommodate the comedians’ needs to get stage time with open mics and small showcases vs. getting in front of real audiences.
Alburg states:

“Open mic crowds are different than show crowds because the clientele is different. Open mic crowds are filled with performers’ family members and friends, making the laughter not completely accurate in most open mic rooms. Even the level of talent the performer is displaying is not an accurate portrayal because the comfort level is different…Milwaukee audiences are open to all kinds of comedy. It makes it comfortable for a comedian to develop their voice, but a performer needs to show a level of confidence to prove themselves.”

Each month, the Comedy Café opens its stage on the last Wednesday for an open mic-showcase night. This opportunity helps prepare young comedians for working in a club atmosphere with larger audiences.

Confidence is often something most comedians ‘supposedly’ lack in the early stages of their careers. It’s definitely a characteristic most performers try to develop a level of comfort with to accurately portray their material and stage presence. Attributes such as confidence, stage presence and strong material definitely capture the attention of club managers and booking agents, since they often look for individuals who do not get rattled on stage. “Confidence is something that continues to grow as the performer becomes better on stage,” Alburg says. “It’s a lot of give-and-take between performer and audience members.”

The level of a performer’s confidence can determine the audience’s experience. The key challenge is creating a fun atmosphere for your audience and yourself to enjoy.

Alburg reminds young comedians to watch professional comedians performing at the Comedy Café. It will allow them to analyze how professional comedians perform. “It speaks volumes when it comes down to figuring out how to develop an act,” Alburg says.

Heading to the weekend shows at the Comedy Café will also give young performers more opportunities to establish themselves within the club scene. This will help them with being recognized by management, possibly obtaining guest sets and creating a social relationship with people in the business. Commitment is a key factor, according to Alburg. He’ll typically ask young performers how serious they are about their career. “You’ve got to show you are committed to the career,” Alburg says, before laying down some solid truths. “The stage, the low pay, the no pay and the time to collect experience and information…Find the opportunities to pick the brains of the people who have some success on the stage.” Young comedians have so many easily accessible methods to speak with their professional colleagues about careers in comedy. Today, a young, eager student of comedy could send a tweet or message to their favorite comedians for advice, but there’s absolutely no substitute for catching a live performance and getting first-hand advice from headliners, feature acts, club employees and audience members.

The Comedy Café has comedy shows every week (Thursday through Saturday). Follow them on Facebook and Twitter for special offers and event information. Also, visit them on their website Milwaukeescomedycafe.com or call 271-JOKE for ticket and show information. Take advantage of their office party special offers, College ID night, and SIN nights every Thursday. And as a quick reminder, there’s always a two-drink minimum per guest. And remember to always tip your wait staff. 
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