By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Stop us if you've heard this one before.
A city inspector walks into a bar. Strolling under a handful of illuminated TVs, she casually surveys the spacious confines. Something on the bar's west wall catches her eye. Tacked above a narrow doorway hangs an oval two-by-three-foot sign.
"Comedy Corner Underground," it reads.
After tracking down the owner, she informs him he has three weeks to shut down the room—no more comedy-themed signs, no more online advertisements alluding to the room's existence—literally no funny business.
It sounds like the setup to a bad joke, but it really happened to the Corner Bar, a sports bar/comic haunt on Minneapolis's West Bank.
"I was surprised," says owner Bill Murray, a.k.a. "No, Not That" Bill Murray. "I can have live bands play in here, DJs, dancing, you name it. I really thought that open mics were covered in a Class B license."
So did a lot of people. For more than four years prior to its November closing, the bar's dungeon-like basement room functioned as a no-jokes-barred laboratory for a diverse array of local underground comics. Every Friday night, comics prowled its makeshift stage and told jokes before fans and hecklers alike. It attracted out-of-town big names on a few lucky occasions—Doug Benson once stopped in to test out new material after headlining Acme, as did Maria Bamford.
It's the only comedy venue in the Twin Cities built, operated, and maintained by comedians. Which is what grants it something of a communal vibe, says local comic Bob Edwards, a spry 25-year-old Omaha transplant who presides as the Corner Comedy Underground's unofficial co-manager.
"It's a place where anyone can get stage time, and there's always a good enough crowd that you can actually figure out what, exactly, is going on with your material and how you can improve it," he says. "It's so vital for a standup to be able to constantly do rooms like this, to get some hours behind you, in order to reach the next level."
So when Murray informed Edwards and his co-manager Benny Quash—a quirky observational comic from Wisconsin—the duo were not only stunned, but incensed. The unusually stringent regulation stemmed from a 1960 licensing ordinance that lays out what forms of entertainment are allowed by which venues. Never explicitly mentioned in the city code, standup comedy was lumped in with "adult entertainment and stage shows," which were only allowed in places with Class A licenses, the least restrictive and most expensive liquor license at more than $10,000 per year.
The timing of its passage had the baffled comics wondering aloud if it was a reaction to acts like Lenny Bruce. But officials say it's more likely that it arose from an accidental technicality.
"It appears to be a matter of oversight in the language," says Minneapolis license inspector Linda Roberts. "It's an unintended consequence of their not considering comedy and not categorizing it."
Roberts says the Corner Bar's punishment resulted from a routine inspection. It wasn't alone. Just six weeks later, on New Year's Eve, Spring Street Tavern in Northeast received a similar reprimand. Josh Caviness, the bar's booking manager and house sound tech, was checking levels in the booth one night when two plainclothes officers came through the front door and told him and other employees that their twice-weekly comedy nights were prohibited.
"It seemed like a sick joke," he says. "We could have 276 people playing amplified instruments in the bar, but one guy crackin' jokes behind a mic was considered illegal."
For young performers whose craft depends almost entirely on audience feedback for continued improvement, the loss of two valued open-mic slots was unacceptable. At this point, an effort to change the ordinance began in earnest.
"At first, we were thinking about going to meetings, causing havoc, and making a mockery of it all," says Quash. "But we later decided that we'd better try to go through the proper channels."
He and Edwards began meeting with a handful of comics at the Corner Bar to formulate a plan of action. First came the research, which brought to their attention the fact that no other American city of comparable size had such a restrictive ordinance on the books. Next came their contact with city licensing officials, who were surprisingly receptive to the comics' plight, and even recommended the changes. In early spring, licensing manager Grant Wilson passed along their beef to the City Council, which in turn scheduled a public hearing.
The humorists solicited volunteers from their ranks to speak at the hearing. The idea was to present the committee with a broad cross-section of styles. After three months of postponements, the comedians finally landed what was to be the most unorthodox gig of any of their careers. On July 8, the performers filed into City Hall to appear before the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee. A few were uncharacteristically tense.
"I haven't gotten nervous since my first six months of performing," says Edwards. "But it was seven months of work all culminating into, finally, just one moment. I came in looking like a jittery Jew. But I'm always a little jittery, I suppose."