Chad Daniels is in a standoff with his audience.
As the local standup was introduced onto the Acme stage, the crowd was asked to please rise for the singing of "God Bless America." Thinking it's a joke—which would make sense since this is a comedy club—they laugh and remain seated.
Daniels isn't having it. "Please rise," he repeats with a straight face.
Still no response from the audience. Daniels won't back down.
"I'm going to fucking stand up here until you rise," he barks, before taking a seat on a stool. Sipping his drink, the comic looks out at the now somewhat uncertain crowd of nearly 300. A few slowly begin to rise, wondering just how long he's willing to wait them out. Finally, after a few more tense seconds, Daniels stands back up and grabs the microphone.
"Okay, I'll take four people," Daniels says, seemingly ready to begin his set. The audience laughs, assuming the bit is over. It's not. Daniels wasn't bluffing.
He launches into a surprisingly good rendition of the song as the audience bursts into applause.
"Fuck you communist pieces of shit," Daniels shouts at those who remained seated. "I hope you get a leg cramp and die. 'I want to stretch it!' Fucking too late, bitch."
Welcome to night number one of Acme Comedy Company's 20-year anniversary celebration. Over the next three nights, 20 comedians will take the stage to perform their best 20 minutes of material. The event includes a mix of younger acts who came up through Acme's open-mic night, longtime touring veterans who frequented the club starting back in the '90s, and national acts who have developed a dedicated local fan base thanks to their appearances at Acme.
A well-known cultural icon of the Twin Cities, Acme has been instrumental in turning Minneapolis into one of the premier comedy destinations nationwide. But Acme wasn't always the thriving establishment it is today. Back in November 1991, owner Louis Lee decided to open the club not out of entrepreneurial vision, but financial obligation.
"I had just finished up another project that, let's just say, failed miserably," Lee recalls. "At that point, I owed a lot of money and I knew that getting a job working in a restaurant wasn't going to be enough to help me pay back what I owed. Around that same time, this place [Acme] had become available so I negotiated with the landlord and we opened the club."
A veteran of the bar and restaurant industry, Lee had been booking comedians at other local haunts and felt this could work in his favor. Unfortunately, the standup comedy bubble began to burst right around the time the club opened.
"By 1992, there were seven comedy clubs in the area," Lee laments. "By 1994 it was down to two. The problem was that there were too many clubs and not enough talent. Plus, things were so political back then that it was next to impossible to book a lot of the well-known national talent. At that point, I smelled the downturn coming on and realized there was nothing I could do to stop it, so I decided we had to change the business model if we were going to succeed."
That meant lowering the age restriction from 21 to 18, and doing away with the then industry-standard two-drink minimum. The intention, Lee says, was to capitalize on the college crowd and hook them while they were young.
"We welcomed the college students when they were freshman, and did a lot of promotions like college ID nights as a way to get them to check out the club," Lee explains. "The way I looked at it was that if we could get them coming to the club early, then once they graduated and had their first jobs at 22 or 23 years old—the time when they would have the most disposable income until they turned 30—we would have them. Our philosophy was that every four years, we would train a new group of kids on how to appreciate comedy, and then it never ends."
The first four years were difficult, but by 1995 the financial bleeding was staunched. The idea of putting comedy before booze had begun to pay off, and the business model continues to be successful today.
But while the crowd was coming back, Lee also had to find the comics to put on stage. In the early '90s, the talent pool was more like a puddle. All of the younger talent who had dreams of hitting it big had migrated west to Los Angeles. It seemed that the only new blood was guys having their midlife crises.
"All of the 'new comics' coming out during that era were middle-aged men who were sick of their jobs and decided they were going to try comedy and chase their dreams," Lee says with a laugh. "From the beginning we were doing open-mic nights every Monday, and we also did an amateur competition every Sunday. What we wanted was for people who had never been on stage to want to try it out and then hopefully they would go on to do our open mic and grow from there. So really, building our audience and building up new comics ran parallel to each other and still does today."