Acme Comedy Co. celebrates 20 years

Famous comics credit Acme as a Midwest mainstay

Once the new millennium dawned, comedy started to become cool once again with casual audiences, and word of Acme's unique working environment and educated crowds began to spread through the touring scene. Over the next few years, a veritable who's who of up-and-coming comics found their way to Acme's stage. The luminaries included Doug Stanhope, Dave Attell, Patton Oswalt, and Louis C.K., to name a few. Many of those comics tour annually, and no matter how famous they become, they never forget the club that helped them make their name.

The love shown by performers speaks volumes about the club's cred in the comedy world, as does the amount of mainstream attention Acme has received over the past few years. In 2007, NBC brought its standup-comedy reality show Last Comic Standing to Acme; in 2008, Robin Williams packed the club for three straight sold-out shows as he worked on new material for his HBO special; and Nick Swardson, who got his start as an open-mic-night performer at Acme, has blown up with television and movie appearances.

Today, the Twin Cities comedy scene is booming once again, with more clubs hosting shows and more locally based talent having the opportunity to hone their craft. At the center of it all is Acme, which continues to be a vital local venue for comics and fans alike.

Then and now: Louis Lee with Frank Caliendo at the 10-year anniversary (top), and today
courtesy of Acme Comedy (top); Ryan Brennan (bottom)
Then and now: Louis Lee with Frank Caliendo at the 10-year anniversary (top), and today

"I spoke with a comic a few weeks ago who told me about a young female comic who opened for him in Chicago," Lee says. "She was just starting out but he was blown away by her set. After the show, she was asking him for advice, and he told her if she really wanted to develop as a comic that she should move to Minnesota and do open mic at Acme."


MARY MACK ISN'T WEIRD. At least she doesn't think so.

"I just try to be myself," Mack says with her tinny voice and sunny disposition. "I have no idea what it is, but I've had clubs tell me, 'We'd love to have you in our club, but we think you're too weird for our audience.' I don't get it."

Mack is one of the four headliners during the first night of Acme's 20th anniversary celebration. She's proud to call Acme her "home club" because she feels so accepted.

"Some people will try and tell me that I'm doing my act wrong, and what I need to do differently for next time," Mack says. "But I always just ignored them. I mean, you're not unique when you listen to everyone else. That's why Acme is great; the management has never tried to tell me what to do."

Armed with a mandolin and a squeaky-clean arsenal of jokes, Mack has a unique brand of Midwestern-twanged comedy that's made her a staple of the Twin Cities scene ever since her first time on Acme's stage back in 2003. And what a first time it was. While many new comics show up brimming with confidence and dreams of superstardom, the former music teacher just wanted to make rent.

"I had just quit my teaching job and saw an ad for a comedy contest at Acme where I could win money, so I got really excited about that," she explains. "I had never done comedy before that night. I sat down the morning of the contest, wrote a bit, and then performed it that night. I actually ended up making it to the finals, which was really cool. I was just excited that people wanted to listen to me."

Despite her initial success, it would be quite some time until Mack took the stage again. Finally, she would give open-mic night a shot, where she continued her air-tight strategy of trying brand new material each time she stepped onstage.

"Since I had never really had any exposure to what standup comedy was 'supposed' to be, I wasn't afraid to try new things every week. Sometimes I would get complete silence, but Louis and the club staff saw that I was doing something different and allowed me to get more stage time to keep working."

As Mack continued to get more stage time, some of her fellow comics finally decided to let her in on the secret that it was okay—even encouraged—to practice her routine like a craft. It wasn't long after that Mack got called up to the next phase of comics at Acme: she was invited to emcee.

Emceeing is a pretty standard path for aspiring standups at Acme. As a comic develops her writing, timing, and delivery, she's given more time on stage during open mic. From there, the open-mic performers who show they have the potential to put together an extended set will be promoted to emcee, where they have to carry a show. Most comics who get promoted to the emcee spot stay there for years, perfecting their timing and delivery while working in front of big crowds and national headliners. The goal of the emcee is to reach "feature" status—the second performer of a three-person lineup—and then ultimately become a headliner.

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