Acme Comedy Co. celebrates 20 years
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."
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.
"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.
Since that time, Mack has graduated to headliner and comes back around to headline the club once a year. As for the future of the Twin Cities comedy scene, Mack says it's only going to get stronger thanks to Acme's ability to let comics develop, just like she did.
"You can go see someone perform at Acme, then go on the road for three or four months and come back and see them again and they've gotten way better," she says. "It makes you feel like you need to work harder to keep up with them. That's what Acme does; it brings out the best in comics."
IT'S NIGHT TWO OF ACME'S ANNIVERSARY celebration, and this evening features a lineup of comedians who started performing at the club when it first opened back in the early '90s.
One of tonight's featured acts is Tim Slagle, a conservative right-wing comic who holds the record for most headlining appearances in Acme's history. Though not a Minnesota native, Slagle quickly found Acme to be like a home away from home during his early career.
"I was dying to work in Minnesota because my stuff was political and edgy, and I thought this was a good place for my type of comedy," Slagle says. "Unfortunately, the powers that be at the time locally didn't find me amusing, so it was tough to get booked."
Luckily for him, there was a new club in town that was open to his brand of comedy.
"They loved me here right away," he says. "I impressed them enough that first time and was invited back pretty regularly from that point on."
Something would happen, however, that would both put Slagle at odds with the club, and endear him to the owner at the same time.
"You see, in those days Louis wanted someone else to be the face of the club," Slagle begins. "I think it was the third time I came back here, I wrote a new bit about names you can call men but can't use the equivalent of when talking with women. The woman who was working the front of the house was horrified and didn't want to bring me back. I ended up showing the bit to Louis, and two things came out of that meeting: He didn't see a problem with it so I wasn't barred from the club, and from that point the other manager wasn't given exclusive booking rights anymore."
Slagle would continue to frequent Acme over the next few years, steadily building a following in the Twin Cities. However, that wouldn't be the last time Slagle caused controversy.
"I did a show one night where I set the record for most walk-outs," he proudly remembers. "And I'm not talking about walking out 90 people. There was something like 270 when the show started and 27 by the time I got off stage."
The reason for the mass exodus: former Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale.
"The weekend before that election, I told a joke where I said, 'Mondale? Isn't he dead too?' That weekend, the crowd laughed. The Saturday after, it was like a cancerous silence," Slagle recalls. "I just couldn't get them back at that point, and more and more of them kept leaving. By the end of my set, I started asking the few people left what they were still doing there."
The backlash didn't end with that show, as the angry audience headed outside and told the late-show crowd that they should save their time and head home. The evening had turned into a certified disaster for Acme, which lost a great deal of money as a result of the episode.
While many businesses likely would have blackballed Slagle for his antics, Lee saw it differently. "He thought it was funny," Slagle laughs. "I apologized profusely, but Louis just said he thought people needed to get a sense of humor about it."
For the remainder of Slagle's residence at Acme, audience members for his shows were required to sign waivers acknowledging that the performance may touch on controversial topics and advising those not prepared for his brand of comedy to turn back.
Since that time, Slagle has continued to perform an average of twice a year at Acme, offering jokes divergent from those of liberal comedians. That perspective is on fine display during his set this night, as he manages to polarize the crowd with some solid jabs at President Obama.
But whether you agree with his political views or not, it's tough to disagree with Slagle when he describes the comedic environment Acme provides, allowing him a platform to display his art form.
"You go to 99 percent of the clubs in the country, and you'll see that they look at comedy as sort of the meatballs at a happy-hour buffet," he says. "They use it to bring people in and sell them drinks. Acme isn't like that; they treat comedy like an art form and advertise it the same way. When you come to see a show at Acme, you're coming for the comedy."
IT'S THE FINAL NIGHT, and the crowd files in for an early show that features national headliners Doug Benson, Jackie Kashian, Ryan Stout, and Dwight Slade. One of the faces in the crowd is Andy Erikson, an up-and-coming local comic who frequents Acme's open-mic night and serves as a regular feature at the club. She performed earlier in the week during a showcase that featured the next generation of Acme comics. But tonight she's just another comedy fan.
"It's really cool seeing all the comics who are a part of the show, because, like, they've been where I am, and they're at a place that I hope I can be at one day," she says.
Erikson started her comedy career just four years ago during a Monday-night open mic at Acme. The club's reputation preceded itself, which was the main reason why she chose it as the place to launch her career.
That, and the fact that she didn't have anywhere else to go.
"I didn't know that other places did open mic," she says. "I just knew I wanted to try it, and my friends told me this was a good place to go so I did."
That first night went pretty well for Erikson. She quickly learned, however, that not just anyone can get practice at the city's most prestigious comedy club.
"It's getting harder to get stage time at Acme, because there are so many talented people doing comedy right now," she says. "The bar is really high here, so it's important to keep polishing your jokes and working on new stuff before you get here so that you can be your best."
Much like the weekend's headliners, Erikson says that the club has been instrumental in her growth as a comedian. She also says that the crowds at Acme are far more accepting of unique comics than anywhere else, which is another reason she loves working here.
"It's a smart crowd that welcomes everyone," she says. "College kids, weird kids, adults, people with families; my mom and grandma come here and watch me. It's great. And everyone is so nice and really likes comedy, which makes me want to try new things that might be kind of weird. Acme makes me feel...yeah. It makes me feel like I'm not afraid."
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