Dan Mogol is pacing on the patio outside Ernie's on Gull Lake, a country bar in the Brainerd wilderness. He's worrying about his beard. He's been trimming and shaping it for a month but it's not coming together like it should. He peeks into the dining room, where around 100 people have reserved tables a month in advance. He clenches his fists and grits his teeth.
The "beard" he's worried about is a series of jokes in his current standup comedy set. He mouths the opening words striding back and forth across the deck. "I have the confidence because I have a beard. See, when I have a beard, I'm different and people treat me differently." The joke has been landing well in recent sets but it's always in revision. He'll add a new pause. A different phrase. A new reference. A tighter segue. It needs to be better. He needs to be better. He's given himself 10 years to make it as a comic, and he's halfway to the deadline.
The crowd is getting warm. Some are drinking greenies, a local swill the shade of radioactive waste. A bachelorette party harasses the quiet men on the barstools watching the hockey game. Buy beads, they shout, it's just a buck! It's the first warm weekend of spring and the ice on Gull Lake is gone, but Mogol doesn't appreciate the weather or the view. He's lost in his pocket notebook and his headphones, waiting to start his 30 minutes.
His beard joke has had a room laughing and snapped another into silence. Either way, he adjusts. Late at night, after his sets, he'll listen to his recordings. He'll wince at poor timing and notice shifts in momentum. He'll observe the impact of laughs like a scientist would a seismic wave. This is comedy. This is the work of being funny.
It's Monday and Mogol is driving to open mic night at Acme Comedy Co. His compact Chevy hums along Broadway Avenue to the soothing sitar of Prem Joshua's "Funky Guru." "It's not that I'm nervous," he says, tapping the steering wheel to the beat of the tablas. "I'm just excited. Like a dog — you know, how a hunting dog just wants to hunt? And I just pace. I pace and go through all my emotions. You suck, you suck, and then at one point, I'm amazing! Amazing! And then eventually, you're going to do fine. You're fine."
The bar at Acme is a dim garden-level den, and it's packed an hour and a half before show time. There are a few civilians here for happy hour but the large majority are comics looking for a stage. Moleskine notebooks and tattered scraps of paper litter the bar. Comics huddle around tables, scribbling, thinking, bouncing setups off one another.
He's already the 45th comic to have signed up for time this evening. Around 20 will get on stage. Mogol is a member of what you might call Acme's farm league — a group of preferred regular comics who are often elevated from three- to five-minute sets. He'd like to become an Acme emcee, which would mean longer sets, more open mic time, and exposure before national headliners. It's unclear how, or even if, he'll "make it in comedy." He doesn't even know what "making it" might even look like. All he can do for now is arrive every Monday, write his name down, refine his jokes, and wait. He's slowly chipping away at a block of marble, hoping a statue is somewhere underneath.
The open mic lineup is set. Copies of the list hit the bar and all the comics scramble to grab one. "The running of the idiots," Mogol says, including himself in the group. He scans the page. He's not on it. He'll only get on stage at Acme once every three or four attempts. For newer comics, it might be every five or six. He promptly drives to another bar, this one in Northeast.
Mogol is unfazed by the idea that all this work might be for nothing. He's a true pie-in-the-sky believer in the kind of fate that smiles on hard work. You might call him passionate or delusional. His work is either purpose-driven or tunnel vision. It's probably a healthy dose of both. But that's all in the back of his head. Mogol's focus is singular: Find another stage, tell another joke, hurry up, be funny, wait.
The booker at "The Monday" is Andy Brynildson, a large comic with flowing hair and glasses, like John Candy photoshopped for the cover of a drug store romance novel. This Monday Night Comedy Showcase is run at Club Underground, the basement annex of Spring Street Tavern. It's a showcase, meaning the standup sets are booked in advance. Bookers like Brynildson are the gatekeepers of comedy, and many are working comedians themselves. Another comic approaches him. "I can get you five minutes on April 6," Brynildson says. The comic gladly accepts. April 6 is over a month away.
There are 40 people in this room, lots of comics and regulars. A home crowd. The room isn't ideal for comedy, though; it's too big. Rows of tables and high-tops are huddled against the stage to make it seem smaller. Off in one corner, there's a sad couch in front of a sad fake tree festooned with sad Christmas lights. The air down here is stale. Three of the last five comics have opened with a joke about Netflix. "That's comedy," Mogol says. "Netflix is the new GPS."
The Monday gets rolling and Mogol starts fidgeting. "Why aren't I up there?" he says to himself. He paces in the back near the bar. He notices the crowd sounding receptive. "I would destroy this room." Brynildson is running around the room, writing down and crossing out names on his illuminated clipboard. "Did someone not show up?" Mogol asks, suddenly hopeful. He has Brynildson cornered.
Minutes later he's messing with his shirt, stretching his arms, twisting his back, and hopping slightly, like he's about to attempt an Olympic high jump. Brynildson gives him a long, rambling introduction. This only makes Mogol more anxious. Finally, he's on.
"Walking in tonight, I ran into a girl," he starts. "Her and I, we had eye contact, we had a moment, so I decided to just go, 'Hi.' She goes," — Mogol pauses for dramatic effect — "'No.'" He accentuates 'no' with a pouty smirk. The crowd loves it. "And the only reason I can do that, I have the confidence because I have a beard. See, when I have a beard, I'm different. It's not that I'm better, I'm just different. And people see that, they treat me differently. Like I'll walk in to Home Depot, and out of nowhere, someone will walk up to me and go — 'Uhhh, three-quarters or one inch?' And with total confidence out of nowhere, I'm like 'five-eighths.'"
The crowd gives up only a few minor chuckles and he moves on to more vetted material. Later that night, back in his Uptown apartment, he listens to the recording. He realizes that it should have been half-inch or three-quarters, so that five-eighths split the difference.
Dan Mogol is 31 years old, single, with a stocky build and a full-faced black beard he wears in a neat trim. He's an outdoorsman, a bow hunter and fisherman, which gives him ample material when he plays cities like Cloquet and Brainerd. He's intensely close to his family. He'll call his grandfather in the middle of the night to chat about nothing important.
He lives for feedback and he's hyper-curious about his appearance. He swipes right at every profile on Tinder to gauge what he calls "his true market value." On his home refrigerator, an old comment card reads: "The first comic was great, the second guy, not so much, the third guy was excellent." That night, Mogol was the second guy.
During the day Mogol is a bartender and server, but not just to bankroll his true calling until Hollywood comes through. Restaurants are his other passion. He'd like to remain in food service if he doesn't make it as a comic. Recently, he became the lunchtime bartender at Revival, the popular new restaurant on Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis. He spent his first shift over the dish pit — 15 hours of repetitive, mind-numbing hard work. No stranger to the grind himself, Mogol has a newfound appreciation for dishwashers.
He works in restaurants because he enjoys being of service, being the bearer of happiness. Just as he's fueled by a wave of laughs from the stage, he draws legitimate joy from watching a customer dig into a two-piece Tennessee Hot fried chicken and a side of hoppin' John. He knows the power of both food and humor.
As a kid, Mogol learned to use comedy for its disarming abilities. His family moved seven times before he reached high school: Minnetonka, Mendota Heights, Hopkins, new neighborhoods, new kids. "Before they could be mean to me, I'd make them laugh," he says. "Comedy as self-defense."
He remembers one afternoon 20-some years ago, when he came home from elementary school and snacked on PB&J on a King's Hawaiian roll and turned on the television. He began flipping channels and found a Robin Williams special on Comedy Central. He remembers being entranced by the energy of that crowd, the instant human connections made so explosively when Williams wandered into the audience. He probably didn't realize it then, but he was also watching the hardest working comic in the business physically bust his ass for each and every laugh.
A working comic, he believes, is like a door-to-door salesman — which happens to be in the Mogol genes. His sisters are in sales and event planning. His grandfather and great uncles owned the Gold Medal Beverage Company in St. Paul. The comics who make it are the most relentless salesmen, out on the road, pounding the pavement. That's why every good comic has a hemorrhoid joke, he says — they've grown one in pursuit of their dream.
Mogol's first standup attempt was at the legendary Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. He was 19 years old and drew a lottery spot for three minutes near the end of their open mic night. "I followed a big black dude and he was telling big black dick jokes. I get on stage and say, 'I don't really know how to follow that. I'm white, I'm Jewish, and I have a small penis.' I instantly got laughs. It was great."
Twelve years after his first set, Mogol sits at Stella's Fish Cafe, drinking a beer, composing his beard into a small notepad. It's the first time he's written the joke in full. He's considering a tangent on ice fishing. "People assume I know how to ice fish. No." He scribbles into his notebook. "Ugh, edits. I hate this part. Something about shoveling? My beard makes me want to shovel snow — and I live in an apartment. No, that's not funny." He's experimenting with the verb "bearding." "It's like negative 30 outside, I'm thinking 'It's bearding weather.' Or wait, fine bearding weather? Perfect bearding weather? No. Just bearding weather."
He decides to give his new beard a shot at the James Ballentine VFW Post 246 "FREE LAFFS Comedy Night." Mogol will be among a dozen comics performing in the Army Room. They gather in the atrium outside the Navy Room. In the bathroom, there's a steel ashtray cemented to the wall between the urinals. Drinks are cheap and the bar only takes cash. The bartender says, "In God we trust, and nobody else."
The crowd looks restless. A handful of young, muscle-bound veterans line up along the far wall. One wears a shirt that reads "fix bayonets." Last night's crowd were kindred comic spirits. Tonight, it's random interlopers, hipsters and townies, veterans, and bros. It's also a crowd in need of a laugh. This morning, 1,700 people were laid off from Target corporate headquarters downtown. The VFW is offering free drinks to those affected.
Five minutes to showtime, Mogol throws the new tangent at another comic, sitting across the lobby. "I need to go outside. It's bearding weather." The other comic laughs. It's sticking. The show has begun and Mogol is pacing and mouthing his jokes again. He hears the first comic get a big laugh in from the hall. "There they are," he assures himself. "They're there."
The emcee, a comic named Hessley Rey, is moving the show along nicely. She's funny, but she's doing well not to hog the segues between comics. Micah Walsh, another comic, is also here. Mogol saw him yesterday at Acme, and will see him next Monday at Acme. These are his business colleagues. These bars are their water coolers.
The Twin Cities comedy community is small. Over time, cliques develop, biases align, and rumors spread. "It's like high school. But with better pot," says Mogol. But he knows how comedians succeed. Someone will get the break and bring his buddies along for the ride. Someone will be the booker who organizes the show that draws the right audience member who holds some sway. He would just as soon be on good terms with everyone.
He gets on stage at the VFW and the set is going well. The crowd likes "half-inch or three-quarters." He has them rolling. "If I were clean-shaven and walked into Home Depot they'd be like, 'Are you okay?'" The laughs build. "Are you lost? Bed Bath & Beyond is down the road." The crowd howls.
He's feeling good, so he tries the new tangent. "Also if it's negative 30, I'm like, 'Better get outside. It's bearding weather!'" The crowd falls silent. The room suddenly feels a few degrees warmer than it did a moment ago. "Bearding weather" has sucked the life out of the Army Room. "Fuck it," Mogol says. "That part's new." The crowd laughs in appreciation. He moves on to the rest of his set like it never happened.
Minneapolis regularly turns comics out on to big stages. Cy Amundson, for example, was making the rounds at Acme seven years ago before getting noticed at standup festivals. Nick Swardson honed his craft the same way long before his fi lm career began. Along with Mary Mack and Chad Daniels, they all formerly worked at Acme Comedy Club before recently achieving national success.
It's Wednesday now and Mogol is itching for time on that very stage. He loves playing that room. Every comic does. Louis CK once called Acme "legendary" and club owner Louis Lee "a part of comedy history." Mogol can't help being nostalgic about it. "Low ceilings with a big heart," is how he describes Acme. "A solid space. Laughter can live in that room."
His goal is a five-minute guest set. It took him over two years of hard work to be in a position to snag five minutes like this. Two years of religiously attending open mics, developing his set, and building a rapport with the Acme staff, and getting a guest set is still a challenge. His good friend Greg Coleman is the emcee tonight — that's his first inroad. He runs down the management and they give him the go ahead. Finally he looks for the headlining comic, who has the final say on the guest comics who open for them.
Tonight it's Pete Lee. "I don't know Pete," he says. "Never seen him, never talked to him, I've heard he's really great." Lee turns out to be great, indeed. He grew up in Wisconsin and graduated from this same local circuit before moving to New York City. He's since been on
Letterman and shot a half-hour for Comedy Central Presents. Lee signs off. Mogol now has five minutes.
The "green room" at Acme is two couches wedged into a closet-sized corner behind the stage. On the table is a lamp that legend holds Mitch Hedberg stole from the Doubletree Hotel. Mogol once accidentally burned its shade with a candle while hanging out with Todd Glass, a national headliner. On one wall, there's a seven-year-old chart with signatures from all the headliners who have come through Acme. Many names on this list received a huge career boost from playing this room.
Coleman introduces Mogol and he runs through the beard with some minor modifications. They land well and he moves on to some digs at musclebound guys who wear rhinestone shirts. "Sorry bro, too sore from leg day. Leg day? I don't even know what that means. Unless we're talking about Buffalo Wild Wings."
Mogol continues trimming his beard for the next few weeks. He emcees a show at the 934th Airlift Wing stationed at the MSP airport. It's a tough room. The commander apologized to him after the show, thinking his presence might have stopped some of the troops from laughing. The next week he wrangles a guest set at House of Comedy at Mall of America, and then a 15-minute closing set at The Monday.
He still isn't done trimming his beard, so he heads to Lillydale to play for an empty room in the middle of the afternoon. Every Wednesday for a few hours before open mic night, Joke Joint owner Ken Reed holds a comedy workshop. Comics gather and work out material. Nothing about it feels funny. It's a sterilized laboratory where living things are dissected. Take a pause there. Milk that laugh. Clarify that setup. Is itching your butt part of the joke?
Mogol takes his turn under the microscope. The comics tell him the beard joke is more about him being a pushover, and that the beard is a mask for weakness rather than itself being a source of strength. So there must be other things that happen to him when he's clean-shaven. He starts riffing on being pressured into buying things. "Do you know how many circular saws I own?" The comics shout back, you don't have the courage to use them, right? "Oh yeah, once I grow a week's worth of scruff, I might even plug them in!" The comics like it. Mogol smiles and scribbles in his notebook.
After a month of open mics and showcases and emceeing and workshops and joke editing and fried chicken, Dan Mogol takes his show on the road. He's playing Ernie's on Gull, just outside of Brainerd, for the fourth time. He says it's his favorite bar room in the state to work. He's featuring for headliner Tim Harmston. Harmston won Acme's Funniest Person in the Twin Cities contest in 2003. Since then, he's been on Last Comic Standing, Letterman, and Live at Gotham.
The beard slays at Ernie's. "Bearding weather" is gone. "Five-eighths" lands nicely. He throws in a tangent about being mistaken for Rosie O'Donnell when he's clean-shaven. He starts to lose the country crowd joking about anxiety around circular saws. He feels the laughs flagging, and quickly moves on.
Harmston takes the stage. He begins with a riff on the insufferable bachelorette party in the crowd and asks where the money for the bead necklaces goes. Since this is Brainerd, he theorizes that it goes toward invasive aquatic species research. "Stop the zebra mussels and help us get wasted!" The audience erupts. Harmston instantly has Ernie's in a chokehold and doesn't let up for 45 minutes.
After the show, Mogol commandeers a table in the hallway so the entire audience has to walk by him to leave. He's selling lighters that have his twitter handle printed on the side, along with the word #FUHCK — a punch line, his version of an exasperated Midwesterner cursing. He hawks the lighters with the charm of a snake oil salesman and the doggedness of a gypsy street vendor selling knockoff handbags. He sells a dozen lighters at $5 each.
Some weeks he'll make half his income from comedy. Others, barely any at all. This week, he's done well. Once he's back in the Cities, he'll go back to Acme, back to the VFW, back to The Monday, back to calling bookers and finding more rooms with showcases. And then hopefully it'll all work out. He'll win a competition, or someone will feed his name to the right booker, or he'll be funny on a podcast and the right person will be listening. He's circling like an airplane in an endless holding pattern, not knowing where or if the airport will appear. So he keeps flying and re-fueling and hoping one day he'll be cleared for a landing.
A cool wind drifts off the quiet lake. Cell phone towers send a red, blinking beam from the far shore. An audience member approaches Mogol on the patio. He made it to Mogol's first show, and the second, but he missed the third, and he's so glad he was able to get tickets for this one. He's a fan. Mogol jokes around with him and thinks to leave, before spotting the straggling audience members now huddled around the bar. Dan Mogol thinks he can sell a few more lighters.