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."
Immediately before the public hearing, council member Diane Hofstede asked whether the council should take into account comics' typically racy language when considering how to vote, noting that many jokes are "descriptive and offensive." When Ricardo Cervantes, deputy director of Licenses and Consumer Services, answered that, no, that falls under the First Amendment, chuckles rippled through the back of the room.
The comics took the mic. In the opening act, Edwards recounted organizing comedy events during his Air Force days in Kuwait. Next up was broad-shouldered funnyman Gus Lynch; after addressing the council as "fellow inquisitors," he had his five-year-old son implore the officials to "let my dad play comedy in Minneapolis." Dan Schlissel, founder of Twin Cities-based indie comedy label Stand Up! Records, spoke about the importance of open mics to young and improving comics. Quash, feigning obliviousness, asked the council for a new Twins stadium and a new I-35 bridge, and demanded they make Al Franken senator. Wayne Burfiend said the change to the ordinance was necessary in order to "help new kids, people coming up, to realize that their dreams of becoming a full-time comic, and sleeping in their car overnight, can happen."
They saved the wild card for last. The advantage of unleashing Fancy Ray McCloney—self-proclaimed "best looking man in comedy" and a dead ringer for Little Richard—was his star power. As a bombastic fixture of late-night local TV ads and former quixotic candidate for governor on the People's Champion ballot, Fancy Ray boasted greater name recognition than any of his compatriots.
The potential downside: A genuine eccentric with no shortage of self-confidence, McCloney was prone to going wildly off-script.
"These guys aren't out committing crimes," he said during his impassioned speech, motioning to the rogue's gallery of comics behind him. "They're not out there doing nothing...." Brief pause. "Probably if you check their THC levels, it may not be too good."
The comment elicited nervous laughter. Overall, the councilmembers were not so much receptive as they were enraptured. Guffaws sounded throughout the bravado performance. Council member Don Samuels—who seemed eager to insert a few quips of his own—vowed to tweak comedy laws now and again just as an excuse to get an encore performance.
So it wasn't surprising when the council voted unanimously to amend the ordinance. The new language, which goes into effect this week, tolerates live comedy acts not only for Class B venues, but for Class C and D holders, as well. The move effectively legalizes standup in a majority of Minneapolis's bars.
"It didn't seem like it was anything that they were even going to try to fight against," says Tommy Thompson, who serves drinks at the Corner Bar when he's not on the comedy circuit. "It was like they just wanted to sit back and enjoy it. It was pretty comical."
But the punch line came after the hearing. Wanting to thank the council, Edwards and Quash approached the seated officials. Hofstede beckoned them forward. The same council member who had just minutes before voiced concern about the potentially salacious nature of their content, Hofstede now had a special request: Would they mind doing a private show at her ward's annual outdoor party on September 23?
They tentatively accepted the invite, and agreed to keep in touch. Hofstede sounds decidedly less priggish when recounting the hearing three weeks later.
"I think it's a good change," she says of the vote. "I think we sometimes forget how important laughter is."