Milwaukee Comedy’s growth proves Brew City has great sense of humor

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When Matt Kemple started Milwaukee Comedy back in 2006, the goal was simple: to put together an annual Milwaukee Comedy Festival in August.

Today, the goal is still simple — it’s just bigger: to produce a regular slate of three or four shows a month, serve as a network for local performers, and continue the festival, which is now a consistently sold-out event.

Kemple is quick to say that Milwaukee Comedy’s growth coincides with an overall expansion of comedy in the city. New sketch, improv and stand-up artists are joining the pool each month, and they’re all dedicated to helping each other grow.

“That’s where the strength of the comedy scene comes from,” Kemple says.

Milwaukee Comedy has given the community a tremendous boost, providing not only support for artists, but also an additional comedy venue: the Underground Collaborative, a shared office/performance space located in the basement of Grand Avenue Mall. 

Besides presenting Milwaukee Comedy shows, the space is available for individuals to rent out for performance. MC’s shows are largely organized around three different “mainstage” series: the Comedy Arcade Show, the Retro Comedy Show and Variety Hour Happy Hour. Each follows a similar format, designed to maximize comic diversity by presenting multiple styles in the same evening, but with different focuses, Kemple says.

Take the monthly Comedy Arcade Show. Kemple invites top-level comedians to participate in order to spotlight stand-up work. But each performance in the series also includes an improv or sketch comedy group at the beginning, usually one that’s new to the scene.

The Retro Comedy Show reverses the formula. Performed every six to eight weeks, each show starts with a stand-up comedian, followed by either a performance of a classic sitcom episode or an improvised sitcom.

Variety Hour Happy Hour takes the formula and throws it in the trash. This monthly show is all sketch comedy, but Kemple says its writers are regulars who try to go for something new and different with every performance. The Variety Hour frequently features guest artists — sometimes stand-up comedians, sometimes actors — and has been increasingly incorporating fun music and comedic songs, which creates something of a zany atmosphere.

Making comic variety a priority is Kemple’s way of introducing audience members to comedy genres they might have written off.

“Some people will say, ‘Oh, I hate stand-up.’ And some people will say, ‘Oh, I don’t really like sketch comedy that much.’ But when they come out and see a show and it’s all mixed together, a lot of people get very surprised.”

The series are a lead-in for the annual comedy festival, which is also a mix of styles — but on a bigger, four-day scale. This year’s festival is scheduled for Aug. 7-10.

“The next (festival) is going to be 10 years for us, so this year we’re trying to make a few changes so that we can grow as healthy as we can,” Kemple says. He says the organization has focused on steady, controlled growth by bringing in more people and connecting with festival producers in other cities to find ways to collaborate.

April 4-5, in conjunction with April Fools’ Day, the Underground Collaborative will host a Milwaukee Comedy Festival fundraiser and kick-off party, with comedy events spread over Friday and Saturday. Kemple describes it as mini-festival of sorts, with ticket and merchandise giveaways for audience members. He’s invited several of Milwaukee’s better-known groups to perform, including the Tall Boys improv group and The Goodnight Milwaukee Show (a duo who hosts a faux late night talk show), as well as guests from Chicago.

The April Fools’ weekend kickoff is the first that the festival has had on this scale, and Kemple believes the organization is ready for it.

“I thought it made sense, because the festival has really grown. And, you know, another excuse to put on a show — why not?”

On stage

The Milwaukee Comedy Festival Fundraiser begins at 7:30 p.m. on April 4, and continues on April 5, at the Underground Collaborative, 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. Tickets are pay-what-you-can, with proceeds supporting the Milwaukee Comedy Festival.

Upcoming Milwaukee Comedy shows include a Comedy Arcade Show at 7:30 p.m. on April 11, Variety Hour Happy Hour at 7:30 p.m. on May 2, and Retro Comedy Show at 7:30 p.m. on May 17. For tickets and more information, visit milwaukeecomedy.com.