Ten years ago, no one would have thought of Milwaukee as a comedy hub. One of the reasons that’s slowly changing is the Milwaukee Comedy Festival.
First produced in 2006 as the Sketch and Improv Comedy Festival, this annual event now draws talented artists from across the country to perform with their equally talented peers from the Badger State. In celebration of the festival’s 10th anniversary, WiG sat down with Matt Kemple, founder and producer of the festival and its parent organization, Milwaukee Comedy, to pin down the top 10 reasons you should attend.
1. There’s a ton of people making you laugh
It’s actually a little crazy for Kemple to think about how big the festival’s gotten. This year’s event, running Aug. 6 to 9, will feature 26 acts spread across seven shows — one Thursday at 8 p.m., two Friday at 8 and 10 p.m., three Saturday at 6, 8 and 10 p.m. and a Sunday night finale at Turner Hall Ballroom at 8 p.m., with nationally acclaimed comic Brian Posehn wrapping it all up.
Those comedians — about 120 in total — come from improv, stand-up and sketch comedy disciplines, and represent some of the best independent groups working in the United States. Kemple is fond of saying that each year’s festival is the “biggest and best yet,” and it helps his case that every year he’s right.
2. And a lot of them are from Wisconsin
From the very beginning, Kemple says, the Milwaukee Comedy Festival has been as much about supporting local acts as bringing in performers from out of town. But doing so could have caused an imbalance if those local acts weren’t as good as their fellow comedians.
If anything, Kemple’s had the opposite problem. “(Wisconsin) people actually compare to the acts we’re getting from New York, Chicago, LA — these major comedy cities,” he says.
This year’s festival roster is nearly split down the middle, with 12 acts from Milwaukee, Madison or Green Bay, and every one of the festival’s seven shows features at least one local comedian or group. Among this year’s biggest draws: John Egan, a comedian from Green Bay who’s opened for major acts at Appleton’s Skyline Cafe and will be hosting Friday’s 10 p.m. show, and Sammy Arechar and Christopher Schmidt, stand-up artists on the rise who’ll close the 8 and 10 p.m. shows on Saturday, respectively.
3. It all starts with beer
Kemple says the festival has had a small kickoff event for the past several years, but Lakefront Brewing is helping step it up a notch. On Wednesday, Lakefront will host a brewery tour at 7 p.m. followed by an all-local stand-up show, with music by Milwaukee bluegrass band The Grasping at Straws.
Partnering with Lakefront allows Kemple to solve the conundrum he’s always faced with these kickoff events: how to make them a big deal without overshadowing the festival. “To have it at a different venue, you can make it its own thing,” he says. “It’s a perfect combination.”
4. This year, there are extra laughs for the taking
Milwaukee Comedy is partnering with Milwaukee Record for bonus shows that double as pre- and post-festival parties. These “Extra Laughs” shows will take place at four Milwaukee venues — Bremen Cafe in Riverwest; Club Garibaldi in Bay View; Var Gallery in Walker’s Point; and 42 Lounge in downtown Milwaukee.
Kemple says these gigs are a formal execution of informal afterparties organizers have tried to assemble in previous years, but also can be an opportunity for comedy-lovers who can’t make it to a particular show to still see some of their favorite local comedians in their own neighborhood. They’re also cheaper than a regular show — Bremen and 42 Lounge’s sets are free, while Garibaldi and Var Gallery will charge a $5 cover unless you’ve already bought a festival ticket.
5. You can watch your “Whormones” rage
Kemple says he’s been hoping to schedule a live comedy podcast taping at the festival for several years, and his inaugural guests are certainly attention-getters. “Whormones,” a self-described “anti-feminist, feminist podcast,” is hosted by Jaqi Furback and former Milwaukeean/porn star Alia Janine, and features the duo discussing their different points of view on sexuality, feminism and life. They’ll record the Milwaukee Comedy episode at Next Act at 4 p.m. Saturday.
Before she left the city, Janine hosted a podcast for OnMilwaukee and interviewed Kemple in advance of last year’s festival. That’s when they started talking about collaborating this year. “(Janine) just has no filter and she will talk about anything. … Jaqi is very reserved — so their dynamic is great.”
6. Learning is funny-damental
Local comedians hoping to up their game shouldn’t need a push to pay attention to the festival this year, but if you’re looking for one anyway, consider this: Milwaukee Comedy will be hosting improv workshops led by two of the country’s most talented artists. On Saturday, Cleveland’s Missy Whitis will help students develop better instincts for long-form improv. And Sunday will feature TJ Shanoff, a director with almost two decades’ experience in musical improvisation.
They’re more targeted and challenging workshops than the festival’s featured in the past, but Kemple says as the festival has grown, he’s found beginners’ workshops aren’t as good a fit anymore. The caliber of visiting performers has gone up and local artists have more than enough opportunities to take their first comedy steps in the rest of the calendar year.
7. There’s fun swag!
If getting to see a bunch of awesome comedy isn’t incentive enough, you’ll be pleased to learn Milwaukee Comedy’s sponsors have supplied them with lots of goodies to give away. But you’ll have to be willing to play along, because Kemple isn’t interested in just handing out prizes to random patrons: “It’s a Comedy Festival; it shouldn’t just be something boring.”
So if you want nerdy prizes like a Big Bang Theory Clue board game, come prepared to answer nerdy questions. Or “Name That Song” to pick up 88Nine passes. Or win an Irish dance-off for Irish Fest tickets. Or just come ready for anything — because Kemple has a bunch of other swag he’s not quite sure how to give away yet, but if you want it, you’ll have to earn it.
8. Did we mention Brian Posehn?
For the first time, this year’s Comedy Festival will feature a major national headliner to wrap up the weekend: Brian Posehn, a stand-up comedian also known for his roles on The Sarah Silverman Program and a variety of films. Posehn was one of a few acts Kemple says he brought to Turner Hall for consideration and he discovered that they’d already been trying to book him. The Sunday night slot turned out to be a perfect fit for everyone.
“(Posehn’s) not just a really funny guy,” Kemple says. “His level of humor really fits what our audience is looking for. He’s smart, kind of nerdy, but also can be pretty disgusting sometimes.”
Opening for Posehn are two of Wisconsin’s top stand-up artists. Hosting is Ryan Mason, a Milwaukeean who moved to Madison a few years ago and has since returned — better than ever, according to Kemple. Then there’s Geoffrey Asmus, an eccentric Madisonian who’s already delighted a Turner Hall crowd opening for Kyle Dunnigan this year. “It was very important to us to make sure those slots were filled by people that were from Wisconsin. We wanted to give a local comic an opportunity to open for somebody different.”
9. It’s cheaper than ever
OK, OK, reducing advance tickets from $15 to $14 and door tickets from $20 to $18 doesn’t sound like much, but if anything, they should be higher. A $14/$18 price point means the festival costs the same as any other show produced by Milwaukee Comedy during the year (excepting the Posehn show, $20 before fees), an incentive for people to get out and see a show.
“We feel like it’s the right price for the right value. …I would rather have a lower ticket price and be able to have more people come and fill the seats more,” he says.
The biggest comedy junkies can get an even better deal on the festival’s all-access passes — for $50, you can get into any show in the festival (including Sunday and the special events) and receive first-choice seats, along with other goodies.
10. And you’re helping a community blossom
Kemple says it’s hard to overstate how much of an impact the festival has had on the local comedy community. A decade ago, there weren’t any local clubs that would put on performers; now it’s the norm that businesses will seek out local comedians, largely through the network Kemple and Milwaukee Comedy has been able to create.
More and more, that makes the festival not just about being a single weekend of good comedy. It’s a sampling of what audiences can find throughout the year in their own backyard, and a way to help fund Milwaukee Comedy’s efforts to support it and grow even further.
Kemple isn’t sure what the Milwaukee Comedy Festival will look like in another 10 years, or even next year. But if his audience keeps growing the way it has, there’s only one way it can go: bigger and better.
The Milwaukee Comedy Festival runs Aug. 6 to 9, with a kickoff event Aug. 5 at 7 p.m. at Lakefront Brewery, 1872 N. Commerce St. Mainstage shows are at Next Act Theatre, 255 N. Water St., while Sunday’s 8 p.m. show is at Turner Hall, 1040 N. Fourth St. Tickets are $18, $14 in advance. For a full schedule or to purchase tickets, visit festival.milwaukeecomedy.com.