Today marks the beginning of Jim Gaffigan’s three-night run of shows at Pabst Theater. For going on eight years, the food-obsessed comedian’s late December appearances at the venue have served as the unofficial end to Milwaukee’s comedic calendar year. As we prepare for Gaffigan’s run of shows, and what already looks to have the makings of a great 2015 in stand-up, Milwaukee Record wants to take a look back at our favorite comedy performances we saw this year. From A-list legends captivating sold out theaters, to local up-and-comers commanding quaint bars, memorable nights in comedy clubs, and touring stand-ups bringing laughs to the basement of the Grand Avenue Mall, there was no shortage of outstanding comedy shows in Milwaukee this year. Sure, we missed some shows that we’re sure were great (Lewis Black, John Hodgman, Tracy Morgan, and Don Rickles among them). Others didn’t quite hit the mark compared to other events (we’re looking at you, Jerry Seinfeld and Nick Swardson), but here were our favorite comedy shows we saw in Milwaukee this year.
Martin Short at Pabst Theater (January 18)
Seeing a guy in his mid-sixties performing for a Jewish Community Center benefit wasn’t exactly an alluring experience on paper, but Martin Short (and his unending grab bag of unforgettable charters) bucked the event’s inherent rigidity during a rare return to the stage. There, Short re-introduced Milwaukee to the likes of Ed Grimley, Jackie Rogers Jr., Nathan Thurm, the ¡Three Amigos!, and Jiminy Glick during an unexpectedly energetic 90-minute Pabst Theater occupation, complete with costumes and all. The SNL and SCTV legend brought out costumes, dance numbers, and he even yanked Mayor Tom Barrett on stage to help contribute to a hilarious evening that wholeheartedly surprised us.
David Koechner at Turner Hall (February 14)
SNL and Second City alumnus David Koechner is much more regarded for his supporting roles on the Anchorman franchise, The Office, and dozens of other TV shows and films than he is in the realm of comedy. Yeah, he had to say “Whammy!” a couple times to appease some people, but the Missouri native turned in an excellent and eclectic Valentine’s night of comedy with stories of his midwestern upbringing and family life, stand-up, character work, and even a few musical numbers on stage (and beyond). Koechner even went into the audience and told couples which person was more attractive, and gave some strangers pints of beer. While not a traditional format, the veteran actor and improvisor shined bright in the role of stand-up comedian.
Hannibal Buress at Turner Hall (February 23)
It’s hard to think of a comedian who had a bigger year than Hannibal Buress. On top of a supporting role on the great Broad City, serving as co-host on the even greater The Eric Andre Show (seriously, watch The Eric Andre Show!), and publicly revealing (apparently) well-known allegations about decades of Bill Cosby awfulness, Buress managed his best work on stage with material that would eventually populate his third special, Live From Chicago. Before it aired, Buress came to Turner Hall and absolutely destroyed with a flawless 75 minutes worth of outlandish stories, insane premises, and well-placed DJ drop to punctuate his “Dance that shit drryyyyyyyyy!” punchline for a joke about pissing himself while on ecstasy.
Mike Birbiglia at Pabst Theater (March 8)
Last time he took the stage at the Pabst, Mike Birbiglia was at the height of his NPR-touted off-Broadway comedic artist phase, as he was in the midst of his “My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend” tour and pushing copies of his book, Sleepwalk With Me. Though he’s always great, we much prefer Birbiglia in a traditional stand-up setting. This time around, the critical darling shelved the dramatic one man show theme and, instead, was just one man showing us he could be funny for a prolonged period of time during the first of his two Pabst Theater outings. He harped on tardiness, reminisced saying fuck on stage while performing with The Muppets, talked about pissing off David O. Russell at a banquet, and warned the decidedly won-over audience about the dangers of “nuts in the air.” We’ll take this Birbigs over the This American Life-“curated” persona any day.
Demetri Martin at Pabst Theater (April 25)
By this point, it’s safe to say the namesake of the special Demetri Martin. Person. and short-lived Comedy Central series Important Things With Demetri Martin has seen the most famous portion of his respectable career come and go. As periphery as the once-lauded comedian now is amongst a sea alt-comics he helped inspire, Martin hasn’t lost his ability to command a room with a staggering batch of everyday musings flipped, dissected, and ingeniously reassembled. While two years removed from his latest special Standup Comedian, the heady humorist kept a nearly sold out Pabst Theater laughing with 70 minutes of new material that ranged from pondering how “hot regards” would do as an email signature, to an idea about putting a third date on his tombstone (“Holy shit. This guy rallied!”). Thankfully, Martin left his guitar and harmonica off stage (crutches from past specials), but used his other trademark, the gigantic notepad, to bring the show home with an excellent encore of a game called “Good. Bad. Interesting.”
Kyle Kinane at Shank Hall (May 6)
Chicago-sired comic Kyle Kinane isn’t your traditional comic. Enter his decision to eschew a comedy club or theater show in favor of performing at a noted music venue. In early May, the lovable, schclubby comedian toted a few High Lifes on stage and delighted a full Shank Hall with 75 or so minutes of too-personal bits harvested from the mind of a damaged genius. Much of his time centered on aging (dis)gracefully with no discernible boundaries set. “I stopped getting diarrhea, which should be a good result. Except I didn’t change any part of my behavior for that to happen,” he said. Local fixture Jake Kornely also turned in his best performance we saw during his opening set.
Aziz Ansari at Riverside Theater (May 19)
Aziz Ansari now faces the difficult task of staying true to his technology- and rejection-oriented staples, despite being in his thirties and enjoying immense popularity. In the first of two well-attended Riverside Theater performances May 19, a gracious Ansari dispelled any concern that his still-rising star has rendered his humor any less identifiable, with a sage 80-minute redressing of his self-deprecating and text message-analyzing mainstays—this time from the vantage point of an omniscient outsider in a relationship. Happily taken, Ansari’s healthy love life also suited him superbly as a sidesplitting stopgap between desperate single guy status, and doomed married couple. He likened monogamy to avoiding a tempting bowl of Skittles in favor of the “nice, nutritious salad” of fidelity—a bit that culminated in him shoving imaginary Skittles (even “crusty ones”) into his mouth frantically before breaking into an intensifying chant of “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Nice, nutritious salad!” It wasn’t anywhere near a reinvention, but the stand-up A-lister continued the theme of taking old themes to new, increasingly more hilarious places.
Kumail Nanjiani at Turner Hall (June 17)
Despite coming up in the Chicago comedy scene, Kumail Nanjiani had never performed in Milwaukee until this summer. While his inaugural Brew City outing was long overdue, The Meltdown co-host, Portlandia resident, and Silicon Valley cast member proved worth the wait as he bowled over a brimming Turner Hall with an entirely new hour of material in his first post-Beta Male tour. After Madison (by way of Milwaukee) comic Ryan Mason killed in his 20-plus minutes in the spotlight, Nanjiani kept the laughs coming with a set rooted in shameless recollections and sidesplitting insight into his far eastern-inspired idiosyncrasies. Shelving prepared material in favor of an off-the-rails Q&A session in the show’s final 15 minutes was an unsavory ending, but the previous 80-90 minutes Nanjiani and Mason managed to make it a little easier to look the other way.
Johnny Pemberton and Josh Fadem at The Underground Collaborative (June 21)
You might not know either of these people, but you probably recognize Josh Fadem and Johnny Pemberton from such roles as Liz Lemon’s inept agent on 30 Rock and virtually every high school movie part ever, respectively. Off camera, the youthful funnymen are among the most absurd, subversive, and fucking insane comedians we’ve ever seen. We were fortunate enough to be among the 25-30 who turned up at the Underground Collaborative on the longest day of the year to see a pair of relative unknowns shock, awe, and vehemently entertain the sparse crowd during the Milwaukee stop on their “Summer Boys Do It!” tour. Fadem literally rolled on the floor and spliced Harrison Ford quotes in between intentionally grating and immensely physical bits. Pemberton started his set by saying nonsense in a classic comedy cadence for upwards of four minutes before doing an truly awful Fat Bastard impersonation and dancing seductively to a creepy, slowed down song. You needed to see it to fully understand, and we feel fortunate we did.
Nick Thune at The Underground Collaborative (October 1)
Sometimes a performer and a venue come together to make a truly memorable show. Alt-comic Nick Thune’s Wednesday night appearance on the stage of The Underground Collaborative (the Grand Avenue Mall’s premier source for intentional comedy) could have easily brought a few hundred people out to Turner Hall or sold out a weekend at Milwaukee’s Comedy Cafe. That’s what makes Thune’s outing before 90-some people all the more special. That said, the heady comedian’s material didn’t hurt our enjoyment of the rare event either. Nursing a cut on his finger caused by a backstage fruit-slicing mishap, Thune didn’t play the guitar too much, but issued a tight and sidesplitting one-hour set that will make the roughly 100 in the mall basement proud to say “I saw Nick Thune when…” after he’s booked at a theater his next time through town. Local opener Allison Dunne made the most of the opportunity with a polished and impressive 15 minutes.
Tim & Eric with Dr. Steve Brule at Pabst Theater (September 25)
There was a moment near the end of the sold-out Tim & Eric with Dr. Steve Brule show at Pabst Theater where John C. Reilly (deep in his Dr. Steve Brule character) summed up the 150-some previous minutes with one question: “What the fuck just happened?” While the puzzled inquiry is taken out of context, it could have easily been applied to almost every moment during the exercise in boundary-pushing anti-comedy that included a laptop being smashed, a photograph of a man’s micropenis repeatedly being shown on a massive screen, an impassioned chant cheering on the uploading of Norton Disk Doctor, and NO/NO singer Cat Ries signing a waiver to grant Reilly permission to touch her breasts. As anyone with even an iota of exposure to the distinct and deeply divisive comedic work of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim could have predicted, the performance was nothing short of batshit crazy, intentionally unhinged, and incredibly enjoyable.
Dave Chappelle at Pabst Theater (September 27)
Dave Chappelle’s three-night, six-show Pabst Theater stint was far and away the story of Milwaukee’s comedy year. Sadly, yours truly was out of state during the occupation, but Matt Wild was on hand for the first show of the legendary comedian’s unparalleled run of Pabst performances. Here’s an excerpt:
“Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chappelle’s set was just how unremarkable it was. A comedian got on stage and told some jokes, the crowd listened, and everyone enjoyed themselves. Sure, it may have taken threats of ejection to tame a normally unruly Milwaukee crowd (audience members were being asked to put away their phones long before the show, and Chappelle’s opening DJ reiterated the ‘rules’ several times), but this sort of polite behavior should be the rule, not the exception. Then again, maybe the warnings weren’t needed: the comedian was so good, so relaxed, and so funny that it was nearly impossible to see him only for his old jokes and catchphrases. Forget ‘Rick James, bitch!’ This was Chappelle’s show.”
Halloween Comedy Show at Circle-A Cafe (November 1)
In the spirit of Halloween cover concerts, 10 Milwaukee comedians donned costumes, put on personas, and crammed into the quaint confines of Riverwest’s Circle-A Cafe to partake in the second annual Halloween Comedy Show. Josh Ballew stood out in the role of “Dead Bob Ross” with a set heavy in perfectly-painted dick jokes. Suze Bischoff brought Barbie into some bold places, and Adam Loeding—face paint and all—killed as an out of shape skeleton. However, Christopher Schmidt’s heft of movie tropes piled into his ’80s action hero character was well deserving of the best set honors in the second installment of the one of a kind event.
Bob Odenkirk at Pabst Theater (November 4)
Technically, this was a book reading, but it was a downright hilarious one. In town to support his new book, A Load Of Hooey, Bob Odenkirk enraptured Pabst Theater’s lower level with stand-up, sketch, and (yes, obviously) selections read aloud from his book. Between his set, songs, and the short-but-sweet guest spots from lesser known performers, Odenkirk led a night that was appealing to both Mr. Show lovers and those who just learned of him via Breaking Bad. Not bad for a book reading.
Caste Of Killers Battle Royale Finales at Karma Bar And Grill (November 21)
We’ve said it before and we’ll continue to say it: there are great things happening in Milwaukee’s comedy scene right now. Despite this claim being verified with ample open mics, tremendous showcases, as well as new and exciting things popping up in countless nooks of the city at a very encouraging rate, the annual Caste Of Killers Battle Royale is a great gateway to the quality and variety of the city’s burgeoning comedy scene. Battle Royale IV was no different. Following three cutthroat rounds, a dozen comedians descended the Karma Bar & Grill stairs and pitted their material against one another (and a ruthless, borderline atrocious audience) to vie for the title of “Milwaukee’s Funniest Comic” (as judged by Caste Of Killers, Packers legend LeRoy Butler, and myself). At the end of the night, finalists Sammy Arechar, Liz Ziner, and Ramie Makhlouf were defeated by Christopher Schmidt.