Matt Werner’s introduction to stand-up came by less-than-flattering means. But now more than a year removed from his drunken, material-free introduction to the art form at an East Side open mic, he’s caught the comedy bug, developed a heft of material, and seems determined to stay in the scene for the long haul. After winning Comedy Cafe’s open mic competition earlier this year, the budding comic, actor, improvisor, and former UW-La Crosse student is cashing in his prize (an opening slot of his choice at the club) to set the stage for fellow western Wisconsin expatriate Shane Mauss’ appearances Friday night. Before his biggest show in his young comedy career, Milwaukee Record spoke to Werner about his path to stand-up, his work with “The Milwaukee Drinking Play,” and the benefits of living with another comedian.
Milwaukee Record: Explain your intro to comedy. How did you get started?
Matt Werner: I started doing it right before Halloween of last year at Karma. I went to an open mic there. I always wanted to try it. I was feeling shitty, and I just had to try something. It was one of those things where I can go to Karma and try it out and have a really funny story to tell my friends in the morning about bombing at Karma. I forgot my stuff, they announced my name wrong, and my mic went out like five times. I just started riffing and going to the crowd, and only ended up doing just one joke because it was all awkward crowd work, but it kind of worked. I was getting laughs and I was like, “I could keep doing this.”
MR: Was that something that you were building towards? Did you have any awareness of the local scene before this, and did you think that you stacked up to some of the people you’d seen?
MW: I had been to a few open mics months earlier just to see what it was like, and then I wrote a few jokes. I was just feeling shitty. I was depressed, and I was like, “Well you gotta do something.” I always liked doing comedy, and in high school I would do prank calls and be on the radio and stuff. I was always doing comedy-type stuff. I finally started to do a couple mics and I really liked it.
MR: What has your involvement in comedy yielded? You mentioned you were depressed. Has comedy helped you through that?
MW: Yeah, absolutely. It keeps me really busy now, which is something I really like. It’s something I feel that I’m good at. It’s validating, it’s fun, and I’ve met so many cool and funny people. I’ve always wanted to do something creative and funny, and now I’ve found that.
MR: You’re involved in the Bye Bye Liver show, which is a long-running local institution of sorts. What’s the explanation of that show for someone who maybe doesn’t know much about it?
MW: Bye Bye Liver is a sketch show—it’s actually based out of Chicago—and there are a couple of them across the country. We get our scripts and it’s all sketch, but there’s a lot of improv in there too. They give us the basic sketch and we get to play with it and add in Milwaukee references. We do audience interaction and audience games and we get bachelorette parties and things like that. There are sketches and there are audience games like “Would You Rather?” and “Name That Tune” and it’s all based on drinking. I started up in January. It was at ComedySportz for a long time. Now we’re at the BBC on Thursday nights.
We have really talented people—Nick Firer, Laura Holterman—we just have really funny and talented people. There are sing-alongs and audience interactions. It’s a lot of fun.
MR: That’s a little bit outside the realm of stand-up. Is there any way you doing that informs your stand-up or vice versa? Like, does the audience interaction help you work on your feet when you’re on stage alone?
MW: Absolutely. Yes. I think it’s just good to get up on stage. It makes you more comfortable, but it’s totally different than stand-up because you don’t have to be yourself. If you’re doing stand-up and you bomb, you’re presenting your own stuff. But if you do a sketch, you get to find a character, you get to do voices, and find where the character is coming from. It’s just nice to be up on stage.
MR: What elements of each do you enjoy, and why?
MW: I like stand-up because you can be so much more personal. It’s you, so you can tell stories about what’s happening with you. Sketch is a little bit different. I like working with a team because you can play off each other and people can relate to what you do, especially with Bye Bye Liver because single people are out drinking and navigating the bar scene, but this is a total exaggeration of that. I really like improv too because it’s working with a team and you can play off each other.
MR: Tim [Hunter] mentioned you two were roommates. What it like to live with another stand-up? If anything really funny ever happens or if there’s anything you know is rife for a bit, do you guys need to say, “This is mine!” or whatever?
MW: Yeah, it’s exactly like that. Something will happen and we’ll both start riffing and find ourselves laughing, then it’ll be like “I think I’m going to do that” and “Well, I started it.” So there is that because you’re always looking for new material.
MR: That likely helps you become better. The competition is right on your doorstep.
MW: We’ll bounce ideas off eachother and after open mics we’ll talk about the sets and go, “Okay, keep that joke,” you know, and “What could you do to help this joke?” That’s cool, and I met Tim just from doing stand-up and it’s fun, we’ll come out to eachother’s shows and he’s a good person to bounce ideas off of because we’re both in the same mindset.