All week long, the Milwaukee Comedy Festival will be treating the city to loads of laughs. The 15th annual festival—which started October 3 and will run through October 10—will feature dozens of comedians performing a total of 14 shows in five venues during the eight-day span. While this year’s Milwaukee Comedy Festival boasts talent from all over the country, they’ve also made sure to include a decent amount of local representation in the lineup.
If past installments are any indication, some of these performers will go on to make a name for themselves in stand-up, in voiceover, TV, film, and other ways that extend far beyond area audiences. Through the years, we’ve listed some notable ACTIVE comedians with Wisconsin roots. Two years later, we did it again. With the Milwaukee Comedy Festival bringing a few accomplished local expats home this week, and with a few other homegrown humorists coming to the area this fall, we figured it was a great time to list 11 more ACTIVE comedians and improvisors with Wisconsin roots. Plus we threw in a few debate bonus people with Milwaukee ties for good measure. Enjoy!
1. Lara Beitz
A few weeks removed from opening for Joe Rogan at Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee-born and -raised comedian Lara Beitz (who is now based on Los Angeles) returned to her old stomping grounds late last month to headline a September 30 show the newly opened Milwaukee Improv in nearby Brookfield. In recent years, the homegrown humorist has earned acclaim from Judd Apatow and David Spade, and has become the go-to feature act for Pete Holmes. If you missed her Improv set, you’re in luck! Beitz will close out this year’s Milwaukee Comedy Festival with a headlining performance at Lakefront Brewery on Sunday, October 10.
2. Carter Deems
When we first introduced you to Carter Deems back in 2017, the comedian and noted battle rapper had just moved to Milwaukee and he was learning his way through his new city’s comedy scene. Since that outset, Deems has accomplished quite a lot. The incomparable comic opened for Judah Friedlander, Joe Pera, Gareth Reynolds, Jon Daly, and a few other nationally-known stand-ups. He landed a writing job on the TBS show Drop The Mic and continued to travel the world to bestow his friendly brand of battle rap unsuspecting opponents. In 2019, Deems (who had become one of Milwaukee’s most active comedians during his limited stint here) was selected to be a cast member on Wild ‘n Out and moved to Georgia. Now that things are returning to some semblance of normalcy, we’re hopeful Deems can make his way back to his former place of residence and perform in Milwaukee soon.
3. Brad Gage
Brad Gage, an actor and comedian based in Los Angeles, originally hails from the Milwaukee suburb of Franklin. The Wisconsin ex-pat was named one of Just For Laughs comedy festival’s “New Faces” in 2019. Last year, we wrote about Gage’s high-larious Munchie Run series, which features the Franklin native serving as both host and designated driver for baked comedians who join him on a toked up pilgrimage to a fast food restaurant.
4. Gabe Gronli
Last summer, after Stephen Colbert shit all over our city with a lame “Virtual Milwaukee” tour during the DNC that wasn’t, The Late Show host aired an apology. In the process, he jokingly blamed one of his staffers—Wisconsin-born Gabe Gronli—for writing the all-around lazy segment that relied on an over-the-top accent and tired stereotypes to, well, make fun of a city losing out on tens of thousands of visitors and millions of dollars in DNC-related revenue due to an ongoing pandemic.
When Colbert made a trip to a Brewers game this season as part of his “Apology-Fest,” he brought along Gronli and a dunk tank, where the writer/comedian perched as people yelled “Shame!” at him. We’ll let bygones be bygones and use this last sentence to let you know Gronli is a comic who grew up in Madison and worked on IFC’s Bunk and Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report before following the latter show’s namesake to his current gig at The Late Show.
5. Tim Harmston
Over the course of his 20-year stand-up career, Minneapolis (by way of the small Western Wisconsin town of Menomonie) comedian Tim Harmston has released two albums, appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman, Last Comic Sanding, and Live At Gotham, and has avidly toured the country to perform at a wide range of venues (oftentimes with his wife/fellow comedian Mary Mack, who we’ll talk about later in this article).
6. Kathy Kinney
You surely know Kathy Kinney as the comedic actor who stole scenes on The Drew Carey Show as Mimi Bobeck. You may not be aware that she grew up in Stevens Point and went to college in the central Wisconsin city before embarking on a long and accomplished career on stage and screen. The video below has a lot more details about her Wisconsin roots and UW-Stevens Point education.
7. Pete Lee
After growing up in Janesville, Wisconsin, Pete Lee has gone on to perform on Letterman, guest on The Tonight Show (FIVE TIMES and counting!), and rack up a wide variety of credits that include notable TV shows like Last Comic Standing, As The World Turns, Best Week Ever, Comedy Central’s Roast Battle, and much more. He’s released comedy albums, put out a Comedy Central half-hour special, and has performed more than 500 shows at colleges around the country. Lee will return to the region November 26-27 for a total of five shows at Milwaukee Improv.
8. Mary Mack
Though she was born in Duluth and she currently calls Minnesota home, comedian/actor Mary Mack was raised just across the Mississippi River in a small Wisconsin town called Webster. After high school, she went to UW-Oshkosh, where she later taught before moving to Nashville and eventually winding up in Minnesota to seriously purse comedy. Since her comic outset, Mack has released five albums, performed on Conan and Last Call With Carson Daly, competed on Last Comic Standing, and delved into voiceover with work on Aqua Teen Hunger Force and a recurring role on the animated Hulu series Solar Opposites. Mack headlined last year’s Milwaukee Comedy Festival, and she’ll return to The Laughing Tap in Walker’s Point October 15-16.
9. Ann Risley
Remember when Lorne Michaels left Saturday Night Live in 1980, then Dick Ebersol quickly replaced a bunch of newly-hired cast members? Well, Madison’s own Ann Risley was one of those new hires and fast late night sketch casualties. Despite making a great impression with…some great impressions during her 12-episode tenure, the Wisconsin native (along with Gilbert Gottfried and Charles Rocket) unfortunately didn’t last in the cast. After her time at SNL, Risley (who now goes by Anna) spent much of the ’80s and ’90s acting in small films, TV movies, and other television roles before leaving the screen behind to start her own acting and improv school in Arizona.
10. J.D. Walsh
You might not know the name J.D. Walsh, but we’re willing to bet you’ve seen him in something at some point in his long and accomplished acting career. The Madison-born and -raised actor got involved in improv when he moved to California for college. The move from the Midwest has paid off, as Walsh has amassed quite a list of TV and film credits since the late ’90s, ranging from roles on films like Bad Boys II and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, guest spots on shows like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Bones, and recurring parts in Two And A Half Men and Dharma & Greg. Beyond his on-screen work, Walsh wrote, produced, and directed a Hulu series called Battleground that’s set in his home state of Wisconsin.
11. Dwight York
The pride of Amery, Wisconsin, Dwight York has been doing comedy since the late ’80s. Since that unheralded origin, York has released three albums, wrote a few jokes books, and crafted thousands of witty one-liners that find the veteran comedian being mentioned alongside the likes of Mitch Hedberg, Steven Wright, and Emo Phillips.
Debatable Bonus Comedians
Long before she was starring in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Rachel Brosnahan was living in Milwaukee—briefly. As we’re reminded every time the Emmys roll around lately, the actor spent her first four years in the city before her family moved to Highland Park, Illinois. There, she’d start performing in musicals and she took classes at Wilmette’s Actors Training Center, where she’d meet her manager. No, she’s not a comedian, but she plays one on an Amazon Prime streaming series.
Okay, so this is a stretch, but did you know Bob Odenkirk briefly attended Marquette University? It’s true. When the award-winning actor, sketch comedy legend, and current action star was in town to promote his book in 2014, we heard Odenkirk reveal himself to be a Milwaukee “quitter,” having dropped out of Marquette after just a year of enrollment. “I can handle the Jesuits…but the cold, man!” Odenkirk said. “I remember putting on a winter coat on April 1st.” During that same show, Odenkirk also talked about meeting the real Matt Foley (a Marquette faculty member who inspired the seminal SNL character he created).
With all due respect to each one the people we’ve mentioned, Bob Uecker is the funniest person on this list. The dream talk show, hilarious pitchman, humor author, and actor could have (and still could) make a killing as a comedian. However, his job as a Hall Of Fame sports broadcaster takes priority. Fortunately, he’s able to sprinkle tons of jokes into the games he calls.