In both the figurative and literal senses, AJ Grill has come a long way during his four years on stage. After starting stand-up in Iowa City, Grill moved to Stevens Point, where he estimates he composed half the city’s comedy scene. Having developing connections here during a summer internship, the comedian officially relocated to Milwaukee in June. He’s quickly landed on some showcases and has become a fixture on the open mic circuit.
Before he performs at Lakefront Brewery as part of Sunday night’s “Keg Stand Up” show, Grill told Milwaukee Record what led him to Milwaukee, what central Wisconsin’s comedy landscape is like, and how his new city has impacted his material.
Milwaukee Record: My initial awareness of you was hearing about you from Milwaukee comics who would perform on your show in Stevens Point. What led to you booking Milwaukee people?
AJ Grill: Cold Clock Comedy Hour was the name of the show. It started in 2014, when I was going to school in Stevens Point. I can’t remember who the first Milwaukee comic who came up [to Stevens Point] was, but then I got an internship here that following summer. After that, the show was still going for the last year I was in college, so that last semester I was there, I was showcasing a lot of comics from Milwaukee who I met over the summer.
MR: So that probably expedited your introduction to the Milwaukee scene. When you moved here permanently, it wasn’t you beginning from nowhere or going in blindly and hoping to meet people. Were things already kind of in motion?
AG: A little bit, yeah. It was sort of an introduction, but early on, I was on an open mic and was lucky enough to wind up on a Caste Of Killers show, and that’s how I got started in the Milwaukee scene. I was super nervous about coming here. You know…the big city.
MR: I know Point is a university city and there are young people there and things are happening, but what was the comedy landscape like in Stevens Point, and what are the differences between here and there?
AG: The differences are major. It was me and one other comic—Lexi Haack—that were in the Stevens Point scene, so we’d have to go around to music open mics to do our stuff. There was a comedy club that opened up in Wausau, so we’d drive 30 minutes each week for a comedy open mic, where there were probably seven people in that scene who’d perform regularly. So the size is definitely different, and you can get up way more here.
MR: Once you officially moved here, was there anyone you’d either worked with in the past who was helpful or anyone else who took you under their wing?
AG: David Louis and I moved here about the same time. I went up for the first or second time at Bremen and I was doing well. Then he came on and I thought he was really funny, so we were kind of the two new guys and we developed a really good friendship. Gary Zajackowski is kind of an older brother-type guy to me, and I work a lot with Mike Berg on sketch ideas. But David Louis and I came into the scene about the same time, so we like to write and just hang out. Being the two new guys, we just kind of bonded immediately.
MR: Even though you’ve hosted your own showcase, appeared on other people’s shows, and you opened for [Carlos] Mencia in Wausau, do you think you’re prepared to perform in a brewery this weekend? It’s sort of an unconventional spot.
AG: I’m not nervous because it’s a brewery, but it’s such a huge room, which is a little intimidating. From what I’ve heard, it’s a really good show, so I’m pumped about it. For me, any time I go to a room where I’ve never done comedy before, it adds a little more anxiousness to it. You don’t know what it’s like to be on that stage. I’m much more tense when I’m in a new room until I get that first laugh, then I can ease into it.
MR: Are there any ways your material has developed, evolved or changed as a result of moving here? You started in Iowa City, which is analogous to Madison. Point, even though it’s a university town, is smaller with fewer opportunities. And now you’re here.
AG: It sounds bad, but in Point, I think there was an us versus them mentality. It’s rural Wisconsin, so [comedians] were in this small pocket of liberals. I’d walk down the street and dudes in big trucks would yell at me. Then you get a group of like-minded people in one room, and you can make fun of those things. Then you come here, where there are hundreds of people like me, so I think [moving here] has challenged me to dig deeper to find out what makes my comedy unique. And especially being a white, bearded dude, there’s thousands of us in comedy—I know, it’s shocking—but you got to find your own truth. It’s really ambiguous, but it’s a process. Speaking to Milwaukee specifically, just being able to get up [on stage] Monday through Thursday. Having that much repetition, you’re bound to get better.
AJ Grill will perform with Tyler Menz, Kathryn Evans, and Carson Leet at Lakefront Brewery’s “Keg Stand Up” showcase Sunday, December 4. The show begins at 7 p.m. and costs $5 in advance, $10 at the door or free to those who take a Lakefront Brewery tour the day of the show.