Since moving to Los Angeles in 2010, Charlie Berens has compiled quite a list of accomplishments. The Elm Grove native and University of Wisconsin graduate is an actor, comedian, on-air host, and Emmy-winning journalist. However, his most-viewed piece of work since leaving Wisconsin has actually been a video that nods to his Badger State upbringing. Back in September, Berens recaptured the stereotypical Midwestern accent he fought so hard to shed for a video that showed what it would sound like “if Jack Dawson was really from Wisconsin.”
To date, the Titanic-themed voiceover has topped 7.2 million views on Facebook, 30,000 on his own YouTube channel, and was picked up by Funny Or Die. Last week, the Wisconsin native chased the successful video with a Batman-related piece asking “what if Bane was from Wisconsin?” Days after that video was aired exclusively by TBS, Milwaukee Record reached out to the ex-pat to get some background on how those videos came to be, why the Wisconsin angle seems to work so well on the national level, and what he’s planning next.
Milwaukee Record: You say the Titanic video was based on one of your stand-up routines? Of all your material, what made you think this was fit for the video format?
Charlie Berens: I think the great thing about stand-up is it’s comedy in its rawest form. Some material kills on stage and you don’t mess with it. Other material bombs, but you still believe in the idea, so you just find a different comedic vehicle. The Jack Dawson idea was closer to the latter. It didn’t bomb necessarily, but I thought it would get bigger laughs if I could just drop the audience into the scene. So that’s what I did.
MR: It worked. It got millions of views on Facebook, tens of thousands on your own YouTube page, and was picked up by Funny Or Die. Was that level of response expected? Why do you think so many people liked it?
CB: No, wasn’t expected at all. I spent a few hours on this thing. I’ve spent 60 hours on other videos that still haven’t hit a thousand views. I think people liked this video because it combined a lot of laughter triggers. There’s the element of surprise. You don’t expect Jack Dawson to talk with an accent or talk about Brett Favre’s mini Cheesehead. There’s also recognition. Titanic is an iconic movie, so you automatically get a big audience. Then there’s a big portion of the population that either talks like this or knows someone who does. I think that drove a lot of the Facebook shares.
MR: You just put out another Wisconsin-focused video, this time with you voicing Batman villain Bane. And I see TBS put it out. Why did you decide to dip back into the Cheesehead well?
CB: I think the Cheesehead well is deep. These videos aren’t just about the funny accent, but they explore all the great things Wisconsin is known for. Like in the Bane video, I mention Liberace because a lot of people don’t know he’s from Wisconsin. I met with TBS after the Jack Dawson video. They were incredibly supportive and we riffed on some ideas. We landed on Bane because he has a very badass accent. It’s fun to see the juxtaposition of Bane with such a friendly accent.
MR: What do you think it is about Wisconsin—even the broad stereotypes—that appeals to so many people? What type of feedback have you received?
CB: I think people love Wisconsin because we don’t take ourselves too seriously. I mean, in what other state are you going to find a stadium packed with people wearing half a pound of cheddar colored foam on their head? We also gave the world PBR, Liberace, and Making A Murderer. The video has received a lot of positive response for the most part. I think that’s because the Wisconsin accent doesn’t get the airtime it deserves. Anytime there’s a Midwest accent, it’s a variation of the Blues Brothers or Fargo or SNL—when they mispronounce Fond du Lac. So maybe it’s just underrepresented in pop culture.
I worry that some people watch these videos and think I’m making fun of Wisconsin…and I am. But it’s mostly a way for me to make fun of myself. Also there are a few that say I’m doing a Minnesota accent or a Yooper accent. And they’re right, it’s a regional accent. But doesn’t stop at the Mississippi, it can swim. I do exaggerate for comedic effect, but not too much.
MR: Do you have any other Wisconsin voiceover ideas in the works?
CB: Heck yeah! I won’t go into too many details, but Jack [Dawson] will be back.
MR: Any trips back to your home state planned soon? It could help with research for future videos.
CB: I’m coming home for a couple weeks around Christmas. Every year, I go up north with my family. Up around the U.P. The accent is a lot more fun there. Truthfully though, the best research I can do is tape myself after a beer or three. I have a thick Wisconsin accent when I forget to hide it, which I have to do for the news and hosting gigs.