The staggering growth of Milwaukee comedy finds the art form swelling to cover show formats as vital as giving female comics control, as unique as events at art galleries and movie theaters, and as random as fundraisers to buy hot dogs. The expansion finds more cross-sections of the city gaining exposure to the quality and diversity of the city’s stand-up scene. Thursday night, six Wisconsin comedians will tote their best sci-fi jokes, video game bits, scientific one-liners, and other obscure material that can be so endearingly classified as “nerd humor” to Cthulhu’s Comedy Collective at downtown Milwaukee gamer’s haven, 42 Lounge.
Leading the periodic showcase (fittingly named after a mythological god) is Milwaukee comedian and published science fiction author Patrick Tomlinson. Prior to the fourth Cthulhu installment, the host and show-runner spoke to Milwaukee Record about niche humor, the significance of giving all segments of culture a comedic outlet, and “The World’s Most Dangerous Stage.”
Milwaukee Record: Why did you initially want to start this showcase?
Patrick Tomlinson: Well, for anybody who doesn’t know, 42 [Lounge] is a dedicated gamer-slash-nerd bar. They have a particular clientele, and I am heavily among that clientele. My full-time job is a science fiction writer, so I’m a massive nerd. They actually approached me when they found out I did stand-up comedy, and they were wondering if I would be interested in putting on a show. It was kind of early on in their evolution. They were finding new things to do. They’re not the typical bar, so they were trying to find things that work for the theme that they’re going for.
I thought that sounded like a wonderful idea because I had a bunch of material that I had written over that last year that was going to be funny to me, but that I knew wouldn’t work with mainstream audiences because it was too specific. I wondered how many other people were in the same boat. It turns out a lot of them are. A lot of comics write material and are like, “Oh, that’s really funny but I can’t tell it.”
MR: Because the references are too obscure?
PT: Yeah, it’s a Game Of Thrones joke or it’s something about Doctor Who because, Greg Bach, for example, is a huge Doctor Who fan—we’re going to try and get him up soon. So we hit on something really good here. We did our first show just over a year ago, and this will be number four.
MR: What has the response been from patrons at the bar so far, and what’s the space like? I’ve seen mention of it being “The World’s Most Dangerous Stage.” Is it particularly rickety?
PT: It wasn’t so much rickety as it was the placement of the stage. If you haven’t been to 42, you enter at street level and go up a set of stairs. Then the bar itself is actually about six feet or so above street level. There’s a set of railing that go on either side of the stairs. The previous bar owners had a big two-by-six plywood platform that actually sits on top of that railing.
MR: Oh man, so people can walk underneath you?
PT: Yeah. So you actually walk underneath the stage as you’re entering the place. In the beginning, that stage itself didn’t have any railing on it because it had always been just a DJ station. The first show we did, there was no railing and you were inches away from falling down to these concrete steps six feet below you or off to either side. So we all had to sign waivers for that first show and we billed it as “The World’s Most Dangerous Stage” because it literally could’ve killed somebody. In fact, our first headliner—his name is David Fisher and he won Madison’s Funniest Comic two years ago—he did his entire set leaning against the back of the wall, holding on to the exit sign for dear life.
MR: You mentioned your attempt to align the right comedians with the theme, but do you find that people kind of hone their material more than usual showcases? Like, do they rein in more references?
PT: Sure. Basically what I tell the performers is they have 10 minutes to work with. If they can tell just a handful of nerdy jokes, just to kind of establish their street cred amongst that crowd, then go into their more traditional mainstream material—the stuff they really know works and are really comfortable telling. That’s fine, and that blend works really well. The mainstream is relatable for everybody. That’s why it’s mainstream. It doesn’t do worse in front of this audience. I mean, maybe you’re not telling football jokes or whatever, but everybody can relate to dating or driving. So long as the audience has heard enough jokes to connect with the performer and realize “Okay, this person is one of us” it will work well with everybody.
MR: What does this specific lineup bring? Why did you pick them?
PT: Half of them picked me because the show has been going on long enough and it’s built word of mouth in the comedy communities of both Madison and here in Milwaukee that people are asking to get on it. They’re coming to me saying, “Hey, I’m a huge dork. I’ve got some Voltron material I can trot” or whatever, and that’s made it quite a lot easier.
MR: And in terms of your own material, do you lay it on super thick to fit the room?
PT: Oh, sure! In fact, the last two years I’ve performed as an opening act at Gen Con and those jokes are just solid nerd references. It’s nice because that only happens once a year, so I have all year to build up 10 or 15 minutes. That’s a tremendous amount of fun. Most of the stuff I’m planning to do, I’d actually tested out at GenCon last month.
MR: Why is it beneficial to explore new places opposed to waiting for showcases or open mics that already exist?
PT: That’s how you find new audience. That’s how you find new passion. That’s how you get more people coming to other shows. As far as the niche audience at 42 Lounge, I believe in the diversity of everything. I think the people who go there deserve the opportunity to be represented by comedians and have jokes tailored to them just as much as any of the other communities in the city—whether they be ethnic or religious minorities, or minorities of sexual orientation. Everybody deserves to be included in human laughter. Why should anybody be cut off from that?
Cthulhu’s Comedy Collective comes to 42 Lounge Thursday, October 2 at 9 p.m. Patrick Tomlinson, Mark Roth, Suze Bischoff, Mr. JJ, Alan Talaga, and Tyler Menz will perform at the free showcase.