August 7-10, Milwaukee Comedy Festival will celebrate its ninth year. In the near-decade span since the inaugural festival of funniness, Milwaukee’s comedy scene has grown mightily, expanded rapidly, and entirely augmented into a viable art form that’s experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment. Few if any others in the city are more aware of the staggering development of Milwaukee comedy during that span than veteran funnyman Erik Koconis. He’s been active in the realms of stand-up, sketch, and improv since 1999. Before Koconis entertains festival goers with both improv and stand-up performances this weekend, he talked about his introduction to comedy (way back in the 20th century), how elements of imporv inform his stand-up material, and how the scene has changed in the last 15 years.
Milwaukee Record: You’ve been doing improv for 15 years and stand-up for 13 years. How did you get your start? What was the initial catalyst?
Erik Koconis: The initial catalyst was improv. I came to it through taking ComedySportz classes. This was the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Everybody that did improv also did stand-up comedy, so there was a lot of commingling between the two groups. After the improv classes, we would always hang out in the parking lot with the players, who would go to The Safe House and do stand-up. After one of the classes, they got me into the Safe House and I got to perform [stand-up] for the first time. I had been watching stand-up for years before. In high school, I would get tonsillitis a lot, so I would always watch the A&E five-hour block of “Evening At The Improv” or “One Night Stand” and what they were doing always made more sense than being in a play. Once I actually told the first jokes and I got a feel for it, I realized that first off, it was nothing to be scared of and, secondly, it was much harder than I thought it was going to be. That challenge kept me coming back.
MR: It seems like these days, people commit to one style. What has kept you wanting to do both improv and stand-up? And have you found there to be any overlap between the two different styles?
EK: Oh yeah, there’s definitely overlap. I don’t know why people started thinking if you’re in improv that you’re only in improv or if you do stand-up, you can’t do improv or plays. It’s all performers. We’re all trying to get to the same end, which is to perform and be in front of people. All these different things are just ways of doing that. I don’t know why people don’t try to cross-mingle more.
MR: In terms of development, are there any elements of stand-up that assist you in improv, and vice versa?
EK: Yeah, and it goes both ways. If you go in as a stand-up comedian and you start looking at improv, it’s difficult to learn to share with the other people you’re on stage with, but at the same time, I think stand-up teaches you the importance of brevity—getting to the point of the joke and gutting it down to what really needs to be said. You also learn to not be afraid to take the stage and just put something out there. At the same time, an improviser knows how to react to a crowd and all the other changing variables. In stand-up, you walk on stage with a set list of jokes and one of them doesn’t land the way you want it to, and if you don’t know how to react on the fly and work on your feet, you could get stuck in quicksand. An improviser knows how to avoid that. Both skills have some really fine-tuning, and if you don’t have both of those, I don’t feel truly prepared to do either one of them. There’s back and forth, and there’s give and take, but each one of those art forms are part of comedy. They just highlight different ways to get the idea and the punch line to the audience.
MR: You mentioned you used to do the mic at the Safe House over a decade ago. What was the scene like back then?
EK: Quite frankly, before 2012, there was a long stretch where there was only one room in the city at any given time. Sometimes we’d be lucky enough to have two. I didn’t really have a great barometer of what was going on in the city because I was going to school at the time. I would just drive up from Whitewater on Thursdays to do the show, then I’d drive back. It was a small tight-knit group of comics. It was really cool. I have a lot of good memories from back then.
MR: How has the scene in general—whether that be improv of stand-up—changed since then?
EK: The scene is blossoming right now, which I think is the coolest thing. That’s all that everybody ever dreamed about way back in the Safe House days, like, “If only we could be like Chicago or Minneapolis and have mics every night of the week and a big gang of comics doing stuff together. But this is Milwaukee!” and they’d shrug their shoulders. That was the attitude. Then 2012 came, and all these kids just started popping out of the woodwork. Caste Of Killers definitely had a lot to do with it. They had the fire to go out and find venues, which, before that drive to start shows was lacking. We’d join other people’s shows or go off on road trips or whatever. Ever since we’ve had more than one show a week, there’s been an increase in the amount of comics coming out. I really think they’re related. Once you get to the point where you have more than one mic every day of the week, you’re going to find any and every funny person that hasn’t sought out that one room. A lot of people are going to try it and quit, but you’re also likely to find that one person who is a comedian who never would’ve come out if that mic wasn’t on their side of the neighborhood. I think what’s going on has been fantastic, and I don’t see it stopping any time soon.
Erik Koconis will perform at Brewski’s Sports Club (304 N. 76th St.) Thursday as part of this month’s Brew Ha-Ha comedy showcase. Friday, his Tallboys improv troupe will perform at the Milwaukee Comedy Festival at 8 p.m. and he’ll perform a solo stand-up set at the festival at 10 p.m. Saturday.