The struggle many comedians face is the task of harvesting laughs from difficult topics. However, if framed and delivered correctly, literally no topic is off limits. Less than a year into stand-up, Mike Berg has quickly made a name for himself in Milwaukee comedy community with brutally honest and abjectly unflattering material about the state of his life. With uncomfortable stories about eating a family meal alone at Boston Market, sniffing underwear, and being cheated on, the newcomer has already established himself as one of the city’s most unique comic voices. Before he brings the pain to Sherman Perk and Riverwest Public House this weekend, we spoke to Berg about the importance of honesty in humor and his ability to pull comedy from tragedy in no time.
Milwaukee Record: You immediately kind of struck me as a unique voice. Other comics have their moments where they’re kind of self-effacing, self-deprecating, but you took it to a different degree. Is that something that you did intentionally? Is there any truth to it? Like, are you really that miserable?
Mike Berg: Honestly speaking, the whole comedy thing came out of depression. I was a very depressed person. I had just gotten out of a relationship where I depressed for five years, and she hated everything about art, about writing, about anything creative. It took me a long time to figure out—once you’re single for the first time in five years, you have to figure out, what are you going to do with you life? I had always been big into comedy, stand-up comedy specifically. I just started writing jokes for probably a month. Maybe a month later, I did my first mic.
The voice that developed, honestly, I think it’s just what I think is funny about myself, the mistakes I make and the tragic comedy that revolves around being a person.
MR: I’ve seen you get some really big laughs, but I’ve also seen the exact opposite, where it’s just like a collective wince. Do you think there’s value in both of those things because you’re getting a reaction either way?
MB: I do actually think there’s a value in that, but my goal is to make people laugh at things things that are uncomfortable—things like depression and things like loneliness, and failing with love over and over again. There’s something good about laughing at those things because people take them so seriously.
MR: I think there are elements of truth with what you’re saying, though. It just might be a more exaggerated version. Most people just aren’t so willing to admit that they have really low moments in their lives, so you’re poking holes in those artificial fronts.
MB: I think there is actually some merit to being an honest person. A lot of my comedy, it’s not like I’m manipulating the audience into believing that honesty is some sort of transcendental good, it’s more like, “What do I think is funny? How do I make something people usually wince at funny?” I was a very shy person all my life. This whole thing is like a 180.
MR: And it seems like you’ve very quickly worked your way into the scene. You’ve gone from being exclusively an open mic’er a few months ago and this weekend you’ll be on two showcases. What’s it like to know that less than a year people are bringing you into their projects because of your reclusive humor?
MB: I feel like it’s a credit to how hard I’ve worked. Every single mic, I’d do three to five a week for maybe three to four straight months, and I wasn’t good. It took me three months to get the other comedians to come up to me and give me encouragement.
MR: You’re at this level now, which is a really good place to be at this point, like I said, less than a year in. What are you goals in the immediate future and in general? Where would you like to take this?
MB: They’re very practical. I want to do stand-up comedy. Whether or not that means I want to be a road dog or go to New York or whatever, I don’t know yet. What I need to do right now is make sure I can actually commit to comedy. I need to find a job where I can do stand-up comedy, where I don’t have to work nights or I don’t have to work weekends. I’m moving back in with my mom, so my life will be a lot cheaper to live.
MR: Plus, that should really help give you some new material. Are you potentially doing that to flagellate yourself into writing a new 15 minutes?
MB: Short answer, yes. That’s the thing about my comedy, it’s so personal. For the most part, I mean there are exaggerations here and there. When I tell jokes, some of them are crafted. When I tell stories, most of them are true and I just feel okay telling them.
MR: I’m sure the one about eating a family meal at Boston Market can’t be true.
MB: No, that’s not technically true. I have eaten a family meal deal alone, but I did not talk to the cashier about it. The exaggeration is actually…the sad this is, yes, I have eaten a family meal deal from Boston Market alone, but the exaggeration is that I actually talked to a girl. That’s the part I have to lie about.