Milwaukee’s stand-up comedy scene is usually overflowing with support. Comics are quick to collaborate and share stage time with anyone capable of cracking a joke in front of a group of people, and open mics rarely have a cap for participants—lest somebody be excluded for working out new material or refining existing bits. However, for going on four years, the tight-knit and altogether unified Milwaukee stand-up scene has set aside civility, temporarily abandoned alliances, and found comics stacking their material against their on-stage brothers and sisters. Caste Of Killers‘ annual Battle Royale competition finds dozens of local comedians vying for the ultimate prize: $200 and the (arguably even more valuable) title of “Milwaukee’s Funniest Comic” until the following year’s contest.
The Battle Royale is entering its fourth year. Caste Of Killers started the competition roughly a year into the collective’s existence in effort to, as COK co-founder Jason Hillman explains, “do what was essentially a better contest than anybody had been doing.” Having been fed up with other contests frequently devolving into popularity contests in which people who brought the largest crowd usually won, the Caste sought out to form an event that determined the true winner by using a mixture of randomly selected audience votes, guest judges (in the finals only), and, when warranted, COK input—which member Eric Thorson likened to the electoral college. Comics will be rated on criteria including originality, creativity, and stage presence.
“We want to make sure the funniest person goes on,” Thorson says. “We don’t want to put on a tacky contest and we don’t want to deem somebody who’s not Milwaukee’s Funniest Comic the title of Milwaukee’s Funniest Comic. We want to make you earn that because it’s a prestigious title and anybody who wins should take pride in that.”
This week, a field of 31 comics will perform five-minute sets during a trio of Battle Royale preliminary rounds. Tuesday night, 10 comics will perform at Frank’s Power Plant. Wednesday finds another 10 competing at Karma, and Thursday will see 11 more taking the stage at Club Garibaldi. The top four comedians from each venue (12 comics total) will advance to participate in the finals Friday, November 21 at Karma. The final dozen will need to perform seven-minute sets in the finals, and the best three from the group will be required to do an additional 10 minutes later the same night. Material cannot be repeated from round to round.
“It’s great to see how comics elevate their game when 200 bucks is on the line. When it’s a contest and there’s money to be won, people really give it whatever they got,” Thorson says. “If you make it all the way to the finals, then you’re trying to make it to the final three, comics wonder ‘Do I keep that ace in the pocket—that really funny joke—or do I use it now just to get there?’”
Past winners include Murphy Row, Lara Beitz, and last year’s champion Ryan Lowe. Down from as many as 45 comics in previous years, the participants still come from all styles and experience levels in the Milwaukee comedy scene, and beyond. In the spirit of fairness, the only faction of the scene not represented in the contest is Caste Of Killers members. During this time each year, most weekly open mics and local showcases in town slow or stop outright to yield to the Battle.
“I like the idea that this is something that will kind of take over the scene for a short period of time,” Hillman says. “You’re getting a mix of the best of multiple scenes all happening at once. This is the best way to catch the best of what’s going on in the scene right now.”
For a $5 cover for each preliminary round (and $10 for the finals), the Battle Royale is an affordable opportunity to experience a sizable chunk of Milwaukee’s comedy scene that’s all rolling out their best material with an incentive to stand out with their stand-up. If you’re seeking an introduction to or celebration of the city’s burgeoning brood of stand-up comedians, Hillman is right, this is it.
“If you miss it, you hate comedy and you sold your soul for something cheap a long time ago because you feel nothing,” Hillman says.
Thursday, November 13 at Club Garibaldi, 8 p.m. ($5)
Brandon Hall Ream
Rob G. (aka “Mr. Milwaukee”)
Friday, November 21 at Karma Bar & Grill, 8 p.m. ($10)