It’s safe to say that Milwaukee has become a true blue comedy town. Once city touring talent passed over and a place utterly lacking any semblance of a local scene, Milwaukee comedy has quickly shifted from being an oxymoron to a burgeoning hotbed of talent and activity within a decade’s time. Beyond the flourishing state of local stand-up—which, in some cases, finds homegrown comics landing sets on The Late Show and Conan and trying their Milwaukee-sired material in Los Angles, Chicago, and New York—and more comedy shows happening in more venues than the city has ever seen before, top-tier national talent and up-and-coming indie acts are making Milwaukee a must-stop locale on tours.

In 2015 alone, some of the biggest, best, and most interesting names in stand-up and sketch came to Milwaukee. Before Jim Gaffigan officially brings the year in comedy to a close with his three-show Pabst Theater run that starts tonight, Milwaukee Record wanted to take a look back at the year in comedy. Sure, we missed some shows that we’re sure were great (Steve Martin and Martin Short, and Russell Peters among them). Others didn’t quite hit the mark compared to other events (we’re looking at you, Amy Schumer, Jim Jefferies, and Sklar Brothers). As we look ahead to more laughs in 2016, here are our favorite comedy performances we saw this year.

Bo Burnham at Pabst Theater (March 11)
Mere months into his 25th year on this planet, Bo Burnham has already put out three specials—2013’s grandiose and gut-busting what. chief among them—and somehow found time to star in a short-lived MTV series, publish a book of poetry, and write material for yet another awesome hour. Back in March, the motivated and transcendent comic genius returned to a sold out Pabst Theater to test out said 60 minutes of songs, socially-aimed stand-up, meta bits, and dramatic conduit that, together, proved to be his most fleshed out, mature, and all-around hilarious movement to date, much to the delight of everyone in the “amazing theater named after and okay beer.” [Tyler Maas]

Maria Bamford at Turner Hall (April 1)
Known for her cavalcade of cooky characters, wild tangents, and her penchant for the unpredictable, Maria Bamford—through her decades of work on stage, considerable cartoon voiceover work, and roles on canonical comedies like Arrested Development and The Comedians Of Comedy—has built a career out of her uncanny ability to both absolutely entertain and utterly alienate audiences. Bamford’s well-attended Wednesday night soiree at Turner Hall found the accomplished alt-comic in familiarly-frantic form, as she gave a glimpse into her inner workings in her first Milwaukee appearance. Over the course of 70 minutes, Bamford talked about running out of genocide documentaries on Netflix, sang a song about/to her couples therapist Cheryl Hirsham, made drawn out fart noises into the mic, and punctuated a rapid-fire story about trying to convince a friend to open a gourmet deli by rapping half of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” for some reason. Confused? So was the crowd. Though perplexed at times, the audience followed her every sharp turn and kept with her ever-alternating pace every step of the way. [TM]

Kevin Hart at Riverside Theater (April 2)
With Kevin Hart’s notoriety at an all-time high on the cusp of a 70-show tour, one question came to mind before the modern legend started his six-show Riverside Theater residency (which sold out 30 minutes after going on sale): Could his material come anywhere near matching the hype that surrounded him? Following the first show, the answer was an emphatic “absolutely,” as the funnyman delighted the packed house with a tight and generally hilarious new hour of affable domestic humor projected through an energetic and inventive lens. The banner unfurled behind him read “What Now?” Judging by the caliber of and response to his set, anything he wants. [TM]


Janeane Garofalo at Turner Hall (April 28)
“I don’t have what it takes to get it done,” Janeane Garofalo said this past spring at Turner Hall. She was talking about her career, which, while littered with past triumphs (The Ben Stiller Show, Reality Bites, Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion) and current favorites (Wet Hot American Summer), the beloved comedian and actor described as “a fluke.” Chalk it up to an unshakable case of GenX self-deprecation, we suppose, because Garofalo’s brilliant stand-up set was anything but accidental. Yes, it was rambling, digressive, and mostly read from a notebook, but bits on hoarders, politicians, “Weird Al” book signings, and unexpected drug and alcohol interventions went over huge with the adoring crowd. Garofalo may be an icon to an aging generation, but her comedy remains sharp, vital, and refreshingly off-the-cuff. [Matt Wild]


The Kids In The Hall at Riverside Theater (May 15)
Now 20 years from the seminal Canadian sketch troupe’s last episode, the members of The Kids In The Hall haven’t forgotten their roots…nor has any individual member eclipsed the popularity the cult comedy show brought to them. Nobody at Riverside Theater that May night seemed to be more aware of that fact than the Kids themselves, as they delighted a nostalgic audience with nearly two hours of beloved personas of yore (including Gavin, Buddy Cole, and “Headcrusher”), new material, and more than a few self-directed barbs. If this latest reunion (seven years after the cast’s last trip to town) was a desperate cash-grab, it didn’t show in the slightest. The material was sharp and all five performers legitimately seemed to be having fun dusting off old characters and taking liberties with new ones. [TM]

Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally at Riverside Theater (May 8)
Following the conclusion of Parks & Recreation, the series that vaulted both Nick Offerman and his relationship with Megan Mullally into public consciousness, Ron Fucking Swanson himself and his hilarious thespian spouse came to Riverside Theater and charged admission to witness their prolonged public display of affection with in pair sold out shows as part of their “Summer Of 69: No Apostrophe” tour. Following close to two hours of sexualized songs (one of which was about having a threesome with a drifter they perceived to be Jesus), raunchy romantic remembrances, and crass crowdwork, few if any people at early show left regretting they’d paid to take a glimpse into the immensely likeable couple’s love life. [TM]

Kyle Kinane at Turner Hall (May 26)
Little over a year removed from his killer performance at Shank Hall, rising star Kyle Kinane returned to Milwaukee to trot out some new material before a near-sellout crowd at Turner Hall. The gravel-voice everyman whose material is rooted in his various imperfections had the tall task of convincing a ballroom full of people who came out to see him on a Tuesday night after a holiday weekend that he, at the height of his popularity and admittedly happy, can still topple an audience with self-facing jokes delivered by a sloppy prophet. After an hour of off-kilter insights regarding cults, procreation, vegetarianism, politics, and a distinctly Midwestern suspicion of his happiness, Kinane not only showed he can still pull humor from familiar places, he can do it better than ever. [TM]

John Mulaney at Pabst Theater (May 29)
On the wings of his immensely funny 2012 special New In Town, one of the best hours of comedy recorded so far this young decade, John Mulaney landed a short-lived (and actually pretty terrible) Fox sitcom bearing his surname. Just weeks after Mulaney‘s almost-immediate cancellation, the show’s namesake returned to doing what he does best: stand-up. During the first in a doubleheader of shows in the sweltering Pabst Theater, an overheated and uncomfortable Mulaney was came back strong with 70 minutes of elegantly-crafted material—the majority of which would wind up on his new Netflix special, The Comeback Kid—and more than a few enjoyable asides en route to reaffirming his status as one of stand-up comedy’s funniest modern commodities. [TM]


Brian Posehn at Turner Hall (August 9)
In this, the 10th anniversary of the Milwaukee Comedy Festival, founder Matt Kemple and the Pabst Theater Group came together to bring in the biggest name the now-established event has hosted to date. Veteran alt comic Brian Posehn made good on the gamble by closing out the best Fest to date with a strong Turner Hall set anchored in material about fatherhood, comic books, and such side-splitting self-deprecation as “My tits, they’re sweating right now and they didn’t even do anything. They’re just laying on top of my gut like a couple of lazy assholes.” [TM]

Norm Macdonald and Kevin Nealon at Potawatomi’s Northern Lights Theater (August 22)
Combining for more than 100 television and film credits, 14 seasons of still-beloved Saturday Night Live characters, and close to 60 years of stage time, the two comedy vets who might each struggle to fill a theater on their own today became a can’t-miss pairing in the intimate setting of Potawatomi Hotel & Casino’s Northern Lights Theater. In the first of two sold out shows, Norm Macdonald—in his patented slow-percolating, seemingly stream-of-consciousness style—turned blue humor into gold in his 30-minute set, including jokes about Bill Cosby’s alleged assaults, the lawyer of mass murderer Richard Speck fighting to have a burglary charge dropped, and a rambling story about selling his soul to “the wrong fucking devil” at a bar. Kevin Nealon followed with a half-hour set overflowing with rapid fire and well-rehearsed monotone subtleties. The glorified dad jokes referenced, Jared from Subway, and harmless bits culled from his 2012 special, Whelmed, But Not Overly. As short as the sets were, the accomplished duo re-emerging for a post-show Q&A made for an altogether memorable night of laughs from two seasoned comics with incredibly different styles. [TM]

Jen Kirkman at Turner Hall (September 9)
Now 41 years old and a semi-recent divorcée, 18-year stand-up veteran Jen Kirkman’s career is on the rise of late, largely due to material about her life’s ever-growing state of disarray put on display in her best-selling book I Can Barely Take Care Of Myself: Tales From A Happy Life Without Kids and her self-flagellating Netflix special I’m Gonna Die Alone (And I Feel Fine). Back in September, Kirkman enchanted Turner Hall with 70 minutes of manic magnificence during her Milwaukee debut, and one of the final stops of her I’m Gonna Die Alone tour. It was a paradox, really. Armed with a menagerie of jokes about her various struggles, embarrassing fears, and altogether harsh outlook, she confidently and expertly harvested laughs from scathing, sexual, and, at times, downright sad places to send the mid-week crowd home happy. [TM]


Hannibal Buress at Riverside Theater (September 19)
When Hannibal Buress sauntered across the stage of the Riverside Theater in September, there were surely some in the audience who identified him as “the guy who brought down Bill Cosby.” But after a juggernaut year, Buress proved there’s more to his rising star than an offhand comment that thrust him into headlines. The comedian delivered his most polished set to date, 75 minutes of wry observations on pop culture, family, aging, and (thankfully) very little to do with the event that brought him notoriety a year ago. With a keen ability to find the absurd in the mundane, Buress covered everything from the shameful confrontation of being IDed in your thirties to how tender-hearted moments shared between fathers and sons can be traced back to steroids. Leaning on audio cues from on-stage DJ Tony Trimm, Buress employed his offbeat focus to decry the musical faults of Iggy Azaela’s “Fancy” and the egregious kazoo note from Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke,” while marveling at the number of rap lyrics that pay homage to morning wood. [Rachel Seis]

Neil Hamburger at Club Garibaldi (September 25)
When you attend a Neil Hamburger show you’re well aware of what’s in store: A deluge of off-color jokes, some phlegm-rattled throat clearing, and more references to Courtney Love than you’ve heard in 15 years. But there’s something about the hack-comic character, masterfully crafted by comedian Gregg Turkington for two decades, that makes it easy to come back. Hamburger brought his act to Club Garibaldi, his material careening from vile celebrity zingers to chintzy dad puns (“Why did the farmer start a punk rock band? Because he was tired of Haulin’ Oates.”). Even when lambasting audience members for attempting to beat him to punchlines, Hamburger endeared himself to the intimate room with an onslaught of acerbic one-liners. In another excellent outing, Hamburger managed to twist his hackneyed setups into brilliant punchlines that kept his set fresh and the audience howling. [RS]

Barry Crimmins at Frank’s Power Plant (September 29)
At the end of September, Barry Crimmins came to town to speak after two Milwaukee Film Festival screenings of Call Me Lucky, the Bobcat Goldthwait-directed documentary about the legendary Boston comedian’s career, the sexual abuse he sustained as a child, and the instrumental role he played in introducing legislation to combat the online distribution of child pornography. With a night to kill between screenings, Crimmins had MFF—and, full disclosure, Milwaukee Record—book a comedy show on less than a week of notice. On a Tuesday evening, the back room at Frank’s Power Plant was bursting with comedy aficionados eager to witness the influential humorist’s rants against politicians, organized religion, and sexual deviants that managed to be both hilarious and powerful at the same time. [TM]

Bill Burr at Riverside Theater (October 27)
With more than 20 years of stage time, a handful of well-received specials—including last year’s lauded I’m Sorry You Feel That Way—and his distinctly-unapologetic material, Bill Burr has cultivated a massive and intensely loyal fanbase who will turn out en masse to hear the veteran comedian’s acerbic rants on whatever topics catch his ire. On a Tuesday night, in the first of two Riverside Theater shows, the man who took on the city of Philadelphia (and won) unleashed 75 minutes of perfectly-articulated anger directed at McDonald’s, mass murder stats, America’s wage gap, cruise ships, and much more. Though not all factions of the crowd followed Burr’s pointed logic down every controversial rabbit hole, everyone left laughing. [TM]