Take Twelve: Comedy in Wisconsin


In case you think Wisconsin could show a better sense of humor, I have two words for you: Very funny.

No need to factor in those cheddar-colored Cheesehead wedges. We have a reputation beyond that.

For example: You don’t know Ben Karlin from stage performances, but the University of Wisconsin grad is leaving a huge thumbprint on modern comedy as we know and love it.

Now he’s a television producer and writer with eight Emmy awards. He gets credit for helping to establish “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” then “The Colbert Report.” Look for his name in the credits of “Modern Family” hit series reruns.

Under development by Ben for ABC is “Damage Control,” about the world and consequences of Marvel Comics superheroes. He also is an executive producer for “Future Man,” a sci-fi comedy series that airs in November for Hulu TV.

I first knew Ben as a quiet, bright and reliable college kid who was paying his dues as a freelance writer for a weekly entertainment publication that I edited in Madison. That was around 20 years ago, and our pay to him was pathetic.

The comedic mastermind also was among the early contributors at The Onion, which two college students began in Madison in 1988 as a satirical newspaper with a subset (The A/V Club) of serious, edgy pop culture reviews.

The self-described “America’s finest news source” soon had irreverent editions in other key college towns nationwide. Then came the Onion News Network in 2007, which added and elevated online video and audio news spoofs.

The publication’s headquarters moved to New York City, then Chicago, and since 2013 The Onion is solely an online publication. But the biting and topical humor continues to capitalize on “fake news,” a brand developed long before modern-day politicians took ownership of the term. theonion.com

What else? Milwaukee natives David and Jerry Zucker – best-known for their 1980 parody “Airplane!” and, most recently in Wisconsin, state tourism advertising spots – this year celebrate the 40th anniversary of “Kentucky Fried Movie,” which they wrote in Madison as a bunch of sketches to poke fun at various film styles. The movie remains a cult classic.

Dozens of artsy, experimental and international motion pictures are part of the annual Milwaukee Film Festival, Sept. 28 to Oct. 12 at five venues: Landmark Oriental Theatre, 2230 N. Farwell Ave.; Landmark Downer Theatre, 2589 N. Downer Ave.; Fox Bay Cinema Grill, 334 E. Silver Spring Dr.; Times Cinema, 5906 W. Vliet St.; and Avalon Atmospheric Theater and Lounge, 2473 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.

Among the festival’s comedic headliners: “Lucky,” an atheist’s search for the meaning of life: and “Like Crazy,” two women on an escapade in Italy after ditching their psychiatric ward. Single-show tickets, ticket six-packs and all-show festival passes are on sale for $12 to $475. mkefilm.org

Sports fans know impressionist Frank Caliendo regularly adds comic relief to ESPN shows and comedy specials on other networks. He mimicks Dr. Phil and Jay Leno as well as a John Madden and Charles Barkley. See the Waukesha native and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee alum at Crystal Grand Music Theatre, 430 W. Munroe Ave., Wisconsin Dells, at 8 p.m. Oct. 20. Tickets start at $35. crystalgrand.com, 877-987-6487

More elusive is Fred Klett, brother of Stephanie Klett, state tourism secretary. His comedy is known for being clean-cut, which is rare these days. His performance venues are comedy clubs and cruiseships. That means work takes him around the world. fredklett.com

Regionally to nationally known comedians tour clubs close to home, too, yukking it up at venues such as Comedy Café, 1033 N. Old World Third St., Milwaukee (milwaukeescomedycafe.com, 414-271-5653), Comedy Club on State, 202 State St., Madison (madisoncomedy.com, 608-256-0099) and Skyline Comedy Club, 1004 S. Olde Oneida St., Appleton (skylinecomedy.com, 920-734-5653).

For improvisation in action, or to learn to be quicker with your own wits, check ComedySportz, 420 S. First St., Milwaukee (cszmke.com, 414-272-8888), Atlas Improv Company, 609 E. Washington Ave., Madison (atlasimprov.com, 608-259-9999) and ComedyCity, 353 Main Ave., De Pere (thegreenroomonline.com, 920-983-0966).

On a sadder note, the last remains of “Saturday Night Live” funnyman Chris Farley, a Madison native, are interred at Resurrection Catholic Cemetery, 2705 Regent St. As of Dec. 18, he will have been dead 20 years, his career cut short at age 33 by a drug overdose. madisondiocese.com/resurrection-cemetery

So sometimes the laughs are mixed with pain, and this year CNN introduced “The History of Comedy,” which adds personal, political and pop culture perspectives to the long timeline of televised humor. The TV series airs at 9 p.m. Sundays. cnn.com/shows/history-of-comedy