Standing up for comedy

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October 24, 2011 // UPDATED 8:58 am - October 24, 2011
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss

Acme Comedy Company celebrates 20 years of stand-up with charity and  hilarity

Stand-up comedy has come back in a big way in the last few years, and several comedians have become so popular that it’s easy to forget that stand-up survived a near-death experience in the 1990s. A lack of breakout acts and audience brought the industry to its knees, and many comedy clubs didn’t survive the crash.

Louis Lee’s Acme Comedy Company in the North Loop not only survived comedy’s down time, it emerged as the center of the local comedy scene and one of the best comedy clubs in the country.

“This club is easily on every comic’s top five in the country, and in conversations Acme often winds up in first,” said comedian Costaki Economopoulos. “We really do love this place, and Louis, and everything that it represents.”

The Acme Comedy Company, 708 N. 1st St., will mark its 20th anniversary this November, and it’s celebrating with a week-long program that brings together 20 national comedians like Economopoulos for 20 minute sets as well as several other unique comedy events. We’ll get back to that in a moment, but as any good comedian knows, before you can appreciate the punchline, you have to hear the setup.

“In 1991 when we first opened, the comedy scene in the city was one gigantic local chain and then just us,” says Acme owner Louis Lee. “We were the first independent, single unit comedy club. I believe late 1992, that’s when Knuckleheads opened up in the Mall of America. And three years later, because of the comedy industry completely wiping out, it was just us and Knuckleheads left.”

Having worked in another comedy club before the crash, Lee says the policy of 21 and up shows with two-drink minimums was what led to the decline. Age restrictions kept out half of the comedy crowd and as fans aged they tended to visit comedy clubs less and less. Age restrictions hindered the development of new generations of both comedy fans and new comedians. From day one, Acme Comedy Company has featured 18+ shows with no drink minimum. “Our goal was to attract a new round of audiences and also get them interested in doing open mic. Through that, we’ll discover the new set of comics,” said Lee.

And that’s exactly what happened. Acme Comedy Company was where touring comedians like Dave Mordal got their start. Comedy Central star Nick Swardson developed his material at Acme. Local comedians have nothing but glowing things to about Acme. “Acme is one of the best clubs in the entire country,” said Bob Edwards of The Comedy Corner Underground. 
“I’d put it in the top five 
in the entire world. Amazing club.”

It’s not just locals who performed on Acme’s stage. The club has attracted many of the biggest names in comedy, including Lewis Black, Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, Frank Caliendo and even movie stars like Kevin James and Robin Williams, who did a multiple night gig at Acme a few years ago to refine material for a Las Vegas show. “They offered me a night, and I did it ‘cuz all my friends said it’s great. They were right,” said comedian and actor Patton Oswalt.

Acme will assemble many veterans of its stage and its current roster of performers for a weeklong comedy bonanza that should please fans of all styles of comedy. “You’ll see one-liners, you’ll see storytellers. It’s all forms of comedy,” said Lee.

On Nov. 1 & 2, Acme will feature special showcases of comedians in the club’s regular rotation, with eight performers per night. The Nov. 3–5 shows each feature four touring comedians with ties to the club. “Thursday’s show is Homegrown Headliners. They may not live here right now, but they all started here,” said Lee. “The rest is a good mix of different styles of comics. They’re all headliners. It’s our honor to have every single one of them agree to do it.”

In addition to a staggering amount of comedy, Acme’s anniversary celebration also has a charity component. The club is partnering with local charity Fraser, which provided services for adults and children with developmental issues. Three comedians performing for Acme’s anniversary, Mary Mack, Chad Daniels and C. Willi Myles, each submitted a recipe, which was then finessed by Vincent Francoual of Vincent A Restaurant on Nicollet Mall.

“He completely changes it. Makes it edible,” said Lee. Each of the three dishes will be on sale during the anniversary, with a portion of the proceeds going to Fraser. The comedian who sells the most dishes will also have a donation made to the organization in his or her name.

Because of the huge amount of talent flying in from all over the world, Acme expects the limited number of tickets to each show to move quickly. Minneapolis has been hugely supportive of 
both the comedy scene and the club itself, which is a big part of why Acme is still going strong after 
20 years.

“We’re really proud that Minneapolis has one of the best audiences in the country,” said Lee. “That’s why all these famous comics want to work here.”


Comics on Acme

You can’t have a story about a comedy club without some jokes by the comedians who have performed there. Here are some of our favorite jokes and stories about the Acme Comedy Company by those who have graced its stage.

“A lot of customers don’t even know that Louis is the owner of the nightclub, they think he’s just the Korean guy who hangs out at the bar. Which is really funny. Because he’s Chinese.” (Tim Slagle)

“When I first worked at Acme I was 24. The first three times I worked there was in the winter, which may have been a coincidence or, most likely, a cruel joke on a young comedian from Hawaii. Just my being there was inherently humorous. Ironically, here I am at 44 coming back in November and I am truly honored. And layered.”
(Kermet Apio)

“How about, ‘Louis Lee is Steve Jobs of comedy, except shorter.’

Being in the basement, what other comedy club could double as a luxury doomsday fallout shelter?

Quite literally, Acme is the only comedy club in the known universe that serves Walleye.

A lot of clubs treat the comedians like this week’s cleaning lady. If Acme treated the comics any better, they would have to call it Acme Gentleman’s Club.” (John DeBoer)