Caught in the Act

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June 7, 2004 // UPDATED 1:53 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Marisa Goedken
Marisa Goedken

Open mic night at Acme, and the curse of The Funniest Person

Sometimes hilarious, sometimes uncomfortably not, Acme Comedy Club's weekly open mic night, "Caught in the Act," makes for choice, free Monday-night entertainment. A mixed bag of professional and amateur comedians keeps the mostly college-aged audience packed tight into one extremely smoky room, in stitches . . . plus in the occasional collective groan.

The club, located at 708 N. 1st St. in North Loop's Historic Itasca Building, hosts comedy events, including stand-up routines with big-name national acts, most nights, but reserves Mondays for up-and-coming comedians to test material and for experienced comics to work out their routines.

Each Monday, 6-7 p.m., any person with faith in their comedic promise can sign up at the club's bar for a chance to get on stage that night and either wow or bomb out with the crowd.

With a thrust stage, a single microphone and a stool as backup for shaky legs, Acme is a lively and intimate place for Downtowners to experience a free night of comedy, provided they're over 18. With a selection of carafe drinks, wines, beers and cocktails, this cave-like venue is an opportune spot to enjoy a cigarette (this is the only night Acme allows smoking), a drink and a laugh on a Monday night.

The open mic consists of around 20 acts; first-timers are allowed three minutes while the more experienced garner about 10. While a small number of comedians are painfully lackluster (which does not go without a moan from the audience), many of the performers keep the audience chuckling.

Stardom in progress

In one recent show, Chuck Bartell had the crowd roaring. In a monotone voice, the deadpan Bartell spoke directly into the microphone, ticking off one-liners such as "Why do they bother putting the big E on the eye chart? Who's gonna get the big E wrong?"

Also that night, Shannon Thompson spoke of the monkey pox "epidemic" and explained to the audience how his birth caused his parents' divorce. Then, after a bit about Cyclopes, Lizzy Cooperman prattled about how "people are so prejudiced against birds" due to our hopelessly incorrect impressions of them.

While some of this may not produce a guffaw in print, on stage it was truly funny stuff. Still, those who doubt that an open mic night is worth its cover charge (nothing, in this case) may want to consider Acme's Monday night graduates.

Professional comics Pete Lee and Tracey Ashley say they learned the tools of their trade and gained confidence from their Acme open mic time. "My roommates got sick of me trying out material on them," said Lee. The comedian from Janesville, Wis. used to work out new material while working as a parking attendant at the University of Minnesota then give it a Monday night run.

Now Lee's on tour two weeks of every month, but he still appreciates the opportunity Acme provides for local comedians and often participates when in town. "This open mic is just phenomenal. We push each other so hard, and when you work around such great people, you get better. This is the only venue that I still get nervous coming down to," he said.

Most of the regular comedians seem to know each other and sometimes heckle each other on stage, but they always support their fellow comics.

Before becoming a professional comic, Florida transplant Tracey Ashley worked as a cruise director for Dolphin Cruise Line. Ashley said Acme's Monday night crew taught her some essential tricks of the trade. A pearl of wisdom she now passes along to open mic virgins: "You never want to go first in an open mic. If I had my first time, I would have died a horrible death because when you try out new material, nine times out of 10 it tanks."

While Minnesotans may not be nationally known for their sense of humor, Ashley and Lee say Minneapolis is a wonderful place for comedy -- for both nurturing local talent and attracting big-name performers. Acme and other local venues, he pointed out, have recently hosted such one-man acts as Damon Wayans, Louis Anderson and Yakov Smirnoff. Lee said working in this town "gives you every leg up you could possibly have," and specifically credits Acme for its support of the comedic community.

Lee lays much of the blame for this situation on Acme General Manager Louis Lee (of no relation), whom he refers to as the "Comedy Yoda." Louis often sits in the back of the club, taking notes on new comedians, which eventually provide critiques for their untested acts. "He never says a whole lot about what you should do," Pete said, "but he says one little thing and it changes your whole look on comedy."

The curse of the Funniest Person

Beginning Tuesday, July 6, Acme is hosting The Funniest Person in the Twin Cities Contest. Nonpaid, amateur comics can gain exposure through the competition (the judges will be headlining comedians and club managers) as well as get more experience in front of a crowd.

The 25 contestants who survive round one, July 6-Aug. 27, will compete in the second round, Aug. 31-Sept. 4. Finally, the top five competitors will battle for the $1,000 prize Sept. 7.

While Acme spokespeople say the most creative comedian with the best stage presence will take the title, they also admit that winning The Funniest Person contest has come to be known as a curse.

"No one comic who has won the contest has gone on to the pro circuit," Louis Lee said.

Ashley fondly recalls her expectations, "I was so delusional. I thought if I won I would be on 'The Tonight Show.'" Lucky for her, Ashley didn't win, and her successful comedy career could testify to the curse's strength.

The contest is open to the public -- contestants pay no entry fee and it's $12 per person to view each contest night's show/round.

Of course, contestants could probably be seen for free at open mic night, working out their routines before they compete for the curse.

For more information on the contest or the upcoming shows, log on to www.acmecomedycompany.com or call 338-6393.