Eight years in, Milwaukee Comedy Festival celebrates a burgeoning (and sidesplitting) scene
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In 2006, a small festival jokingly dubbed “The First Annual Milwaukee Sketch And Improv Comedy Festival” (for its unlikelihood of celebrating a second anniversary) showcased the city’s small-but-skilled comedy scene at Bucketworks. Since the inaugural fest, the event has a different name, a permanent site, and seven years of sidesplitting growth. August 1-4, the Milwaukee Comedy Festival will celebrate its eighth year with a combined 24 sketch, improv, and stand-up comedy performances from comics and troupes from four states and two countries.
As the festival’s founder and producer, Matt Kemple had a front row seat to the development of Milwaukee Comedy Festival, which now calls Next Act Theatre its home. In that timeframe, he’s seen the quality of the event improve drastically and has watched it grow beyond state lines. “The talent pool we have this year is above anything we’ve had before,” Kemple says. “We’ve had twice as many submissions as ever this year.”
Those 130 submissions hailed from as far away as New Hampshire, New York, Florida, Texas, California, Colorado, Washington, Ohio, and Illinois. Fittingly, a festival that features the word “Milwaukee” in its name also carries a significant roster of local comedic talent too.
One such area festival participant is Ryan Mason, who’s a member of Caste Of Killers comedy collective. Mason has shared the stage with such noted touring funny people as Kevin Bozeman, Nick Vanderott, Milwaukee’s own Johnny Beehner, and, most recently, opened for Joe Mande and Morgan Murphy at Turner Hall.
“I think the interest in comedy in Milwaukee is growing, and with that grows the fest,” Mason says. “I think that Matt Kemple is somebody that takes care of the comedy scene. He takes care of the comics; he takes care of the venues, the sketch groups, the improv groups. He makes sure that everything is elevated for that one week of the fest.”
Mason will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday night. It will be his second year at the Milwaukee Comedy Fest. He says the caliber of acts and of Next Act require comics to bring their best to the fest.
“It’s such a unique space. When a comedian goes up at Next Act, it feels like you’re at a [mainstream] theater. It’s a black box,” Mason says. “If you want to see a local comedian working his buns off, you’re going to see it at that theater space. To be a theater level comic, you need to act like it.”
Both Mason and Kemple feel the burgeoning festival’s growth has coincided with the increased viability of Milwaukee’s comedy as a whole.
“The comedy scene in general has become so much stronger. There’s a really large comedy following in town now with some of the bigger names that are coming to the Pabst and Riverside,” Kemple says. “Also, there are all these little comedy shows that have popped up in bars and theater venues. Looking at the comedy scene now, it’s the strongest that it’s been since I’ve been around.”
Still, Kemple strives to populate the Milwaukee Comedy Festival’s lineup with a variety of hilarious acts, no matter where they hail from.
“Our main goal is to put on the best possible show we can,” Kemple says. “Incorporating talent from all over the country gives people a chance to see different styles of comedy they might not have an opportunity to see.”
That variety includes stand up from Cincinnati and Chicago, as well as sketch and improv groups from Toronto and Seattle, among others. However, to further highlight the local scene, four kickoff shows will showcase local talent at the Underground Collaborative July 25-27, and at Next Act July 31.
While the names of those performing aren’t yet household names, Kemple says past performers have gone on to appear in national commercial spots, as well as television and movies. And if the next Louis C.K. or Aziz Ansari isn’t performing, at the very least, the Milwaukee Comedy Festival offers four nights of eclectic and affordable independent comedy.
“If you’re someone who wants to go out and doesn’t want to spend an arm and a leg, comedy is great in this city,” Mason says. “If you ignore it, it might go away. And you’re going to miss the people who are really funny when they go.”
Visit the festival website for a full schedule and lineup.