What: Acme Comedy Company’s 20th Anniversary
When: Nov. 3-5; Thursday at 8:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. and Saturday at 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.
Where: Acme Comedy Company, 708 N. First Street, Minneapolis
A bearded University of Minnesota student secretly recorded all the funny things his roommate said over the course of their freshman year. At the end of the year, he handed a joke-filled notebook to Pete Lee. That was all the push Lee needed to try out comedy, something he’d already wanted to do.
Like so many before and after him, Lee chose to lose his stand-up virginity at Acme Comedy Company, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week with a laugh-packed series of shows. Armed with the wit he had naturally imparted on his dormmates, Pete Lee headed over to the grand ole club to perform his first set.
On that fateful Monday night, Pete Lee was spotted by another, unrelated Lee: Louis Lee, the man behind Acme and arguably the most powerful man in the Twin Cities comedy scene. From his usual post at the back of the room, Louis Lee watched Pete Lee perform. Louis Lee later admitted to liking what he saw, but he didn’t laugh — he rarely does.
Because he showed a commitment to writing new jokes, Pete Lee earned a regular stream of stage time from Louis Lee. And with Louis Lee as a supportive mentor, Pete Lee quickly made the transformation from a local comic to a national one.
Pete Lee is just one of Acme’s many success stories: Minnesota-born comics like Maria Bamford and Nick Swardson also got their start at the Minneapolis laugh factory.
And it’s not just a training ground for local comics: under Louis Lee’s savvy direction, Acme has become a prestigious destination for national acts.
“I was on four different continents in six different countries last year, and very few places compare to Acme,” said Ryan Stout, who will perform Saturday.
Cy Amundson, a local comic from Worthington, Minn., knows why national headliners marvel at Acme’s greatness. As he puts it, “That comes from 20 years of Louis doing things exactly the way they should be done.”
The club’s b-day festivities kicked off Tuesday night and will continue through Saturday. While Tuesday and Wednesday showcased some fresher-faced locals doing 10 minutes each, Thursday, Friday and Saturday will feature jam-packed performances by 20 of Louis Lee’s favorite hot-shot headliners, including Chad Daniels and Mary Mack, performing 20 minute sets.
Louis Lee, who immigrated to the United States from China more than three decades ago, runs a tight ship. He treats his comics well, with free drinks, good food and a decent paycheck. He is willing to give (but would never force) comics career and business advice. Comedians praise him for encouraging creative writing and not focusing on drink sales or relying on cheap, dirty comedy. His business model acts as a stark contrast to those of club owners whose main focus is on raking in the green.
Louis Lee’s habit of booking comics that he thinks are clever and hardworking has resulted in a smarter audience. By booking weirder and more obscure comics, Louis Lee creates a distinct atmosphere. Not only does he train audience members to appreciate not-so-obvious humor, but he also creates an environment that allows for more comedic creativity.
“When you’re at Acme, you can do things you didn’t even know you could do,” said Bryan Miller, who performed Wednesday night.
“For most club owners, a comedian is like a juke box that makes people drink more,” said Nate Abshire, who performed Tuesday. At Acme, it’s different. Matt Fugate, a comic who took the stage Wednesday, said, “If a microphone goes out at the same time that a tap runs out, the microphone gets taken care of first.”
Louis Lee never performs standup, he rarely tells “jokes” and he never tells comedians how they should perform. Rather, his manner is business-like and his presence is discreet.
“He’s a shadowy figure. He doesn’t want any attention,” said Jackie Kashian, who will perform Saturday. “He’s one of the sanest comedy club owners I’ve ever met,” she added.
“There’s no needless banter. There’s no stupid chit-chat,” Stout said about his interactions with the owner. But that’s not to say Louis Lee is humorless — on the contrary. Comedians love him for his understated but strong sense of humor, which manifests in prankster antics and often undetectable jokes.
“He’s got a very difficult sense of humor to figure out off the bat,” said Trevor Anderson, who performed Tuesday night. “He’s almost always joking.”
There are a few extras in store for comedy lovers: Doug Benson will record a live podcast at, um, 4:20 p.m. on Saturday called “Doug Loves Movies.” And In what some may mistake for a gimmicky sideshow, Acme will hand over Mary Mack, Chad Daniels and C. Willi Myles to “Comedy Kitchen,” a comedy cooking competition.
The comics will pair up with pro chefs to make the dishes they love. Whoever’s dish is the best-seller at Acme’s in-house restaurant will win a trophy and bragging rights. The feel-good kicker (and the reason that this isn’t “gimmicky”) is that the proceeds of this cook-off will go to the local charity Fraser, which works to help people with special needs.
“It’s a unique way to tie in local talent, national talent and a good cause,” Anderson said.
Since getting his start at Acme, Pete Lee has stationed himself in New York City. But he still comes back to his old stomping grounds whenever he can. And he makes sure to show up a few days early so he can go to Monday’s open mic nights.
“I’ve been to 48 states and performed in 48 of them. There’s no open mic that’s as good as Acme’s,” Pete Lee said.
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