Whether it’s the best amateurs competing in Acme’s Funniest Person Contest every summer, Ali Sultan’s People of Comedy showcase at Sisyphus Brewing putting the spotlight on comedians of color, the Big Fat Comedy Hour at Lush offering up a “Virgin Sacrifice,” or just a newcomer stepping up at an open mic, the next great breakout comedian might show up any night of the week.
To help save you some time, we’ve put together our list of the five comics you need to get out and see this year. They’re some of the funniest, hardest-working, and most creative names in comedy, and they’re all ours.
When it comes to performing, this past year was pretty good for Caroline Skoog. She played a major part of the year’s 10,000 Laughs Festival in the fall, as well as the PSSY CTRL three-year anniversary show. But the biggest accomplishment of her 2019, Skoog says, is when she learned a valuable lesson about performing during a very tumultuous personal time in her life.
“I had surgery in June, and I came directly from the hospital where I was getting an MRI to do a show,” she says. “I got up and did five minutes of material about the tumor in my leg. It was so fresh and raw and visceral that even if my jokes weren’t so perfectly crafted, my commitment and authenticity made them work. That’s when I learned that whatever is lighting a fire in your mind is going to get a more genuine reaction from the audience.”
Though she’s only 21 years old, the University of Minnesota senior has been gracing comedy stages for over three years.
“I always knew I wanted to do standup since like, the fourth grade,” Skoog says. “When I got to the University of Minnesota I saw that they had a comedy club, so I started going to that, and they do a monthly showcase at Comedy Corner Underground so that was my first time getting on stage.”
This past May, she was hired to help manage some of the shows at Comedy Corner Underground, including managing the lineup of comics, making sure people are sticking to their times, and overseeing the technical aspects of the shows. According to Skoog, this job has occasionally put her in a position where she’s side-eyed by other comics.
“Sometimes new open mic-ers who are fresh on the scene and older than me will size me up in a room. Then I feel this intense pressure, like I need to do really well now,” Skoog says. “I think that sometimes there are people who look at me and are expecting me to fail or maybe wanting me to fail.”
The occasional jealous wannabe comic notwithstanding, this past year has been a year of growth for Skoog, which she attributes to the support she’s received in the comedy scene.
“My first booked show of 2019 was The Greatest Comedy Show Ever at Spring Street Underground,” she recalls. “It was a 21+ show and I was only 20, which I knew because I was the only one with X’s on my hands. A lot of the audience that night was older and regulars of the bar, and I did pretty well in a room where no one knew me. Plus it allowed me to connect with a lot of other comics as a peer. When other comics have faith in you, it’s even better than killing on stage. Sometimes.”
Elise Cole always dreamed about being a comedian, but never quite moved on. Until one night, a chance encounter in St. Paul changed all of that.
“I was working at Saji Ya in St. Paul when one of my customers started asking me about my history on stage,” Cole recalls. “He was an early company member at The Brave New Workshop back in the ‘70s and he taught me about the basic structure of a set and a joke. We met for coffee a few times, he gave me tips and tricks and pointers, but most importantly, he gave me the push I needed to go to my first open mic.”
At first, that on-stage experience would come from performing at The Moth Story Slam at the Amsterdam Bar & Hall.
“I pretty regularly got huge laughs, and even an applause break or two,” she says proudly. The next stop of her comedy journey, however, would be slightly less smooth.
“I was over-confident when I went straight to Acme and promptly bombed for the first time,” she says. “But after that, I went back to work. I went to five or six open mics a week for months, leaving my husband and then-one-and-a-half year old son at home every night until I got it right.”
Whether she’s venting about her life or navigating parenting through (her words), “my own neurotic bullshit,” Cole provides a refreshingly blunt and honest approach to comedy that feels genuine and relatable.
“I talk a lot about how I’m not sure I’m getting any of it right—and I have zero fucks to give about that.”
Though she can regularly be seen on shows and open mics at House of Comedy and Acme, Cole says her career highlight was in Faribault of all places.
“Nathan Smesrud produced a show in Faribault at the historic Paradise Center for the Arts and he asked me to be on it,” she recalls. “There were over three hundred people there who were having the time of their lives. After the show, all the comedians raided the costume closet and found something ridiculous to wear for the curtain call. I was backstage in the wings with a couple of guys from the show and I thought, ‘This is it. There is something really special about where we’re at right now, at this point in our careers, in this very moment.’ We weren’t famous enough to have any expectations to live up to. We were an hour from home, working with people we knew and liked, and performing for an audience who couldn’t be more excited about a comedy show coming to them.”
At the age of 23, Ellie Hino had just moved to Minneapolis from Madison and was ready to take on the comedy world. That didn’t last long.
“I quickly quit standup because I was very busy being 23,” she says.
That didn’t stop her from getting on stage, however. She was hired as a cast member and writer with the Brave New Workshop, where she did sketch and improv for the next 10 years. After (mostly) leaving the performance world behind to pursue a career as a massage therapist, Hino jumped back into comedy about four years ago, just as her life was changing again.
“I started writing standup and performing again when I was pregnant,” she recalls. “When you’re pregnant you can say anything and you get to sit down whenever you want.”
Unfortunately, her performing slowed down because, you know, mom life—though she still found the time to get on stage here and there. Then a year ago, she decided to finally go all-in.
“I came home from performing at the 10,000 Laughs Comedy Festival at the Comedy Corner Underground and I said to my husband, ‘I’ve never really tried, and I think I wanna try now.’ And he’s not a jerk so of course he said, ‘Yeah, you totally should!’ So I guess now I’m trying.”
Now 41, Hino has lived a life that has provided unlimited material for her comedy. From stories about her life as a wife and mother to her self-aware observations about being a woman navigating an era she couldn’t have dreamed up 18 years ago, Hino is able to connect with audiences seemingly anywhere she performs.
“I strive to be totally myself, plus a little extra,” she says. “It could be called self-deprecating, but I’m really just being super honker-bonks honest.”
This past year saw Hino do her first headlining set at Sisyphus, plus the opportunity to perform in the Limestone Comedy Festival alongside the likes of Maria Bamford. As for the year ahead, she’s hoping for more headline opportunities and maybe just some solid validation along the way.
“I love attention. I thrive on the life-juice of the laughs and claps of strangers.”
A Somali immigrant from California, Ahmed Khalaf came to Minnesota for school. He’s stayed for the comedy.
While studying at Normandale Community College, Khalaf started doing open mics about five years ago at the urging of a friend who had already had some experience on stage.
“I had a buddy who was doing standup, and he told me that my words were really funny and I should try stand-up,” Khalaf says. “But I didn’t know how to do it. So he showed me. He took me to House of Comedy for their open mic, and then at that point I just went after it.”
For a while, Khalaf considered comedy a hobby. But he realized pretty quickly that he had found his passion.
“I knew I didn’t want to go to college,” he says. “I knew that college was boring. Stand-up seemed so surreal and far away though. Like a pipe dream. But then after a while, I realized that I didn’t like doing anything else other than stand-up. That’s when I knew that this was it.”
Since then, Khalaf has been one of the fastest-rising comedians in the Twin Cities, winning the Sisyphus Funniest Person contest, as well as getting hired as an emcee at Acme and Comedy Corner Underground, and featured at House of Comedy, all in the past two years. But it was this past year where Khalaf really started to make noise.
While Khalaf talks quite a bit about his background and religion on-stage (in a recent interview he talked about the differences between Chritsmas and Ramadan. “That (Ramadan) is an insane holiday. It’s really just a diet.”) he admits that for now he’s more focused on developing himself as a comedian than trying to be a mentor to other up-and-comers.
“I set out to be a dope-ass comedian, which in itself will change the culture,” Khalaf explains. “If I can show all of these immigrants that are in a position just like me, that we can learn English and be super slick and beat these comedians who are from here at their own game? And their own language? What other inspiration do you need? I’m not going to grab anyone by the scruff, but I’ll open up your fucking eyes.”
Khalaf has opened plenty of eyes this past year, and plans to do even more in 2020. But he’s not committing himself to any firm plans just yet.
“You walk through the doors that open, man.”
While some people pursue comedy because of a long-time love of the art, or a desire for fame and acceptance, Comrade Tripp says his motivation was much more simple.
“My motivation to start doing comedy was simply to try to talk to people,” he says. “I was alone and aimless after graduating college with a useless degree in mathematics and computer programming. I didn’t have the desire to pursue either field any further. What motivated me to do comedy was my complete lack of motivation to do anything else. I was a frustrated 23-year-old who thought that he’d wasted his entire youth. I felt like I had nothing and I didn’t talk to anyone. I didn’t try to do anything at all. Then an old friend that I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out about an open mic he was starting and thought I’d be interested. The rest is happening now.”
With his signature vests and soft, seemingly insecure tone, you’re likely to hear uninitiated crowds “aww-ing” and shifting uncomfortably in their seats the second Tripp gets on stage. That makes it even sweeter when he unleashed his witty, biting sense of humor, touching on topics like racism (“I’m mixed race. My mother immigrated from Singapore, my father immigrated from Detroit,” he jokes in his act), his own insecurities, and an incredibly well-formed hatred of his native St. Cloud, where he got his comedy start roughly four years ago.
“The first time that I did comedy in the Twin Cities was during the second winter of 2017, it was a Sunday in March. I had been doing stand-up in my hometown of St. Cloud for a year, and on a whim, a few of us decided to drive down to the big city for a couple open mics,” Tripp recalls. “I was even quieter than I am now, maybe half of the people could hear me. A year and a half later I moved out of my parents house to pursue comedy here.”
Tripp regularly appears at Sisyphus Brewing, House of Comedy, Comedy Corner Underground and co-hosts a weekly open mic showcase called Uproar on Monday nights at Du Nord Craft Spirits. As for this past year, Tripp has a very specific highlight.
“Once whilst mid-joke someone threw a dollar bill at me, it was crumpled up lovingly. It was one of the first times I got paid to do comedy.”