When you think of comedy towns, you probably think of New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. Oh, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin, of course.
Just past the Minnesota border, the small town best known for Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has been quietly making a name for itself as an up-and-coming comedy hub, led by a crew of local comedians from the area that book, produce, and perform on a weekly basis.
Clear Water Comedy was born out of a weekly comedy open mic that started back in April 2012 at a local restaurant called The Plus. Over time, a group of comedians including Cullen Ryan, Jordan James Duroe, Hannah Kabelitz, and 2018 Growler comedian-to-watch, Ryan Kahl, among others, decided to start booking a weekly showcase.
“It was decided for us,” says Ryan. “Tuesday open mic got to the point where 100 people were coming every week. The entire bar would be full. So the owner asked us to take over Thursday nights and do our own comedy show.”
Adds Duroe, “As much as we’d like to, we can’t claim to have had any sort of master plan. We just liked hanging out with each other and we liked doing open mic at The Plus.”
The group wasn’t experienced in booking and producing a weekly show, but were hungry to learn and reached out for help. According to Duroe, national headliner and Wisconsin native Tim Harmston was something of a mentor for the group when they began their showcases.
“He was an invaluable resource that we could ask for advice or insight about running a show, particularly the business end of things, which was completely new to us,” Duroe continues.
Since then the group has produced more than 150 shows around town, including album recording events with Harmston and Robert Baril. They have also begun bringing in major names like Aparna Nancherla, Rory Scovel, and Kyle Kinane, who will be performing at The Plus on March 11. That said, the group is still committed to featuring more unique talents, including recent performances by Grace Thomas and Sarah Squirm from Chicago, who utilize a video projector for their show, as well as Boy Kisses Comedy, known for their mash up of stand-up, sketches, and general weirdness.
“We get to be this mix of traditional and alt; big city and small town,” says Duroe.
Though the names on the marquee and the crowds themselves continue to get bigger, the Clear Water crew also focuses on the thing that gave them their legs in the first place—fostering new, local talent.
“What makes Clear Water Comedy unique is that it’s very supportive,” says Kabelitz. “When I went to open mic for the first time, I went alone because I didn’t want any of my friends to see me bomb. By the end of the night, everyone compliments me and encouraged me to keep trying. I think that is why performers like to come here. It’s because they feel the crowd is rooting for them every step of the way.”
The group has begun booking shows in other venues outside of The Plus, but continues to focus on the Thursday night showcase as their home base. According to Ryan, that’s because the group’s strategy is less about growth, and more about quality.
“We are fans first,” he says. “I don’t give a shit about money-money. I literally just want to have the best comedy I possibly can in front of my face every week. That’s it.”
While it remains to be seen if Clear Water Comedy will overtake Justin Vernon’s title of most famous Eau Claire native (who knew this would be a hotly contested title), for now the group is very satisfied with what they accomplish on a weekly basis.
“Eau Claire is still considered a cow town first, and a music town second,” says Ryan. “There is an incredible amount of passion and enthusiasm surrounding all of the arts in the city. Sure, comedy will probably be a footnote, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do things other cities with only 65,000 people have never done before. I want this to be the best small city for comedy in the world.”
For more information about Clear Water Comedy and the list of upcoming events, visit www.clearwatercomedy.com.