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Readers Blog: Dobie Maxwell's 'Dented Can' Diary

Will Durst Was First

Friday November 25th, 2011 - Milwaukee, WI

   No comedy work this weekend, but I’m not upset. I could use the money, but I’ll take a chance to relax a little and recharge my batteries. I’ve been off my game lately and feeling pretty frazzled. It’s part of the ups and downs of being an entertainer, and life in general.

   The entertainment business is really changing, as is life in general. It was difficult in the past, but now it’s really tough to squeeze out a respectable living. There are no rules these days. Nothing is special anymore, and people can see everything for free on the internet.

   Getting a significant number of strangers in a room for any reason is getting to be nearly impossible, and that’s a real problem. Everyone is going in every direction, and who has a clue how to reach them all? Buying ads on radio, TV or newspapers used to be the way to do it. Now, there’s not enough bang for the buck in that. Niche marketing is the new king.

   Will Durst is a perfect example. I’ve always liked and respected Will, one of a very tiny handful of comedians who has carved out a niche as a political satirist. It’s hard enough to do comedy full time, but what he does is even harder. That’s why I respect him so much.

   Not only are audiences getting dumber by the minute, they don’t keep up with news and current events like they used to. Everyone used to watch Walter Cronkite or read the same newspapers, but it’s a whole new ballgame now. Finding common ground is a challenge.

   Will is one of my comedy heroes for several reasons. He’s from Milwaukee, but moved to San Francisco years ago. I remember seeing an article about him before I ever started in comedy, and it intrigued me that there was the possibility to earn a living by telling jokes.

   I’ve gotten to know Will personally over the years, and really learned a lot both onstage and off. He’s smart, hip, funny and a total pro. Watching him work has always been a fun way to learn, both about comedy and what’s going on in the news. He never disappoints.

   Although he’s been on national television through the years, I never thought Will Durst has gotten his due. I hate to say it, but I think he’s too smart - at least for the masses. I’ve never understood why he doesn’t have his own show like a John Stewart, who’s also very talented in my opinion. Not many comedians can pull off smart, funny AND be current.

   I drove up to Milwaukee tonight to watch Will perform at some pizza joint on the south side, traditionally not the hippest part of town. The words ‘hip’ and ‘Milwaukee’ usually aren’t used in the same sentence, much like ‘Cubs’ and ‘champions’. They’re opposites.

   Will likes to come home for Thanksgiving every year, and likes to work if he can. I can relate to that, and in my opinion he should be able to name a venue and it should sell out in advance. He used to work the various comedy clubs, but most of them were too stupid or greedy to build him into the draw he could and should be. That, or the joint has closed. Comedy clubs in Milwaukee have always been inferior and run poorly, and they still are.

   That’s a shame, but the Milwaukee comedians of every generation have had to swallow hard and get used to it. We’re the bastard children of the national comedy scene, and it’s a total embarrassment. Any talent that starts in Milwaukee has to leave to earn their stripes.

   I used to think it was just me, but it totally isn’t. I’ve heard entertainers of all genres say what a tough nut Milwaukee is to crack, and they’re right. It’s known for cheapness of the venues and tightness of the audiences, but those of us from there didn’t have any choice.

   That’s where we were born, and that’s where we started. Durst saw it first, then I came along. We both chose to leave, but have survived quite nicely. Frank Caliendo is another example. Both Frank and Will are from Waukesha, which is even smaller, but we all had to leave home to find our way. And, we’ve all clashed with the local clubs in our time.

   Club owners have never been known for being kind hearted benevolent souls, but there have been an especially nasty crop of collective slime who have slithered into existence on the Milwaukee scene. I’ve said it before, and it’s true - the ones with money never had  brains, and the ones with brains never had money. It’s been decades of deep dysfunction.

   Most Milwaukee comedians feel like neglected children of a bad divorce, and we don’t have anyone who understands what we’ve been through other than each other. Will Durst should be celebrated for his remarkable accomplishments, and treated as a local celebrity.

   But he isn’t. Especially not by the comedy clubs. None of us have ever been treated like anything other than low rent whores who will work for peanuts and can be exploited over and over without consequence. If one of us happened to lip off, some new meat would be there and the abuse cycle perpetuated. It’s like that other places, but not like Milwaukee.

   There’s always been a particularly rotten situation there, and those of us who have been exposed to it have a callous around our soul from the abuse we’ve taken. We always think we’re going to be the one who will rise above it, but it never happens. All of us get stung.

   All we ever wanted was to make people laugh and have a place to come home to. Is that too much to ask? Apparently it is, so we’ve just learned to go around the maggot bastards who have run their clubs into the ground and try to book our own shows. It’s the only way to get any kind of relief from the insanity, but it also opens up a whole new can of worms.

   Now it’s back to the issue of putting fannies in seats. Not easy to do, but I’d rather work for myself at this point than associate with the club scene. I’ve been scorched enough, and most other locals on all levels feel the same way. Milwaukee just isn’t a comedy hotbed.

   Richard Halasz is a Milwaukee comedian who still lives there and promotes shows on a semi regular basis. He and Will are friends, and Richard has booked Thanksgiving shows for several years out of necessity because the clubs won’t do it. He works extremely hard to promote the shows, but the turnout tonight was not many more than I had for the show I did last Saturday. Will was hilarious, as usual. I wish more people were there to enjoy it.

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