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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Opes and Dreams

Charlie Berens rallies Midwesterners to laugh at themselves

A heckler during a standup show in 2017 changed Charlie Berens’ life. Inspired to lean hard into his Wisconsin attributes — his nasally Northern accent, clipped dialect, and ’Sconnie vernacular had earned him consistent flack since journalism school at the University of Wisconsin — Berens produced the first “Manitowoc Minute,” a faux newscast dedicated to the Midwest’s many amusing quirks and named after the heckler’s hometown in the Badger State.

That first video, meant to be a one-off, catapulted Berens to viral stardom. Now, the Milwaukee resident has produced his own comedy special, launched two weekly podcasts, and released a bluegrass album and a New York Times bestselling book. Along the way, Berens discovered Midwesterners’ appreciation for and ability to laugh at their own idiosyncrasies, such as storing leftovers in Cool Whip containers, waving fellow drivers through a four-way stop, inexplicably keeping a “bag of bags” on hand, and saying goodbye multiple times before finally managing to get out the door.

Ahead of his Good Old Fashioned Tour stop Oct. 15 at Evansville’s Victory Theatre, Berens spoke with Evansville Living about why Midwestern traits resonate across the U.S., and more.

First, that standup show was a side gig.
Berens worked post-college news stints in South Carolina and Texas — earning a regional Emmy in the process — and conducted red carpet interviews in California. Spinning his wheels, Berens turned to comedy as an outlet. “I did standup to keep myself sane,” he says. It was at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, California, that he crossed paths with the Manitowoc heckler, an unexpected home state connection that reinforced his decision to double down on Midwest-centric standup.

Berens has found that Midwestern comedy helps him connect with people.
Berens admits “Manitowoc Minute” was meant in equal parts to tap into a funny, exaggerated character and ease feeling homesick while living in Los Angeles. (Not long after “Minute” debuted, he moved back to Milwaukee for good. “There’s something about the Midwest that, even if we leave, it draws us back,” Berens says. “For me, it was being closer to my family — and a more affordable cost of living.”)

His viral success encouraged Berens to pursue comedy full time. Traveling the U.S. with his regional dialect and love of Midwestern mannerisms — be honest, how often have you said “watch out for deer” in place of “goodbye”? — he’s found that people have many perceptions about the Midwest, and his comedy both pokes fun at that and helps the audience draw a link from their own cultural norms to universal Midwestern traits, like being kind to strangers.

Judging by his two million YouTube subscribers, packed shows, and podcast callers from far-flung states, that tactic resonates with people searching for a common thread. Getting a crowd to laugh together about the Midwest “reminds me of home,” Berens says. “It’s less about me and more about highlighting things we have in common.”

His colorful signoff — “Go Packers, and f— the Bears” — stems from real fandom.
Berens is a diehard Green Bay fan and often builds his tour schedule around games, even joining the Packers for a 2022 NFL match-up with the New York Giants in London, England. “A few years ago, we did a mini-Packers tour, where we followed the team around,” he says. “That was a lot of fun.” Good Old Fashioned Tour stops in Chicago, Illinois, and Las Vegas, Nevada, conveniently lined up with Green Bay games in both cities. His Evansville show, slated for a rare Sunday, syncs up with a Packers bye week.

You may find Berens watching an NFL game in Evansville before his show at the Victory.
“I’ve driven through Evansville, but I’ve never stopped there. I’m hoping to get in town a little early and look around,” he says. “I’m always looking for coffee shops or sports bars to stop at.”

When You Go
Charlie Berens Live
6 p.m. Oct. 15, Victory Theatre, 600 Main St.

Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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