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Acme turns 20

Acme Comedy Company is celebrating its 20 year relationship with the Twin Cities. Hey baby, doesn’t it feel like we just got together yesterday?
University of Minnesota alumna Linda Aarons performs the first set of the night Wednesday at Acme Comedy Company in Minneapolis.
Image by Robert Downs
University of Minnesota alumna Linda Aarons performs the first set of the night Wednesday at Acme Comedy Company in Minneapolis.


What: Acme Comedy CompanyâÄôs 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

Cost: $20

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 heâÄôd 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 didnâÄôt laugh âÄî 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 AcmeâÄôs many success stories: Minnesota-born comics like Maria Bamford and Nick Swardson also got their start at the Minneapolis laugh factory.

And itâÄôs not just a training ground for local comics: under Louis LeeâÄôs savvy direction, Acme has become a prestigious destination for national acts.

âÄúI was on four different continents in six different countries last year, and very few places compare to Acme,âÄù said Ryan Stout, who will perform Saturday.

Cy Amundson, a local comic from Worthington, Minn., knows why national headliners marvel at AcmeâÄôs greatness. As he puts it, âÄúThat comes from 20 years of Louis doing things exactly the way they should be done.âÄù

The clubâÄôs 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 LeeâÄôs 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 LeeâÄôs 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.

âÄúWhen youâÄôre at Acme, you can do things you didnâÄôt even know you could do,âÄù said Bryan Miller, who performed Wednesday night.

âÄúFor most club owners, a comedian is like a juke box that makes people drink more,âÄù said Nate Abshire, who performed Tuesday. At Acme, itâÄôs different. Matt Fugate, a comic who took the stage Wednesday, said, âÄúIf a microphone goes out at the same time that a tap runs out, the microphone gets taken care of first.âÄù

Louis Lee never performs standup, he rarely tells âÄújokesâÄù and he never tells comedians how they should perform. Rather, his manner is business-like and his presence is discreet.

âÄúHeâÄôs a shadowy figure. He doesnâÄôt want any attention,âÄù said Jackie Kashian, who will perform Saturday. âÄúHeâÄôs one of the sanest comedy club owners IâÄôve ever met,âÄù she added.

âÄúThereâÄôs no needless banter. ThereâÄôs no stupid chit-chat,âÄù Stout said about his interactions with the owner. But thatâÄôs not to say Louis Lee is humorless âÄî on the contrary. Comedians love him for his understated but strong sense of humor, which manifests in prankster antics and often undetectable jokes.

âÄúHeâÄôs got a very difficult sense of humor to figure out off the bat,âÄù said Trevor Anderson, who performed Tuesday night. âÄúHeâÄôs almost always joking.âÄù

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 âÄúDoug Loves Movies.âÄù And In what some may mistake for a gimmicky sideshow, Acme will hand over Mary Mack, Chad Daniels and C. Willi Myles to âÄúComedy Kitchen,âÄù a comedy cooking competition.

The comics will pair up with pro chefs to make the dishes they love. WhoeverâÄôs dish is the best-seller at AcmeâÄôs in-house restaurant will win a trophy and bragging rights. The feel-good kicker (and the reason that this isnâÄôt âÄúgimmickyâÄù) is that the proceeds of this cook-off will go to the local charity Fraser, which works to help people with special needs.

âÄúItâÄôs a unique way to tie in local talent, national talent and a good cause,âÄù 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 MondayâÄôs open mic nights.

âÄúIâÄôve been to 48 states and performed in 48 of them. ThereâÄôs no open mic thatâÄôs as good as AcmeâÄôs,âÄù Pete Lee said.

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