‘Are you ready to be totally offended?’

Upcoming book celebrates the history and impact of the Brave New Workshop.

Isabella Romano

Rob Hubbard, author of “Brave New Workshop: Promiscuous Hostility and Laughs in the Land of Loons,” has been following Brave New Workshop since the 1970s when he was introduced to one of their sketch and improv troupes at the Young America Center. 
 
“I’ve always had a great interest in comedy,” Hubbard said. “It was something that I value. Brave New Workshop stands out as our court jesters of the Twin Cities theatrical community. They’re the ones satirizing things, and I think that’s valuable — to puncture the balloons of the powerful.” 
 
Hubbard said a history of the comedy club was long overdue and set out to tell the story of the group as a hilarious chronology. After more than 40 interviews with at least 50 people, his work is complete. 
 
“No one had really written a history of Brave New Workshop,” Hubbard said. “It has such a long, lavish history with so many interesting alumni and so many changes that it had gone through. I really felt that it would be a nice way to tell a history of the Twin Cities area from an alternate viewpoint, through the eyes of the satirists who were spoofing life in the Twin Cities.”
 
According to Hubbard, Brave New Workshop officially found its home in the Twin Cities in 1961. Dudley Riggs, previously an aerialist for the circus, opened a coffee shop at 2605 Hennepin Ave. He was looking for a way to bring in business on historically slow Sunday nights. With a number of friends and acquaintances, he came up with the idea to do a sketch comedy show. 
 
Hubbard said in order to ensure that they would have enough material to keep the show fresh, they held an informal meeting after the shop closed and compiled a list of 100 sketch ideas. 
 
In his research, Hubbard managed to find the notebook, and the full list can be found in his book. Dan Sullivan, now a journalism professor at the University of Minnesota, was the scribe. He became one of the group’s first sketch writers and worked with the group as a hobby until 1964. 
 
“It was the happiest time of my life,” Sullivan said. “The companionship was wonderful, and it was great to have a gang and something to enjoy doing as a group. As young people, we were living the business life, most of us as journalists, but we also had doubts about it — sketch comedy and satire proved a release for that.”
 
In its 55 years, Brave New Workshop has bolstered the careers of many famous actors who went on to work for Saturday Night Live, a plethora of sitcoms and even the U.S. Senate. Al Franken, previously a writer and actor for SNL and now a Minnesota state senator, wrote the foreword for the book. 
 
“It’s interesting how the interview with Al Franken worked out,” Hubbard said. “He gave me all this wealth of material about all of his experiences. The conversation went really well, and I was bringing a lot of stories out of him over the course of the interview. And then he wrote the foreword for the book, and he sent it to me and I realized that he had used almost all of the stories. So I said, ‘Well, I won’t be using those too much in the book!’ ” 
 
In many ways, Brave New Workshop paved the way for shows like SNL. Hubbard noted Hillary Clinton’s recent appearance in SNL’s cold open, and was proud to say that Brave New Workshop invited politicians to satirize themselves as early as the 1960s. 
 
“It was before SNL and popular standup comedy — in some ways life was officially more serious,” Sullivan said. “Sketch comedy and satire contributed to the irreverence toward American values.”
 
One of the most memorable skits for Sullivan was the Miss America Pageant spoof. 
 
“It was back when Miss America was still highly regarded,” Sullivan said. “Miss America was still thought to be the ideal American woman and a role model. I just remember having so much fun with the parody. I wrote a song, and we even recorded some of the sketch on a 45 record.”
Hubbard mentioned events, like the attack on staff members at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine in Paris, earlier this year as deterrents to the practice of satire. 
 
“Satirists are often in danger. There are even people at Brave New Workshop who have had their lives threatened when people thought they overstepped a boundary. But, of course, they open every performance with, ‘Are you ready to be totally offended?’ They’re prepared for that. But I’m concerned that people may become afraid to make fun of people who are in powerful positions — I think that is a very important part of our free and open society. There’s a certain American-ness to [Brave New Workshop’s] mission.”