Art beat // Keeping comedy local

A live and local spin on the weekly sketch comedy show

THE WEDGE  — You’ve probably read about the debate — maybe in the pages of this newspaper, even.

Trader Joe’s, the quirky grocery chain renowned for its cheap wine and chocolate-covered peanut butter pretzels, is eyeing for its newest location a Lyndale Avenue site just one block south of Wedge Community Co-op, the natural foods Mecca to which many Southwest residents make weekly pilgrimage. Joe’s also would sit kitty-corner from no-frills Hum’s Liquor Store, a neighborhood landmark.

Framing the issue as local businesses versus national chain, Southwest actor and writer Michael Venske sided with the former.

“Like we need a Trader Joe’s there,” Venske said recently. “… And they’re going to put, what, 58 condos in there, too? Yeah, because Uptown needs more condos. We’re running out.”

The Trader Joe’s hubbub is exactly the type of local news story Venske and writing partner Chris Knutson believe is ripe for skewering. And Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater recently gave them a platform to do it.

“The Weekly: Yesterday’s News Today” is a local spin on the topical sketch comedy show, a format best known from “Saturday Night Live.” The duo, along with a team of writers and actors culled from the local comedy scene, plan to write and produce a fresh show every week — just like “SNL,” but without the host or musical guest.

Whereas “SNL” might open its show with a sketch poking fun at Vice President Joe Biden, expect “The Weekly” to satirize our homegrown politicos.

“We’re going to try and tailor it to as many local issues as possible,” Knutson said. “You can come and see a sketch about what [Mayor] R.T. Rybak is doing this week.”

“Local residents can relate to that,” he added. “You can’t get that from other comedy shows.”

While the show is intended to have a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, the team behind “The Weekly” isn’t afraid to find laughs elsewhere.

“Chris and I have a very similar sense of comedy, in that we don’t censor ourselves and we don’t hold anything back,” Venske said.

It was in a sketch-writing class at Brave New Workshop where the writing team met and discovered their mutual appreciation for a no-jokes-barred style.

“In the class, there was one sketch that Chris had written that inspired a little bit of debate,” Venske recalled.

Knutson’s sketch included an off-color slang term for a part of the female anatomy. Some in the class thought it was inappropriate, but Venske sided with Knutson.

“I jumped to his defense, and then at the end of the class we were outside talking and we were just like, ‘You know what? This is cool,’” he said. “We realized we got along really well.”

“We clashed with the sort of highbrow, pretentious sketch writers in the [class],” Knutson added. “Not that we can’t reach that level ourselves, but we don’t limit ourselves to intellectual comedy like a lot of people in this city do. We’re OK with a fart joke — that’s great.”

The weekly sketch show is not a new idea — heck, the Brave New Workshop performs nightly. But Knutson and Venske think “The Weekly” may be the first stab at producing an entirely new script every week.

“We’ve tried to dig into, like, the comedy vaults in the city and see if anyone has ever attempted this, and we haven’t even found anyone who has tried it,” Knutson said. “So, this is really a big experiment.

“But everyone we’ve talked to, all the writers and the performers, said this is something they’ve been waiting to do.”

If you can prove another comedy team beat “The Weekly” to the idea, Knutson and Venske would love to hear it. They know the job is a tall order, and they’d appreciate some pointers, they said.

In the meantime, they’ll be scouring the local newspapers for sketch ideas in the weeks leading up to their June 6 debut.

“For instance: Rybak goes to China … and he’s trying to sell the Minnesota economy,” Venske said, referencing a story about the mayor’s planned trip in a recent Southwest Journal. “Chris and I decide, well, it’s kind of like he’s trying to sell a [expletive] car to someone who knows it’s a [expletive] car.”

“Or who could afford a better car,” Knutson added.

“The [Chinese] are like, ‘What about Chicago? They have Six Flags,’” Venske said.

He delivered Rybak’s imagined counterproposal: “Well we’ve got Valley Fair. Park at the MOA?”

“At the end, I think we said [Rybak] would start pushing Wisconsin Dells,” Knutson said.

“It’s only four hours away,” Venske said. “It’s like Minnesota.”

Go see it

“The Weekly: Yesterday’s News Today” is 7 p.m. Saturdays June 6–20 at Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater, 810 W. Lake St. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $9-–$15. 825-8949.