At Dae Udder Place in Minot a comedy renaissance is developing every Friday and Saturday night at 9 p.m.
The bar space is phenomenal and feels very large and open despite the fact that the end third of the bar to the right has been cordoned off with ceiling-high black curtains. At the far right end of those curtains a line stretches full of customers eager for laughs and ready to hand in their $7 to the cashier, get their hand stamped, and take a seat at one of the many tables in the very dark space.
"We'll see how it goes over the next few months or so and, you know, maybe things will be more permanent back here and look a little different. Time will tell," said Linda Davy, a manager at Dae Udder Place and, along with Patrick Davy, creators of DUPS Comedy Shack.
Stephano, a veteran comic, does a short comedy set before introducing the touring comedians to the audience at DUPS Comedy Shack..
The current layout was designed on "the proverbial bar napkin. Many great things have happened on a bar napkin, I guess, and that's where the idea came from and we just ran with it," said Patrick Davy.
The success may be somewhat surprising because the backstory, as the Davys tell it, seems like the club came about rather informally.
"Needed to try something different. Comedy came to mind. It worked on North Hill for a long time so we thought, 'Well, let's try it again,' and hooked up with Stephano online," Linda said.
Her North Hill reference was to a comedy club that existed in the hotel that is now called The Grand Hotel just off North Broadway. Comedy hasn't been a business there for at least eight years, by Linda's recollection.
"We just threw it out online and the response we got back was from a corporation out of New York and we've gone from there. They've fulfilled everything we've asked," Patrick said.
The "Stephano" Linda mentioned is the host of DUPS Comedy Shack, and also the host of Wednesday and Thursday night sets at DK's Lounge and Casino in Williston. He goes simply by "Stephano" rather than Stephano Balcer, his full name, because people couldn't pronounce it right in the beginning of his career, plus he's amused at the idea of people imagining him as maybe a sort of magician, like a "The Great Stephano," even though he just does comedy.
"The agency that books my Wednesday and Thursday in Williston, between them and I we met the (managers) of Dae Udder Place and decided this would be a great idea and after opening week ... we were sold out, standing room only," Stephano said. "We knew we made the right choice."
A Milwaukee, Wis., native, Stephano is a veteran touring comedian who found himself the host of western North Dakota comedy nights as a bit of a silver lining to a career choice he made a few years ago that he thought could have been a big mistake.
"I actually did a corporate show for an oil company in Williston three years ago. That one show turned into three corporate shows and one of them offered me a job in sales. I couldn't turn down six figures. As a touring road comedian I never made over $35,000 in my life, ever. And they offered me a $100,000 job and I was like, 'Yeah, I'll take it, I'll get off the road,' " he said. "Three months after moving here I realized I had probably made the biggest mistake of my life. Yeah, I had a lot of money in my bank account but I was miserable. So, instead of quitting I actually started a comedy night in Williston."
His road to comedy was a bit more traditional and began with "sneaking" listens to George Carlin comedy albums when he was in elementary school.
"It was really filthy and in fifth-, sixth-grade I thought it was the funniest stuff ever," he said of the albums. "I probably didn't get a lot of it, but when I grew older I realized how brilliant he was. ... I really love stand-up comedy because of George Carlin, but when I saw my first Howie Mandel special I realized 'That's me, that's who I'm supposed to be, just like that.' "
So he studied theater in college.
"My first audition after college I auditioned to be the dentist in 'Little Shop of Horrors,' " he said. "It was civic community theater and I didn't even get a callback ... I was born to play that role. That's me. ... Anyhow, when I didn't get it I joined an improv troupe, Comedy Sports, in Milwaukee and I played professional improv for about two years and then I realized I didn't want to share the stage with anybody."
The hosting gig, though, is from a maturity that has set in after the 15 or so years he's been on the road. He said he realized that "it's not about me anymore, it's now about the public," and he is honestly very excited about presenting up and coming, talented comedians to a western North Dakota audience.
The comedians themselves seem to really enjoy the experience, too.
"I got onstage and immediately felt 'oh yeah, making the drive up here was totally worth it,' " said Sean McBride, a comedian based in Los Angeles who performed two weekends ago, along with fellow Los Angeles comic Alex Ortiz. "This is the third time I've been here (in the state). I did Fargo and Grand Forks once, then I did Williston separately and this time I did Williston and Minot."
McBride, who is originally from Kansas City, Mo., and raised in western Massachusetts, has been a comedian for eight years. He moved to L.A. for a job at the NFL Network, but quit in 2009 to pursue comedy full time. He's been traveling extensively and said he's covered about half the country the western half and looks forward to moving outward and covering the whole country.
"I find the farther I drive from L.A. the more people appreciate it. To me, that's what it's all about. Going in and having people excited that you're there," he said. "We had a packed show, the crowd was awesome. You go everywhere and people are people, we're all Americans, we all have similarities. Here it's, well, it's freezing and people want to laugh."
His act that Friday night was sometimes self-deprecating, like jokes about his 5-foot 7-inch stature, sometimes autobiographical, like warning against picking a college major when you're inebriated, and occasionally crude but he worked local jokes in and really connected with members of the audience. He said that "make what you're doing work for whoever you're performing in front of," and it definitely worked that night.
He also has high hopes for the future of comedy in this changing state.
"People have money up here, they have money to spend and not a whole lot to do so you'd figure something like a full-time comedy club would be a hit. I know it's a new thing here in Minot but I can only hope that if we keep having a packed show like we did tonight it will be a more regular thing," he said. "There's no reason it shouldn't be successful."