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Kids tend to get attention, but those with siblings still have to work for laughs. Charlie Berens, the second of 11 kids in his family, sharpened his wit at the dinner table.
“You don’t have a lot of time to talk. Get your point across or get roasted by your entire family,” he said.
Raised in Wisconsin, Berens worked as a journalist before turning to comedy. He’s combined both interests to create a niche as a faux Midwestern newscaster. He will perform his standup show “Good Old-Fashioned Fun” at the Gillioz Theatre in Springfield on Oct. 14.
From journalism to comedy
After working in Dallas, South Carolina and Washington, D.C., Berens took a job in entertainment news in Los Angeles. Traditionally, broadcasters flatten their voices until their accents are devoid of regionalism. Berens’ Badger State roots were obvious.
“I would say some words that weren’t exactly correct, or use colloquialisms,” he said. “I had an accent and I kind of got made fun of for that.”
For example, Wisconsinites refer to water fountains as “bubblers.”
“Outside of Wisconsin, a bubbler is a device used to smoke the devil’s lettuce,” Berens said, meaning marijuana.
As a standup comic in L.A., Berens developed a character who speaks in an exaggerated nasal accent and covers unique Midwestern news. At one show, he was heckled by a guy from Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Inspired, Berens uploaded a short video as his character and named it the Manitowoc Minute. It went viral.
“That’s the first thing I did that took off,” he said. “I did another one, and another, then switched over to sketches, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Enjoying the process — really
Behrens has 2 million subscribers on YouTube, but it doesn’t mean every post is successful — at least in a monetary sense.
He said he’s made plenty of videos that didn’t “take off,” and he still does. But he’s philosophical about clicks and internet views.
“It’s really just all about doing it, enjoying the process and sort of being detached from the outcome,” Berens said. “If you’re chasing the numbers or whatever, you’re always sad because the goalpost can always be moved. But if art is where you are finding joy, you will be happy with what you’re doing.”
Berens said he spent 20 minutes on short clips that go viral. He’s also spent 30 hours on content that didn’t get much attention. However, he says he learns something with every video he makes, and it’s valuable.
“Nobody can get through this game on skates,” he said. “If you’re not failing, you’re not learning, and you’re not getting any better.”
Berens once worked at a violin shop, where the bowmaker’s methodical work inspired him.
“His whole thing was, ‘If you want to do this, it’s all about the process,’” Berens said. “Your knives have to be sharpened precisely. Your sharpening stone has to be right. Get the mechanics right and the rest will fall into place.”
In addition to Manitowoc Minute, Berens hosts a couple of podcasts. One is called “Bellied Up,” where he and his pal Myles Montplaisir give advice to callers. The name comes from someone “bellying up” next to a pal at a bar. They routinely broadcast from bars in Milwaukee and Fargo, North Dakota.
Speaking of brew, Berens is unfamiliar with the phrase “All foam and no beer,” once uttered by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and perhaps no one else. But he likes the Missouri version, “All hat and no cattle.”
It means someone is all talk and no substance, but it doesn’t apply here. Berens remains industrious and his family keeps him humble. Of course, kids with 10 siblings can’t get too big for their britches, though it would accelerate the all-important hand-me-down cycle.
“You get that real-time test if something’s going to be funny or bomb, because your family’s gonna be your audience,” he said. “A lot of them are funnier than me, that’s for sure.”
Learning to take his turn also helped his interviewing skills. On his podcast “Cripescast” Berens chats with people who have a connection to the Midwest, though not always.
“That was a jumping-off point. But really, it’s just kind of an excuse to talk to people,” he said.
It’s easy being green
Recently, Berens chatted with Ed Bieber, who dives for lost items in lakes and rivers in the Upper Midwest. Bieber might retrieve a ring or GoPro, but he focuses on removing old tires, used batteries and fishing line from the lakes. Bieber even cleans and sells old lures abandoned by impatient fishers.
Water quality is a major interest for Berens, who grew up happily playing outside in Wisconsin.
“Some of my best memories ever have been outdoors,” he said. “I just think it’s all of ours, so we should take care of it. Nobody should be able to profit off it at the expense of it.”
Berens recently read “The Devil’s Element,” by Milwaukee writer Dan Egan, about the effects of phosphorus.
“We all eat food, so we all create this issue of excess phosphorus in our waterways,” Berens said.
Too much phosphorus in water can cause toxic algal blooms, which are harmful to people and pets.
“I’ve always been big into the environment,” Berens said. “It’s the one thing we all as people have in common. So, it just kind of made sense to prioritize and think about that.”
Books and merch and games, oh my!
Berens is also an author, and “The Midwest Survival Guide” hit the New York Times best-seller list. He explains the 12 steps to saying goodbye, which is a guide for natives and outsiders alike who need to know why it takes four hours to leave a family function.
Obviously, you can duck out quickly, in the form of “The Irish Goodbye.” Still, if a relative doesn’t intercept you, the crushing guilt you feel afterward will flatten you.
Speaking of injury, Berens is a proud Green Bay Packers fan. He found no joy in the massive letdown of Aaron Rodgers’ stint with the New York Jets. The former Green Bay quarterback lasted four snaps before a torn Achilles tendon ended his season.
“I hope he comes back and we can beat him the old-fashioned way,” Berens said. “He put out a tweet or something saying it’s always darkest before dawn. He knows how to tell a story to the press, that’s for sure.”
But then, Midwesterners are also indirect with statements of affection.
“We say ‘Watch out for deer’ instead of saying ‘I love you,’ you know?”
In the book, you can also find recipes for hotdish (i.e., casserole) and puppy chow, and guides to both beer and meat.
Berens also sells merchandise with familiar phrases like, “Tell your folks I says hi” and “Keep ’er moving.” Or, pick up a shirt featuring a canoe ratchet-strapped to a truck with the words, “That’s not going anywhere.”
He also designed a game called “Card Sale,” in which players invent absurd products and try to sell them. Games and merchandise are available on his site.
Berens has created plenty of income streams and he works constantly, but he seems to like it, relishing a life of creativity instead of dull, seemingly safe jobs. He points out that no job is that secure, anyway.
“I’ve been working since I was a kid and I know what it’s like to do something you don’t necessarily want to do,” Berens said. “I’ve been down that road and I don’t need to do it again.”
Tickets for “A Good Old-Fashioned Tour” are available online and at the Gillioz Theatre box office. People of all ages are welcome. Berens’ manager, Matt Van De Water says they call the material “PG that occasionally veers into PG-13.”