"So I'm gonna be on a TV show soon, if no one has heard," says comedian Chris Woldt. "To Catch a Predator -- has anyone heard of it? As an artist, I told myself I wasn't going to do reality, but it's for the resume."
It's the Wednesday night Comedy Showcase at the Klinic, a hospital-themed bar that resembles some psycho's back-alley body chop shop from a low-budget thriller. On the ceiling of the stage area is a large blue neon syringe. The blood-red walls feature movie posters for Coma, Body Parts, and Scalpel. The metal tables seem more appropriate for autopsies than drinks and conversation. But the eerie feeling gives the bar character and charm.
Many of Madison's aspiring comedians perform here as "The Park Street Players," including Kendra Frank, blue-collar Chris Waelti, deadpan Mark Kump, balding Adam Waldron, English-major Dave Labedz, and the hostess, the cute and quirky KeaLynn Kees. For some, it's just a fun pastime, but it's also a training ground for those like Woldt who hope to take their act to bigger venues.
Woldt, in fact, is planning along with some of his friends to take this show to New York City. But at the Klinic, he''s still honing has act. He aims to be in the mold of comedians like Patton Oswalt and David Cross, with a bit of the sick humor of Doug Stanhope. Though not revolutionary, he's akin to comics who try to challenge perceptions by catching audiences off guard and provoking critical thought.
The years have been good to Woldt. He's approaching 30 and could still probably get a part in a teen movie. As part of his routine, he appears jaded, occasionally releasing sighs of frustration and massaging his temples, and he delivers his jokes with healthy doses of sarcasm. "There are like 12 or something [kids] that are being tried as adults for beating up the homeless guy or whatever... I don't see the big deal because every generation has their thing -- like our grandparents had World War II, our parents had Vietnam, this generation is the war on poverty."
The crowd cheers some more: At the Klinic, the atmosphere is one of camaraderie and support. Most of the crowd consists of other comedians, a lot of whom happen to be friends. They come to get free stage time, drink beer, maybe enjoy a Kardiac Burger or two, hang out and provide support. It's allied territory here, a place where local comedians can try out new material without fearing the wrath of the paying customer.
Woldt continues: "These kids wanna wear their Confederate flag T-shirts to school and they're saying you shouldn't be able to do that. That's what I kind of fucking hate about hippies, because let those fuckers wear their Confederate flag T-shirts, you know what I mean? It's like if you wanna be some dumb, ignorant, fucking fucked-up mongoloid, homophobic piece of shit bastard, that's fine, fucking warn me about it... it's like that fucking scent they put in natural gas."
Woldt wants his shot at the big time. Much like a comedy version of Rocky Balboa (young, fiery 1976 Rocky, not tired, geriatric 2006 Rocky Balboa), he has the eye of the tiger and the feel of the fight. He wants to rise up to the challenge. On August 15, he will move to the Big Apple to test his comedic mettle, something he says he should have done years ago.
"I should've been out there hustling for the last 5 years," Woldt says. But for the past five years he's been in Madison, most recently working as a salesman at Barnes and Noble.
Woldt felt a calling to comedy early on. His earliest influences were Red Skelton tapes and Star Search, partly for the comedians, but also for the spokesmodels: "a double barrel of goodness, there." He was intrigued by the fact that "you can be on stage and people can laugh and that can be your job. That sounds pretty fucking cool to me."
You wouldn't know it looking at him now, but Woldt grew up overweight. He gravitated toward comedy as a means of fitting in and expressing himself. "You know, you get a guitar when you're fourteen... I just decided 'ah, funny,' that seems to be what I do okay, and I don't have to learn chords."
When he graduated high school in 1997, Woldt had no idea where to go with his dream. Growing up, he had seen the movies of famous comedians such as Bill Murray and Madison's Chris Farley, who got their start at the renowned Second City. Woldt auditioned and was admitted into one of its training troupes. While still living at home in Marshall, Wisconsin, he drove his parents' Grand Am down to Chicago to practice and perform. "I chalk it up to being so young, but I didn't get as much out of it as I probably could've just because I was so nervous the whole time," he says.
The five-hour commutes wore on Woldt. So he quit Second City and joined Madison's now-defunct Ark Improvisational Theatre, which touted Joan Cusack and Farley among its former members. "There's nothing like having a great set or scene with improv... [but] nothing lets you hear tumbleweeds and crickets more than improv as well. When it's rough, it's rough, and when it's good, it's good."
Woldt stayed with Ark for about two years and simultaneously began performing stand-up comedy. Ark's weekly performances became tiring, so he quit the troupe to pursue stand-up "hardcore." He began performing at the Comedy Club on State Street (then known as Funny Business) and at other open mics around the city. "At some point, I started doing pretty well more often than not," says Woldt. "Anybody that's going to comedy should know you're not going to be funny for like a couple years. It's rare that it's instant."
In March 2005, Kendra Frank started the Wisconsin Stand-up Comedy Project (or WISUC, and pronounced "we suck"). Woldt joined and has performed in every one of their 50 shows.
"The idea behind WISUC is to get comedians who are both experienced and non-experienced time and exposure, because the key to doing good comedy is going up there,' says Frank.
WISUC's 70 members perform all over the state, and for the past two years have put on the Madison's Funniest Comic Competition, which Woldt won in December 2006. The exposure helped him get more paid gigs, and he even got to perform his first headlining show in Winona, Minnesota.
Woldt's career is on the rise in the Midwest, but he doesn't know what to expect in New York's much larger and more competitive comedy scene.
Ed Herro, a friend of Woldt's (and onetime Isthmus sales rep) who has done what Woldt is about to do, offers a word of advice to him and any aspiring comedian: "Be friendly to everyone because you don't know who could help you... And also just write a lot. Everyone thinks they can just be funny. You have to write every day and get your stuff up there and bomb a lot.
"New York is really the only place you can go for comedy if you wanna be a good comedian," Herro continues. "It's a very hard complicated ladder to climb... Always a struggle."
Woldt's biggest fear is not making it. "Just going out there and giving it my all and not having anything happen and being back in Wisconsin, tail between my legs in a couple years... going back to fucking school at fucking 38, 40 years old for library science or something."