Kulow and Morris evaluate each other's sets as fellow comedians, not romantic partners.
"The number-one rule of Atlas Improv is follow your fear," says local comedian Bryan Morris. "Go after that thing you are scared of."
For Morris and Stacey Kulow, following fear has led them into improv, standup comedy and acting. As Madison's comedic power couple, they've had to juggle overlapping careers in the arts with the stresses of a relationship. This November, they'll follow their fear as they move to New York City to take the next step in their careers.
Morris and Kulow met through Madison's Atlas Improv, where Morris was a troupe member and Kulow was taking lessons.
"I thought they were amazing from the first time I saw them," Kulow says. "Bryan was actually in that first show, though I didn't notice him at all."
Kulow became an Atlas member after winning the Cut, an improv competition structured like an elimination-style reality-TV show.
"They are both fun improvisers to share the stage with. Bryan is amazing at establishing...big, bold characters that he develops on the spot," says Ben Taylor, Atlas' business manager. "Stacey works at building the scene, being hilarious but still taking the time to build the scenario we are all playing in."
Eventually Morris and Kulow branched out into the local standup comedy scene, where both found success. Morris won the Madison's Funniest Comic award from the Comedy Club on State in 2012, and Kulow won it in 2014.
"Improv and standup may look pretty similar," Taylor says, "but they involve fairly different skill sets. It is impressive to watch Stacey and Bryan be so good at both."
When Morris and Kulow started getting standup gigs elsewhere in the Midwest, they realized they'd taken Madison's intelligent, attentive audiences for granted. They now tour together whenever possible. They usually don't bring up their relationship onstage, instead referring to a generic "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" when joking about their home life. They also evaluate each other's sets as fellow comedians, not romantic partners.
"That honest feedback is so important; it makes our next set better," Kulow says. "Our relationship is strong enough that Bryan can critique a joke and vice versa without either of us taking it personally."
Morris is also happy to have Kulow along as a friend to help pass the time before a show. While on the road, comedians often perform a whole weekend in the same town, and their work day usually doesn't begin until at least 6 p.m.
"When I'm in a city without Stacey, I just end up sitting in the hotel room and watching cable. But when she is with me, we go out and explore," Morris says.
While Morris and Kulow have enjoyed the shows they've done around the Midwest, they agree it's time to move since they're reaching the ceiling of what they can achieve locally.
"Ninety percent of comics who make it to that next level have to do it out of New York or Los Angeles," Morris says, "but it's so hard to leave Madison. Particularly Atlas and the supportive local standup community."
They decided to move to New York in part because a number of Atlas Improv alumni are there. Kulow also hopes they might get to do more acting there. They both starred in Long Distance, a short film that premiered at the 2013 Wisconsin Film Festival. This spring, they starred in an ad for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Kulow and Morris will say goodbye to Madison at the Comedy Club on State on Oct. 30 and 31, where Morris will headline and Kulow will open. Headlining the Comedy Club is an especially big deal. Comedians with major TV credits and large fan bases sometimes struggle to get booked there. For a local like Morris, landing that spot is virtually unheard of.
"If the weekend at the Comedy Club goes well, we'd love to come back and perform in Madison in a year," he says.
Adds Kulow: "Because then it will be like we are getting paid to come visit our families."