The most influential man in Minnesota comedy doesn't tell jokes, and he doesn't laugh much, either. But for 20 years, Louis Lee has been the driving force behind Acme Comedy Company, the Twin Cities' proving ground for fledgling comics and a hallowed stage for touring stars.
Five nights a week, this intimate 275-seat club echoes with laughter. Lee, 53, sits in the shadows near the back -- watching, evaluating.
On a recent Friday, L.A. comedian Louis Katz had the crowd by the collar.
"So all my friends are starting to get married," he said from the stage. "These are grown men, but all of a sudden they have to ask for permission to do stuff. And as soon as they get married they get these big ol' guts. That's not from drinking beer -- that's from swallowing pride."
The audience roared. Lee really likes Katz, he says, but you wouldn't have known it by the expression on his face. He might as well have been watching "Schindler's List."
After two decades in the business, Lee knows what makes other people laugh. In fact, Acme is regarded as one of the country's great comedy rooms. In 2008, Robin Williams spent three sold-out nights at the club trying out new material.
This week marks Acme's 20th anniversary. It's a milestone in the comedy business, which endured a bloody boom-and-bust period in the 1990s. To celebrate, Lee has booked an epic lineup that includes 20 of his favorite national headliners performing back-to-back over three days. Gathering this many touring comedians is an ambitious feat.
Still, he makes for an unlikely comedy overlord. Lee can't be more than 5 feet 5, but one comedian said, "He's kind of an imposing figure."
A Chinese guy walks into a comedy club
For most people in the business, humor has been a part of their lives since childhood. But not for Lee.
He grew up in Hong Kong, the fifth of eight siblings. His teenage years in the early 1970s were marked by a growing fear that Mao's Cultural Revolution might eventually threaten British-ruled Hong Kong.
"There were always news stories of people starving in the Mainland," Lee said.
Hong Kong wasn't exactly Disneyland, either. At 14, Lee needed a summer job so he went to work in a toy factory, assembling Tyco race cars for American children. "My parents wanted us to work for everything we got," he said.
In 1977, Lee's parents sent him to the United States to go to college. While at the University of Minnesota, he had a job as a busboy but worked his way up to being a manager at a Chinese restaurant on the 494 strip. It was an American girlfriend who introduced him to comedy -- a Dudley Riggs show. He could only understand half of what was said, but the jokes flowed like music, and he was hooked.
His first comedy club was a partnership with another comedy godfather, Scott Hansen. It ended poorly over a myriad of bad business decisions, and to this day the two do not speak.
Lee opened Acme in 1991. The first few years were brutal, with finances plummeting $250,000 into the red. The club stayed alive with loans from his siblings. He borrowed against his parents' retirement.
Over time, Lee found his footing with a popular weekly open mike that attracted raw talent and produced stars like Nick Swardson. Touring comedians, such as Louis C.K. and Lewis Black, found early success at Acme before becoming superstars. A few years ago, Frank Caliendo, who appears regularly on Fox's NFL coverage, told the Star Tribune: "Louis had a huge impact on my career. He is one of the people I call when I need to make tough decisions in the business."
Politics and big knives
Every other Thursday, Lee has beers at J.D. Hoyt's with an old friend, comedy booker Rich Miller. Miller, 56, is loud and funny (and Dennis Miller's brother). He lives here, but books clubs in Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas.
Lee and Miller make an unlikely pair. They met in 1994 when Miller moved here to book a rival club. Back then, business was cutthroat. Comedians were told they couldn't work one club if they worked at another. Lee and Miller ended that practice and became friends in the process. He's one of the few people comfortable with ribbing Lee.
"I'll tell you a story," Miller said. "One night a long time ago, I was working with Louis at a club. Big biker guy starts making a scene. I tell him he's not getting back inside. But I'm all talk and I don't have any backup. But then I turn around and Louis is just standing at the door with the biggest knife you've ever seen -- sharpening it. I almost busted a gut laughing. He has a gallows sense of humor."
Miller, a passionate liberal, often takes swipes at Lee's political views. For being a conservative, Lee has an interesting take on right-leaning comedians. He said the audience for that type of humor is small, and therefore not very profitable. Many clubs won't book GOP-friendly comics (but he does once in a while).
Lee's suggestion: "If you are conservative, stay in the closet."
Laughing (on the inside)
Lee's favorite comedian is Dana Gould, a master East Coast storyteller who's edgy without being over-the-top. He spent seven years writing for "The Simpsons." Miller says club owners shouldn't book acts based on their personal tastes alone, but Lee doesn't entirely agree with that. While he's not booking Dana Gould clones every week, he is a big believer in "writers" -- comics who are able to capture an audience through storytelling and character. Lee doesn't like gimmicks.
"It's too easy," he said. "I like substance over style."
That said, he rarely gives feedback. "Young comics are always told, 'Don't approach him, don't talk to him, he'll approach you,'" joked Acme veteran Amber Preston.
Lee isn't without his critics, though. Acme's calendar is rich in diversity, but missing is what people in the industry call "urban acts." Lee books plenty of black comedians, but says he isn't interested in the Katt Williams-style of oversexed, physical humor.
Lee said race is never a factor when booking acts. Still, he wasn't afraid to critique the state of Asian comedy. "Name one Asian comic who doesn't do an impression of their mom," Lee said. But he's taken an interest in Joe Wong, who brings a different viewpoint from that of most Asian-American comics (he's a recent immigrant from China). When Wong made his first Letterman appearance in 2009, he killed with this joke:
"I tried really hard to become a U.S. citizen. I had to take these American history lessons where they ask us questions like, 'Who's Benjamin Franklin?'"
Wong's answer: "The reason our convenience store gets robbed."
The joke continues: "They asked us, 'What's the Second Amendment?'"
Wong's answer: "The reason our convenience store gets robbed."
Lee likes the slyness of Wong's humor. Two weeks ago, he booked him for a week in February.
Digging for laughs
While he keeps his distance when it comes to young comedians (he doesn't want to show favoritism), Lee is almost fatherly to the comics who play Acme regularly. But he has reservations about his own children's interest in comedy. He has two, ages 8 and 11, with his ex-wife.
"My nightmare is that one of my kids will want to become a comic," Lee said. "It's like trying to become a pro athlete. Most of them don't make it."
Lee plays a large part in deciding the fate of new comedians. On a recent afternoon, he was sitting alone at a table inside Sticks, Acme's restaurant. The room was dark, except for the glow emanating from Lee's laptop. He's always getting video clips from agents hawking their latest client.
Lee was watching a video of a comedian who appeared on NBC's "Last Comic Standing" in 2010.
"I love that you can't just watch TV anymore these days," the comic said in the clip. "I love that I'm expected to have watched an entire TV series on DVD before someone will even talk to me as a human being at a party."
He followed the joke with a spot-on impression of George Bush. Lee leaned back, twiddling his thumbs. "Hmph," he said. He liked him. Still, he could barely muster a smile.
"That's the price I pay," he said. "It's like a drug dealer -- you don't do your own drugs. I've been doing this a long time, so I don't laugh anymore."
What happens when he slips up, and lets out a chuckle? He gets mad.
"That's my goddamn image," Lee said.
Hey, he just told a joke.