The makeshift stage is surrounded by board games, paintable figurines and collectibles. “Settlers of Catan” is stacked at stage left, “Star Wars” collectibles fill the shelves at stage right.
Boy Kisses Comedy is on, and roars of laughter fill the small Uptown Minneapolis storefront.
“Watch out baby boomers, millennials are coming, and we’re uninformed,“ co-host Drew Janda told the crowd at a recent show.
Part stand-up, part sketch comedy and part oddball performance art, the weekly Sunday showcase in Universe Games has built a cult following since it was created 1½ years ago by two Twin Cities comics, Turner Barrowman and Collin Klug, who had struggled to get stage time at established clubs.
“We noticed a gap in our scene,” said Klug, 24.
Boy Kisses is truly DIY, with a slapdash stage and a painter’s canvas covered in smooch marks for a backdrop. Each week has a theme, like “Pokemon,” “La Croix,” “Paint Class” and “Bad Yogurt,” which has devolved into beer-bonging, live barbering, prom dancing and smoothie making.
“It’s easy when you start stand-up to think that that’s the only way to do comedy,” said Barrowman, 25. “But that’s not the only comedy we like.”
Comedy in Minneapolis is a serious, competitive craft, comedians and club managers say. There’s a fierce battle to get stage time at the premier comedy clubs.
On open-mic nights, “we have people show up, not guaranteed to get on stage, wait hours and not even get up for 5 minutes,” said Tevin Pittman, general manager at Rick Bronson’s House of Comedy at the Mall of America.
At Acme Comedy Co. in Minneapolis, 60 to 70 people typically sign up for open mics, manager Derick Johnson said. But only a third of them see stage time.
So while Barrowman and Klug continued to do stand-up at more “open” open mics several nights a week, they concocted a plan to start their own alternative show. Walking down Lake Street in Uptown, the two found just the place: Universe Games.
And Universe Games was glad to have them.
“We want this space to feel more inclusive than other local gaming stores,” said co-owner Nathan Bier. “A lot of stores have a clubhouse feel — if you’re not ‘in,’ you kind of feel out of place.”
So the owners opened up to Boy Kisses, free of charge, Bier said. They do pocket part of the donations, but only to cover hourly pay to keep the store open on Sunday nights.
“Seventy-five percent of what Boy Kisses is, is that space,” Barrowman said. “We’ve done some weird [crap] in there and they’ve been super-cool with us.”
Crap like the seltzer chug that left Barrowman sick and the barbershop theme that left him bald have created a following for the small show.
“The smoothie show was quite memorable,” Bier said. “There was a lot of cleanup afterward.”
The first 20 Boy Kisses shows didn’t draw much of a crowd, Barrowman and Klug said. For a while, it was a competition to see how many co-workers and friends they could bring out on a Sunday night.
Then the show began attracting followers. Word spread of their antics and their online sketches got plays.
The two creators added two hosts (Janda, who is 28, and Robert Fones, 27) and a revolving cast of five local comedians. They also invited some better-known comics to perform, all for free.
As the cast grew, so did the audience. On many Sunday nights it’s standing room only as the crowd fills the 50 or so chairs set up in the storefront.
It’s better together
Groups like Boy Kisses represent an evolution from the old way of doing things, comedians and club managers say.
In the past there was one road to the comedic top: a slow, solo progression that began with years of hometown open-mics, then standups at bigger venues, maybe a road trip with a big-name comic. Then finally would come a trip to one of the coasts, where a spot on TV and a comfy TV writing gig might await.
Nowadays, though, the comedy scene “is moving toward shows driven by comedians” instead of solo standup acts, said Bob Edwards, manager of Comedy Corner Underground, a club on Minneapolis’ West Bank that started from a similar appetite for stage time.
In the past year, two similar comedy groups have gotten shows on TV. The Grawlix, an ensemble from Denver, have truTv’s “Those Who Can’t” and the Katydids of Chicago have “Teachers” on TV Land.
“It seems now that you have a better chance of getting off the ground by attaching yourself to a show rather than working it by yourself, ” said Boy Kisses co-host Janda.
So along with the immediate gratification of performing with friends, there may be the delayed gratification of a possible future in entertainment.
In the meantime, the hosts and cast haven’t made any money from their work. They all support themselves by other means — most have service jobs, like waiting tables — and continue to perform stand-up while coming together each week to write for the show and film videos.
“It’s honestly the favorite part of my week,” Barrowman said.
Barry Lytton is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.