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Mary Mack is a quintessential Minnesota comedian. And she's not even from here -- she grew up in western Wisconsin.
"I grew up there because my dad didn't want to live where he couldn't take a leak outside," she told the audience at Acme Comedy Co. last Friday.
Her you betcha attitude means she's always apologetic, openly passive-aggressive and, above all, cheery.
Then there's the chipmunk voice. And the accent that sounds like it was stolen from the set of "Fargo."
She opened last week's show by saying, "This is my voice. I'm sorry." For good measure, she added: "Maybe you're thinking, 'She sounds like a 5-year-old ... and yet she has the body of a fourth-grader.'"
Mack, who says she's been 30 for a long time, has been a headlining comedian for five years, giving comedy clubs around the country a revealing look at Midwestern idiosyncrasies. With a trusty mandolin at her side, she calls herself a folk humorist. She's been a contestant on NBC's "Last Comic Standing," but discovered that Hollywood decisionmakers found her style too weird. Still, she has carved out a life in comedy that pays the bills, and Minnesota's comedy royalty sing her praises.
"She's an original character from the Midwest that seems to ring true," said Louie Anderson. "She'll be telling you a joke about one thing and then she'll break off into a song about minnows."
"You might mention your hands are dry and she'll pull out a special cream that is hypoallergenic and completely safe for the environment," he continued.
A year ago, Mack seemed destined for even bigger things, but then her momentum slammed to a stop. In June, her 70-year-old father died from heart disease. Mack was extremely close to her dad, a small-town mechanic. "I got my sense of humor from my dad," she said. "He was a great storyteller." Almost a year later, she has a tough time holding back tears when talking about him.
"It was really hard," she said last week. "I lost my motivation."
She quit booking shows for a time. When she would perform, her sets included less and less about her father, who was -- as with the rest of her family -- the bread and butter of her routine.
Drinking it raw
Nine months after her father's death, Mack is getting comfortable onstage again. Last week, she completed a five-day stand at Acme in Minneapolis.
I called her for an interview, and she asked, "Do you know how to work a sander?"
Mack has been fixing up an old northeast Minneapolis house she bought in 2009. One of her toilets has been sitting on the back porch for weeks.
When she likes something, she tends to fixate on it. The 1904 home is adorned with her thrift-store discoveries: old chairs, fleece blankets ("so I don't have to touch the hotel sheets when I travel") and original art she picked up for pennies at junk shops. "When I retire, I want to open a store called Other People's Art," she said.
Her latest obsession is sweetened condensed milk. "Once you try it, you'll never go back to crack," she said.
Mack is known as a clean comic, her language rarely rising above a PG-13 rating. This helps her get corporate stand-up gigs each month (which pay the bills). "I don't waste any time being dirty," Mack said. "It's not me, anyway."
Mack grew up near Webster, Wis., a few miles from the Minnesota border. Her mom still lives there, and her sister owns a bait shop. She said she doesn't see them much because "my family doesn't like to merge."
For Mack, comedy came after music. She is classically trained, with two degrees, one in conducting and another in clarinet. When her polka band didn't work out while in college in Nashville ("we were really bad so we talked a lot to stall, and people said they liked the talking better"), friends pushed her to try stand-up.
In 2003, she entered Acme's Funniest Person in the Twin Cities contest. It's where she met her boyfriend, Tim Harmston. He won first place. She got third. "I remember him telling me, 'You got robbed. You should have gotten second place,'" Mack said.
"That's a true story," Harmston told me.
Stepping into her world
When Louis Lee, the owner of Acme, first saw Mack, he said he thought the same thing everyone else does: "Is this an act?"
"For some people, it's hard to buy into her act," Lee said. "But eventually you are drawn into her world, and that's what I find is different about her than any other comic."
Asking for such a commitment, however, has proven to be a hurdle, he said. Mack's appearance on the sixth season of NBC's "Last Comic Standing" was short-lived. "She's more like a classical musician: You need to listen to the whole symphony to appreciate her," Lee said. "She's not like a pop song."
Mack, a prolific writer, keeps a thick binder stuffed with coffee-stained scribblings and typed stories.
The jokes she tells onstage often are culled from longer stories she spends hours imagining. In a reading last Sunday at the Turf Club in St. Paul, Mack imagined revered Minnesota bluesmen Charlie Parr and Spider John Koerner walking around the Mall of America, where "they get really excited to go into Pac-Sun because it has all this flannel, only to find out that it's a polyester-rayon blend. Then they torch the store."
Minnesota audiences love jokes about winter, hunting and hot dish. And Mack does plenty. But she seems more interested in probing our Midwestern psyche. Last week she told the Acme audience, "I've been doing a lot of shows in L.A. because I got sick of people appreciating me for what's on the inside."
Earlier this year, as she was pulling herself out of self-imposed isolation, Mack began auditioning for voice-over work, acting roles and TV writing. One of her first gigs was for a men's deodorant commercial: "I play a haggard suburban wife."
In the past year, Mack found solace in small conversations with veteran comedians like Louie Anderson. For years, much of Anderson's routine was based on his relationship with his late alcoholic father.
"The night my dad died, I performed," Anderson said by phone from Los Angeles. "In comedy, the idea is to make a cake out of all that tragedy. And Mary Mack makes a delicious, healthy cake. You don't always necessarily want to eat the healthy food, but she makes it taste good."
Mack said she spent much of the past nine months worrying. But she seems to be getting her groove back. At Acme last week, she slipped in a few jokes about her dad. She said she realizes that fans want to hear material about her family.
Mack paused to think about that notion, and then added: "My dad was a real character, so I can't not talk about him, right?"
Tom Horgen • 612-673-7909
• Follow Tom on Twitter: @tomhorgen