Eighteen comedians walked into a room last week. Their goal? Crafting another funny episode of “Minnesota Tonight,” a live monthly comedy show that takes a satirical spin through state politics and news. They’ll offer their next installment on Wednesday evening at the Brave New Workshop.
Michael Weingartner, the show’s head of research, kicked off the meeting with an overview of Minnesota’s 2018 congressional races, highlighting the districts considered toss-ups. “This is more toss-ups than we’ve had before,” he said. “That will be important for us.”
Then the writing staff launched into a brainstorm, spurting out ideas for sketches and videos based on the upcoming midterm elections. One writer suggested running a bunch of fake candidates in competitive districts. Another proposed shooting a series of flashy video biographies.
“Each could be billed like a wrestler character,” said writer Emily Lindholm, “like they’re a ‘pile driver of economic policy.’ ”
“Minnesota Tonight” is one of the country’s only comedy shows focused entirely on satirizing news and politics at the local level. It’s clear that the show’s creators take their jokes — and their Minnesota subjects — extremely seriously. Once the laughter died down, the writers segued into more earnest discussion of why a segment on the midterms even matters.
“We’re tracking a nationwide trend about which way the country is going and whether Minnesota is turning purple,” offered writer Lauren Chesnut. “We bring in the national, but focus on what’s happening in Minnesota and what that says about the bigger picture.”
“Minnesota Tonight” got its start as an outgrowth of “Fringe Tonight,” a live comedy show hosted by Minneapolis comedian Jonathan Gershberg for the 2015 Minnesota Fringe Festival. With its lighthearted style and three-nights-a-week rotation, the Fringe show borrowed heavily from “The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
But Gershberg longed for a permanent show to tackle tough issues affecting his community, much like his comedy hero Jon Stewart did with “The Daily Show.” “As a Jewish guy named Jon, there’s a bit of a precedent,” he quipped.
Then it dawned on him: Minnesota lacked its own version of “The Daily Show” or even “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” Gershberg admires these satirical news programs because they “address the issues through comedy,” he said. “It can be a way for people to stay informed, stay engaged, and not feel put off by the prospect.”
He initially took to Facebook to recruit writers, comics and fellow news junkies to help him launch the show, one that filters Minnesota news through a satirical lens.
More than two years later, he hasn’t stopped collecting artists and other collaborators to help create “Minnesota Tonight.” The show premiered in October 2015 with a volunteer staff of just four. Now there are 30 volunteers behind the production, everyone from writers to comedians and researchers.
Every month the team produces 90 minutes of live content including monologues, musical guests, interviews with local luminaries, plus various video and live sketches. Recent topics included Great Lakes invasive species, Twin Cities police training and the whole debacle with Vikings quarterback Case Keenum saying “Duck, Duck, Goose” rather than “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck.” This week’s show promises a segment on Black History Month, another recapping the state’s recent caucuses and one that ventures into the contentious waters of the “Save Lake Calhoun” campaign.
On minds of Minnesotans
“With an increased staff, we now have the ability to satirize different news and issues from different perspectives,” Gershberg said.
“If it’s on the minds of Minnesotans, or it’s something we think should be on the minds of Minnesotans, that’s what we focus on.”
A larger writing staff also means more ears for testing jokes.
At the recent meeting, for example, writer Lizzie Gardner read through her parody of a news report on celebrity Super Bowl sightings, something she planned to deliver as “Chief Entertainment Correspondent Karen Dazzle.”
Tom Brady saying he’s “part Minnesotan,” she deadpanned, is better than “the juiciest of Lucys.”
Weingartner, the head of research, suggested trimming a few celebrities from the supercut Gardner had prepared. Because who was that beefy dude who mispronounced “Minneapolis” anyway?
The room erupted with laughter, with the rest of the “Minnesota Tonight” crew ridiculing Weingartner for not recognizing New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“Michael is out of the loop,” said Gershberg, smiling. “Got it.”
Christopher Shea is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.