On stage at the Joke Joint, Mark Knutson talks about recent changes to the familiar blue and white handicapped logo. "They decided they want to make it look more active," he said.
"Here's the old logo," he said, sitting up in his wheelchair, his profile to the crowd.
"And here's the new one," he said, leaning forward about two inches.
The bit gets good laughs for Knutson, of Jordan, who just started working as a Realtor (a "wheel estate agent," he joked) and said he often uses humor to put people at ease.
"With my disability, it's a really good way to break the ice with people," he said.
Knutson started doing stand up this past spring, and he is one of a crowd of comics who gather regularly for Open Mic Night in the cozy comedy room in Lilydale. The location was formerly Diamond Jim's Supper Club, a semiprivate club where scantily clad ladies used to swing high above the tables on velvet-roped swings.
"If you weren't paying attention, she would shoot a garter at you," said Joke Joint owner Ken Reed, pointing up past balcony rails festooned with garlands, bows and holiday lights. In 2007, Reed and his wife started running a comedy room at the Ramada Mall of America Hotel in Bloomington, and in 2010, they moved to the current location.
The club advertises its open mic night as featuring "some of the best and brightest comics (and some train wrecks)," and on a stage flanked by huge portraits — likely of Diamond Jim and Lillian Russell, said Reed — in ornate frames, a whir of standups running through five-minute bits take to the stage on Wednesday nights.
Before the open mic, comics try out jokes during a workshop. Participants, mostly comics who have filtered in early for the open mic, yell out ideas for "tags" (kind of like an additional punch line) and when people bomb, they let each other know.
"Comics tend to be harsh critics," said comedian Laura Thorne, who works as a speech therapist by day. "You're bringing stuff that isn't worked out yet, so you're going to get a lot of honest feedback."
"What he [Reed] does with the workshop is really cool and unique," said Jun Sung of Minneapolis, a recent transplant from Chicago who performs around town several nights a week.
Wednesday nights attract newbies as well as seasoned performers, and touring comics performing at other clubs sometimes stop by.
Though the club helped launch notable comic Rob Delaney, Reed said, "I don't deal in celebrity very well. We say we're the funniest people you've never heard of."
Dan Schlissel, who operates Stand Up Records and has recorded headliners such as Marc Maron and Lewis Black, likes to come check out the talent. "It's good to see who's doing what," he said, "just to get a gauge of where people's heads are at."
It's a great training ground, said Schlissel, who said there is really only one strategy for success for comics: "Write. Get on stage. Repeat. This is the kind of thing where you need to do Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours." Schlissel said he doesn't even consider recording comics until they've performed for seven or eight years.
"I have a special place in my heart for the Joke Joint," said Jeff Pfoser of St. Paul, a creative director at an ad agency in St. Paul, who has been doing stand up for three years. He said it was "the first stage I ever jumped on. It was the most terrifying experience of my life," he said. "To stand up in front of a roomful of strangers and try to make them laugh. Who would do that to themselves?"
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.