Funny thing - doing comedy can be fun

  • Updated: May 29, 2012 - 6:15 AM

Flashback to the '80s: It's been a good run for Susan Vass. The comedy clubs, Dudley Riggs, a stint on "Prairie Home Companion," a one-woman Guthrie show. Top of her game. Susan headed out to Morris to do a stand-up gig outdoors. The audience, as she puts it, has been "drinking since Thursday." Which Thursday, it doesn't matter. She starts with The Joke. It always works, and it should: It's good, honed over the months.

She's having a conversation with an old friend, who's 95, and depressed. Why? She's getting a divorce. At your age? Why now? "We wanted to wait until the children were dead," she says.

"It usually worked," Susan said. "This time the football players in the front row scooped out some ice from their beer coolers and threw it at my head."

She does corporate gigs now.

Susan Vass has been doing stand-up for three decades -- a long time in a business that's keen to find a new style, a new voice. She started in the golden age of Minnesota comedy, when nearly 17 percent of the population was standing up in front of a brick wall making observations about airline food, and she outlasted most.

Is there a Minnesota style of comedy? Aside from Ole and Lena jokes, that is.

"Nothing too mean. We don't like mean. Nothing too crude. Nothing angst-filled. Even though over my life I've had political opinions from one side to the other, nothing that's too divisive -- especially at corporate gigs, they just want to be amused. If you say anything that skirts on the edge of being not politically correct, they'll look around to see if there's anyone who could be offended. And then they'll laugh."

Has the hot-dish-Lutheran joke well gone dry? "Oh, yes. All those cliches, we don't hug, we're cold. So how do we have children?"

But something about this place shaped your humor. "We're all shaped by the topography, the culture. Desert people are different than mountain people, who I don't get -- they're pretty in a picture, but they're lacking in something I've become addicted to, which is oxygen. We have that here.

"I grew up in Alexandria, at a time when you could get on your bike and ride all day; your parents kicked you out at first light. You grew up modest, not spoiled, knowing the value of hard work. The climate keeps you from being a wimp, too."

A good work ethic helps when you're in demand. "One October I had 27 flights in 31 days. Living out of suitcases from one hotel to the other, and you get home and hit 2 on your phone and it's not room service?"

She's semi-retired now, but still does corporate work -- as well as spontaneous appearances in the produce aisle. "People hear me talk in the grocery store, and recognize me. It's the voice. I sound like Walter Mondale in drag." Semi-retired, because it's too much fun to give up:

"I have had the greatest job in the world for 30 years," she says. "I get applause both when I come to work, and when I leave."

JAMES LILEKS

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