Eight months ago, Charlie Berens was barely a blip on the radar back in his home state of Wisconsin. Living in Los Angeles and trying to launch his career in comedy clubs, he’d slip into a character with an exaggerated version of the Wisconsin way of talking he grew up around.
He had been toying with the idea of springing that comical character into the wonderful world of YouTube with a series of weekly videos. They would be sort of a quick-hitting down-home local news report, hosted not by a suit-and-tied, accentless enunciating anchor type, but by a regular guy, talking about goofy, mostly small-town news.
About the time he was getting ready to start working on the video, Berens was performing in an L.A. comedy club and encountered a guy from Wisconsin. Specifically, from Manitowoc.
Hmmm, Manitowoc … and all of a sudden Berens had the appealingly alliterative title for his comedic video project: “Manitowoc Minute.”
He put out his first episode of “Manitowoc Minute” in June, and in short order he became a big hit — so big that he does a brisk business selling merchandise with catch phrases from his show and selling out shows on his first tour presenting his “Manitowoc Minute” character live.
His show Feb. 16 at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse is among the sell-outs.
In a recent phone conversation from L.A., Berens expressed a bit of surprise at how “Manitowoc Minute” has taken off.
“It blew my expectations out of the water,” he said, “because there were none. I wasn’t expecting it going past one episode, to be honest with you.”
It makes sense that Berens’ comedy would tap into a news format. He studied journalism and environmental geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and after graduating started down the path to a career in journalism, getting his first break as a junior when he was chosen as a correspondent for MTV’s “Choose or Lose” program during the 2008 campaign.
Soon after graduation he was hosting a show in Dallas called “Night Cap,” and while there he won a regional Emmy for an investigative report he did on an environmental issue, a topic that’s near and dear to him.
“What’s interesting to me is the choices we make as people regarding the planet,” he said. “A lot of them are horrible choices.”
The news has long been an inspiration for comedians. Where would Johnny Carson and all the late-night TV hosts who came after have been without headlines to riff on every day? “News is a great way to learn how to do comedy,” Berens said. “You have brand new setups every single day.”
“Manitowoc Minute” takes a rapid-fire look at news, using the quick-cut editing characteristic of YouTube’s myriad vloggers. Berens has done most of the video production himself and claims to not have great editing skills. But, he said, “I created a character where that could play into it.”
One of the most effective cuts Berens does involves a split-screen doubling of himself uttering a quip about something he has just reported, most often “Geez Louise” or “Oh my gosh!” He also transitions between bits with quick clips of him saying, almost as an admonishment to himself, “Keep ’er movin’.”
“It’s a good way to punch a joke,” Berens said of “keep ’er movin’,” which has become the biggest catchphrase from “Manitowoc Minute.” It’s on a lot of T-shirts, and he even made a recent visit to the capitol in Madison, where Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, helped him draft a bill to change the state’s motto from “Forward” to “Keep ’er movin’.”
Berens also lobbied for a change in the state flag to put beers in the hands of the figures depicted on the state flag and make one of them a woman instead of having two men, you know, out of fairness. He also proposed designating Big Jenga as the official state sport.
“Manitowoc Minute” catch-phrases caught on quickly, and the transition from the videos to T-shirts, hats, stickers, can koozies and bottle openers happened rapidly, too. “I’m big on listening to what the fans are saying. They were saying you should have shirts,” Berens said. “It really exists outside of me.”
Another big part of “Manitowoc Minute” is its big heart. From the start, Berens has made a point of including shout-outs to those serving in the military and raising money for causes special to him. His latest cause is Special Olympics, and he’ll be doing a Polar Plunge in the near future.
Berens might take occasional jabs at political extremists on “Manitowoc Minute,” but he said he’s really all about finding common comedic ground. “I think ‘Manitowoc Minute’ exists as something that unites people and focuses on bridge issues,” he said. “There’s so much that we all agree on. Once you see another person as more similar to you than more different, you can actually open up a dialogue and discussion. Rational people can see things going two ways.”
Even the most divisive part of the “Manitowoc Minute” — the signoff where he says, “As always, go Packers and (bleep) the Bears” — is done with such good-natured charm that even most Chicago Bears fans would have to chuckle.
Berens has live performances booked around Wisconsin into early May, and he’ll keep doing his weekly “Manitowoc Minute” segments each Monday. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s not yet a grind, and Berens is enjoying the ride.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I’ve just been really grateful that it has resonated with people.”