The Religious Experience of a Small Town Bar
Comedian Charlie Berens on what makes the Midwest worth joking about
This is the mid-week edition of Men Yell at Me, a newsletter about politics and culture in the Midwest. Two weeks ago, I wrote about gas station culture in middle America. And this week, I spoke with comedian and Wisconsonite, Charlie Berens about what makes this vast middle child of America so weird and wonderful. If you value this work, please subscribe to the newsletter.
When Charlie Berens tried to make a career in broadcast journalism, he was told to lose the accent—the Midwestern accent. Berens grew up one of 12 children in Wisconsin, New Berlin and Elm Grove, respectively, and attended UW Madison. His exaggerated “oh geez” and “cripes” is a staple of his comedy routine, which gently and not so gently mocks and celebrates what makes the Midwest so Midwesty.
But before the comedy, there was news. Berens worked for MTV during the 2008 election, was a reporter and host for a Dallas television station, where he won an Emmy, and worked as a host for entertainment and sports outlets in Los Angeles. But everywhere he went, he was told he was too Midwestern. He kept calling water fountains “bubblers,” and his vowels were too rounded for voice-over work.
Berens began making humorous internet videos mocking the things about him that others found to be a drawback—his Midwesterness. The videos were popular. In 2016, Berens made a video of him doing a voice-over for Jack Dawson in Titanic, reimagining Jack as Jack from the Chippewa Dawsons.
In 2017, he posted a video of a fake news show called the Manitowoc Minute, where he plays a newscaster who says “holy smokes” and tells Prairie Home Companion-ish jokes about the news.
It was a hit. And Berens made more. A lot more. The Manitowoc Minute spawned a stand-up tour and now a book, The Midwest Survival Guide: How We Talk, Love, Work, Drink, and Eat…Everything with Ranch, which was published last year.
But if Beren’s humor hones in on the bland wholesomeness of the Midwestern ethos, he also finds its edges. His stand-up comedy is a send up of this beautiful middle place of America where people will gladly share their snow blowers and their Covid with their neighbors. Where sometimes the niceness is nice and sometimes it's down right threatening. One of my favorite recent sketches of Berens likens the Midwestern goodbye to a hostage crisis.
Berens is on tour right now (and some shows still have tickets!). But he graciously took time to answer my questions about the Midwest and explain how bars are like churches and the secret Kwik Trip menu, and he even divulged a twist on a Wisconsin old-fashioned that could blow your mind. If you like, you can follow Charlie on Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Lyz Lenz: Okay, what does it mean to be a Midwesterner?
Charlie Berens: If you try to leave a party, and two hours later, you are still trying to say goodbye, that party is most likely hosted by a Midwesterner.
LL: What makes us do that? Is that passive aggressiveness? Is it an inability to be direct?
CB: You know, I think you could say it’s passive aggressive, but I like to look at it as just a deep-seated fear of purgatory. There’s a lot of the Catholic roots going on. I grew up Catholic, but there’s a big population of Catholics in Wisconsin. And that seeps into it. But I think generally speaking in the Midwest, what I think drives this whole sensibility is sort of the seasons. And we have spring, summer, fall, but mostly it’s just winter. And I think when you survive a Midwest winter, you’ve got that communal sense of, “Ah, geez Louise, again? Negative 20.” Kind of a “we’re all in this together” sense. So there’s that underlying sort of sensibility of help first, ask questions later. Knowing it’ll come around, but even if it don’t, helping is still the right thing to do.
LL: It’s a sensibility really connected to the land. Even if you’re not a farmer, and very few people are, it’s a connection to the elements and survival that I think is not present in other places where there are tall buildings and you can escape the wind chill, right?
CB: Yeah, a lot of Midwesteners just love the brutal winters. They love it in the sense that even in the winter, a lot of people will see a dead, despairing frozen lake, but a Midwesterner just sees that as a, “Yeah, you know, I bet you there’s some walleyes underneath that ice.” And they find them.
LL: I remember moving to Minnesota and thinking that people did more outdoor activities in the winter than they did in the summer. And that’s messed up.
CB: I think you just notice it more in the winter because when you’re outside in the summer, it’s like, “Well, of course.” But in the winter you’re like, “Why in the heck would you do that?” So in a lot of ways, it’s an improv game. And if you look at where improv started, really, it was in Chicago with the Second City. And a big part of improv is, is you say, “Yes,” and then, “And.” And what that is, is if somebody gives you a prompt, you don’t deny it. You just say, “How can I add to this?”
And I don’t think it’s a mistake that that sort of system developed in the Midwest because, it’s like, “Yes, it’s freezing out. Yes, it’s cold, and we’re going to go sit in a little hut and look for deers for the next eight hours.”
I mean, it’s the hand-warmer capital of the world for a reason. We don’t let the elements get in the way, and we find a lot of enjoyment in the “Yes,” to the situations God presents, and then we give it the “And.”
LL: I think of the Midwest as a place that doesn’t really insist on itself. New Yorkers cannot shut up about New York. Texans can’t shut up about Texas. So, it’s possible that we’re often misunderstood. So what do you think people just don’t really understand about the Midwest?
CB: Well, I think a lot of people see it as a bunch of flyover states. Largely white, just as homogenous as a Monsanto cornfield. But the truth of it is, there’s a lot of diversity in the Midwest. There are obviously the Indigenous people and cultures that are native to this land. You’ve got the largest population of Hmong immigrants in the Midwest, in Minneapolis. And if you look at the story, the Hmong people, how they fought with the U.S. side by side in the Vietnam war and then were promised asylum, and then that promise was sort of broken. But still Hmong people found their way here.
There is a chef, Chef Yia Vang out of Minneapolis. He’s got an amazing story about his dad leading their whole village after the war, after they were sort of left there, deserted. Leading their whole village down the mountain, through the river, and over to the refugee camp to safety, and then eventually find their way to the Midwest. And it’s just, there’s no better Midwest story than his.
But also, you’ve also got the Great Migration, where if you look at Chicago Blues, it’s rooted in Delta Blues. And the trains brought musicians up and from the Delta to Chicago, and that’s where you get the Chicago Blues. And without the Chicago Blues, there would be no Beatles, there’d be no Rolling Stones. And you look at Motown in Detroit. So there’s just that ton of diversity. I think it’s convenient for people to skip over that and say, “Oh, it’s just a bunch of white people doing redneck things on the ice or whatever.” But it’s a very interesting place, and I can go on and on about it.
LL: I probably should have asked this question in the first place. How do you define the term “Midwest”?
CB: Well, you can look at how Google defines it, and it’s a collection of 12 states. And, but within those 12 states, it’s very diverse, not just from a people perspective but from a geographical perspective. And it’s…I mean it’s Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota. I’m probably missing one in there, Wisconsin obviously, Minnesota. Anyway, you can look and see what all the states are on Google or whatever. But if you go to southern Ohio, it’s a much different place than say Minnesota; you’ll even have flares of the South in there. But I think what is consistent is sort of just that sensibility of putting your neighbor on equal footing as yourself. And that is the Midwest at its best. I’m not going to say that that’s everybody, that that happens all the time, but that’s certainly what we aspire to be.
But I think what is consistent is sort of just that sensibility of putting your neighbor on equal footing as yourself. And that is the Midwest at its best. I’m not going to say that that’s everybody, that that happens all the time, but that’s certainly what we aspire to be.
LL: Your comedy is a crystallization of Midwestern culture. Because to send something up to make fun of it, you have to really understand it and be able to communicate it in a way to diverse audiences. And so how did you stumble onto that niche?
CB: For me, my story is I was in the news business, and I went around the country, and I left the Midwest to do news. And it was while I was doing news that I was told at one place that I had too big of an accent to do voice-overs. I didn’t realize some Midwestern phrases weren’t common everywhere, like “bubbler” is an example of that. In Wisconsin, a bubbler, it’s the device you drink water outside, it’s not the device you use to smoke the devil lettuce. Phrases like “screwed the pooch,” “go ass over teakettle.” Or, “It’s a horse apiece.” I didn’t really realize those were Midwest phrases until I left it. So I decided then to leave the news, start doing comedy, and when you do comedy, the way you start off as just my listing facts about yourself and then using those as setups for punchlines.
So I started doing that with my sketches, and instead of doing what happened to me, which was take a news guy who is trying to listen to all these news directors, listen to what he was doing wrong and fix them, this character instead doubled down on them, and that was sort of the beginning of the Manitowoc Minute. And that found an audience very quickly. So then I started there and then expanded outward with different sort of sketches and all that sort of stuff. Reels, TikToks, all of that.
LL: But what is it about gas stations in the Midwest that are so special?
CB: Look, there are not a lot of communal meeting places in the Midwest. I mean, you have your bars, right. You have your churches. And then outside of that, you have your gas stations. And especially you look at Kwik Trip, that’s turned itself into a one-stop shop, and they got good food there, and they got good coffee there and the glazers and all that sort stuff. So it’s a place where people just pass through—people going on vacation, truckers, and the locals all kind of meet in one place.
In comedy, you’re looking for that sort of basis of recognition. And in a lot of ways, gas stations kind of offer that. So, it’s really a sort of a community thing. It’s where a bunch of people come together for a common purpose and that is just getting gas or getting cigarettes or getting food or whatever, or coffee. So anytime you create something like that, you create a communal experience for people.
LL: So Kwik Trip or Casey’s? I mean, you have to go with Kwik Trip. You got to go hometown.
CB: Well, yes. Because they are a singular experience. Better than a Citgo.
LL: Citgo doesn’t count.
CB: Yeah, no, they don’t count. They go too far around the country, so they don’t really take into consideration what people like. And so when you get that more regional emphasis, well then you know what people like. You’re listening to your audience more and you’re responding to your audience as opposed to doing sort of a blanket, “Good enough kind of thing.”
A Citgo is a generalized supply and demand across the country. It’s a one size fits all as opposed to a catered thing.
LL: What is your gas station order like? What’s your snack, your gas station snack?
CB: So if I’m going to a Kwik Trip, usually I’m getting the coffee. They got some good coffee. They got some rainforest-certified stuff, and I’m kind of a hippie, so I like that. If you can get coffee that doesn’t completely destroy the planet, that’s nice. And then, I’m a big Fig Newton guy, so I go after those suckers. And then some of the breakfast sandwiches they got there are pretty solid. And some Kwik Trips got a new smoothie machine, and I’ve got a little smoothie in there. It’s like a Brandy Alexander; it’s called the Berens Alexander.
So, what you got to do is, if you look back behind the cashier, they got some bottles of Korbel up there. So you get one of those Korbels, then you go out outside, and you just take a couple sips of your Bernes Alexander and you mix a little hooch in there, and you set for ice fishing then.
LL: That might actually make me want to go ice fishing. I just feel like a lot of Midwestern activities are just standing outside in the cold and drinking. And I like standing and drinking; it’s just the cold part that kind of gets me.
CB: Well, yeah. The thing about the drinking is, that’ll keep you warm on the inside. And if you get warm enough clothes, I mean, you can be sweating too. So you just got to know how to layer properly in the Midwest.
LL: This is like the Scandinavian thing, like in Iceland when they’re just like, there’s no such thing as too cold, you just have to have the right kind of a coat. But then you also realize, all they do is drink vodka, so…
CB: Yeah right. It’s a whole other story right there.
LL: When you leave, what is the thing that you missed most about the Midwest?
CB: I do think it’s the small town bar that I miss the most. Small town bars are like a Catholic church. In the sense that you can go there and some things are different, but you know the rituals of the service. You know that there’s always going to be Miller Light on tap. You’re going to have pickled eggs behind the bar somewhere. There’s going to be chips hanging on the wall. You’re going to have your pull tabs or whatever. The standards are pretty much the same. It’s an unspoken standard. And there’s nothing like a small town bar in the Midwest.
LL: I wrote a book about religion in the Midwest, and that was the thing I would do—go to the small town bar every time I stopped at a place. But I learned quickly, I had to have a different order. Because my normal fancy bar order plays differently when you go to a small town bar, right. So I had to just be like, “Miller.” That’s what I’d get every single time. Because if I was like, “Oh, can I get an old-fashioned?” I got treated differently.
CB: Oh geez. You were not in Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, they definitely know an old-fashioned.
LL: It’s a whole different genre of drink.
CB: Yeah, it’s got brandy and Sprite. But. I tend to go with the Jolly Good Sour Power instead of Sprite. But Sprite you can do. Yeah. You can go Sour Power or sweet. Sprite is more of a sweet situation.
LL: Oh, I don’t think I’ve had it the other way. Dang, okay.
CB: Oh, you got to try it. It’s good.
LL: So your standard bar order is?
CB: I like to do the Brandy old-fashioned to start off with, then I’m more going Leinenkugel’s.
Small town bars are like a Catholic church. In the sense that you can go there and some things are different, but you know the rituals of the service. You know that there’s always going to be Miller Light on tap. You’re going to have pickled eggs behind the bar somewhere. There’s going to be chips hanging on the wall. You’re going to have your pull tabs or whatever. The standards are pretty much the same.
Men Yell at Me is a newsletter where I write about the intersection of the personal and political. And yes, about yelling. I am an Iowan, author, journalist, and columnist. If you value what you read, consider subscribing to the free weekly emails or become a paying subscriber.