On Wisconsin: The Funniest People and Pop Culture in the State
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Welcome back to 50 States of Funny, where we take a census of the funniest people, places, and things from each of our 50 states. Is your state next? You’ve got a one in 48 chance. In the meantime, travel with us to Wisconsin, land of beer, bratwurst, and belly laughs.
Wisconsin Funny People
Favorite son and Marquette alum Chris Farley learned his comedy chops at Madison’s Ark Improv (a training ground that was a one-time home to Joan Cusack and Bonnie Hunt). Then it was off to Chicago, finding stardom at Second City and eventually Saturday Night Live.
The Tommy Boy star was Wisconsin personified, the big-hearted storyteller at the rail who tragically couldn't stop with the Leinenkugels. Matt Foley is probably his most celebrated SNL character, but we’re partial to his portrayal of Chris Farley, the charmingly inept interviewer of mega-celebrities like Paul McCartney. That was awesome.
Gene Wilder grew up in Milwaukee before studying theater in New York under fellow Wisconsinite and teaching legend Uta Hagen. (Could there be a more Wisconsin name than Uta?)
Was Gene Wilder the most successful movie-comedy actor of the 1970s? Let’s see -- he’s the lead clown in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. And he memorably paired with Richard Pryor in Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. If you want to call Willie Wonka a comedy character, we’ll put our nightmares aside and add Wonka to the resume. Wilder’s only competition is probably Pryor himself.
The Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams, along with their friend Dick Chudnow, created the Kentucky Fried Theater while students at UW-Madison. (Chudnow and other Wisco comics would go on to launch ComedySportz improv venues across the country.) The goofy sketches they performed at the student union formed the basis for their first flick, Kentucky Fried Movie.
From there, it was on to Airplane (a candidate for the funniest movie of all time), Top Secret, and the Naked Gun flicks. But perhaps the comedy trio’s greatest masterwork is the series of commercials it created for the Wisconsin Tourism Board.
Comedy creator Dan Harmon got his professional start performing in Milwaukee’s ComedySportz. The principles he learned as a competitive improviser are the ones that shaped his TV comedy: “Don't stand around asking each other questions, make something happen, speak in declarative sentences, endow the world around you with attributes. Somebody says you're a zebra, now you're a zebra. That is exactly what you do in the writers' room.”
It’s also exactly what you do in a Wisconsin bar.
From its beginnings as a free weekly newspaper, The Onion became one of the forefathers of Internet comedy when it launched theonion.com in 1996.
Satirical news was created in Madison from 1998 until The Onion moved to New York City in the early 2000s, just in time for 9/11. Welcome to the big city, kids.
Wisconsin Funny People Honorable Mention: Liberace
Wisconsin Comedy Movies
4. Baseketball - The South Park guys tried live-action comedy based on a game that David Zucker (see ZAZ, above) used to play in his driveway. Our heroes’ team is based in Milwaukee where beer-bellied athletes are up for just about anything.
3. Dogma - What happens when fallen angels are punished for insubordination? They get banished to Wisconsin. But the real hell on Earth is running into Jay and Silent Bob.
2. The Great Outdoors - A comedy about a summer vacation in the woods of Wisconsin starring two Canadian comedy icons, John Candy and Dan Ackroyd. Let’s face it, Wisconsin is basically Canada South anyway.
1. American Movie The (unintentionally?) funniest documentary of all time. American Movie follows the adventures of Milwaukee wannabe-filmmakers as they attempt to make Coven, a horror movie whose name they continually mispronounce. The documentary’s stars, Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, became Letterman favorites.
Honorable mention: While Waynes World is set in Aurora, Illinois, they take a trip to Wisconsin and get a lecture on Milwaukee history from Alice Cooper. Party on.
Funny Wisconsin TV Shows
The three most notable Wisconsin sitcoms share something in common: Nostalgia.
Happy Days was a 1970s show set in 1950s Milwaukee -- along with Grease and American Graffiti, it rode a wave of schmaltzy reminiscing to the top of the ratings. In the real world, Fonzie would have stolen Richie’s hubcaps before popping him with his zip gun.
Laverne and Shirley told the story of two Milwaukee gals reduced to automatons who manually tapped metal caps onto bottles of beer. The show ended when Laverne lost a hand to a malfunctioning assembly line.
That’s 70s Show - Hey, let’s make a show set twenty years in the past that takes place in Milwaukee! Hell, it worked for Happy Days. And damned if they’re not going to try it again with That 90s Show. Yes, it’s set in Wisconsin.
Funniest Wisconsin Prank
In 1979, two University of Wisconsin-Madison students ran a joke campaign making fun of stupid student elections. One of their campaign promises was to bring the Statue of Liberty to Wisconsin. With a platform like that, of course they won.
And they kept their promise, constructing an elaborate statue out of wood and paper mache and planting it on frozen Lake Mendota.
Funniest Wisconsin Tourist Attraction
Top Image: Paramount Pictures