Milwaukee Comedy Festival returns, bigger than ever

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Matt Kemple in character as Jimbo.

What’s the funniest event in Milwaukee?

Most comedy aficionados would say that’s an easy question to answer: the Milwaukee Comedy Festival.

The success of this four-day celebration of laughs and the comedians who inspire them has been a long time coming. Festival founder Matt Kemple is marking his ninth year running the show. He says the last two years’ events remained slightly under the radar. But he senses that things are different this time around, with interest among performers and audiences skyrocketing.

“This year it feels like we’ve broken through,” he says.

Kemple appears to have found a formula that works. The festival is arranged into groups of shows, most with three different artists or groups performing. Each artist specializes in a different style of comedy, so a show might open with a stand-up comedian, who’s followed by a sketch comedy group and then an improv troupe.

Kemple says that juxtaposing comedic styles in that way has multiple benefits. On a practical level, comedy doesn’t lend itself to “binge watching,” so offering different styles in a tight 90-minute show keeps audiences engaged. It also allows people to see genres they might not think they’d enjoy.

“I want people to be exposed to all kinds of comedy,” he says. “Some people say they just don’t like stand-up, for example, but they’ll come to the festival and see a stand-up comedian that they love.”

About half of this year’s scheduled performers are from Milwaukee, but there’s also an impressive array of talent from further afield, from comedy centers as near as Chicago and as far flung as Los Angeles and Toronto.

Kemple says there are a few performers he’s especially elated to have attending this year. One is stand-up comic Rob Christensen, an up-and-coming artist who’s appeared on Comedy Central and NBC’s Last Comic Standing. He’ll perform Saturday at 8 p.m.

“It’s exciting to have someone on his level want to be in the festival,” Kemple says.

Kemple is also happy to present the Chicago improv troupe Three to Turn the Stool, a supergroup composed of improvisers Ed Ferman (who recently snagged a writing gig on an untitled sketch comedy show in production by NBC), Beth Melewski (former host of Cash Cab Chicago) and TJ Jagodowski (half of TJ & Dave, the acclaimed improv duo that recently announced plans to open their own theater within iO’s space).

One show that’s a little different from the rest is Sunday’s teen comedy showcase, featuring young performers from the Milwaukee area. It’s the only Sunday show this year, a decision made due to low Sunday attendance in years past. But the teen show has always drawn a packed house, and it provides a great way to close out the weekend.

New to the festival this year is an expansion in food and drink options. Partnerships with Great Lakes Distillery and Sprecher will provide the latter, while food trucks will offer dining options for patrons between shows.

The addition of food-and-beverage service shows the increasing scale of the festival as it closes in on its 10tth anniversary. Kemple says he and other organizers are considering adding more venues and recruiting bigger headliners in the future, but there are no specific plans yet.

Those decisions will be made in the weeks and months to come — after everyone has recovered from this year’s laughter.

On stage

The Milwaukee Comedy Festival runs Aug. 7 to 10 at Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. Shows are at 6 and 8 p.m. on Thursday; 8 and 10 p.m. on Friday; 6, 8 and 10 p.m. on Saturday; and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $20 at the door or $15 in advance. Go to

The Milwaukee Comedy Festival begins a day early this year — at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 6, with a kick-off party featuring three comedy groups with strong local ties: After School Special (former students of co-producer Patrick Schmitz), Crouch Comedy (a new sketch group) and The Goodnight Milwaukee Show (a mock-talk show starring Jake Kornely and Tyler Menz). Tickets are $10 on performance day and $8 in advance.

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