Improv-ing with age: ComedyCity celebrates 35 years
By William Kopp
ComedyCity, a beloved improv comedy troupe in the heart of De Pere, recently celebrated its 35th anniversary.
The comedy troupe was established in 1987 by Betty Butcher under the name ComedySportz at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Shortly after, the troupe found themselves moving further north to De Pere in search of a bigger venue, eventually finding themselves under their current name of ComedyCity and in their current location on 365 Main Ave. in early 2018.
Since moving to De Pere the troupe has seen many new faces, from its Creative Director Nick Wallander who has been around for 12 years, to its current theatre Co-Owner Chad Nehring who has been part of the troupe for 8 years.
“I started out as just an audience member coming to shows and thinking back to those times people said ‘hey, you’re kind of funny, you should do comedy,’” Wallander said. “So I waited and saw they had auditions, tried, did not make the cut. I came back six months later, tried and made the cut.”
Nehring found his experience to be quite similar as well.
“I came to a couple of shows and an audition came up and I went to that along with 10 or 12 other people that were there,” he said. “I’m not a theatre person, no background in that. I kind of did it on a lark and eight years later, you know, here I am, owning the venue portion of the operation. It’s kind of one of those the rest is history sort of things.”
New troupe members go through almost six months of training prior to being put in their first show, including Nehring and Wallander.
Most of the “players” as the troupe likes to call them, end up at ComedyCity with no formal theater experience — all ages, all walks of life, no experience required.
“Even Mike (Eserkain) who’s owned the ComedyCity troupe element since the early 2000s was never a theater guy,” Wallander said. “He was, I think, an English major. But he saw auditions when he was in college over at St. Norbert and came over and became part of ComedySports and he eventually transitioned into owning it. It wasn’t ever anything on his agenda. Some people just fall into this and they love it and they continue doing it.”
Wallander and Nehring are relative newbies to the troupe, where some members of the troupe have been around for 20 plus years. There’s 350 alumni that have been part of the troupe at one point or another, and so the two just consider themselves to be “current occupants” of the grand history of ComedyCity.
Major events of the distant past
COVID-19 has affected every single local business throughout the last few years. From some going out of business, to others going completely online and some even developing restrictions to keep things in-house.
The ComedyCity troupe found themselves enduring the pandemic as well.
They were hit with financial issues that were helped by various government agencies and their courteous landlord; they hosted online shows for those still seeking out their entertainment; and they struggled with the issue of staying relevant.
From the various streaming websites presented online to the multitude of movies and tv shows to watch in theaters or at home, there’s entertainment everywhere, at the push of a button, and that presents issues for live entertainment.
“The COVID-related lockdown and quarantines and stuff really allowed people to discover how much entertainment was at their fingertips,” Wallander said. “It took them a while to come back out of that routine and get them to trust live entertainment again. It’s crazy how much is out there. That’s a whole new element. I know we’ve gotten used to figuring out how to deal with that, but when literally any night people could just be like, ‘Do I want to put in the effort of going out right now when I could just get the brand new movie on my TV right now?’ It’s a process.”
The troupe offers a multitude of services, from their normal adult shows at night on weekends, family-friendly shows on Saturday evenings, private parties and even corporate workshops and improv training.
“We take the core elements of our elders and incorporate them,” Nehring said, talking about their corporate improv training. “Sometimes people will be like ‘Oh, you’re going to make me try to be funny.’ No, but what we’re going to do is use some of the things that we’ve learned here and take that back and apply that in your workplace so you can understand how to listen better, communicate better and work with people a little better.”
The troupe and its members look forward to the future with plenty of hopes and goals.
“I think our primary goal right now is just to continue to get more people in the theater scene, our shows or even just supporting local theater and arts in general,” Wallander said. “I think first and foremost is getting people here who maybe haven’t been here in 20 years and need to get reacquainted, or getting people here who just haven’t been here before.”
Nehring also added, “We’re a small part of what is really a large arts community around the Green Bay Metro. But, what we really want is for people to dip their toes into the water a little bit if you will, and get up here in the venue. It’s one of the newest buildings on the block and we’re 100+ years old.”
While this remains their main goal, the troupe seeks a further goal that isn’t so easily tracked.
“We want to give the people who show up the most unique experience that they’ve had at a live performance,” Wallander remarked. “They decided to show up so we appreciate that — we want to make them feel appreciated. We want them to become part of the show with their suggestions, but we also want them to feel like they may never have seen something like this if they didn’t show up.”
The current venue seats 70 — with a bar for guests over 21 — and the shape is more conducive to a theater environment than their previous venues.
The troupe provides new and exciting feature shows as the ideas come, from their newest idea of Hallmark Christmas movies, to creating fictional stories lasting 80 minutes to musical comedies.
As Nehring puts it, “It’s like a new little bottle of magic that comes out every show. It gets opened and distributed and then it gets bottled back up and a new bottle starts the next show.”
For those interested in seeing shows and experiencing that magic, you can visit their website for tickets at comedycity.net.