There's a telling scene in the Jerry Seinfeld-produced documentary "Comedian" that sums up the mental state of your average professional funnyman. Orny Adams, a young comic, has just landed his first major gig. Stardom awaits. He calls everyone he knows. He plops down on the sidewalk and looks up at the night sky.
"I am so unhappy," he says.
In a medium that drove Chris Farley into an early grave from his persistent attempts to overcome low self-esteem, it seems like a valid theory: You have to be miserable to be a comedian.
Scott Hansen, who performed last weekend at Izatys, east of Onamia, and who will return there to host the first round of the Twin Cities Laff-Off today through Sunday, told me there's some truth to the notion.
"Your average comedian isn't going to be a quarterback or a head cheerleader," he said. "It's someone who's had good and bad experiences. Some comedians make money, but it doesn't mean we're happy."
Hansen discovered the defense mechanism of comedy at age 6, when he told his first joke. As a student at Grace High School in Fridley in the 1970s, the heavyset Hansen always got to the fat joke before someone else could. He developed a following.
Fred Main (left), Ronda Main, Beverly Graf and Lynn Ross enjoyed being the butts of Scott Hansen's jokes during his Friday performance. When Hansen found out Fred Main was a builder from Wahkon, he said, "Get started!"
"My friend and I would go into the typing room and just start typing jokes and stories for the high school paper," Hansen said. "Pretty soon they wanted a new one every month."
Today, Hansen contradicts the image of the miserable comedian. In person, he's quick-witted and amiable, happily married with three children. The only difference between Off-Stage Scott and On-Stage Scott is that he doesn't make fun of the journalist he's conversing with (which I'm thankful for). The people at the front table at Izatys on Friday didn't get off so easily, as Hansen spent half his show poking fun at them. He told me he's been offered as much as $100 by audience members to make fun of a colleague.
"You're from Wahkon and you're a builder?" he said incredulously to a man at the front table. "Get started!"
Stand-up comedy, at first glance, seems simple enough: Climb on a stage and tell a few jokes. Heck, your friends always tell you you're funny, so how hard can it be? Well, Hansen's been doing comedy for more than two decades, and he's won the Twin Cities Comedian of the Year trophy five times, and he still finds himself performing shows to unresponsive audiences on occasion, particularly at business functions.
He had no such problems Friday, as people happily threw down $10 and got their money's worth. Dennis Anton, an asphalt and concrete worker from St. Paul, opened the show with a raunchy set of jokes, not a single one of which can be reprinted in a family newspaper.
When Hansen took a break from making fun of the guy from Wahkon, he hit home runs with his wry observational humor about baseball players hawking Viagra, "hotdish" being a meaningless word in 49 states and people who think tacking a vowel onto an English word makes it Spanish.
Dennis Anton, an asphalt worker in St. Paul by day and a comedian by night, opened the show for Scott Hansen Friday at Izatys. (Dispatch Photo by Steve Kohls)
He outlined the difference between North Dakota and South Dakota. Describing the landscape of North Dakota: "Whoosh." And South Dakota: "Whoosh ... presidents ... whoosh."
Hansen's laid-back demeanor belies his work ethic. He runs the Comedy Gallery in Minneapolis and books many other clubs. Many comedians are continually driven to succeed, even if they've already starred in a beloved, ground-breaking sitcom for a decade.
"Seinfeld's drive for success probably stems from him not being the most popular growing up," Hansen said. "I see guys going up there hundreds of times with no laughter. Deep down they need acceptance and success, and it's instant gratification when it works. It's something they NEED to do."
Hansen chatted backstage with his longtime friend Jay Leno when Leno played Grand Casino Mille Lacs in May. Hansen said Leno does 150 show per year outside of "The Tonight Show." A typical day on "The Tonight Show" set finds Leno arriving at 8 a.m. and planning all day before taping the show at 6 p.m. After the taping concludes, the writers meet at Leno's house to plan the next night's monologue.
"His wife, Mavis, said, 'Jay, you're doing OK, maybe it's time to slow it down a bit,'" Hansen said. "Jay said, 'I'm making it while I can.' We don't know when it's gonna end, and it took so much work to get to this point, so we keep working."
Whatever the theory -- depressing winter weather, depressing football team -- Minnesota has produced a lot of famous comedians, from pained Louie Anderson to political-oriented Jeff Cesario (the head writer for "Dennis Miller Live") to straight man Joel Hodgson ("Mystery Science Theater 3000"). Iowan Tom Arnold ("The Best Damn Sports Show Period") also got his start in the Twin Cities.
Comedy clubs in the Brainerd lakes area
Where: Izatys, east of Onamia
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays
Where: Ernies on Gull Lake
When: 10 p.m.-midnight Sundays
The Brainerd lakes area is starting to discover the joys of laughter as well. Izatys has comedy Thursdays through Sundays in the summer, and plans to continue with comedy two nights a week in the off-season. Ernie's on Gull Lake is a hidden gem for comedy buffs, presenting three visiting comedians 10 p.m. to midnight Sundays.
Now that his kids are grown up, Hansen is tentatively mulling the idea of moving to Los Angeles. He once had a small part in a TV show as a policeman, and he was immediately offered two additional roles ... as a policeman.
"There aren't a lot of geniuses in Hollywood," Hansen said, citing the glut of pre-packaged sitcoms where the star simply plays themselves ("Seinfeld," "Roseanne," "Raymond," "Bernie Mac," etc.), or at least their image.
"The comedians are basically acting," Hansen said. "A lot of them are character comedians."
Hansen admits that his stage act is a bit of an act as well. Sure, he's a funny guy off-stage, but don't ask him to do a bit.
"People come up to me and say, 'You're a comedian. Tell us a joke.' I say, 'Sorry, I punched out.'"
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