A Minnesotan Sense of Humor

Apply a “Daily Show” format to local news—you’ll get a Midwestern mashup that feels at turns Coen-brother quirky and out-and-out progressive.

Jonathan Gershberg and Minneapolis Councilman Abdi Warsame. Photo courtesy Minnesota Tonight.

We know there’s such a thing as British comedy, a long tradition of Jewish American joke tellers, and even a Bostonian sense of humor. But what of Minnesota?

Well, outside a suburban home in Red Lake Falls on a dry winter day, comedian Anna Larranaga sits on a bucolic front-yard swing across from writer Christopher Ingraham, whom she has seated on a stump, to ask him about his Washington Post article from 2015 naming Red Lake County the nation’s “worst place to live” for its bleak scenery and climate. Both engulfed in Cowichan sweaters, Larranaga eventually takes back the hotdish she gave Ingraham before the interview because, among other things, he hasn’t been to the State Fair, has never visited Austin (not Texas), and doesn’t even know what lutefisk tastes like. She keeps a wincing, holier-than-thou simmer throughout, a kind of passive-aggressive, fake-smiling, Midwest deadpan—like Monty Python’s ever-annoyed John Cleese dialing down his yelling 11 to a pursed 2.

This segment played during a February installment of Minnesota Tonight, a satirical revue filmed monthly for YouTube in front of a live audience in downtown Minneapolis. Like The Daily Show, it riffs on current events—only the focus is everything MN.

Earlier in the night, host Jonathan Gershberg hopped onto the Brave New Workshop’s Experimental Thinking Centre stage to launch season two’s second episode, smirking behind a lectern emblazoned with a wood cutout of the state. Tall, lean, pale, boyish, blonde, he cracked topical jokes—not about Trump’s latest tweets, but about coyotes in Columbia Heights. He exposed St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman’s press-bait run at Red Bull Crashed Ice as a bid for “coolest dad.” He brought up Ramsey Middle School’s move to pick a new namesake to replace Alexander Ramsey, a man famous for exiling thousands of Native Americans from Minnesota when he was governor. Soon, Gershberg suggested, the school might cheer on new football team the Crying Doves after democratically rebranding itself Prince Rogers Nelson Middle School—complete with an image of a cute, tearful mascot projected behind him.

Minnesota Tonight has prided itself on writing the state’s only area-specific comedy news show since 2015—what sets it apart from the 20 or so late-night programs on TV right now. A 25-year-old transplant from Connecticut, Gershberg cornered the local market for Tonight after graduating from Macalester College, where he co-founded the campus’s humor magazine. He noticed an opening for a distinctly Minnesotan show early on.

“The first week I was here, I saw two Minnesota state tattoos,” he says, giddy. “There’s such pride about, like, everything—from the State Fair food to loons to the outdoorsy culture, to the Twin Cities themselves.” The examples keep coming: “Like, I have a friend—her last name starts with a ‘P,’ and both her and her brother have ‘K’ names because their parents wanted their children to have the same initials as Kirby Puckett.”

“This is why the show exists,” says Sally Foster, the show’s producer. “It could only exist here.” People from Foster’s home state of New Hampshire refer to where they live as “the Boston metro area,” she says. Gershberg even introduced himself as from “the New York metro area.”

“If you try to do this in Connecticut, or on the East Coast, no one’s gonna give a [expletive],” he says. “But you do this here—people really care about making Minnesota a better place. People really care about what’s going on here.”

Minnesota goes deeper than frozen lakes and casserole dishes, and Minnesota Tonight knows that. It claims passive-aggressive white culture, as in the segment with Ingraham—but, appropriately enough, not without apologizing to that culture’s neighbors.

Each episode follows a theme, and this month’s looked into Minnesota’s legacy as a refuge for immigrants. Gershberg played off the difficulty of learning both English and Minnesotan English—how the phrase “That’s interesting” can mean both “Tell me more!” and “I don’t care.” The audience laughed, then Gershberg made his point: refugees need more resettlement assistance than the three months offered by the Department of Human Services.

It wasn’t just whiteness sympathizing with otherness, either. Gershberg pointed out from behind his lectern that the show “wouldn’t be possible without refugees,” noting that the show is “directed by the child of refugees from Somalia, hosted by the grandchild of a Jewish refugee from France, and the head writer for this very segment right now”—about resettlement—“is the child of refugees from Eritrea.” In sly Jon Stewart fashion, he closed with: “And nothing fills our families with joy like knowing that they escaped war and genocide so their offspring could spend most of their days doing Daily Show cosplay.”

Chris Rock’s 1996 joke, “The only black people in Minnesota are Prince and Kirby Puckett,” thankfully didn’t resonate.

The show’s funniest moment came in a blunt, not-so-MN-nice bit performed by that child of Eritrean refugees, head writer Aron Woldeslassie. His segment lampooned bills in the state legislature, two of which would ease access to handguns and let Minnesotans carry them in public. Another would open criteria for defensive gun use to individual discretion. Describing himself as a “fast-talking, sarcastic black man,” Woldeslassie humorously understated his alarm.

It’s the kind of informative, editorial satire Foster and Gershberg say they have always wanted to produce. “The other comedy show I was working on felt to me like it was more fluff, like it was comedy for comedy,” Foster says. “Minnesota Tonight feels like comedy with a purpose.”

Another segment, called “Personal Opinions with Anna,” featured Larranaga as a more vicious stereotype: the self-absorbed metropolitan white woman. Wearing a Republican-chic blue dress, she voiced indignation at highway protesters delaying her shopping excursion with the hashtag “#BlackFridayMatters.”

The show does lean left, but it’s not hard to see why.

Nearly the entire cast of 26 lives in the Twin Cities, a liberal hub. The oldest member is 30. Plus, Foster makes sure the show represents women and people of color. “As much as Jon is a cisgender white male, it’s really important to me that we don’t sound like a cisgender white male just talking at an audience,” Foster says. That means women get the floor at their Saturday writing sessions, and topics include human rights, such as the story of eight Cambodian American refugees in Minnesota facing deportation for crimes they committed in their youth (while Canadian-with-a-record Justin Bieber gets to stay). Gershberg’s motto for comedy applies here: to “punch up,” at those in power, “not down.”

Toward the end of the show, Gershberg sat across from Minneapolis councilman Abdi Warsame to ask him about immigration. Warsame described his path to America: from Somalia to London, then to Cedar-Riverside. His transition from Great Britain to Minnesota proved strangest; he had to get used to people saying, “Hi,” on the street for no reason.

Visiting London, Warsame said people noticed a change: “You sound like a yank!”

Gershberg shone most during this segment, engaging as genuinely as a good Midwestern boy while keeping the exchange quick and funny.

“So, does this mean I get to call you a yank now?” Gershberg asked his councilman. As if to try on the Midwest deadpan, Warsame leaned back without comment, letting tension build while Gershberg blushed, grinned, and stammered, “Or is that derogatory?” Warsame lowered his eyebrow and offered a real smile.

The cast of Minnesota Tonight next performs at Brave New Workshop’s Experimental Thinking Centre on March 22. Learn more at mntonight.com.

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