He Who Laughs, Lasts

In 1958, a former circus entertainer arrived in Minneapolis, opened a coffee shop on University Avenue, and began doing comedy shows. Fifty years later, after countless gags, gaffes, and guffaws, the Brave New Workshop is still going strong—and the influence of funnyman Dudley Riggs can be seen in shows and schtick across the country.

The notion of home was a foreign one to young Dudley Riggs. Born in Arkansas, he grew up in a circus family and spent most of his childhood on the road. He performed as an aerialist and entertainer and, early on, discovered that he could charm unruly crowds with off-the-cuff comedy routines. His talents led him, in his early twenties, to team with a couple of coworkers to create the Instant Theatre Company, an improv group that toured throughout the country in mid-’50s.

Eventually, weary of traveling, Riggs decided to enroll at the University of Minnesota and in 1958, the budding entrepreneur saw an opportunity to give a permanent home to his fledgling theater. He rented a northeast Minneapolis space that he turned into a coffee shop, bakery, and small theater. On weekends, Riggs booked performers to play music, read poetry, and perform sketches. Its beginnings were not particularly auspicious—Riggs struggled to find a steady group of performers, and while he was onstage, chatting with the audience, he occasionally had to interrupt himself to ask another performer to take bread out of the oven. He didn’t always think there would be a next show.
But over the course of several years, Riggs’s theater found its footing with political satire. Fifty years later, Riggs’s venture, now known as the Brave New Workshop, has become the longest-running satirical comedy theater in the country.

Here, cast members from every era share the stories from the theater’s tumultuous history—on- and off-stage.

Dudley Riggs: When I arrived in Minneapolis, I started looking around asking, “What’s in this city? What would I like to have if I were here?” In 1958, you couldn’t buy espresso anywhere in town. You couldn’t buy good bread. So I opened this little shop on University Avenue where I started making bread and selling espresso. I had the idea of making it a home for the Instant Theatre.

Riggs rounded up a half-dozen people—people he knew from his circus days as well as a few folks he’d recruited locally—whom he could count on to help out every week. Some volunteered their time and others shared in receipts from the door.

Dudley Riggs: We were trying a number of different things like poetry readings and jazz. It wasn’t just theater. At first, our audience was mostly university people—professors and graduate students—but then we started seeing high-school students. It was a brave thing for them to do, because it wasn’t something we’d created for underage people.

In 1961, the show took on a new moniker: Brave New Workshop. The name was a nod to the Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World, a book that satirizes the idea of universal happiness. By then, the show had developed a regular schedule, focusing on improvisation and political satire. Riggs himself took part in the shows, spinning commentary on newspaper headlines—a predecessor to Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update.” Finally confident the show was on solid ground and capable of sustaining itself, he began paying actors a few dollars for each show.

Mike McManus, actor and writer (BNW company member, 1965–1967, 1971–1975): Tom [Sherohman] and I started to go and see shows when we were in high school. One night, we said, I wonder how you get in? We went to talk to Dudley, and he asked us to come backstage and read for him. He asked if we could be in the next show.

Tom Sherohman, writer, Mr. Magoo (BNW company member, 1965–1969): We were all young—18, 20. We were doing nine shows a week for $35. We were here all the time. By the middle of the third show on Saturday, we were tired. But even then it was fun.

Dudley Riggs: I was quite fanatical about maintaining the same kind of schedule that I had in the circus. You have regular performances and do them whether there’s an audience or not. As a result, we worked 52 weeks a year. Sometimes there were very large audiences, sometimes there were half a dozen people.

Sue Scott, radio actor, A Prairie Home Companion (BNW company member, 1983–1984): One year, on the night before Christmas Eve, it was 30 below zero, and three people showed up. They were loaded out of their minds. We wanted to give rain checks, but they insisted we do the show. Backstage, we were saying: “Can you believe this?” But we also knew that Dudley would never let us cancel. Just like the circus, the show must go on. So we zipped through the first act in 30 minutes, when it would usually take 45. And after intermission, when we went to start the second act, they were all asleep. But we kept doing the show, because if they woke up, we didn’t want them to complain. It was unbelievable, doing a show for three people who were passed out.

Pat Proft, writer, Naked Gun, Police Academy (BNW company member, 1965–1969): Shades of Blue was one of our better shows. It was very fast, and a lot of it had to do with sex, which was so titillating back then. In one sketch, I was Rudolpho, the world’s greatest lover. I would “kiss” one of the cast members, Ruth Williams, with my back to the audience. While I was doing that, I was blowing up a beach ball that was in her dress so it looked like she was pregnant at the end of the scene.

Mike McManus: The workshop was the greatest thing to do for a person our age wanting to be in the business.

The theater ran on a shoestring budget in the early days. In addition to their writing and performing work, cast members had to contend with frequent changes of venue—and they sometimes found they were recruited for other tasks as well, from helping make bread to building sets.

Dudley Riggs: We started out on University Avenue, then moved to East Hennepin before we got to where the theater is today. We kept finding locations that were right in the path of urban renewal.

Pat Proft: The last time, we didn’t know we moved. We pulled up to the East Hennepin place and there was a sign that said, “We have moved.” We thought it was a joke.

Tom Sherohman: It was always something. One time, after we’d gone out to the Lincoln Del after a show, Dudley was giving me a ride home. It was raining hard, and we stopped by the theater. When we came inside, water was pouring down from the ceiling. I went with him up on the roof—in the pouring rain—and we covered the hole with something he’d found in the basement. The next day, Dudley got up on the roof with some hot tar to patch the leak.

Dudley Riggs: In the circus, they call it “doubling in brass”—you do your act, but then you also pick up the trumpet. It was the way we did things when we didn’t have any other resources.

The sketches—full of quirky and often sharp-edged political satire—sought to push boundaries, including those of Riggs himself.

Tom Sherohman: There was a blackout that [Jimmy] Hudson did where he would hold a toilet seat with the cover closed in front of his head and then lift the flap open and say, “J. Edgar Hoover here for Barroom toilet seats. Barroom toilet seats are anti-communist toilet seats!”

Pat Proft: Dudley thought it was appalling.

Dudley Riggs: When a couple of actors in the company kept thinking of new ways to use the toilet seat, I started playing a little game of hide the prop.

Tom Sherohman: Dudley wouldn’t just say, “Don’t do it.” Instead, he hid the toilet seat and didn’t say anything to Hudson. Hudson started coming earlier and earlier every show to look for the toilet seat. It got to the point where he was coming in an hour and a half before the show so he could find the seat.

Mike McManus: Dudley might not have liked everything we did, but one of the only things we weren’t allowed to do was blue material. No swearing on stage. You had to find other ways of doing things. You had to be a little more clever at things. You learned to dig a little deeper to find laughs.

Dudley Riggs: One night, we were sitting around after the show with a few members of the St. Paul Jaycees. They were saying, “Hey, you guys are funny, but what’s really funny is the Miss St. Paul Contest.” At that time, the Miss St. Paul contest had no auditions. It just seemed like a reason to allow people to get into long dresses. Later, we had one of our actresses, Ruth Williams, sign up for it.

Williams was ineligible on numerous counts—she was too old, she was married with a daughter, and she lived in Minneapolis.But under the fictitious name “Alice Martin,” she slipped under the Jaycees’ radar.

Dudley Riggs: She was never quite available to show up for any of the pre-event activities. But, on the night of the event, she came in and performed a satirical song.

The song, which she dedicated to her “former boyfriend, now dead, named Herman,” included the following lyrics: “When I see Herman comin’ down the street/he makes the other fellas I meet/Look like vermin/ooh, ooh, Herman, you make me feel like I was wearin’ ermine.”

Dudley Riggs: Half of the audience got it, and the other half was aghast. When the hoax was uncovered, the Jaycees were embarrassed. And they fought about what to do. Several of the members were kicked out. It went on for weeks. On the other hand, it helped the promotion of our Miss America show. And one of the local newspapers named Ruth Williams one of the top 10 female newsmakers of that year.
 

 

Sue Scott: Being a company member with Dudley Riggs opened all these doors for us. People wanted us to audition for TV commercials or radio spot voice-overs. You were instantly placed in the top echelon of funny people in town.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, as sketch shows like Saturday Night Live became hugely popular and brought attention to sketch comedy and improv, the Brave New Workshop gained prominence.

Dudley Riggs: We tried to put together a television deal sometime in the ’70s. ABC News wanted to have a satirical comedy—a political cartoon—in the news each day, and we did a lot of work on that. The idea was that we would pick the big item of the day and then satirize it for the daily and nightly news. But being in Minneapolis didn’t help. The idea eventually got killed because the network people were afraid to turn over that much airtime to people they didn’t know very well. We tried some other things, but after a while, we decided we needed to stick with what we knew: We were stage people.

Dane Stauffer, actor, San Diego’s Triple Espresso (BNW company member, 1984–1987, 1996): For a while, we got interested in ideas that took a little longer to explore. We wrote one sketch called “Grandpa’s Head” about an old vaudevillian. Basically, all that was left of him was his head, and he’d been kept alive in this box on wheels. It was very funny, but the underlying theme was that he wanted to end it, and nobody wanted to let him end it. We were dealing with ideas like euthanasia that were deeper and edgier that what people expected.

Dudley Riggs: Sometimes we would scoop the general news. Right after Richard Nixon won a landslide election, we did a politically incorrect show called The Future Lies Ahead—with an emphasis on “lies.” The Star Tribune said it was about meaningless events and a waste of the audience’s time. But it was about Watergate. Six months later, people came back and said, gee, you sure had that one right.

Peter Staloch, actor and writer, Movies for Guys Who Like Movies (BNW company member, 1984–1991): During one show we had a scene called “Amish Porn.” Melissa Denton and I appeared onstage dressed as an Amish couple riding in a carriage. I cracked my whip to get the horses moving. Suddenly, the couple was slightly interested in the movement of the horses’ buttocks. I whipped them again and the couple got a bit excited. Again, the whip, and we were bouncing with the rhythm. Melissa grabbed the whip and whipped them again. We became very excited as she then whipped me. We smiled with insane glee as the scene blacked out.

Peter Tolan, Emmy-winning writer for Murphy Brown and The Larry Sanders Show (BNW company member, 1981–1983): We were always trying to make other cast members laugh, and sometimes that would make it into shows. I used to do an imitation of Ethel Merman, which was just really singing loudly and screaming, frankly, as loud as I could. Eventually, we did a scene on the show where someone would announce, “A treasure of the American musical theater, Miss Ethel Merman!” I’d come out in full drag, go down in the audience and shake people’s hands and scream at them. First, I’d start with songs that Ethel Merman would sing, and then I would get into “I Am the Walrus” and things like that.

Peter Staloch: Backstage or in the dressing room before the shows, our trust and comfort level with each other was generally so good that we’d often indulge in some very inappropriate, offensive, and downright obscene humor that would have never made it to the stage. We’d often try to outdo each other and see how far we could go with awful jokes before we’d finally say, “Stop it.” It was a way of letting off steam and also a way of making fun of ourselves—kind of an obscene parody of the real satire we were trying to write and perform.

Sue Scott: The process is very intense and collaborative. You go into the theater in the morning and sit there until 5, brainstorming. When you’re playing around with ideas, people bring up a lot of personal stories—maybe it’s your family or your siblings. You go to the deepest, darkest corners of your life, and you reveal it to these people because you’re trying to come up with something that’s insightful and funny.

Peter Breitmayer, actor (BNW company member, 1988–1992): Sometimes things got exciting. Once there was almost a fistfight: someone threw keys at Steve Schaubel, and he had to get stitches. But you have to have conflict. People are trying to create something and they have different ideas about what works and what’s important. People’s passions run so high, and in the end, that conflict can actually make things much better. When you’re writing political and social satire, it’s almost better to not to be so Minnesota nice.

Just as improv theaters like Chicago’s Second City became known for their role as a stepping stone to shows like Mad TV and Saturday Night Live, the Brave New Workshop also had its fair share of alumni making names for themselves on the national comedy scene. Al Franken and Tom Davis both wrote for Saturday Night Live, Mo Collins headed to Mad TV, and Sid Youngers began working for Comedy Central. Others—Pat Proft, Peter Tolan, Nancy Steen—went to Hollywood to write for movies and television.

Peter Staloch: It wasn’t exactly like Second City. I think the cast members loved the process. We loved the art of comedy.So for most of us it was about more than just trying to pursue a career. We wanted to see what we could write and create together—not just for ourselves.

Dudley Riggs: Eventually, cast members have to move on, and that’s part of the design. It’s like college, in a way. You want them to go through a few years, and then go off on their own.

By the mid-1990s, Riggs was ready to wind down his career with the workshop. He began looking for someone who could usher the theater into the next century.

John Sweeney, owner of BNW, with Jenni Lilledahl, since 1997 (BNW company member, 1993–1995): I started taking improv classes because my friend Chris Farley was on Saturday Night Live, and I was hired on the main stage in 1993. I’m not a typical theater person—I did six years in the corporate world after getting a degree in marketing. So I started selling corporate entertainment shows for Dudley. I spent more time with him than most of the actors. Every day we would spend hours together talking about the money he could get by doing what we do in other formats. We were business partners in a way. Business friends. In 1995, I moved to Chicago.

Dudley Riggs: John was a really positive force when he was here as an actor. One time he told me, in a flip sort of way, “I really enjoy doing this work. If you ever decide to sell, let me know.” So I took him up on that. There was a brief moment when Second City heard that I might sell and they came rushing in, but I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of what would happen under other management. And I trusted John.

John Sweeney: In January of 1997, when I was pretty sure I was going to buy the place, I heard through the grapevine that the Disney corporation was going to build two $1 billion ships in Venice, and they were going to need some entertainment on those ships. I spent a lot of time at Disney in January and February, convincing them that what they needed on their ships was a Brave New Workshop Theater. During the second month that I owned the place, I signed $1 million-plus contract with Disney.

Dudley Riggs: John is a much better businessman than I was.

John Sweeney: So we had some cash, some walking around money, and we walked hard. I’m sitting there thinking, “Well, so far we’ve owned the place for a week, we just signed a million-dollar contract—this shit’s pretty easy. Let’s start building stuff.” My first move—which will go down in the history of brilliant moves—was to spend a half- million dollars and build a brand-new theater in Calhoun Square. In a declining market. Then 9/11 came, our Disney contract ran out, and we were out of money. In 2002, we came back to 2605 Hennepin. Although, that was not so much our decision as the bank’s and the sheriff’s. They helped bring clarity.

Caleb McEwen, actor, director (BNW company member, 1993–present): One of the great things about the Workshop is that we’ve never relied on anything flashy. It’s a small group of people working hard to come up with creative solutions, because they can’t just throw money at the problem. The need for those creative solutions got accentuated from 2001 to 2004, but we knew we’d get through it and there would be light on the other side.

John Sweeney: I remember one time we were doing a show about humor in the workplace and the sketch was about someone who needed a paperclip in a corporate office, but the budgets were so tight that he had to go to the oracle—a paperclip-budget oracle. The oracle said that if he wanted a paperclip he had to go do all these tasks—an Indiana Jones–esque journey. There was a scene where he needed to swim across the river, and if we had large budgets there would have been a Plexiglas tank with water and a wave maker and hot chicks in blue bikinis. Instead, we really aggressively mimed that the actor was swimming. The other actors behind him had blue ribbons on sticks. The audience instantly understood, and almost every night we got a really big round of applause. Sometimes good ideas are better than budgets.

Caleb McEwen: Everyone is trying to hold the tradition of what has been going on here for years, but our shows have changed somewhat to reflect the way that audience tastes have changed. [Theaters have to compete] with Netflix and cable TV and YouTube, and as a result, we have to appeal to a fast-moving 60th-of-a-second-cut sort of generation. The shows move a lot faster, and there are lot more sketches in the shows than there used to be.

Dane Stauffer: It’s not just the Brave New Workshop—comedy in general is changing. I went back one time, and the cast was a generation younger than I was. The cast was really gifted, but it was clear that there was a different sensibility in some ways. They swore so much more than we had, but it was something that was informed by what’s popular in the culture and what people are comfortable saying. Comedy is louder now. We used to have a lot of things that were subtle, but today things are more in your face.

In some ways, the theater is far different today from what it was in 1958—some 27 people are now on the payroll, and the company offers corporate services and workshops, as well as classes that are open to the general public. More than 20,000 people attend the Brave New Workshop’s productions annually. The 52-weeks-per-year schedule is a thing of the past, but the heart of the company—its smart, finely tuned political satire—remains.

Dudley Riggs: We didn’t invent the wheel, but we pushed it along. At one time, there were maybe three or four places in town for stand-up comics to perform. Now there are 10. Comedy is a regular menu item on television. The kinds of structures and satire you see in The Daily Show are the same kinds of things we were doing 30 years ago. There are so many more first-rate outlets for comedy. I’m very happy about that.

John Sweeney: In Ireland, when someone is contrary or a challenger, we call him a messer. And I hope that’s how we’ll always be perceived. Whether we’re doing shows on Minnesota racism—singing “We’re Not Racists, Not Like Those Southerners”—or talking about “The Unbearable Lightness of Eagan,” we want to disturb the Minnesota thought process. We don’t want people to feel comfortable and warm. We want to provoke discussion.

Dane Stauffer: What did I learn from Riggs? In some ways, learning how to improvise and do it well is like learning how to live. It’s about how to be present to what’s happening without an agenda. It’s about how to listen, how to trust your impulses and start something without having to know how it’s going to end.

Dudley Riggs: Nobody that I know of ever thought that this would last that long, and I certainly didn’t. I was a suitcase act, and always figured I’d go back on the road again. I always think there’s another engagement coming up. You can’t ever completely unpack.

Erin Peterson is a frequent contributor to Minnesota Monthly.
 

 

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