Clear Water Comedy gaining momentum after pandemic pause

The Brickhouse is hosting the group’s live sets, open mic

Sam Janssen (He/Him)

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McKenna Dirks

Nathan Rich performs a stand-up set at The Brickhouse.

Cullen Ryan, co-founder of Clear Water Comedy, says for a city of its size, the art scene in Eau Claire is tough to beat.

“It’s a small town with big city dreams,” Ryan said.

Ryan co-founded Clear Water Comedy, a local group of stand-up comedians, in 2012 after moving to Eau Claire from Minneapolis. 

Ryan had begun performing stand-up two years prior in Minneapolis. After moving to Eau Claire in April 2012, he started performing at the open mic night at The Plus, which was the only open mic in town at the time that accepted comedians, he said.

He began performing there regularly. By the end of that summer, five or six other comedians were showing up regularly as well, he said, and the comedy scene began to grow.

Two years later, by 2014, Ryan said there were 30-40 comedians at The Plus for open mic nights, with some driving into town from the Twin Cities to perform.

“There was clearly a market for comedy in town,” Ryan said.

This was when the owner of The Plus approached Ryan and the group he had formed of other comedians to start producing a weekly show, which is how Clear Water Comedy was born, he said. 

According to Ryan, other comedians from the area like Jordan Duroe were instrumental in helping him get Clear Water Comedy running.

Ryan said there are four or five current members who have been there since the beginning, and now there are 10-12 total members who perform, produce, market and book talent for the shows today. 

In addition to the local acts, Clear Water has hosted shows with many nationally touring comedians, usually booking them to stop in Eau Claire when they are scheduled to perform in the Twin Cities.

“We’ve been lucky enough to bring some really huge names to Eau Claire over the years, which is awesome,” Ryan said.

Ryan said making friends with comedians has been a huge part of making the connections to book nationally-known acts, with acts like Tim Harmston and Mary Mack helping get them started in the beginning.

“If comics know they’re going to have a good time coming through here, we can get them for way less money than they would usually get other places,” Ryan said.

According to Ryan, Sean Patton, a  well-respected New York-based comedian, has been responsible for telling other nationally-known comedians about Clear Water Comedy.

“A lot of our people we’ve been lucky enough to book are because Sean tells them, ‘Hey you should do this room, it’s really fun,’” Ryan said.

Will Sibenaller, one of Clear Water’s local comedians, said he has learned a lot about the craft of stand-up comedy from touring acts they have hosted, like Patton and Sam Tallent, who is scheduled to return to Eau Claire on Sunday, April 10 at the new home of Clear Water Comedy, The Brickhouse.

The Plus, which was Clear Water’s home from the beginning, closed its doors in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and no re-opening date has been set at this time.

Ryan said their shows at The Brickhouse have been very successful so far, as they have held seven shows there so far where five of them sold out.

On Wednesday, March 23, The Brickhouse is hosting Clear Water’s first open mic night since The Plus closed, and it will be hosted by Soren Staff, a member of the band Them Coulee Boys.

Ryan said open mics are a great opportunity for local artists to come together, and music, live readings, poetry, acting, and improv are all welcome on the bill along with comedians.

“We should hear from all artists from all walks of life, making whatever kind of art they want,” Ryan said.

Nathan Rich, another local stand-up with Clear Water, said the relationships with the other comics in Eau Claire has been “everything” to him, and they all support each other and make each other better.

Ryan said at open mic, each musician gets to perform two songs and each comedian gets a five-minute set.

Sibenaller said he got his start with stand-up by trying it out for the first time at a Clear Water open mic, and in the years that have followed he has grown in his skills and fallen in love with comedy.

He said he worked on his material at open mics for a while and then got invited by Clear Water to do guest spots at their paid shows.

“A huge part of becoming a standup is kind of figuring out what jokes you can say that resonate most with your audience,” Sibenaller said.

According to Sibenaller, performing stand-up as a beginner is “scary,” but everyone at Clear Water remembers their first time well and are supportive towards new performers who take their shot at open mic.

“My favorite part about it is the comradery and how we can all help each other to become the best performers we can be,” Sibenaller said.

According to Rich, the crowds at Clear Water’s recent shows at their new venue have been “packed,” and he thinks people are especially anxious to “get out and laugh a little bit” now after being deprived of it during the pandemic.

Sibenaller said Clearwater is starting to “gain more momentum” now after their pause during the pandemic, and people in Eau Claire are always very interested in and supportive of artists.

Rich said Eau Claire has the best local art scene in the area, and attributes a lot of this to the impact of being a university town.

“A lot of young people trying to think independently is always going to be good for a local art scene,” Rich said.

Ryan said he credits the quality of the art scene in Eau Claire to the school system, as well as the size of the town being big enough for “the rural kids in the area to kind of feel like they’re coming to the city.”

To check out Clear Water Comedy’s schedule of shows at The Brickhouse, visit their facebook page for announcements.

Ryan said he encourages anyone who would like to try comedy to come to the first open mic at The Brickhouse on Wednesday, March 23 at 7:30 p.m.

Janssen can be reached [email protected]