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Grumpy’s Death Comedy Jam lives on in a new documentary

From left: Andrew Wegleitner, David Primeau, Jeff Pfoser, Chris Maddock, Mary Mack

From left: Andrew Wegleitner, David Primeau, Jeff Pfoser, Chris Maddock, Mary Mack Courtesy David Primeau

The ghost of Death Comedy Jam is alive once again.

Over the course of 15 years, hundreds of established comedians, open mic performers, and absolute trainwrecks have graced the stage at Grumpy’s Bar in downtown Minneapolis, aka the “worst comedy room in the country.” Then, in 2018, Death Comedy Jam came to an end when Grumpy’s was torn down. 

This week, the storied open mic will be resurrected again in Ian Rans’s documentary, Death’s Last Stand. Shot during the open mic’s final night, the film follows the show’s hosts -- Chris Maddock, Patrick Bauer, and Wayne Burfeind -- along with a cast of comics including Miss Shannan Paul, Tiffany Norton, Bryan Miller, and Isaac Witty as they provide a glimpse into the show’s history and legacy.

“I started working at Grumpy’s as a waiter and barback back in 2000,” recalls Chris Maddock, the man who helmed the Jam since its beginning in 2003. “At that point, I had done comedy maybe a handful of times, but they knew I had done it so they asked me.” 

Maddock teamed up with Dan Schlissel from Stand Up! Records, and started hosting the evening.

“Every week I was just terrified,” he admits. “I felt like I didn’t belong in the comedy scene, and I was just sick to my stomach every Wednesday. After a couple of years, I thought it was going to get shut down because there weren’t a lot of people coming. Then it went on for 13 more years.”

Those next 13 years would see a lot of memorable moments take place at the bar, with headliners like Maria Bamford, Doug Stanhope, and Andy Kindler gracing the Grumpy’s stage. But the real legacy of the Death Comedy Jam comes from the local comics who kept coming back each week.

Yeah, that's the Grin Reaper doing a set onstage.

Yeah, that's the Grin Reaper doing a set onstage. Death Comedy Jam

“Bryan Miller touches on it in the documentary when he says that Grumpy’s was sort of a neutral ground for local comedians,” says Rans. “The show worked because it wasn’t overly aspirational. Everybody wasn’t there 100 percent and just doing their old material that they know works. They were trying out actual, legitimate new material -- and that would often fall flat on its face. The room itself kind of had this ‘loveable loser’ quality to it, even though none of the comics would live up to that. Shit could happen there that couldn’t happen in other comedy rooms.”

While plenty of that shit is included in the film, a few moments have been left to legend. Like the time Maddock was punched on stage.

“This fella was about six-foot-seven, a real giant man. He was sitting in the front booth by himself and just giving every comic crap,” recalls Maddock. “So when he went up [to perform], we kept flicking the lights on and off and turning the music up on him. He wouldn’t get off the stage, so I went up and told him to give me the mic. And in the middle of a sentence he took his hand that was holding the mic and he just clobbered me on the side of the head.”

Another time, Sir Ian McKellen decided to come by the Jam.

“He was doing King Lear at the Guthrie, and he and a few others decided to come and watch the show,” recalls Maddock. “He said he didn’t want to go to Sea Change nearby because, ‘$9 for a glass of wine? This place is more my speed.’”

From left: Chris Maddock, Patrick Bauer, freakin' Ian McKellan, Wayne Burfeind.

From left: Chris Maddock, Patrick Bauer, freakin' Ian McKellan, Wayne Burfeind. Chris Maddock

While those stories may not have made the cut, the documentary does a great job of showcasing why Grumpy’s and Death Comedy Jam have such a special place in the hearts of comics and fans in Minneapolis years after its demise.

Clips feature Miss Shannan Paul, who explains that a joke that worked at Grumpy’s could work anywhere; stories of established comics bombing spectacularly; and Isaac Witty getting emotional about his favorite memories of the show, both on and off stage.

The comradery, the insanity (where else can you see the Grin Reaper doing bad cruise-ship comedy?), the laughter, and the sense of unharnessed creativity that happened on that tiny stage downtown may never be duplicated, but thanks to the documentary, we can all have one last visit with an old friend.

You can watch the film below.