Comedian taps Wisconsin roots for internet fame
Journal Sentinel reporter Jordyn Noennig sits down with comedian and Elm Grove native Charlie Berens to talk about "The Manitowoc Minute." Bill Schulz / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Elm Grove native Charlie Berens did on-camera interviews with celebrities and other broadcast journalism before focusing on his career as a stand-up comedian in Los Angeles.
But as he began working in front of the camera and crowds, he had to lose the accent.
Berens took voice lessons and was taught how to speak like a broadcaster, but the long "o" and the nasally "a" of the Midwestern accent were still there inside his head.
"There were a lot of words I didn't want to change the way I said them," Berens said.
So in his stand-up act, he created a character who speaks with an over-the-top accent and uses Wisconsin slang like "real quick, once" and "dontcha know?" The character is now used as the star of a widely shared weekly internet segment called "The Manitowoc Minute."
In "The Manitowoc Minute" — usually, a little longer than a minute, actually — Berens' character reads a few headlines and offers comedic comments about each; shares an interesting item for sale on Craigslist, which he calls the "Craigslist kicker"; and signs off by saying "Go Packers" and something not so nice about the Chicago Bears.
Berens came by the Journal Sentinel to explain his inspiration for the segment and gave a reading of a few of our headlines by his "Manitowoc Minute" character.
"I had been playing with different versions of using that character that represented everything that I love about Wisconsin for my stand-up, and that's where the beginning of 'The Manitowoc Minute' came from," Berens said. "It's just a character who loves Wisconsin, bringing you the news from one perspective."
The segments, which have been published every Monday since mid-June, have tens of thousands of shares on Facebook and are quickly approaching 200,000 views on YouTube. "The Manitowoc Minute" also has been featured on the comedy video website Funny or Die created by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.
"I really enjoy talking the way I do on 'The Manitowoc Minute.' It's a place for me to lean into the accent of my soul, for lack of a better word," Berens said.
Berens thinks that the Midwest accent might be a little underrepresented in media, besides a few shows including "Fargo." Often when a character is from the South, he or she speaks with some Southern slang, but that is not as often the case with characters from states far north of there.
"There aren't many references to the accent, or they are few and far between, and I think this is a little bit different," he said. "I think people everywhere can relate by knowing somebody from the Midwest or know some things about the Midwest or Wisconsin."
He said he learned many of the phrases he uses like "holy smokes" and "ya gotta be kiddin' me here, guy," from his family of 12 that lives in Elm Grove, and also growing up watching a local fishing channel.
The segment might make Midwesterners sound a little goofy, but Berens said he genuinely enjoys the nuances of the Midwest dialect and takes it just a little over the top for the purpose of comedy.
"At first, I was concerned, I didn't want people to think that I was making fun of the accent — which I am a little bit — but I want everyone to know that when I hear words, that's the natural accent I put them in," he said.
"In comedy, you accentuate everything for the purpose of comedy. … In this case, I'm making an accent which is not far from neutral for most people in Wisconsin, and there are definitely some people that are as elevated as the character is, and I think that's great."
Berens not only uses the accent for his own "Manitowoc Minute," he also was hired by TBS for a video that gives Bane, the villain from the 2012 Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises," a heavy Midwest accent.
Berens studied broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went on to work with MTV on its election-season "Choose or Lose" campaign.
He then worked behind the scenes on movie sets in Los Angeles and hosted news shows in Texas and South Carolina.
Now he is back in Los Angeles focusing on his comedy and is able to embrace some of that Midwest charm in "The Manitowoc Minute," which he plans to continue to do as long as fans keep viewing.