Ryan Findley

Caste of Killers

By - Jul 22nd, 2010 04:00 am
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Everyone knows comedy is a hard business. The irony of an industry whose purpose is to make people laugh being such a difficult slog has lifted the “hardness” of the comic life to almost mythic proportions.

But in a world that is touted as being notoriously tough to break into, full of huge egos and thankless miles on the road (and with little chance of achieving financial success) two men in Milwaukee are rethinking how comedy works in our fair city.

Jason Hillman and Damon Millard are the minds behind “Caste of Killers,” a branded comedy show that seeks to open new venues for comedy in the area and promote the most talented voices of the Milwaukee comic scene. What’s different about Caste of Killers (CoK) is that both Hillman and Millard describe something like a socialist-Utopian-ideal “comedy collective.”

While both do have an eye on their own careers, they do not perform at every CoK show, and even when they do, they don’t always take the longest or best slots for themselves. They want to promote comedy in Milwaukee, which they feel has a vibrant cast of characters but very little room for growth.

And more comedy in general means more attention from a public that is often completely oblivious to the fact that this city does have a pretty awesome home-grown funny scene.

Hillman (right) and Millard

One of the paradoxes that both Hillman and Millard found in Milwaukee is that while the scene is vibrant, it’s not overcrowded. This means that there is often the opportunity to create longer shows and longer jokes, but not very many places to perform them. There’s potential to develop, but no place to showcase that development.

So while the big picture goal  is to foster comedy in Milwaukee, the practical way to do that is get comedy in more venues. The more venues (“rooms”) there are for comics to perform in, the more people get to perform and with greater frequency. And as in any endeavor, the more practice and exposure one gets, the better one is.

As Millard put it, “If one guy that we promoted makes it, that makes this all worth it.”

Hillman and Millard would like to brand Caste of Killers as the “Best Stand-Up Comedy in Milwaukee.” They’ve claimed that label, and they are committed to living it up to it. They spend countless hours traveling to open mic nights across southeastern Wisconsin, and they’ll offer stage time to anyone they think is funny.

While every CoK show features a different cast, the structure is always the same: A host emcees the evening which features three to four comedians, each with increasingly long sets. The same stool appears at every show, and everyone signs and poses with it afterward.

The “caste” of the group’s name came about because there was a perception that comedians were the lowest of the live entertainers in Milwaukee, the “untouchables.”

Hillman tells of turning up at acoustic music open mic nights, simply because he’d been to all the comedy ones already. But in this endeavor, both have been surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response they’ve received from all quarters. Performers are ecstatic to be given more chances to do what they do. And venue owners have been incredibly open to hosting comedy in their establishments.

Far from being untouchable, it would rather seem that Milwaukee is ready to embrace laughter-as-the-best-medicine with open arms.

CoK performers and the infamous stool

In keeping with their “socialist-Utopian-ideals,” the only time that Hillman and Millard guarantee they’ll perform at any show under the CoK banner is when it’s the first show at a new room. After that, it’s anyone guess. They are committed to bringing a diverse group of voices and as many new (funny) faces to the spotlight as they can, and this means that they organize shows that neither of them will actually take the stage for.

And that’s sort of the point — when any scene, in any art, is vibrant and recognized, anyone working in that milieu benefits.

And here’s the thing that’s actually most important: these guys are funny. The people they work with are funny. You really will get an evening of hilarity and riotous laughter. It’s exactly as advertised.

Caste of Killers will be putting on two shows this upcoming weekend: Friday, July 23 at Cocktails on 76th Street and Saturday at 9:30 pm, and July 24 at Live on North at 8 pm.

Categories: Life & Leisure

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