From Robin Williams to Mitch Hedberg, Daniel Tosh to Maria Bamford, the list of legendary names that have stepped on stage at Acme Comedy Company in Minneapolis reads like a comedy hall of fame. But the most influential person in the club’s 27-year run has never been on stage and doesn’t tell jokes.
Acme owner Louis Lee has cultivated one of the very best and well-known comedy clubs in the country. Comedians from all over the world sing Acme’s praises, due to its intelligent, comedy-savvy audience as well as a commitment to the development and growth of those fortunate enough to work there.
But it almost never was.
“Acme is a result of a very big failure in my life,” laughs Lee.
In 1977, Lee moved from Hong Kong to attend college at the University of Minnesota. He was a sociology major, which naturally means he got a job working in restaurants.
Around that same time, Lee met his first American girlfriend, who began bringing him to live comedy shows in town. Not only was it his first exposure to comedy but also a crash course in American communication.
“When I first moved here I could read English and take tests, and I was taking English as a Second Language classes,” he recalls. “But when I went to my first comedy show, I realized that this was a very different kind of communicating.”
Soon, Lee became the manager of a Chinese restaurant in town and convinced the owner to allow him to begin looking for comedy bookers. While things started off promising, his debts started piling up after he later bought into a bar-restaurant partnership that soon failed.
“Everything went to shit, and I owed a lot of money. I knew that working in a restaurant wasn’t going to be enough to help me pay back what I owed, so I found this space and negotiated with the landlord to open the club,” he says.
Acme Comedy Company opened its doors in 1991. While the comedy boom of the 1980s ushered in countless amazing comedians, by the early ’90s the bubble had burst. “There were too many rooms back then and not enough comics,” Lee recalls of what became the “dark times” of running a comedy club. “Comics would get pushed on to the road too soon, and get paid a bunch of money, but audiences could tell that they weren’t good enough and stopped coming.”
Recognizing that talent alone wouldn’t be enough to bring customers through his doors, Lee leaned on his bar and restaurant background while simultaneously planting seeds to create a new generation of comedy fans.
That meant lowering the age restriction from 21 to 18, and doing away with the then industry standard two-drink minimum. The intention, Lee says, was to capitalize on the college crowd and hook them while they were young.
“We welcomed the college students when they were freshman and did a lot of promotions like college ID nights as a way to get them to check out the club,” Lee explains. “The way I looked at it was that if we could get them coming to the club early, then once they graduated and had their first jobs at 22 or 23 years old—the time when they would have the most disposable income until they turned 30—we would have them.”
The first four years were difficult, but by 1995 the financial bleeding was staunched. The idea of putting comedy before booze had begun to pay off, and the business model continues to be successful today.
While the club and audiences are great, Acme wouldn’t have become a pillar of comedy without excellent performers. Through its famed Monday open mic night, the club began to develop new voices that had not only been raised to appreciate comedy but were now given an outlet to create.
Names like Nick Swardson, Mary Mack, Pete Lee, and Chad Daniels began to define themselves at Acme’s open mic nights, while new out-of-town talent was given the opportunity to build a fanbase in the Twin Cities.
“I would get comics who would come to me and say, ‘When do I get to move up? What can I do to move up?’ and I would tell them, ‘Don’t worry. When you’re ready, I’ll come to you. When you make the person who goes on after you have to work harder, that’s when I’ll know you’re ready’”
By implementing this process, Lee was able to avoid the sins of comedy promoters past—namely, bringing along talent before they were ready for primetime. “Good comics know what people like to hear and they give it to them,” Lee explains. “Great comics find their own voice. It’s them. The difference is in the writing.”
Lee’s track record speaks for itself, with a new crop of talent from Andy Erickson, Greg Coleman, and Ali Sultan (to name a few) all going from open mic night to national television appearances in the past few years.
With the reputation Acme has built over the past three decades, it’s easy to think that Lee might be looking to grow his footprint, whether that means new clubs or bigger promotions. But Lee dispels those thoughts of grandeur with a shake of his head.
“It’s hard to keep a club open this long,” he explains. “I’m having a great time doing it, and the last thing I would want to do is spread myself too thin.”
Instead, he’ll keep watching for fresh new faces at open mic night, bringing in the best talent from around the country, and helping a new generation of fans come to appreciate what a true comedy show experience is all about.