Cover Story

Feb 23, 2012

A laughing matter

Godfathers of Des Moines’ stand-up scene, including Ben Ulin and Willie Farrell (pictured), paved the way for today’s up-and-coming comedians

By Jared Curtis

Ben Ulin shows off his award for “Showtime’s Funniest Person in Iowa” in 1986, an ad showing an upcoming performance at The Comedy Shop at the Spaghetti Works. Image courtesy of Ben Ulin

It’s a frigid weeknight in January in Des Moines’ East Village. Toss a rock — or more appropriately, a snowball — in any direction and you’d hit nothing but pavement. It’s that cold.

But on this night, a step inside The House of Bricks — the Village’s longtime eatery-slash-music venue-slash newfound comedic hot spot — reveals an entirely different scene. There’s a buzz in the air, and a hot one at that.

On the first, third and fifth Tuesdays of the month, The House of Bricks hosts Underground Comedy, a group of hopeful metro comedians, each wanting his or her chance behind the mic stand. It may not be Madison Square Garden, but tonight, that doesn’t matter. For these 17 comics, tonight is about playing for no money under the smallest of spotlights for a sometimes oblivious crowd. The challenge: Make them laugh.

And laugh they do.

The room comes alive with comics working their five-minute routines. It’s electric; it’s a shout-out to the rest of the comedy world that, after a long and roller coaster-like history in the city, comedy is alive and well in Des Moines.

Where it all began

In 1975, a young magician named Ben Ulin was working at a magic shop in Merle Hay Mall, performing at birthday parties and company shows. He eventually moved into more adult-oriented shows, and after being part of the theater department at Drake University in 1978-79, he decided to pursue his dream of making it big and left for fame and fortune on the west coast. As luck would have it, while Ulin was away, a chance visit from a nationally-known comedy group to the Drake campus planted the seed for what would become the local comedy scene.

“A group from the L.A. Comedy Store had come to town and gave a lecture about stand-up comedy,” said Ulin, who runs magic and comedy acts from Ben Ulin Productions ( including regular shows at Adventureland. “That’s all it took for Larry Wrentz [who went on to act in films like “Silence of the Lambs” and “Congo”] and Steve Bannos [an actor/writer who has been featured in “Freaks and Geeks” and “Bridesmaids”]. The seed was planted.”

The first stand-up show in Des Moines took place on Jan. 14, 1980, at the Ingersoll Dinner Theater. Seven comics performed that night including Willie Farrell, Dave Gruber Allen (“Freaks and Geeks,” “The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show”) and Dave Higgins (“Ellen,” “Malcolm in the Middle).

“Underground Comedy” at the House of bricks include, from left to right, top row: Sireono Sheley, Scott VerMulm, Joel Fry, Matt Vondrak, Kristopher Poulsen, Mike Kitzman, Alex Carter, Ashley Huck, Patrick Hastie, Joey Ficken, Caitlin Feral, Luke Ritter, Ben Herman, Toll McGrane, Gideon Hambright, John Eide, Jeremy Hall. Left to right, bottom: Travis Cherniss, Jordan Michael Tuerler, Anthony Lobaito, Dan Umthun, Brandon Ream, Nick Costanzo, Wes Cozad.

“The show only ran for three weeks. The dinner theater was too big, and Larry couldn’t fill the seats, so they went to another location, The Soup Kitchen, which was downtown,” Ulin said. “That ended up not being the best venue either. After a few shows, Larry moved it again and was looking for his own place to grow the show.”

Ulin returned from San Francisco to be with his family for Christmas, but after lining up a number of magic jobs, he decided to stick around.

“I had taken a job as a tableside magician at Spaghetti Works. It sounds like an unusual thing, but it was very successful,” Ulin laughed. “Nothing had happened in San Francisco, but I had started improving and ad-libbing during my routine, so I had become very confident.”

An open mic night gave Ulin a chance to test out his chops and meet local comedians, which would subsequently cement their friendship and the local scene.

“A singer-songwriter had an open mic night at a place called Montana’s. It was in the East Village. I think he created it more for musicians, but all these comedians came down. I met Willie, Dave Allen and Dave Higgins through those nights,” Ulin said. “Larry then moved his show to the community playhouse, and that’s when I jumped into the mix and built a friendship with all those guys.”

In 1982, Ulin was performing magic, “with a little bit of stand-up” at both Spaghetti Works and the Tail of the Cock Lounge, which was tucked in the back of the Sherwood Forest Shopping Center on Hickman Road, while Willie Farrell was performing at the Matador Lounge downtown. They would also perform at the City Grill downtown and Josiah’s on Merle Hay Road.

“Anywhere we could get stage time, we would perform,” Ulin said.

By November, the comedy group Don’t Quit Your Day Job — which featured Dave Gruber Allen, Dave Higgins, Gary Fox, Patty Ryan and Rick Carter — had begun performing at The Green Jeans Lounge inside the Kirkwood Hotel.

“I remember working at Spaghetti Works, then grabbing my money and running up the street to see Don’t Quit Your Day Job,” Ulin said. “They were there for almost a year until one night I showed up and everyone was standing outside. The owners had decided to close and not tell anyone.”

But as one door closed, another door opened.

“I suggested the show could move to Spaghetti Works because it had a nice backroom that was never used,” Ulin said.

The show began on Thursday nights in 1983 and included Farrell, Don’t Quit Your Day Job and a few comedians from Omaha.

“I was hosting the night, and it soon became a great success. The comedy night went from just Thursday night to Thursday, Friday and Saturday night,” Ulin said. “We couldn’t take reservations, so people would just line up inside the restaurant an hour before the show. It was a good thing because people would talk about it, and the buzz started growing.”

The Spaghetti Works comedy room became increasingly popular and was considered one of the best rooms in the Midwest. Tom Arnold, John Penny (Kansas City) and Scott Novotny (Minnesota) began making appearances as doors began opening for local comedians throughout the Midwest.

“It all kind of fell into place,” Ulin said. “It was great meeting all of these other comics, and it really opened a lot of doors for us outside of Iowa.”

More comedy clubs popped up in Cedar Rapids, Waterloo and Sioux City. And although the local scene was continuing to grow, some of the big players had outgrown it including Don’t Quit Your Day Job, which took off for L.A. in 1985-86. But with more up-and-coming comedians wanting their shot at the spotlight, more local clubs were needed.

“People started trying comedy nights at other clubs, and the owner of Spaghetti Works didn’t like that,” Ulin said. “He said we could work here, but nowhere else.”

The scene shifted when a new club located near Drake — So’s Your Mother (which later changed names to Riffs) — opened. To comedians, this was home.

“It was basically comedians trying to take control of their own destiny,” Ulin said. “It was much more casual and uncensored than Spaghetti Works because it allowed comedians to work on their material. At Spaghetti Works, it always felt like you had to be on top of your game”

In April of 1989, Mark Johnson opened The Funny Bone Comedy Club (but would sell it to Paul Lane a few years later). Although more opportunities were presenting themselves, by then Ulin’s focus was on his magic show.

“I got my Adventureland gig and stopped doing a lot of my comedy work,” he said. “I got pretty busy with magic, and that kind of put the kibosh on my comedy career.”

Farrell was still working the scene, however, and was becoming a popular draw.

“I had went out to L.A., but came back and stuck around to help my family,” Farrell said. “I was on the road all of the time, but that schedule allowed me to keep my home base here.”

Farrell continued to work hard, but no matter what, family came first.

“I originally came back from L.A. to help with my family. If I had stayed out there, I probably would have gotten a shot at a sitcom,” he said. “I also had the chance to move to Vegas for a show, but I passed that up, too. But there are no sour grapes; I feel blessed and fortunate for my life. I have a great wife, a lovely daughter, and I’m still working. So to me, I’ve made it.”

And made it he has. Farrell works constantly and was recently a part of “The Godfathers of Comedy” on Showtime. He has upcoming gigs in Reno and Atlantic City.

Finding the perfect balance of being on the road and being home

As many local comedians were leaving the state — or the industry entirely — by the end of the ’80s and early ’90s, Waterloo resident Don “Donzilla” Tjernagel was just getting started.

“I had went out to UNLV (Las Vegas) for college and started going to an open mic at a coffee shop, because if you went on stage, you got a free latte,” he laughed. “I got good and worked a few months and then got a few small gigs at some casinos.”

But an opportunity to perform with the Sin City Stand-Up show following Penn & Teller changed Tjernagel’s comedy career forever.

“When I started with that show, my comedy got filthier, and I got into the dirty stuff,” he said. “That lead me to heading out on the road.”

The road eventually brought him back to Vegas where he had his own show from 1997 to 2000. Once called “the most fearless comic since Lenny Bruce” by The Los Angeles Times, Tjernagel decided to leave Vegas and try his luck… in Nebraska.

“I moved to Omaha and opened the First Amendment Comedy Club. I put pictures up of Lenny Bruce and Sam Kinison, but nobody got the reference,” he says. “If I could do it all over again, I would have called it the Cornhusker Comedy Club, or opened a strip club or an adult book store instead.”

Tjernagel returned to Waterloo to work in the family business, which only served to fan his comedic flame.

“It made comedy a lot more fun, because normally you have to do a bunch of stuff you don’t have to do. Now I can pretty much tour and perform shows when I want to,” he said. “Plus, I’m making pretty good residuals from my CD and DVD sales. Comedy has gotten a lot more fun with the DVD and CD sales. Being on the road all the time wears you out, and half the time you don’t even know where you are. ”

Tjernagel has five CDs, five DVDs and a book. He released them himself, normally as one-take recordings, and sells them at his shows and on his website, But he still loves the thrill of performing in front of a live audience.

“I love performing in Des moines, especially at the Civic Center’s Stoner Theater because it’s tailor-made for comedy,” he said. “Comedy clubs are a dying breed — I used to play the Funny Bone, but every time I was in town I would see the Civic Center and think, ‘Man, I’d love to play there more.’ ”

Tjernagel enjoys the local scene and is excited to see the amount of young talent these days.

“I’ve never had a bad experience in Des Moines. I love playing there because the crowds are really cool and smart,” he said. “I’ve done shows at the House of Bricks and the Hull Avenue Tap, which I love, because filthy bar comedy shows are great. The local guys are lucky because there is an abundance of venues. Cedar Rapids has some funny comedians, too, but they don’t have the chances to get on stage like Des Moines comics.”

Tjernagel brings his adult stand-up to the Civic Center’s Stoner Theatre on Saturday, Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. Admission is $10.

“Come out and watch me take the first amendment for a joyride,” he laughed. “My show is a big, filthy buffet of stuff you’ll enjoy. Hearing my stories will make you feel better about your own life.”

The new school of stand-up comedians

Today, a number of open mic nights have started all over the metro, and leading that charge is Underground Comedy at The House of bricks, where a group of rag tag comedians converge two to three times a month. Some are just starting and others have been working on their bits for years, including Dan Umthun, who hosts the show.

“I wasn’t the class clown in grade school. I was just the obnoxious kid who said funny things,” he said. “It wasn’t until college that I got into the open mic nights. I had a friend doing a show in Ames and asked if I wanted to perform. I had to write 30 minutes of material for my first time, which is ridiculous. You can’t just get up and say 30 minutes of smart, funny things without working at it and polishing it. It went awful. I had another show the following month, and it went a bit better. It’s a real trial by fire.”

Determined to hone his craft, Umthun worked hard, and as his confidence and talent grew, so did the scene.

“Audience continues to grow, and it’s getting to a point where writers are getting really good, and there is more promotion in town,” he said. “There are some really good comedians in town, and with more opportunities to get out there and work on material, the people that are establishing themselves are really working towards their goals. There are people in town that are as funny as some of the stuff on Comedy Central.”

With the expansion of the scene, Underground Comedy was born.

“Underground Comedy was created by three people — Jim Ramsey, Ben Houk and J.T. Nutt — and, at the time, it was the only open mic in town. The first year we had no idea what we were doing. We had no promotion, no logo, and even though The House of Bricks offered $1 beers, we still couldn’t get people in the door,” Umthun laughed. “After a few things happened, I ended up hosting, and I read Hunter S. Thompson and learned about the gonzo aspect. I put together a logo and worked on making it a brand. If you have an iconic emblem, people will rally behind you. Look at the Nazis.”

The group has grown from four comedians to more than 15. Last week’s show featured 17 comedians. Not only is the talent pool expanding — 10 to 20 comedians perform at every show — crowds and venues are also measuring up.

“We’re just trying to keep building the scene,” Umthun said. “Stand-up is an individual medium, but if we work together for each other’s common good, it becomes a movement. Then it turns into a community, and by raising the profile in Des Moines, it’s awesome for everyone.”

Being a veteran of the local scene, Farrell knows how tough it is to get a stage to perform on. He is amazed at how hard these up-and-comers are working and says he likes the camaraderie he sees in the new breed.

“When I was coming up, you’d find a room here or there, but there wasn’t a lot of shows on a weekly basis. Now there are open mics almost every weeknight. These young guys are hustling and working hard, and they are all funny,” Farrell said. “When I started in Des Moines, we were all funny but were from all different backgrounds. You had comedians, sketch groups, magicians and impressionists, but since we all did different things, we couldn’t really bounce ideas off one another. So it’s great to see all of these young comedians working together and helping each other become the best they can be.”

Farrell offers his advice to any upstart looking to make people laugh.

“These guys are very respectful and know what we went through as we built a local scene. They work hard, and I appreciate working with them and helping anyway I can. I’ll offer my knowledge and help get them into clubs as long as they help me with my website and Facebook,” Farrell laughed.

One of the ways Farrell is helping is by joining forces with Underground Comedy to bring an open mic night to the Funny Bone.

“We hadn’t done an open mic night in four years when Dan and the Underground Comedy guys approached us,” said Leisha Lane, general manager of the Funny Bone Comedy Club, who took over after her husband, Paul, passed away in 2010. “They came in with Willie, and they had a great idea. We ended up doing two shows, and it was a nice opportunity for the local guys. It’s always nice for up-and-coming comedians to get on stage and live that dream.”

Lane was thoroughly impressed with the shows and is interested in continuing the trend. She says she has seen firsthand the power of practice.

“Bill Blank is a local guy who has made good,” she said. “He started at the old club and got on stage by diligently showing up. Now he travels all over, and we use him as much as we can when he comes home.”

Underground Comedy held a show at the Civic Center’s Stoner Theatre in 2009 and is returning this Friday, Feb. 17 for “Underground Comedy Presents: Standupalooza!” featuring 11 local comedians.

“It’s a great venue because the comics can interact with the audience, which is an integral part of stand-up, and it makes for a great show. Open mics are when comics test a lot of material. You’ll hear more polished, sharp material. It’ll be the best standup you’ll hear in the Midwest that night,” Umthun said. “We have all grown into our own as the stand-up scene in town has grown up, and hopefully people will see this as a coming of age for Des Moines stand-up.” CV


Comedy in Des Moines

If you think you have what it takes, or if you just want to laugh, visit these open mic nights, comedy showcases and live album recordings:

Underground Comedy hosted by Dan Umthun on the first, third and fifth Tuesday of the month, 8 p.m. at The House of Bricks, 525 E. Grand Ave.

Airborne Comedy hosted by Brandon Ream on the second and fourth Monday of the month, 8:30 p.m. at The Underground, 500 E. Locust St.

Open Mic Boogaloo hosted by Ben Herman on the first and third Monday of the month, 8:30 p.m. at The Fremont, 1030 E. 9th St.

Billy Jokes hosted by Joel Fry and Lewis Bissett, every other Thursday, 8:30 p.m. at Billy Joes Lounge, 1701 25th St., West Des Moines.

Open Mike Kitzman hosted by Mike Kitzman on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month, 9 p.m. at the Fourth Street Theatre, 216 4th St.

Long Haul Open Mic hosted by PJ Dennis on the first and third Wednesday of the month, 8:30 p.m. at Southport Center Sports Bar, 1101 S.W. Army Post Road.


Beechwood Comedy Showcase organized by Ashley Huck. Usually the last Saturday of the month at Beechwood Lounge, 416 E. Walnut St.

Saturday Night Live Standup organized by Alex Carter and Third Saturday of the month at Vaudeville Mews, 212 4th St.

Underground Comedy Showcase organized by Dan Umthun. Check or for listings. House of Bricks, 525 E. Grand Ave.

Live Recording

Be part of a live comedy taping on Thursday, March 15 as Ben Herman records his new CD at Billy Joe’s Lounge, 1701 25th St., West Des Moines. This free show starts at 8:30 p.m. and features openers Travis Cherniss and Gideon Hambright.