With a Wisconsin accent and growing beard for No-Shave-November, Charlie Berens walked up to the fifth floor of Vilas Hall after sleeping on a plane. The J-School alum and former Daily Cardinal arts writer was in town for the Michigan game and spent the afternoon chatting with current Badgers. In his time away from Madison, Berens moved around a lot, taking risks and networking as a TV-broadcaster in Dallas before transitioning into satire and comedy.
Now the host of the “Manitowoc Minute,” Berens has gained popularity for mimicking a thick, Wisconsin accent while recapping news stories, telling his viewers to “keep ‘er movin.’” We sat down with him to discuss his show and his career path.
Why did you stay in Wisconsin? Why did you come to Madison? Why did you stay in Wisconsin and then leave afterwards?
I love Madison. I love the history of Madison. During the Vietnam era, you sort of romanticize that, at least when I was kind of — You know, I said I was into a lot of the music of the ‘60s and stuff, so I would always see Madison in the Vietnam protest, and I think a certain part of the reason I wanted to come here was the history of it. It’s a cool place, but I was here, and I left because I wanted to, I think, just create content and challenge myself and find people to help me create the content, and I never really planned on leaving, but I just went where the opportunities were. And so, that took me to Los Angeles, and then to other parts of the country as well.
I watched an interview, I think you did with the Journal Sentinel, and I think you said that part of the sketch came from people making fun of your Wisconsin accent or pointing out words that you said wrong. Were there any specific words that they thought you said different?
‘Opinion.’ You know. Put the ‘o’ in front of it. Emphasize the ‘o.’ Obviously ‘bubbler’ is one. They’re like, ‘A bubbler? Are you trying to smoke weed?’ Or there’s another term for a bubbler which is ‘in an aquarium.’ People are like, ‘No, you drink out of a water fountain.’ The Belasio, that’s a water fountain. So I would say a lot of words, but also just general accent. I would put a ‘bag’ — I emphasized that word wrong. Basically anything that rhymes with ‘bag.’ So yeah. If you’re going to be in the news business long enough, you have to neutralize your accent or it’s going to be a short, short time in the news biz. So, it wasn’t really my choice per say to get rid of my thicker Wisconsin accent.
What exactly is your process for coming up with these videos? Do you find the news first and then you come up with the joke, or do you kind of think about a structure of it, and you just find the news that fits?
I’m really big on listening. I spend probably a lot of time just listening to feedback from people who are watching it. They send me messages, or they’ll comment or whatever, and that’s not time wasted; it’s time well spent, because you really get the feedback from your audience and you figure out where people are at with things. That’s the guide. This is a show about the Wisconsin or the Midwest sensibility and it’s just trying to figure out where — because I know where I’m at, but I’m just one voice, and I’m trying to figure out where the whole area is at, or the whole state is at.
And you can never win doing that, but it’s good to get that constant feedback and to keep checking your intuition against it, and it’s a constant sort of re-directing. Like Siri. ‘Redirecting. You missed that turn.’ But back to your question, people will send me news stories or I will. I cruise news all the time, and so I’ll see something that piques my interest for one reason or another, and you attempt to just capture the thoughts and the feelings of the state and the country that week, and sometimes you’re more successful than others, but it’s a mix of local news, national news, and I like to find stories that highlight the absurd.
So not necessarily political, but things that we can all agree on. Bridge issues. Like, maybe we can’t agree on Republican or Democrat, but we can all agree that Charlottesville should not have happened. So finding issues like that, and just finding fun issues. You know? They don’t all have to have a deep philosophical message behind them because if that’s all this was, people wouldn’t watch it. You can’t forget what makes people have fun and enjoy it. So that’s got to be center as well. So there are a lot of considerations that go into it.
You said that comedy writing is very similar to news writing. Can you explain that a little more?
Basically the premise of all comedy writing and news writing is to reach the masses. With comedy, you’re trying to get jokes that are going to get the room laughing, and that’s because they are basically understanding what you’re saying and you guys are on the same page.
In the same way, nobody is writing a news article to go over somebody’s head. You’re doing it because you either need to get the facts out, or if you’ve put enough time in to make an investigative piece, you want that to penetrate and hit the most people possible, especially these days when it’s all about Twitter and it’s all about short-form content. You need to make something quick and punchy and ‘Why do I care?’ ‘So what?’ needs to be at the end of it right away.
Now that ‘so what’ can be in the form of information, where Journalism I think and comedy will put that ‘so what’ in terms of a punch line, but it’s a reason you’re getting it out there. So they’re very similar, and structurally speaking, you’re focusing on a generally younger reader.
You’re just trying to convey your point, and when you’re standing up on stage, if you’re taking people and they lose you, then you lose the room and it’s hard to get it back. So that’s why you don’t have many second chances I guess. If you lose the reader in the first paragraph, then forget about it. Then all the information is lost. You want to make every word count.