Comedian, journalist and Wisconsin native Charlie Berens was announced as this year's winter commencement speaker. Berens graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2009 and is best known as the creator of the Manitowoc Minute.
Berens’ comedy focuses on the many niche aspects of Midwest culture, usually specific to Wisconsin. His content covers everything from the "Midwest Goodbye" to accents, beer, ice fishing, deer hunting and fish fries.
Berens spoke with The Daily Cardinal about his biggest piece of advice, what’s special about Wisconsin and how the Midwest embraces the good and the bad.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What was your reaction to being announced as the winter commencement speaker?
I was surprised in a lot of ways. Maybe I was the fifth or sixth choice, [but] I was super honored. It's sort of a weird thing to be asked to do that because you think, “Wait, didn't I just graduate?” I was very surprised, I was very honored. I think that's the short end of the sound bite.
What piece of advice would you give upcoming graduates?
Whatever you end up deciding you want to do and spend your time on, you're going to spend a lot of time doing it. Because you're spending a lot of time on it, you're gonna get good at it. So you might as well spend your time doing something you want to do.
Coming out of school, I didn't have the confidence to do the thing I actually wanted to right out of the gate. I don't really regret anything that I did at the same time, because even if something isn't directly what you want to do, it's all sort of feeding the same beast. You can gain skills that can help you.
You can spend time doing something you absolutely hate, and you're gonna be good at it, but then you're gonna hate what you're spending most of your time doing. So you might as well do something you love. But if for some reason you can't get a job doing the thing you love, find something you love in the job you're doing, because that will feed your next move.
From a larger standpoint, we hear this idea of "Midwest Nice" that's supposed to define the Midwest, and in a lot of ways it does. If you can be nice to somebody and try to take that "Midwest Nice" and make it something that the rest of the country can embrace. It all starts with us doing it right here, in the right way.
All the ingredients for a healthy society are at Madison, they’re written on the walls in the buildings. Look around and see them, internalize them and take them out to the rest of the world. I think there's a lot of great wisdom at Wisconsin.
Why do you think your niche Wisconsin brand of humor lands so well?
To be honest with you, I hope it's because it doesn't have much to do with me at all. I was in journalism for a long time and, in journalism, you're putting a spotlight on something that could use it. I think I'm putting a comedic spotlight on these cultural things that we’ve been doing. I've been doing nothing more than observing them and writing jokes about them.
I just try and put a mirror up to some of the funny things we do and get at the heart of why we do it. For instance, saying “drive safe, watch out for deer” is something that I grew up hearing more than “I love you” from certain family members, and I think a lot of people can relate to that. It's not that love doesn't exist and that people don't necessarily say “I love you” or “don't love you.” It's a show, don't tell kind of thing. You realize that you meet people kind of where they are, and you see what's at the heart of what they're saying. There's a lot of that in the Midwest.
What is something about Wisconsin that a non-native should know?
The best time to go birding in Wisconsin is right now when all the leaves have fallen. You can see all these kinds of birds in the trees, and they're eating some of the berries that are still there.
You definitely need to watch out for deer. Be on the lookout, and if you do hit one, that is some carbon neutral protein right there. It's worth figuring out how to clean it, toss it on its back, geotag it and do that whole thing with the DNR (Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources). You're talking about the planet, and that is some carbon neutral meat that’s right there for you.
If you weren’t a Wisconsin native, would you still gear your humor around the Midwest, or is there something about Wisconsinites and the state that makes it unique?
There's definitely something about Wisconsin. The sense of humor here is a little different — I’m not sure why. There's a big community feeling here, and there are a few things in Wisconsin that center around the traditions that we have. The University of Wisconsin is defined as the capital city of Wisconsin [because] it’s got this campus community feel. The Packers are actually owned by the city of Green Bay. It's the smallest market in the NFL. People spend $250 to be an owner and there's this community ownership feeling.
Then there are a lot of things that most people would not like in Wisconsin. It gets very cold here and sometimes summer doesn't come into full swing until late June. But this is a state where as soon as the lakes freeze over, you start ice fishing, or in the case of Madison, you put the Statue of Liberty on the ice. There are ways of making this thing that some people would see as unbearable very bearable and very fun.
I don't know if there’s something in the water in Wisconsin, but this is a place where you can go to a funeral and someone's going to be wearing a cheesehead. And that wouldn't even be the craziest thing. When my grandpa died, someone brought a plastic walleye, and of all the floral gifts that were given to my grandma, the one thing that's hanging in her house right now is that walleye.
How do you usually come up with your bits for Manitowoc Minute and your other content?
I can’t do all this stuff by myself by a long shot, so I have a great team I can brainstorm with. A lot of it is just living and having your ears open. It's almost like journalism for day-to-day life. You're trying to take note of the things that we have in common, and what is relatable and what is true. Honestly, sometimes that's harder than writing jokes. Once you find that relatable thing, that universal thing, you start writing jokes about it.
What part of Midwest culture do you love the most?
I love the embrace of good and bad. We got mosquitoes here and they’re a pain in the ass but if you kill the mosquitoes, what are the hummingbirds gonna eat, you know? It gets cold, but without it being cold, how are we going to ice fish and drink beers in an ice shack? You can only do that with ice.
In the Midwest, we sort of embrace the highs and the lows. I think seasons are a perfect example of that. It's a reminder that time is passing and life is short and we're here for a very short period of time, so you might as well just be nice. When you are fully able to embrace the lows, the highs are just higher.
What’s one of the weirdest parts?
The "Midwest Goodbye" is a very real thing. And if you don't know how to handle that, you will be here for a very long time. Years you could be at the exact same party. Everyone's nice, almost hatefully so sometimes. I would say the weirdest one is the Midwest Goodbye. Why can’t we just leave when we want to go? Why do we make it feel like it's their idea that we should go, otherwise we feel bad about it?
If you could have brats, cheese curds or beer for the rest of your life, which would you choose and why?
I'd have to go with beer. That's a very tough one, I don't take it lightly. It’s really a hopeful one, I do hope at some point they’ll be able to make beer out of brats and make beer out of cheese. And if they do that, I'd be able to have my brats and drink them too.