Iowan-turned-California comedian Mike Bridenstine will perform a live stand-up routine at The Mill on Saturday, Feb. 11 to record for his debut album, due out this year on A Special Thing Records. Born in Muscatine, Bridenstine attended the University of Iowa, graduating as a fifth-year senior in 2003 with a degree in communication and minor in art.
He then moved to Chicago, where he was involved in the freaky, performance-based comedy scene of the mid-2000s, which produced the likes of Nick Vatterott, Kumail Nanjiani and T.J. Miller. After four years in the Windy City, which Bridenstine said he considered akin to a high school experience, he departed the Midwest for the left coast.
In Los Angeles, Bridenstine worked his way up through the ranks of the city’s prestigious stand-up circuit. As many who gravitate to the heart of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, he auditioned for Comedy Central. Comedian Adam Devine then invited Bridenstine to New Orleans for a set for his House Party series. While in the bayou, Bridenstine linked up with a commercial agent and went on to perform in over 30 national commercials — which is how he paid for his wedding. Bridenstine has gone on to feature on Last Call with Carson Daly on NBC, The Eric Andre Show on Adult Swim and You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes. He’s also performed at numerous comedy festivals on two continents.
Bridenstine and I chatted over the phone. I prefer to emphasize the word “chat” here, as he has an amiable presence even with just his voice through a speaker. He’s adopted a bit of a California cadence after living there for just shy of a decade, but the warm, moseying pace of the Midwest remains intact. Nearly each exchange we shared was bridged by a giggle. We discussed a variety of topics, including the growing stand-up scenes across smaller communities in Iowa, such as Muscatine and Iowa City, where, when Bridenstine attended the UI, one could count the number of participants in the stand-up community on one hand.
The album recorded at The Mill on Saturday will be published both digitally and physically. Expect plenty of self-deprecating stories that resulted from his upbringing in Iowa. Though we couldn’t eschew the topic of the current political climate (these topics persist no matter what efforts to put on blinders), Bridenstine prefers to stay out of the crosshairs of the president’s Twitter account for the evening.
Former Iowa City comedian and Little Village comedy editor Arish Singh, who now resides in Chicago, will open for Bridenstine. The show is at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10/$15 at the door. Clare Roth hosts.
(This interview has been edited for narrative clarity and concision)
What in Iowa City, or Iowa, turned you on to stand-up comedy?
I was obsessed with it when I was kid, watching it on TV. All the time. One night [during college] I was at One-Eyed Jakes, and they had open-mic comedy there and a student was the host of it. I knew him from a class we had together, I knew he was a year older than me — so he’d be graduating. I was like, “How do I get that job?”
A little while longer, they moved it from One-Eyed Jakes to the Summit. One of the kids that worked there was just like, “Hey, you should audition to [host the event].” Just because he thought I was funny at parties or something.
I wrote eight minutes of jokes. I had a bunch of my friends come to the show, so my audition was in front of about 200 people. It’s still to this day one of the best sets I’ve ever had — but it was kind of fake.
What was fake about it?
I told my friends to laugh really hard at all of the jokes. Then I got hired.
Sort of did some puppeteering?
I do have friends that have written jokes for a famous puppet master.
So what was that set about? If you could just briefly give me a run of some of the jokes or themes.
There’s no fucking way I’m telling you. It was all terrible. It was, like, so terrible. People have asked for it, and then I’ll tell them like the kind of — it’s so hard to tell them. Oh, it’s cringe-worthy stuff. Like I had no idea what I was doing.
How do you see your stand-up and how it’s evolved over time since going to Chicago? Do you think that different environment reshaped or contributed?
Yes, Chicago was really alternative — I was not used to it — almost to the point that it was like anti-stand-up comedy. If you did straight stand-up there, at a certain point people were like, “This hack. What are you doing?” It was like, “Stand-up is lame. You should be tied to the floor, or push the envelope with it.”
And so that was a weird adjustment for me. There was some really weird, whack stuff. It was just kind of impressed upon me that you can literally do anything on stage as long as people are laughing. It made me experiment for a while. But that was never really my voice.
What were some of things done to push the envelope?
At one of the first shows I saw, the host was Nick Vatterott and he was covered in balloons. Head to toe. After every punchline he would pop a balloon. At one of the first sets I did, I followed this guy who was like 6 feet, 6 inches. He was on top of stool saying he was going to dive and get his beer.
So it was sort of a general sense of debauchery?
Yeah, I mean people would just puke on stage. Like that was their act. Some stuff was bizarre and unfunny. It was like, “What is going on?” So I wasn’t really sure how I was going to fit in. It was basically that you had to be as original as possible for them to respect you.
How do you think L.A. has shaped your trajectory?
That’s a good question. Since there’s so many good comedians in L.A., you kind of have to step up your game. Both cities have kind of made me try to step up my game a little bit. Because if you’re on a show, some of the best people in the world step up there and you really can’t be bad. Or you’re doomed.
… A good stand-up show has a lot of really good stories in it, which that wasn’t as popular when I started. It was either weird alternative, experimental stuff in Chicago or everybody being influenced by Mitch Hedberg. I think more people are moving into the storytelling direction. I don’t know what’s next. In the ’80s it was mostly observational stuff. It could go back to that. I don’t know.
Do you see the procedure of stand-up shaping itself around new forms of media consumption?
I noticed that with Louis CK: You can spend five bucks and have all his specials as opposed to going through anybody like iTunes or something like that. I personally think stand-up is still something people have to see live to really appreciate it — even now. I think that it’s always going to be old-fashioned in the fact that you just have to have people in front of you, with a drink in their hand and the lights down low.
That sounds right up Iowa City’s alley.
When I was there that’s how it was.
I can assure you that it hasn’t changed too much. Was there a reason you picked The Mill? Is it because it fits that description really well: low light, cheap drinks?
When I was a little kid, my grandfather and my uncle played in a bluegrass band at The Mill. I had a cassette tape of that performance that I would listen to all the time, especially because my grandfather died in 1994. I would listen to [the tape], and then my brother-in-law put it on .mp3. It was neat to have. And I had it in my head, “Wouldn’t it be cool, if I did my first album at The Mill?”