As Minneapolis sketch comedy pioneer Dudley Riggs was signing the papers to sell his Brave New Workshop in 1997, he had one piece of advice for its new owners: “Keep the janitor.”
The “janitor” was Caleb McEwen, a theatrical jack-of-all-trades who wasn’t above grabbing a mop and bucket when needed. But his primary cleanup duty is polishing jokes and sharpening shows produced by the nation’s oldest sketch comedy troupe.
“It’s one of the best decisions we ever made,” said BNW co-owner John Sweeney. “Caleb is our MVP. He’s dedicated, hardworking and a comic genius.”
In 21 years as the company’s artistic director, McEwen has made hundreds of thousands people laugh — writing, directing and acting in 80-plus revues at the workshop, while performing around the country and emceeing corporate events. But he hardly looks the part.
Dour and severe, you might mistake him for a mortician. He is an introvert who often would rather be alone. He describes BNW’s comic approach as “promiscuous hostility.”
“People who meet me in real life first, then see me onstage, are always shocked,” he said. “And people who see me onstage, then meet me in real life, are always disappointed. The comedy thing surprises everybody. People assume I was in the military.”
BNW star Lauren Anderson has acted under McEwen’s direction in every show at the workshop since 2004.
“He’s a master of comic timing,” she said, even though he looks more like a bouncer. “He has a gruff, scary exterior to those who don’t know him. But in truth, he’s a warm, kind, considerate person.”
The show doctor
While shows at Brave New Workshop are written by the performers, McEwen, as director, helps to shape the work for maximum comic impact.
As the troupe rehearsed its latest revue, “Guardians of the Fallacy: Executive Disorder,” he stalked the darkened house like a prizefighter in a ring.
“He really knows how to find the funny in any situation,” Anderson said. She recalled a sketch she’d written about the first date of two weirdos who met online. The man could only have an orgasm if his hands were in a bowl of cold shrimp.
Anderson struggled with the ending. The man asks his date if she has any shrimp. McEwen swooped in with a suggestion: “Well, I don’t have any shrimp,” the woman replies, “but I have a bag of fish sticks and a can-do attitude.”
“It got the biggest laughs every night, and that one little change made it a winner,” she said. “As an actor, that’s awesome. As a writer, you’re like: Why couldn’t I do that?”
The Tiger Woods of knives
Founded in 1958 by Riggs, Brave New Workshop is more than comedy. It’s a sizable business, and one that gets no direct public support.
When Sweeney and co-owner Jenni Lilledahl bought it from Riggs, the company was struggling. It had a good product in its comedy shows, but was reliant entirely on box office and concessions.
McEwen has helped Sweeney and Lilledahl build the business beyond BNW, with branches in corporate training, improv classes and keynote speakers for hire.
Leading the troupe and doing emcee work across the country frequently take him away from his home in St. Paul with his college-sweetheart-turned-wife, Katy McEwen, who is the workshop’s associate artistic director. They have a son, 11, and a daughter who turns 8 on Friday.
McEwen has yet another gig that earned hm some TV notoriety. In 2010, he advanced to the Las Vegas round of “America’s Got Talent” with his partners in a trio called the Danger Committee. Their act, which performs regularly at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, includes juggling, telling jokes — and knife-throwing.
“What Michael Jordan is to basketball and Tiger Woods is to golf, Caleb is to knife-throwing,” said Danger Committee partner Mick Lunzer.
Some might think success came easily to him. But at age 44, as he likes to remind people, McEwen has been in the trenches for more than two decades, and he is not about to rest on any laurels.
“You work for 22 years, and you feel like you’re just getting started because there’s so much to learn.”
He’s a gas, gas, gas
Born in suburban St. Louis, McEwen grew up in a tiny town in central Missouri where the school bus bounced along gravel roads for an hour before he got home.
His mother, Carmen, was a painter and teacher; his father, Jim, was a coach. “I have my aesthetic from my mother and my approach to theater from my father,” he said. “I think of myself as a theater coach.”
He hoped to make a living onstage, but didn’t imagine it would be in sketch comedy. He dreamed of being a dancer, even majoring in dance for a spell at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and working with the Dayton Modern Dance Company and Ballet Tennessee in Chattanooga.
“I was strong and could lift taller girls,” he said. “Dance is one of the few areas where they need men, unlike comedy or theater, where there’s a huge number of men taking up space.”
But after a while, he realized that the dance life was not for him. “I had certain limitations physically in terms of bone structure and build,” he said.
In the mid-1990s, he and then-girlfriend Katy visited their college actor friend Susan Blackwell, who was then working at the Guthrie Theater. She drove them around the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes, then, passing the old Brave New Workshop space in Uptown, remarked that McEwen should audition there.
He remembers that ride vividly. Blackwell doesn’t, but recalls he had a knack for comedy and improv going back to when they did summer-stock theater as students.
“We were in this little town that was in nowheresville,” Blackwell said. “The only thing that was open late was Meijer grocery store, which was like a 24-hour Target. After the show one night, we went in there and picked up products and did improv to make each other laugh until we were sick. There was no alcohol or drugs involved. His effervescence, his humor, his intelligence — those were enough to leave you feeling high.”
She thought for a bit.
“Caleb’s got that magic like that fizzy lifting drink from ‘Willy Wonka,’ ” she said. “He’s a total gas.”
Getting his career afloat
Of all the odd things he has done to make a living, one of the weirdest turned out to be one of the most worthwhile.
During his early years at BNW, he was tasked with creating a comedy on Disney cruise ships, with a cast including Melissa Peterman (“Reba”).
“We did between four and six shows, seven nights a week,” McEwen said. “It was an enormous amount of work, but it’s one of the most valuable things I did.
“It forced me to be in front of so many different audiences. It taught me some intangible, qualitative things, like having commitment onstage. And you could not ever, in any way, portray any kind of fear. You start getting laughs from an audience the moment you stop caring about whether or not you will succeed.”
The experience also helped him define his persona, and his approach to comedy.
“A lot of comedians step out onstage and people immediately like them,” he said. “Think of Johnny Carson or Jim Gaffigan. But other comedians, like Bernie Mac or Daniel Tosh, don’t necessarily work that way. They’re standoffish, adversarial. You end up liking them in spite of themselves.
“Norm Macdonald says, ‘I’m not a likable guy, so I have to have strong material.’ Nobody could see themselves hanging out with him. That’s me.”
Katy McEwen said that people tend to form “impressions of Caleb, which is a testament to his character. People mistake his thoughtfulness for judgment or anger, but he’s really just working things out.”
Comedy is not easy
He spends so much time thinking about comedy that he doesn’t try to be funny unless he needs to be.
“I’m not doing it because I need people to laugh with me all the time, or I need to be onstage,” he said. “It’s something that I enjoy and, I guess, I’m good at, based quantitatively on my career. But being funny is one of the toughest things you can possibly do, even if I enjoy the challenge.”
He acutely feels that challenge, and wishes others would appreciate the skill and effort required to be funny as well. When he speaks about his work, he often seems to have a chip on his shoulder.
“We’ll do a corporate event, and somebody always says, ‘You have to meet Bob from accounting; he’s the funniest guy in the office — just hilarious!’ I can guarantee you that Bob’s not funny. Bob’s succeeding because he’s surrounded by friends who like him. But if he had to get up onstage and entertain strangers who’ve paid good money to be entertained, Bob would not survive.”
McEwen has more than survived.
“There would be no Brave New Workshop without Caleb McEwen,” co-owner Sweeney said. “And Caleb understands that making people laugh is very serious business.”