On many winter days, you can find Chad Daniels in rural Minnesota, trudging through the snow with his dog, shooting hoops at the local YMCA or playing board games with his teenage daughter. But every other weekend, he escapes small-town life to become a king of comedy.
Fans flocking to his five shows at Acme Comedy Company in Minneapolis next month already know he's a unique talent with a knack for making parenthood sound as challenging — and exhilarating — as an Indiana Jones crusade. He's also wildly popular among those who stream their stand-up. According to Spotify, he's one of the most downloaded comedians of all time, with numbers that rival Kevin Hart's and Jim Gaffigan's.
"He's going to hate that I say this, but I think he's the best stand-up comedian in America," said fellow comic Cy Amundson, who co-hosts the podcast "The Middle of Somewhere" with Daniels.
But to those who measure success by awards and film roles, Daniels is a relative unknown. The uninitiated who spot him at Home Depot might think he's a store manager.
That's largely because he broke an unwritten rule of comedy. When his career started to catch fire, he refused to relocate to a major city, staying put in Fergus Falls, his hometown of 14,000 people.
Dave Chappelle followed the same path, but his home in Yellow Springs, Ohio, is just 19 miles from Dayton. It takes Daniels about an hour to get to Fargo and three hours to drive to the Twin Cities.
"There's something comfortable about it," he said last month while preparing a pot roast in his modest kitchen, wearing a sweatshirt from a local figure skating club and sporting a beard that makes him look like he just spent three weeks in the Boundary Waters. "Coming off the road and going to an apartment in L.A. or New York seems very sad to me."
Fellow comic Pete Lee said his good friend may have taken some business risks by not making a move to one of the coasts. But it turned out to be a blessing.
"So many comedians end up living in a bubble, in cities where their material is unrelatable to 98% of the world," said Lee, who performed throughout Asia with Daniels and Tom Segura, a tour that was documented in a 2017 film, "I Need You to Kill." "But Fergus Falls has kept Chad grounded. He made a decision to put his family first, and it ended up paying off in his standup."
Long road to success
The 47-year-old entertainer grew up preparing to be a professional comic.
He'd perform in front of his sixth-grade class whenever the teacher stepped out. He pored over TV Guide each week and circled the nights that Johnny Carson and David Letterman would be featuring stand-ups. He had a running contest with a classmate to see who could whip out the most devastating insults.
When he was 18, he hosted his first comedy show, putting up fliers, securing a conference room at a local hotel and setting up the chairs. Ten people showed up.
When his then-girlfriend and future wife decided to pursue a master's degree at the University of Minnesota, he followed her, popping up at open mikes when he wasn't bartending at Eagle's Nest Lounge in Robbinsdale.
Daniels entered Acme's Funniest Person Contest in the late '90s. He's certain he came in last place. He eventually landed a gig emceeing shows in Grand Forks, N.D., but wasn't making headway at Acme, where he dreamed of becoming a regular.
"I could smell the stink of the road on him," said Acme owner Louis Lee. "He was always a crowd-pleaser, but when you play those small towns, you can do well just through high energy and moving quickly. You can end up doing the same act for 10 years without changing a sentence."
But Lee could see something more in Daniels. He finally gave his stamp of approval when Daniels started to focus on what he knew best: being the father of two young kids, Isaac and Olivia.
"That's when he started relating to a lot of parents and started writing from the bottom of his heart," Lee said. "That's when the crowd started to get who he is."
'The truth about life'
Daniels' most memorable routines treat fatherhood like hand-to-hand combat, but with everyone wearing velvet gloves. There's a lot of graphic language, but you always feel like he's sincerely interested in stepping up his game. Teenagers tell him after his shows that they wish he was their dad.
"I've always felt that Chad gets the truth about life," said national headliner Jackie Kashian, another comic who cut her teeth at Acme. "You start out not knowing things. If you're willing, you learn. Then you can judge others. I kid. But I do."
In his 2012 special "As Is," currently streaming on Pluto TV, Daniels talked extensively about Olivia pestering him about how magnets work, how she went through puberty and how he dealt with an incident in which she swore at school.
Olivia, currently a freshman at California's Chapman University, recognized early that it was less about her and more about him exploring relatable truths. Plus, he always cleared material with his kids first.
Not that Olivia follows her dad's career — or much comedy in general. She had never even heard of Chappelle.
"My friends will bring up stuff from his routines, but I don't even know the jokes they are referencing," she said while home for winter break to take part in a figure-skating competition and get some home cooking. "He's funny, but I think we're all funny. We're a funny household."
The two are obviously close. After dinner on the pine table Daniels constructed himself, they engaged in a dice game, Shut the Box, each celebrating good rolls like they had just won at bingo. Afterwards, they watched the final season of "The Good Place." It was the fifth time they had seen the entire series together. Daniels is also close to his older child, Isaac, who lives down the street and is studying to be a coder.
Forging his own path
It's a stark difference from the relationship he had with his own father.
Daniels was 16 when his dad all but abandoned the family. He would later steal his son's identity and use it to write bad checks. Ask Daniels where his father is today and he'll likely tell you he's dead. In actuality, he's living in Las Vegas.
"It's not poor me. I had a very charmed childhood. It just may not seem like it because of that one tiny thing," said Daniels, who is close to his mom, figuratively and literally. She sells pulltabs in several Fergus Falls bars. "As a dad, I took the good things I admired about him and went the opposite direction on other things."
Daniels shows his independence in other ways. In December 2021, he and big-name comics including John Mulaney and Segura complained about Spotify's copyright royalty terms. The streaming service pulled his material from its playlists. He'll book smaller clubs that believed in him early on, even if it means turning down more lucrative venues. Those decisions were made easier by living in a small town.
"Some of my friends have had to say yes to doing things to pay the rent," he said. "I could probably go shovel 10 people's sidewalks and pay my mortgage."
Early in his career, he swore at a heckler while opening for Bill Engvall, the Blue Collar comic who works clean. He got booted from the tour, which would have netted him $60,000.
"My wife said, 'Do you want to be Bill Engvall's opener or do you want to be Chad Daniels?'" he said.
The two got divorced a few years back, but Daniels has nothing but praise for Jessica.
"If you're going to do this, you need to find someone who can support you blindly every single day," he said. "She's easily my number one supporter."
What the future holds
Daniels isn't opposed to more mainstream success. He helped develop a sitcom based on his life, but it stalled when COVID hit. He had no plans to star in it.
"I have no desire to come and ruin a sitcom with my poor acting," he said.
Amundson hopes the project will eventually come to fruition — with his buddy center stage.
"Can you think of anyone's life that is better built for a sitcom?" said Amundson, who grew up in Worthington, Minn., and lives in Cincinnati. "It's as if Tim Allen was cool and had an act."
Daniels might not be as wealthy as the former "Home Improvement" star, but he's doing just fine. Each weekend gig earns him $25,000 to $50,000. He recently bought a townhouse in Minneapolis with his girlfriend, fast-rising comic Kelsey Cook. This past December, he taped two comedy specials in Madison, Wis., that are expected to premiere this spring.
The new material reflects changes in his life. Now that he's an empty nester, he's pivoting more to politics, sharing his view of the world from a place where extremists on both sides co-exist. During a recent performance in Cleveland, he joked about how he believes kids should get free lunches at school — but should also be subject to corporal punishment.
Some in the audience who may have come expecting dad jokes seemed unsettled.
"If this is the show that kills my career, that's OK," Daniels said from the stage. "I'm already rich."