Have you ever heard a Minnesotan utter the words "No, yeah" — or its inverse, "Yeah, no" — and wonder what the heck they're trying to say?
Charlie Berens can explain, even defend, this contradictory Midwestern colloquialism.
"It's like a math equation. It's whatever it ends on, that is your thing," he said, breaking it down for me. "If I said, 'Yeah, no,' it's no. If it's 'No, yeah,' it's yeah. But if it's 'Yeah, no, yeah,' it's yeah.
"I love it. We do it because it's plausible deniability," he added. "It's a politer way of saying yes or no."
This is Berens' sweet spot: dissecting Midwest culture and mannerisms, often with aw-jeez self-deprecation, in a way that makes us laugh at ourselves while still feeling good about who we are. It explains the viral success of his online videos, which take on everything from our aggressive refusal to take the last cheese curd to the secret of translating Minnesotan, Yoopernese and his native Wisconsinese into English.
These days the Milwaukee-based comedian is branching out way beyond YouTube. Last fall, he released his book, "The Midwest Survival Guide: How We Talk, Love, Work, Drink, and Eat ... Everything With Ranch," which became a New York Times bestseller.
Now he's working through his biggest stand-up tour yet, filling seats from New York to Hawaii, with plenty of small-town stops along the way. He performs Wednesday on the eve of the Lumberjack World Championships in Hayward, Wis., a cabin destination most recently in the news for Walgreens John. (Berens will be back in the Twin Cities for five shows, four of which have nearly sold out, in October.)
His brand of Upper Midwest humor — with all its insular jokes about Kwik Trip, tailgating, four-hour goodbyes, Up Nort', and walleye — can appeal to people beyond its borders because at its heart is a universal hopefulness, Berens told me. At its best, he said, the Midwest is a place that wants everyone to come to the potluck, along with the German, Somali, Hmong or Ojibwe dish that best represents them.
"It's kind of a 'Do good first, ask questions later,' " he said. "It's trying to do right in this world where a lot of people try to to divide us."
But beneath those palatable layers of fried onions and bacon bits, something else is bubbling in Berens' hot dish. Something meatier, even a little subversive, with the power to open minds and move the political middle. Cynicism — an important cudgel in many comics' toolbox — is one he resists.
On his podcast, Cripescast, the former reporter taps guests to discuss climate change, racism, veterans' issues and gun control.
"They're not polarizing issues," Berens, 35, insists. "Politicians and pundits have gotten paid via cable news to make them polarizing. They know who they are. We got 'em in Wisconsin."
He says it's frustrating to hear Americans deny the reality of global warming or racial bias, because when he performs before both Democrats and Republicans, these are things everyone agrees on.
Take stricter gun regulation. "Do we need to take everybody's guns away? Absolutely not," said Berens, who owns firearms and hunts. "But do we need to pretend like this is OK, that you can have grade-schoolers murdered in the way they are?"
When pressed, he concedes that exploring these issues does elicit the occasional death threat. "But the thing is, even the people who act the strongest against something often have been moved the most. They just don't know it yet."
Berens grew up the second-oldest of 12 children ("I was a mass-produced fella") in the western suburbs of Milwaukee. He describes his upbringing as privileged, yet he learned quickly in such a big family that "it's not about you."
While studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, he was hired by MTV to cover the Republican National Convention in St. Paul in 2008. He was one of several dozen journalists arrested while covering clashes between police and protesters.
"I spent the night in jail, made friends with a taxi driver, gave him half my PB&J. And he gave me a ride to Dinkytown after," he recalled, "so that was nice."
After graduating in 2009, he set off to be a bigshot broadcast journalist.
But while working in Los Angeles, he discovered through a voice coach that he had a startling Sconnie accent. Even at a short stint in Washington, D.C., at a Chinese state-owned broadcaster controlled by that country's Communist Party, "they weren't a fan of the accent, either," Berens recalled. "I couldn't do voiceovers because it didn't sound American enough for them."
He kept hustling, working in various news markets around the U.S., always trying to suppress his pancake-flat vowels — and a core part of his identity. But he was growing discontented with journalism because it felt like the most important stories weren't breaking through to the public. He felt like there had to be a better way to get crucial information to more people "so we all have a common set of knowledge."
He started doing stand-up at night. One comedy bit, in which he parodied his time as a Midwest local news guy, crushed it. But only 50 people saw it at a time. He decided to turn the news spoof into a video. With a hyped-up version of his naturally nasally delivery, Berens launched the first episode of "Manitowoc Minute" on YouTube, ending with his character's signature signoff: "Go Packers, #&$@ Da Bears." It garnered hundreds of thousands of views in a single day.
As his social media career took off, he amassed fans from all sides of the political spectrum. And he wondered why the officials we elect can't seem to do the most basic thing — talk to one another and find common ground, so we can move forward on the things that most of us agree on.
Can comedy heal our country?
"When you're laughing together, you're forgetting about what divides you," he said.
To which I say: Yeah, no, yeah, doncha know.