CATHY WURZER: If you’ve been listening to this program, you know we love to talk to local artists about their influences and inspirations. Our next guest has grown an audience in Minnesota and across the nation as a comedian, writer, and graphic novelist. He’s performing two shows this weekend at Sisyphus Brewing in Minneapolis. Ben Katzner is on the line. Ben, welcome to the program.
BEN KATZNER: Hi, Cathy. Thanks for having me. This is great.
CATHY WURZER: Absolutely. So you grew up in Albany, Minnesota, which for folks not familiar with Albany, it’s teeny tiny. It’s near St. Cloud. And you often talk about it on stage.
BEN KATZNER: Yes, I do.
CATHY WURZER: You like to poke fun at it.
BEN KATZNER: It was great to me growing up, but it is definitely a place that deserves to be poked fun at a little bit. They can handle it. They’re tough people. They get it.
CATHY WURZER: So what’s the Albany shtick? What do you like to poke fun at?
BEN KATZNER: I just feel like– so for people who don’t know me, I am adopted. I was raised by a white family. I’m a Black man. And Albany, not a lot of people like me there. So that’s usually what I end up talking about in some of my experiences with that.
CATHY WURZER: Do some jokes land differently to Minnesotans than to, say, New Yorkers? You’re based in New York now. You have been for the past few years. How does that land when it comes to some of those jokes?
BEN KATZNER: Yeah. I think if you make a local reference, if I’m like, I was going to Mahtomedi, people in Minnesota, maybe that hits a little bit different here. And everywhere else they’re like, what’s a Mahtomedi? I don’t know what you’re talking about. So that’s the big difference. Recently, the biggest challenge with this has been coming back and doing shows here, and running into people who are from Albany in the audience who know everyone I know and my parents. So that’s been hard for me.
CATHY WURZER: Say, can I ask about influences in comedy? I mean, anyone that you used to watch, study as you were growing up that really shaped your sense of the business?
BEN KATZNER: Absolutely. I mean, nationally people like Hannibal Buress. I definitely remember watching Chris Rock when I was too young to be watching Chris Rock. I love Tig Notaro, all those bigger people nationally. But then locally, there are so many amazing comedians here like Mary Mack, Tim Harmston, Chad Daniels, all these people who I really, once I started comedy, just really started looking up to and really following. So those are some of the big influences for me.
CATHY WURZER: Let’s look at Chris Rock and Tig. Chris and Tig are great, obviously. What did you see in them? What did you learn from them?
BEN KATZNER: OK, yeah. So with Chris Rock, I mean, there’s a confidence there that I truly never had and probably never will have. Watching him stalk the stage and really own the space is something that’s so impressive to me. And in my own way, I try to do that. It’s not Chris Rock level, but we’re doing OK. And with Tig I feel like there was a little bit of an awkwardness, but like in a cool, fun way that I did relate to where whether she’s pushing a stool across the stage and just that’s the joke, is that it’s making a weird noise, or she’s just being this dry humor person, I really enjoyed the vibe that she brought to the stage.
CATHY WURZER: Now, your comedy act– some comedy acts, typical comedy acts are not exactly clean. You joke about, what, adult life. Are you in your mid-30s?
BEN KATZNER: I am in my mid-30s, and it is crushing me every day. I am in my mid-30s. Yeah. So I joke about my upbringing, small town, adopted Black kid. Currently where I’m at, I got married within the last year and a half, which is actually–
CATHY WURZER: Congratulations.
BEN KATZNER: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. And I’ll break this news here. Also, we just bought a house here in Minneapolis.
CATHY WURZER: What?
BEN KATZNER: So yeah. So I am moving back to Minneapolis. So I’m talking about that, adjusting to my new life and all that sort of stuff.
CATHY WURZER: Oh my gosh. So you’re really adulting. You’re just getting a house. That could be a whole comedy act in and of itself, home ownership.
BEN KATZNER: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it felt like a joke when we handed over all that money.
CATHY WURZER: Ooh.
BEN KATZNER: Really.
CATHY WURZER: A sick joke. Ouch.
BEN KATZNER: Absolutely.
CATHY WURZER: Yeah.
BEN KATZNER: Yeah. So yeah, that’s the sort of stuff I’ve been talking about recently.
CATHY WURZER: You are a writer. And you wrote a really thoughtful essay. Gosh, I read this back in 2020, Business Insider, after the murder of George Floyd. And you wrote about the first time you remember feeling afraid because you were a Black man at a predominantly white school. And I’m wondering, how did that experience shape how you approach conflict?
BEN KATZNER: Oh, it shaped everything. I think my upbringing even before– I don’t know if I realized it as much when I was maybe elementary school age, but once I started to get into late high school, early college, I started realizing the expectations a lot of people had for me as a Black man. And I wasn’t prepared for those sorts of conversations, for those sorts of interactions.
So I think I really shied away. I shied away from conflict. I shied away from experiences where a lot of people might just be like, hey, this will be fun. This could be exciting. Let’s get into a little trouble. Who cares?
I remember being the kid who was like, I cannot get into trouble. Because where I grew up, if I got into trouble, everyone would know I was there. I couldn’t hide from any sort of those aspects really.
CATHY WURZER: Especially in a small town. And of course, sometimes, small towns, there are stereotypes that everyone’s polite and everyone knows each other. So it’s hard sometimes to get into uncomfortable conversations. Have you had to work on that? Are you maybe a little bit braver now to get in? And instead of abandoning uncomfortable conversations, are you more willing to get into it now?
BEN KATZNER: Sure. I think saying brave is a very kind way of calling– I’m probably more annoying about it, I would say, now. I forced the issue a little bit more, I think, since 2020, since George Floyd. I had had a lot of tough conversations with people. That article that you’re referencing was actually my way of having these conversations with people and opening a dialogue. And some of those conversations were very fruitful and helpful, some of them not so much. And maybe we don’t talk anymore, but maybe that’s for the best too, so. I’m trying. I’m trying to be better. And now I just need to try to be a little bit less annoying about it, I think.
CATHY WURZER: And your writing has also expanded. You write graphic novels.
BEN KATZNER: Yeah. During one of my pandemic projects, one of the goals I had for myself was just to try something creatively and that wasn’t stand-up comedy because we didn’t know that stand-up was going to be around or how it was going to be around. And I got very lucky. One of my friends is a comedian and a comic book writer, Eliot Rahal– locally based, very funny.
And he hooked me up with the people at Vault Comics, who do a lot of amazing work in the comics industry. And they’re like, hey, we have this idea for a graphic novel about a child who gets poop-based superpowers. And I was like, I’m in. Whatever you need me to do, let’s do it. This sounds great.
CATHY WURZER: Poop-based superpowers?
BEN KATZNER: Yeah.
CATHY WURZER: Did I hear that right? OK, yeah.
BEN KATZNER: That’s exactly what it is. It sounds insane, and it is insane, but it was a really fun graphic novel to write. If you’re curious, I would say Google it. You can find out more about it. Kids will love it. If you have kids in your life who are into what I just described, they will love this book, I promise you.
CATHY WURZER: I’m thinking of the young male tweens in my life. And yes, they would. They would get into that in a big way.
BEN KATZNER: Yes, absolutely.
CATHY WURZER: By the way, writing for comedy is also tough, those who write jokes. It’s not easy. It’s not easy at all. Is it mining your life? Is it mining what’s around you? How do you know what– how can I ask you this question? How do you know a joke is good beyond, obviously, people laughing? I mean, when you’re sitting there, you’re going, OK, I think this is going to be funny, or how do you gauge that?
BEN KATZNER: Sure. I mean, once I– here’s what I’ll say. If I ever figure out the answer to that question, I will come back on, and I will tell you. I have no idea.
I really feel like it’s less that I know a joke is going to be good or it’s going to work. I think I come from a place of, hey, this is interesting to me, or here’s a thought I had. And then I just go from there and– honestly, it’s a lot of hoping just that it relates to other people. Or if it doesn’t relate to other people, it maybe opens a bridge to understanding of where I’m coming from or people who are like me are coming from.
CATHY WURZER: Hey, before you go, you need to tell us about the weekend at Sisyphus. This is a two-night run. You’ve got current and former local comedians with you, is that right?
BEN KATZNER: Absolutely. So I do this every year. This is a different spin on it because now I’m also a local, so it feels a little bit more like I’m welcoming people back to Minneapolis. Before, it was a homecoming for me.
But we’ve got a lot of people who– so first and foremost, Minneapolis has an amazing comedy scene. And if you can catch a show or see any of these comedians, please go and do that. There’s so many awesome people here who are skyrocketing and so fun to watch. So this show welcomes the people who have left back home, and also we mix in some locals. So we’ve got a local favorite like Ali Sultan, who is a big name, I feel like, around here.
CATHY WURZER: He’s great.
BEN KATZNER: Joey Hamburger, who is a very unique comedian, who’s one of my favorites to watch, who’s from here, who lives in New York now. We’ve got Emma Dalenberg. We’ve got Comrade Tripp. And then there’s a lot of amazing– the list is probably too long. I would argue I maybe have too many comedians. But outside of that, I do want to say– this is an announce, but we do have a couple special guests dropping in.
CATHY WURZER: OK.
BEN KATZNER: And I’m not going to say any names.
CATHY WURZER: OK, don’t.
BEN KATZNER: Yeah. I will say this. On Friday, I can guarantee there will be at least one comedian who is very well known locally, who is dropping a special tomorrow, and another comedian whose, I think, most recent special has over two million views.
CATHY WURZER: What?
BEN KATZNER: So check us out.
CATHY WURZER: We will. Ben, thank you. Best of luck.
BEN KATZNER: Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
CATHY WURZER: Absolutely. Ben Katzner, comedian, writer, graphic novelist. Friday and Saturday, Sisyphus Brewing in Minneapolis. Thanks for listening to Minnesota Now.