ARTHUR, WI – Finding the comedy club here is no laughing matter.
Southwest Wisconsin dairy farms surround the Arthur House restaurant in a Lego-sized village where the closest stoplight is more than six hilly miles away. Four national stand-up comics insist that Arthur ranks as America’s smallest and most isolated town to present touring performers on weekends. Acts often call en route and explain that they’re lost. Bill Hughes just smiles.
Hughes added weekly comedy to his Arthur House restaurant in February 2000 and he’s reassured countless comics.
“When you think you’ve gone too far,” he says, “just come a little farther because we’re still down the road.”
On this frigid Friday in January, the weekend’s headliner, Scott Long, drives to Arthur from La Crosse, where he performed in a club the previous night. What was Long’s first impression as he drove toward Arthur House at the lonely corner of Highway 80 and County A?
“It’s a good place to hide the dead,” he cracks.
Keep it clean
Inside Arthur House, located about an hour-plus drive from Madison, black-and-white publicity photos of mostly Midwestern stand-up comics who have performed here hang above the lengthy bar. It’s about 200 funnymen and some funnywomen, each with sitcom dreams and highly caffeinated expressions.
Several Arthur House acts have been finalists on NBC’s competitive series “Last Comic Standing.” Another two appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” One took his “I-played-Arthur” experience and worked it into a routine for Las Vegas audiences.
Arthur House comics perform in a low-ceilinged 200-seat reception and banquet hall attached to the dining room, where the buffet cart and salad bar has a “God Bless America” sign on one end. Hughes makes the comics comfortable and quickly offers each an ample meal in the homey facility built 30 years ago by an Arthur farmer.
Long, who has performed at virtually every major comedy club since 1992, appreciates the treatment. Comedy club owners, he says, “are usually jaded and treat you as a cog.”
In return, Hughes wants a PG-13 show that may inch into R-rated territory for his audiences that span generations. “I don’t want a grandma offended,” Hughes says, who uses a Milwaukee booking agent. “And don’t gross out my customers. I need repeat business.”
Small town, big laughs
Stan Nodolf, an Arthur dairy farmer, attends at least six shows each year. He’s a longtime Arthur resident and when its population is questioned others suggest that Nodolf may know.
Arthur – an unincorporated village with a Platteville mailing address despite being nine miles away – has one tavern, one church and a farmers’ union coop but no school, gas station or grocery store.
“I know everyone by name,” Nodolf says and pauses. He’s looking at the ceiling to think. Others at his table laugh. He’s counting the population name by name.
“About 50,” he concludes.
Hughes, a 1973 Sun Prairie High School graduate, says he received a flier about booking comedy at the restaurant in November 1999. Three months later, Hughes held his first show. It drew 150 people, a big success. “I was sold on it that night,” he says.
Arthur House’s mailing list for its comedy schedule has 6,000 names. Hughes says he draws customers from up to 12 different towns around Arthur. He hangs fliers promoting shows in every place within a 30-mile radius of the restaurant.
Comedy show tickets cost $9.50 – or $7 if you eat dinner at Arthur House. There’s no drink minimum.
Touring comic Mike Mercury, who lives in Blue Mounds, about 30 miles west of Madison, says Arthur House audiences tend to be “more appreciative and responsive” than urban counterparts because they have limited entertainment options.
Mercury has seen many comedy clubs come and go, but he says Arthur House’s eight-year run “never ceases to amaze me. It almost has to be considered an act of God.”
Arthur’s rural atmosphere provides fresh comedy for the acts, such as the time when a comic learned that cattle inseminators were in the audience.
“That gave the comedian an extra 15 minutes of good material,” Hughes says.
Long doesn’t hesitate about performing in such a tiny location. He performed before 1,000 New Year’s Eve revelers in Indianapolis, but he’s a pro who enjoys bantering with Arthur House’s crowd during his routine – though he admits, “This is an area I wouldn’t want to be low on gas.”
Before Long, opening act Tommy Thompson of Minneapolis seems stunned by the village’s isolation.
“Do you get trick or treaters in Arthur?” he asks the crowd. “Because they must be exhausted.”