andrew kruse-ross | creative neighbors | oct. 2016
Comedian, author, cartoonist, business owner; Mike Eserkaln is many things. For 25 years he's performed improvisational comedy on area stages, sharing laughs with audiences and his knowledge with up and coming comedians.
His name will be familiar to readers as the man behind Lunch Notes, which appear each month in this publication. He began creating the aptly named minimalist cartoons eight years ago for his daughter, Sydney, placing them inside her packed lunches before school. Today, many of those are shared with the public via his website, Eserkaln.com.
Long before Lunch Notes, Eserkaln recalls performing as a child with his brother, writing scripts and acting them out for fun. Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman were early influences as were Looney Tunes, Monty Python and Kids in the Hall. In contrast to his life now, where so much time is spent on stage, the comedian claims he was a remarkably shy student.
“All the way through middle and high school I became the quiet introvert," says Eserkaln. “I wasn't even a nerd. I was just this bland quiet kid."
Although shy, Eserkaln kept himself involved in theatre. Not yet comfortable on the stage, he worked backstage during school plays at Wauwatosa East. When a high school crush told Eserkaln she thought he was funny and suggested he sign up with the local ComedySportz troupe in Milwaukee, he took the advice to heart.
He didn't get the girl, but he did ace the audition. With ComedySportz, the emerging funnyman found his calling. Here, too, once in character and among other comedians, his shyness on stage dissolved.
Eserkaln continued with the troupe and spent a year enrolled at UW-Milwaukee studying film and animation, but found himself uncomfortable with the university's large size. He dropped out and enrolled at the smaller St. Norbert College, where he studied English and creative writing. The move also allowed him to remain in ComedySportz, which had a troupe on Washington St. in Downtown Green Bay.
Upon graduation from St. Norbert's he was offered a position as assistant manager for ComedySportz and quickly accepted. There he continued to hone his skills, and in his mid-30s he decided to take those skills to Chicago where he enrolled in a yearlong conservatory with The Second City, noted for training performers such a Dan Aykroyd, Steve Carell and Tina Fey.
After the conservatory, Eserkaln was cast in several projects and became a favorite of one casting agent in particular. His age, then 38, had him in demand for many roles that his younger colleagues couldn't pull off, but it wasn't to last. With word that his comedy troupe back home was struggling and the sudden death of his casting agent, he left Chicago behind.
“It was a great experience," says Eserkaln of his time in Chicago. But his time in the Windy Cindy taught him more than what he learned on stage, it also taught him about himself.
“I'm too nice of a guy to be really successful," he admits. “Maybe nice isn't the right word, but I'm not alpha male enough."
Whether some of his past shyness or maybe modesty, Eserkaln says he wasn't “cutthroat enough" to be really successful in the big city. Even today, as leader of De Pere's ComedyCity, the longest running comedy troupe in Northeastern Wisconsin, and as the owner of the Green Room Lounge, he is quick to deflect attention — even when performing on stage.
“I don't like being singled out from our troupe, and if they find out I own the place, I like it to be a surprise."
At times, this modesty may cause problems for Eserkaln who admits he's not well suited to promoting himself. Despite this, he's found some creative ways using social media platforms to attract a larger audience.
Eserkaln is a contributing comedian on a series of videos called Beer & Board Games, created by fellow Green Night and ComedySportz performer Matt Sloan (Chad Vader, Bad Society Films) and Aaron Yonda (Chad Vader, Christopher Walkenthrough). The show follows a simple formula: one board game, several comedians, six beers each and keep the cameras rolling.
Also in the works to generate an audience is a series of live streams on Facebook. In them, Eserkaln, who admits to struggling when it comes to seeing his many creative ideas through to the end, plans to share a creative idea with his audience — one he hasn't got the drive to complete.
“Yeah, it would be like 'Here's a short story I'm not going to do. Here's a play I'm not going to do. Here's a movie I'm not going to do … now you go do it.'"
He's yet to act on the idea.
Eserkaln hasn't failed to complete every creative task, however. His debut novel, “Cards with the Devil" was released in February of 2015. The book's Twilight Zone-like plot follows a small-time bootlegger who has been gifted a lifetime of youth in exchange for playing a game of poker with the devil.
“I tell people all the time that they don't have to read it. They should buy it, but I don't want people to feel obligated to read it. I've suggested that people put it on their bookshelf so they look smart."
He's currently working on his second novel, which he says is more in the vein of written slapstick, but his website offers dozens of other writings that include full-length plays, monologues, sketches and screenplays that are available to comedians and performers free of charge or by donation. He hopes that doing so will encourage users to share his work with others. This format has Eserkaln a bit torn.
“I think art should be accessible, but also that artists should be compensated for their work. I think as a society we should appreciate it more. Some people think that we don't need it, but you know, if we didn't have it we'd notice and we'd really miss it … We need to focus on making the arts an actual job because as we build robots, that's the last job that they'll be able to do, being a painter or an artist."
For Eserkaln, comedy, whether performing it, writing it or drawing it, is the only career he's ever known.
“I've had lots of other jobs for one day," says Eserkaln.
Among those jobs that didn't work out are golf caddy, which ended with his assigned golfer carrying his own bags; clerk at a big and tall store, which at the end of the day he was told to let management know when he could work again and he never did; and a single day working in fast food where a younger manager would kill flies with his bare hands before flipping burgers — also with his bare hands.
Today, looking back on 25 years of making comedy a living, perhaps his greatest challenge is keeping pace with the life he's created.
“Now I'm doing everything I ever wanted to do, but sometimes it's a different thing when you have to do that thing you love doing. You used to be willing to do it for free, now you have to make money at it. It's like being caught in your own creation."
Caught, at least until the robots come. And when that happens, Eserkaln says the best we can do is “hope they'll be kind to us."
To see Eserkaln with ComedyCity, visit the Green Room Lounge, 353 Main Ave., De Pere. The venue offers family-friendly improv shows, stand-up comedy, live band sing-a-long karaoke and much more. For reservations visit TheGreenRoomOnline.com or call (920) 983-0966.
For more Lunch Notes and various writings, visit Eserkaln.com. Find him playing board games at BeerAndBoard.com or on Youtube via BlameSociety. His book “Cards with the Devil" is available at Amazon.com.