Packing a punch line
Have you heard the one about the comedian who walks into the liquor store?
If you know funny man Jeff Bergs of Alexandria, you have. He's the comedian and he walks into the liquor store just about every day.
Bergs, a semi-retired comedian, is a full-time employee of Downtown Liquor in Alexandria. He's worked at the liquor store for almost nine years and has been a comedian for nearly 30 years.
Becoming a comic
Growing up in a small town in southwestern Minnesota, Bergs said he spent a lot of watching television. He even called himself a "TV addict."
"I still remember watching Jack Paar. I always wanted to be him," Bergs said of the host from the early years of TV's "The Tonight Show."
He also loved watching George Kirby on "The Steve Allen Show," among many others. And he said his dad was a great storyteller and his mom loved a good joke and the arts.
"She wanted one of us, my brothers or I, to be involved in the arts in the worst way," Bergs said of his mom. "I was the baby and I remember her dragging me to see 'Fiddler on the Roof.'"
When asked if he liked it, Bergs busted out in laughter and said, "I really didn't enjoy it."
But becoming a comedian made his mom happy, he said, because it was as close to the arts as one of her children was ever going to get. He said his parents came to as many of his shows as they could.
Bergs didn't begin his life as a comedian until his was in his 30s. He had done voice-over work for radio stations and "back in the day" he said, he even did radio competitions with all the different imitations he used to do.
But, he actually always wanted to be a comedian, a stand-up comic.
"But in southwestern Minnesota, where would you do it?" he said. "There was nowhere. Well, I guess I was kind of the class clown, though."
He remembers when he was 14, he did a recording on a reel-to-reel recorder of some of his impressions and what he called "goofy things." He said they are stored down in the depths of his basement, but he hasn't listened to them in years. And he said, he's never shared them with his wife or children, but thought one day he might.
"I really wanted to be a comedian," he said. "I had a knack for doing impressions."
Some of his favorite voices he did included the likes of Johnny Carson, George Burns, Christopher Lloyd and Dudley Moore.
On his 32nd birthday, Bergs, who at the time drove truck for a beer company, finally got his chance. A friend of his dragged him down to the Twin Cities for the weekend. It was Friday night, he recalled, and they were headed to Scott Hansen's Comedy Club. Unbeknownst to him, however, it was open mic night and his friend secretly put his name in the hat to be drawn to perform. His name got called and he got to take to the stage for three minutes.
"I was scared," he said. "It was horrible."
Afterward, his friend told Bergs he better write some stuff down because he was going to do it again on Saturday night.
"After that weekend, I thought, I can do this," said Bergs.
And for the next six months, every weekend, Bergs drove 150 miles for the chance to get on that same stage for all of three minutes. Sometimes, his name was called. Other times, it wasn't.
He remembers one of the nights when Scott Hansen came up and talked to him after the show. "He said I was either dumb or dedicated for driving all that way for three minutes on stage," he said. "Scott liked that I was dedicated to the art."
During his early comedian career, Bergs got the chance to meet a lot of comedians, such as Bill Bauer and Louie Anderson. He said they took him under their wing and helped him get into a lot of clubs.
Bergs' comedy career took off and his time spent on the road increased, giving up time with his wife and two children. He quit working for the beer company and started working road construction. For five months of the year, he was on the road doing construction work and the other seven months, he was on the road doing comedy shows, sometimes up to three shows per night.
"It was the perfect setup for me," he said. "But I gave up everything. I missed everything — birthdays, holidays, everything — to make people I don't even know laugh. I loved it because I was making people happy. But at the same time, I was miserable."
Bergs compared it to the old adage, "When it works, there's nothing in the world like it, but when it doesn't, there's also nothing in the world like it."
His new life
Although he doesn't spend time on the road doing comedian work anymore, Bergs will do an occasional show here and there.
When he turned 50, he said everything changed.
"I got off the road when I turned 50. Comedy work doesn't have very good benefits," he said with a hearty laugh. "But I had a good life. I worked from coast to coast and all over Canada. It was fun."
Because Bergs called himself a "people person," he said he had to find a job that kept him out and about in the community with people. He was offered the liquor store job and it was a perfect fit.
Grinning from ear to ear, Bergs said it not only satisfied his need to interact with people, it gives him material for when he does perform.
"My life — from beginning to now — that's my show," he said. "I'm a storyteller. I am an actor. When I am on that stage, that's not me, it's an act."
Editor's note: Double Lives of Douglas County will be an occasional feature in the Echo Press, profiling people who have a hobby or second-calling that may seem an odd fit with their normal lives. To suggest a possible subject, email jbeach@echopress.