Lasting impressions: Tracy native reels in the laughs on comedy circuit
LAKE IDA -- It's 9:30 a.m. on a weekday morning, and the fish just aren't biting on Jeff Bergs' line.
"I've been out here since the sun came up, and it's cold," he reported during an interview via cell phone from a fishing boat in the middle of Lake Ida, just north of Alexandria.
The middle of a lake is where Jeff spends a lot of time when he's not working, and sometimes even when he is. Jeff makes his living mostly as an impressionist and comedian, but he also hires out his services as a fishing guide and occasionally as a bartender. He and his wife, Robin, have called Alexandria home for many years, and it's where they raised their three kids. They now have four grandchildren.
But Jeff grew up just a short drive north of Worthington, in Tracy, and is a 1976 graduate of Tracy High School. That small town on the prairie is where he first felt the calling to be an entertainer and developed a reputation as a class clown.
"I was one of them," he said. "There was quite a competition for (class clown) there. ... I have tapes at home of stuff that I did in the eighth and ninth grade, just goofy stuff that I did probably alone in my room. You think, what the heck was going through your head at that point? But I still have that old recorder, and it's fun to listen to it."
Although he had comedic aspirations back then, Jeff never voiced them out loud.
"When you're a kid, you don't tell people (that you want to be a comedian), because they think you're a little loopy. Besides, I didn't know how to get started. Coming from Tracy, there weren't a whole lot of avenues to take to get into that. At that time, there weren't any comedy clubs in Sioux Falls or anyplace in the area. So I didn't get started until later in life."
After high school, Jeff chose the military route, joining the Air Force. He did a three-year stint and also served in the National Guard for seven years.
"They wanted me to do something (in entertainment) when I was in the military, too," he recalled. "They knew I was a little off. But I didn't pursue it then, either, probably because I was young and stupid."
Jeff returned to Tracy for a short while before moving to the Alexandria area, drawn by the lure of the lakes and the fishing potential.
On his 32nd birthday, a friend literally pushed him into taking the stage.
"A friend took me to a comedy club in the Cities," he remembered. "I didn't know it, but it was open mike night. All of a sudden, they were calling my name to come up. They give you like three minutes. The next night, there was another bar that had open mike night, and my friend said, 'Let's try it again.' Then I started going every week -- Sunday nights it was open mike at one place, Monday night was another. So I'd go down every Sunday and Monday night and work on my act."
Looking back, Jeff realizes just how little he knew about the business.
"I didn't know a thing about comedy. I had to learn from the ground up," he reflected. "On those open mike nights, the veterans often come in to work on their new stuff, and they kind of took me under their wing. I was their age, not one of these new young knuckleheads who thought they were going to be on 'The Tonight Show' in two weeks.
"I got lucky and met these guys who had been in it for 15, 20 years, and these guys would drag me along to their gigs as the MC. That's the way everybody starts. First, you get 20 minutes to a half hour, then you're the middle guy and finally the headliner. So, I got to know the club managers, the employees at the clubs got familiar with me. You get a lot of ins like that."
Now, Jeff is billed as "The Midwest's Best Impressionist and Comedian." When he started out, the impressions made up the bulk of his act, but the routine has evolved over the years.
"That was what I was going to do -- all impressions -- but that's not easy to do for an hour and a half. Once I started learning how to write comedy, I had as much fun doing the straight stand-up stuff as impressions."
Impressionism is also a dying art, Jeff added, due to the lack of character voices.
"They're all dead now," he said of the celebrities that he can impersonate. "The voices now that you hear, on movies and TV, nobody has a distinct voice anymore. I've been trying to come up with people that you see now, current celebrities, and they just don't have anything distinctive that sets them apart from anybody else."
Jeff still includes impressions -- Johnny Carson is one of his personal favorites -- but much of his routine is based on his own life, not celebrities.
"My show is basically a big story of my life," he said. "That's what it's all about. A lot of people after my show say 'The things you talk about seem like things that really happened to you,' and they are. Sure, you may color it a bit, stretch stuff out, but a lot of it is real."
While he fishes, Jeff has plenty of time to contemplate his material, but he admits that most of it is written on the spur of the moment.
"My stuff comes to me at different times," he explained. "My wife gets upset because I don't have a file system. I have stuff written on matchbooks, little scraps of paper, bev naps. I don't just sit down and write like I should. Some comics will take a day and just sit and write, write, write. Me, if I see something stupid, I just write it down."
Although he tries to keep his material fresh, Jeff gets requests to repeat certain bits.
"You have some things that people are always wanting to see, that people are waiting for you to do," he said. "I do this thing about 'Star Wars,' and I have this bucket that I put on my head as a helmet. Everybody just waits for that. If one night I don't do it, people say, 'What happened to the pail thing?' But I get tired of putting a pail on my head.
"Every time I did a show in Fargo, this one couple was there. They never missed a show. I finally asked them, 'You people have seen my show a thousand times, aren't you tired of it?' The guy said, "It's like hearing a good song on the radio. If you like it, you can listen to it a thousand times.' He said, 'I just enjoy your humor.' I had never thought about it that way, but obviously, you're not going to please everybody, either."
Comedy shows have waxed and waned in popularity, and Jeff thinks the genre is on an upswing once again. He's been told that he sounds a lot like Ron White, a comedian who has gained prominence through the "Blue Collar Comedy Tour."
After spending a lot of time on the road, Jeff feels lucky to get a lot of gigs on Midwest turf, a few hours drive from home.
"I've gone all over the country, from sea to shining sea," he said. "I used to do Canada, too, but I quit doing that. It's a personal preference, because you've got to get a work permit, and it's just a pain, so I stay away from Canada.
"I can't do (the traveling) like I used to. Years ago, I'd do six-, seven-week runs at a time I'd be gone. After about the third day, you just don't feel funny anymore, and you have to act like it's the first time you've said that crap."
Occasionally, bookings even bring him to southwest Minnesota, like an upcoming show on Friday at the Travelodge in Worthington and an Oct. 28 gig at the Shetek Bend Banquet Bar & Grill in his hometown of Tracy.
"Twenty-seven years ago, I left this town, and now they pay me to come back," he commented. "I knew the word irony as a kid, but it never pertained to me."
In Worthington, he will be joined by comedians Rox Tarrant and Jamie Blanchard. Tarrant is also on the bill in Tracy along with Fred Bevill.
"Rox has been producing a lot of comedy stuff, and we're starting to do more and more stuff together. She knows there are opportunities to be had right here in the state so we don't have to travel all over the country."
Sticking close to home also affords him more time for fishing.
"If I'm not working, I'm on the water," he said. "I fish all day. Right now, I'm watching another guide who's fishing over a ways, and I haven't seen him bring in anything, either."
Jeff will perhaps have more luck reeling in laughs during shows at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday at Stephanie's Lounge at the Travelodge, 2015 N. Humiston Ave., Worthington. For ticket information, phone 372-2991.