Comedy City Theatre

Keeping the lights on and the laughs flowing.

Taking a bow: Eserkaln (front), Nehring (behind Eskerain on left) and other members of the improv comedy troupe at Comedy City Theatre continue to deliver laughs to patrons throughout the pandemic.

By Erin Hunsader

It’s often said that laughter is the best medicine. COVID-19 and the most recent Omicron variant have no doubt caused challenges over the last two years. One local business specializing in comedy continues to do its part by providing chuckles for audiences.

Comedy City Theatre, formally known as the Green Room, in De Pere has had it’s share of challenges the last two years, co-owner Chad Nehring said.

Much like many businesses in the entertainment industry, Comedy City Theatre had to go dark in March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 shutdown. Two years later the lights are still on, but it wasn’t without some quick thinking on the part of co-owners, Nehring and Mike Eserkaln.

“It’s not been easy,” Nehring said. “I think it’s all just how quickly you can adapt. I think we’ve been really fortunate with the support we’ve received on multiple levels – local, state, federal.” Nehring said, referring to grant money they received.

Most recently, they were recipients of the federal American Rescue Plan Act funds along with 200 other event venues across the State of Wisconsin, which, Nehring said, not only helped them keep the lights on, but the doors open.

“It’s been very nice to keep our space,” Eserkaln said. “We did a renovation in January 2020, so we had a brand new space and ideas for it, and in a month or so, had to close.”

Nehring said it was no laughing matter when the reality of how the close would affect the entertainment venue’s finances set in.

“You can plan for knowing when you will have low periods (in business) or a staffing issue but not for a gargantuan pandemic,” Nehring said.

“And how to continue to plan for it,” Eserkaln added.

Nehring, who does the majority of the financial planning for the establishment, admitted that they’re not laughing all the way to the bank by any means, but he’s grateful for how planning has got them to this point. 

“It’s a reality for business owners in that you need to be reserved.” Nehring said.  “You need to be on financially good ground. We had reserves. The grant money definitely helped. Now with that money our focus is to make sure our basics are covered, and then take the revenue that we do have and put it back into the business. So for us, staying within the restrictions of those grants, that keeps us on sound footing for quite a while. … I got very good at grant writing”

Though the funding helps take some of the financial stress off, Nehring said, things just aren’t the same in a space that is usually full of laughter.

“It was so depressing to go into a space that had a ton of life in it and it was dead silent,” Nehring said. “You know, coolers turned off, chairs stacked, there’s not a noise in the place.”

Even as audiences began to trickle back when they could, Eserkaln said he noticed how they, too, were affected by the pandemic. During performances of their improvisation troupe, it would be typical to call out to the audience for suggestions to help kick off a scene. Eserkaln said he’s noticed a theme in audiences’ responses.

“We will ask the audience for an emotion and every time we would hear ‘depression, anxiety, anger, sadness.’ And I would say. ‘Okay, remember back to a time when we had other emotions. There were other emotions.’” Eserkaln said.

Even in the darkest of times, Eserkaln and Nehring said their collaboration kept things moving forward. Nehring, handling the financial side of things, and Eserkaln focused on event planning.

“We have our standard Comedy City show, but then we have our Cardboard Theatre, and a variety of other improv shows with a theme like a history based one and Valentine’s day one so, it becomes more of an event,” Eserkaln said. “It’s the whole plan this year, which, as I say it out loud, I realize I shouldn’t say it too loud. We have a plan – a very loose plan which could change at any moment.”

Change at any moment, Nehring said, seemed to be the thing that worked best for the venue. He said the 70-seat theatre also accommodates bridal showers, baby showers and weddings.

“We can accommodate just about anything in the space,” Nehring said.

For Eserkaln, he said his silver lining came out of the experimentation that was happening purely by necessity.

“For me personally, these last couple of years, because we’ve spent just, nonstop time reinventing – just trying to figure out what to do, which helped to keep our troupe together, morale-wise, and we had to keep letting audiences know, we’re still here doing things,” he said. “So, really it’s been a very inventive couple of years. We know now we can do more of a variety of stuff. We turned some of the energy and enthusiasm we had out of necessity into actual, practical ideas.”

One of those newer ideas is Cardboard Theatre, which Eserkaln said was essentially an idea they came up with to provide a way to do theatre with little or no budget.

“We had this idea of doing theatre as cheap as possible,” Eserkaln said, “So we write our own plays, then we build all of our sets and props out of cardboard, and there is technically no cost with that, except our time, and that’s it.”

Nehring said he wasn’t sold on the idea when Eserkaln pitched it to him.

“When Mike came to me with the concept, I was like ‘What?’” Nehring said. “Then I was like ‘Geez, that’s actually really good.’ I didn’t know how it was going to go over (for audiences) and from a venue standpoint, it brings in a different group of patrons that ordinarily come to a comedy city show once, but not repeat. We had packed houses for every performance (of Cardboard Theatre). We’re thrilled to have stuff like that.”

Improv troupe members performing at Comedy City Theatre, De Pere

The duo also experimented with events online as many other theatres did throughout the last two years. One of their more successful past events, they discovered, worked just as well – if not better – in a virtual setting.

“We did our 24-hour-theatre online,” (24-hour-theatre is an event where writers write a series of one-act plays overnight and then the scripts are rehearsed and performed the next day.) Eserkaln said.  “It’s hard to do improv online because you have to bounce off of people and there is no real audience reaction. But we did one 24-hour-theatre, we scripted it and that one felt more satisfying as a performance.” said Eserkaln.

He said they’ve also made some adjustments to their stand-up events, which used to be each Thursday, but now, discovered it works better to have a more variety of comics once a month.

“We got away from the weekly stand-up,” Nehring said. “It was getting somewhat repetitive so we went to the monthly open night, which seems to have some traction. We do get a rotation of people.”

“Everyone gets 5-minutes (of time) and you get another minute for every audience member you bring,” Eserkaln said. “If you want to bring 70-people and do something like a streaming service TV special, feel free.”

With all of their events, Nehring admits he is thrilled they can be an outlet for local performers.

“The bottom line is that there is so much talent around here that we’re happy if we can provide the outlet for it,” said Nehring.

Much like their financial plan, flexibility seems to be the key to their event planning as well..

“That’s one of the exciting things we’re doing – is just trying to have the venue be as open and and as flexible as possible,” Eserkaln said.    

The pair both agreed that, though it’s been a challenging year for their venue and other entertainment venues, they can’t help but admit that they are optimistic about the future, both for Comedy City Theatre and De Pere.

“With everything that’s going on in De Pere, I’m stoked about what the next several years look like,” Nehring said, “and we’re established and a part of that, so that’s cool.” 

Comedy City Theatre is located at 365 Main Avenue, Suite E in De Pere. They specialize in improvisational comedy, as well stand-up comedy and other events all involving local artists and comedians.

For more information, check out their website at https://thegreenroomonline.com/


Erin Hunsader is the Editor of Green Bay City Pages. You can reach her via email at [email protected]

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