Mary Mack's riffs on the Midwest resonate nationally

Mary Mack
Comedian Mary Mack outside her her home in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Few comedians embody rural, upper Midwest values and idiosyncrasies more on stage than Mary Mack.

She has developed a national following telling stories and singing songs about what it really means to be a Midwesterner.

The first thing you notice about Mack is her deep, church basement potluck supper accent.

"Thanks you guys for coming here. This is my voice," she says. "I'm sorry."

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You can hear her say this on a track from Mack's "Pinchfinger Girl: A Tragicomedy" CD, recorded live at the Comedy Club in Madison, Wis.

"Yah, maybe you're thinking, 'She sounds like a five-year-old, and yet she has the body of a 4th grader,'" she continues.

Actually, she sounds like a cross between Marge from the movie "Fargo" and former Saturday Night Live alum Victoria Jackson.

But that accent isn't a put-on, which you quickly find out when you visit Mack, 30, at her Minneapolis home.

Mack's roots are in working class Webster, Wis. Her dad was a mechanic and her mom bartended. But Mack went in a more academic direction, earning two musical master's degrees, one in clarinet performance, the other in conducting. For a time she taught music in Nashville. When she got homesick, she helped start a local polka band.

"We were so bad the players argued and fought on stage, and then I'd have to stop and talk, in between the songs," she said.

Mack's on-stage banter became more popular than the polka, and a comedian, who reveled in her northern Wisconsin-ness, was born.

"When you grow up there or even here, you hear your whole life, 'don't-cha dress in layers, dress in layers,' right?" Mack asked her Madison audience. "That's so when you go to the big city, and you get shot, it doesn't hurt as much."

Mack's act isn't traditional stand-up comedy.

"I call myself a folk humorist," she said.

Which would put her in the same category as Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor. In fact, Mack once heard Keillor refer to comedy as low-brow art.

"And I felt really sad for two weeks, cause it takes me a lot of time to create low-brow art," she said.

"I'm not motivated you guys," she said. "I don't even make a to-do list anymore. I just wait 'til the end of the day, write down all the stuff I got done, and just cross it off. I got everything done again!"

Mack doesn't resort to one-liners or punch lines. Her comedy is all about the story, or the song.

"For I belong to the northern branch of the starving cross of the holy moleys," Mack sang on her CD "Pinch Finger Girl." "No, we're not a cult we just have nothing else to do. Yes, we are a church with roller derby in the basement, where we take out all our aggressions for Christ."

"She does this backwoods Wisconsin thing," said St. Paul performance poet Paul Dickinson, "which is really funny but behind that is just a lot of intelligence."

Dickinson has seen Mack perform a number of times. She recently opened for him at a reading at St. Paul's Turf Club. Dickinson thinks her popularity is due in part to her positivism.

"She's critical of society and the world in her own special way but I think people are drawn to her because it's not so mean-spirited," he said. "And I think there's enough of that in the world."

"My mom doesn't even want me to do comedy," Mack told her Madison audience. "And I said mother, if you didn't want me to be a comedian you shouldn't have boozed it up in the fourth trimester."

Mary Mack splits her time between L.A. And Minneapolis. She's on the road a lot, playing everything from clubs and colleges to bars and banquet halls.

She's been on National Lampoon's satellite radio station, Comedy's Central's "Live at Gotham," and NBC's "Last Comic Standing." The idea of a TV show, maybe something along the lines of Mary Tyler Moore meets Red Green, appeals to Mack, too, because then she could get on a regular schedule.

"Isn't that funny," she said. "It's like, I don't think about being famous, I'm more just like, 'oh yah, you could go to bed at the same time...you could have jammy time if you had a regular job.' "

But to get a TV show, Mack would have to arrange a pitch meeting in L.A., and frankly, she says, she'd rather go fishing.