A veteran comedian with Anoka roots has left the planet but, for many, he has left a lasting imprint on the funny business of comedy.
William “Wild Bill” Bauer, 62, who grew up in Anoka and alluded to the city in many of his comedy gigs, died in his sleep Aug. 30 at his Inver Grove Heights home.
A memorial for Bauer, a Vietnam veteran with a passion for getting a rise out of people, was held Sept. 6 at Washburn-McReavy Edina Chapel.
“Wild Bill” attracted a full-house with attendees spilling into an overflow room. Laughter, interspersed with tears and applause, was in abundance as Bauer’s friends, one by one, took to the mic and fondly spoke of his love for playing cards, his mentoring of young comics and his humorous antics. Many doing a spot on imitation. “Wild Bill,” himself, probably would have laughed.
“He was one of my best friends,” said his son Patrick, also a comedian. Patrick had no intention of following in his dad’s footsteps, but made the leap, nevertheless.
At the memorial service, Patrick spoke of when he was a kid. About the times his dad took him on out-of-town gigs.
“He would say, I’m going to take you down to the river and sell you to gypsies,” he joked.
He liked ‘Monty Python’
Born into a middle class family in Minneapolis and raised in Anoka, Bauer, the oldest of seven children, attended grade school at St. Stephen’s of Anoka and graduated from De La Salle High School in Minneapolis.
His father, William Bauer Sr., was a distributor for Mobile Oil and later a dispatcher at Local Oil in Anoka. His mother, Ann, tended to the family.
“Wild Bill” first became enamored with comedy when he watched the “Monty Python Show” on TV. At the time, he was driving ambulance for Mercy Hospital. Also, around the same time, he happened to catch a comic on a local TV show. He figured he could do as well.
That led to appearances at Mickey Finn’s in the late 1970s. He, and such comic veterans as Louie Anderson, Scott Hansen, Jeff Gerbino, Alex Cole and Gary and Dean Johnson, to name a few, were among a rising class of young comedians in the earlier years who performed at the Minneapolis club, pioneering a foundation for a strong stand-up comedy tradition in the Twin Cities. (Jeff Cesario appeared at the club a while later.)
Anderson, who was friends with Bauer for 33 years, describes Bauer as a “trailblazer” and “somewhat of a comedy policeman.”
“We always watched Bill. Even though in our comedy we weren’t like him, we wanted to see what he had in store next for the audience… and for us,” Anderson said Monday in a phone interview. “He was a comic’s comic in a lot of ways.”
Bauer later became part of an improvisation group. Local comedy gigs soon started rolling in. Meanwhile, comedy was exploding on the national scene and through word of mouth, Bauer started getting bookings.
“My phone rang constantly with people willing to employ me without seeing me,” Bauer said, in a 2011 interview, adding that at the time, there were only about 100 working comics in the country.
A stint in L.A.
In 1987, Bauer moved to Los Angeles, where comedy opportunities were more abundant.
He landed about 25 national TV appearances in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including gigs on Louie Anderson comedy specials, “Evening at the Improv,” “Comedy on the Road,” “Half Hour Comedy Hour” and a bit part on the sitcom “Roseanne.” He helped write a few episodes as well. He also wrote a script for the “Jackie Thomas Show,” according to his son Patrick.
But Bauer didn’t quite reach a level of national popularity. In the mid 1990s, he moved back to the Twin Cities, where he continued to perform locally and regionally.
He went on to produce comedy shows at such spots as Big Laughs Comedy Club in New Hope, Running Aces in Columbus, Greenhaven in Anoka and Majestic Oaks in Ham Lake.
“He was extremely altruistic,” said Craig Allen, his friend, collaborator and business partner in promoting comedy in the Twin Cities.
Bauer was Allen’s mentor and teacher. With his passing, Allen last week was realizing the extent of Bauer’s willingness to mentor young comics. And the hole it leaves in the community.
“He didn’t ask for anything in return,” Allen said.
Although Bauer never made it to the “Tonight Show” or the “David Letterman Show,” he selflessly celebrated his friends’ triumphs. “He was just as excited for them getting their first gig as he was for those getting their first ‘Tonight Show,’” Allen said.
‘He just wanted to make people laugh’
Comedian Alex Cole, former Minnesotan now of Chicago, met Bauer back in 1978.
Bauer had no ego whatsoever, he said. “He just wanted to make people laugh,” Cole said. “He was always reworking his material.”
Bauer saw the best in every comic. He gave young comedians an opportunity to perform.
“He gave away more material than anyone could write,” Cole said.
As for Anoka, Cole said Bauer mentioned his hometown in every show he performed.
“He’d always say ‘I’m from the small town of Anoka.’ I can hear him say it right now.”
Twin Cities comic Scott Hansen had dinner with Bauer and his wife a week before he died. Hansen recalls the times he played softball and touch football with his friend in Anoka years ago. The times he visited his home.
“You walked in the door and you feel like you were walking into your own house,” Hansen said in an interview with ABC Newspapers. “He had the Irish mother, the German dad. You walked in and food was on the table.”
Over the years, Hansen and Bauer’s friendship had undergone some ups and downs. They had just been making amends, Hansen said.
“First of all I’ll miss him,” he said. “As one of the veterans, he was a champion of young comics.”
He told inside family jokes
Born into a middle class family, Bauer didn’t have the attributes of an oldest child, said his brother Rev. John Bauer, one year Bill’s junior.
When asked what that might be, John ticks off a list without hesitation.
“Responsible, punctual, reliable, dependable,” he quips.
His older brother could always make him laugh, John said. He would tell inside family jokes but made them accessible to his audiences.
“He got into comedy on a lark and found out he had a knack for it,” John said.
John laughs as he talks about one of his favorite routines that Bauer would perform on a fantasy Russian roulette game.
“My uncle is one of the remaining champions in Russian Roulette,” John says, repeating the words of his brother.
He made friends out of strangers
For Joe Tanner, Bauer was a go-to guy for any question or issues that arose regarding gigs.
Tanner, emcee for Yes and Food Presents Laughter in the Loft in Coon Rapids, recalls the first time he met Bauer. Bauer had called and hired him for a one-night gig in South Dakota.
They would drive together. It would only be about two hours away, Bauer told him. The ride turned into three-and-a-half hours, a long stretch for two people not knowing each other.
“We just clicked from the second I opened that car door,” Tanner said. “That’s what he could do. He could make a friend out of a stranger in seconds. He was so approachable.”
At times, the comedy industry can get competitive and cut-throat. But Bill seemed to temper that.
“One of the things he talked about in the last six months was we have got to start getting along,” Tanner said.
Zany and honest
At the memorial service, Corey Adam, a comedian for four years, spoke of Bauer’s zaniness and honesty in his advice to young comedians.
“He said, ‘you’ve come a long way and you’re funny.’
“I said, you always said I was funny.
“He said, ‘yah, but now you are.’”
Comedian Jeff Cesario said Bauer “wrote a joke because it was crawling inside of him and it had to get out.”
Dean Johnson, a local comedian, recalled the night Bauer emceed a show and was introducing him. “He was just diagnosed with terminal leukemia,” Bauer told the audience about Johnson. “And he handed me the microphone.”
Bauer’s brother, Greg, 10 years younger than Bill, recalled one of his brother’s Bauerisms.
“Remember the first three letters in funeral spells fun, and if it’s scrambled, it spells real fun,” he said.
Michael Valentini of Chisholm, a long-time friend of Bauer’s, spoke of their time working together when Bauer was driving ambulance in Anoka County – a time before 911 calls. As part of a uniform code, drivers were required to wear a red hat, red tie, bright blue shirt and dark blue pants. He recalled a story of when Bauer had fallen asleep on the job at the ambulance quarters, probably during a night shift. Bauer was jolted awake by an emergency call for help. A worker tells him he’s “gotta run.” “OK, OK,” Bauer says, hopping into the ambulance. He takes off… speeds to the patient’s house. He walks in with no hat, red tie hanging open and wrinkled shirt and pants, “but he wasn’t weary any shoes,” Valentini said.
In closing the memorial service, Valentini said: “Bill Bauer was a big man physically. There was a reason for that. He had a really big heart. He needed that body to hold that heart.”
In retrospect Louie Anderson looks back at his early days performing at Mickey Finn’s, and among the comics, “Wild Bill” Bauer.
“I’m always pleasantly surprised that we influenced a generation of comics coming up,”Anderson said. “I think we’re responsible for having built a vibrant stand-up comedy scene in the Twin Cities. And I don’t think we thought about it at the time.”
In addition to his son, Patrick, Bauer is survived by his wife, Cheri, and stepdaughter, Kelly; brothers, Rev. John, Tim (Nancy), Greg (Carolyn) and Bob (Laura); sisters Kathleen and Susie (Ken). He is also survived by several nieces and nephews.
Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]