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April 6, 2020

Comedian Tim Cavanagh performed a clever variety show March 14 at Nicolet Technical College in Rhinelander. Photo by Stephanie Kuski/River News.
Comedian Tim Cavanagh performed a clever variety show March 14 at Nicolet Technical College in Rhinelander. Photo by Stephanie Kuski/River News.
3/26/2020 7:29:00 AM
Tim Cavanagh delivers slap-happy comedy show at Nicolet
Variety show features original stand-up, music
Stephanie Kuski
River News Feature Writer

Comedian Tim Cavanagh performed his one-man variety show at (and around) the Nicolet stage on March 14 in front of a nearly sold-out crowd, a testament to the loyalty of his Midwest following and the general urgency to find laughter and connection in the midst of the recent coronavirus-related social isolation. (This performance took place before the state enacted its "Safer at Home" restrictions.)

Rhinelander was the "mid-point of his world tour," Cavanagh said jokingly, with Hodag Country as his pit stop between Wausau and Crandon. Chicago-born, he's toured extensively throughout Wisconsin and has acquired fans from across the Midwest.

"I love Wisconsin audiences, and I'm not just saying that," Cavanagh said. "I find that people from Wisconsin are open to lots of different kinds of comedy."

He described his stand-up comedy as a "smorgasbord" of entertainment.

"I like to keep a lot of variety: different types of jokes, and jokes on a lot of different topics," he explained. "I believe in entertaining people, and I am not a purist in that I don't do just stand-up comedy. I do stand-up and funny songs, (and) I do some very fun and friendly audience interaction."

"Part of the fun is, you don't know where it's going to go," he added.

Cavanagh said he comes to his show with a loose plan, but that's just the beginning - his performance depends to a great extent on the audience, so he said he never knows exactly where it will go.

"Every night is different, every show is different and every crowd is different," he said. "That used to scare me a little bit, but now I love it because I get to know the audience a little bit. I just have a blast."

Cavanagh joked comfortably with audience members, even handing out a whopping $7 in prizes throughout the night. A self-described klutz, he was comfortable being uncomfortable on stage, as he tinkered with the electronic equipment throughout his skit and called upon audience members with Radio Shack experience for advice.

Throughout the 90-minute performance, it was clear he was at ease expecting the unexpected and enjoyed the unpredictable nature of his shows. His material didn't focus on any one thing, but rather jumped between experiences in his personal life, relationships, cars, traveling, college, sports and jobs.

The common theme? His jokes were clean and witty throughout, poking fun at members of the audience whose laidback demeanor made for a fun night. Cavanagh's brand of comedy was created entirely from his own goofy, genuine personality, which shined bright on and off stage.

Cavanagh pulled from his personal life often, commenting on his recent 42nd wedding anniversary and the trials of his 23 young nieces and nephews. He said he started his professional career at an all-girls Catholic high school on the southwest side of Chicago prior to his comedian gig.

"I got a degree in philosophy, which prepared me for nothing," Cavanagh said. "Actually, it prepared me perfectly for what I do, because basically what I do is I think."

He said he tried to make those classes more interesting by providing his students with personal anecdotes, life lessons and funny advice. One of his lessons he remembers in particular had to do with the story of Adam and Eve.

"Eve made two mistakes: number one she ate the forbidden fruit," Cavanagh said, "but number two, she settled for the first guy that came along."

Those candid life lessons and genuine insight coupled with the nature of the classroom rendered the girls in his religion class a "captive audience," but Cavanagh said he was shy in his youth and dreaded speaking in front of students early on in his teaching career. But the more you do something you're uncomfortable with, he said, you become more comfortable in time.

"Teaching helped me overcome the fear of getting up in front of people and talking," he said, "which is a real fear I had."

But stage fright is a thing of the past in Cavanagh's comedy shows today. He was nonchalant, cooly sauntering on (but mostly off) stage, weaving between the audience aisles and even bringing his show to the very back of the room to pick on audience members seated in the last row.

Cavanagh said he's found through experience that it's better to be engaged with the audience in a friendly way, and that he's learned to change things up if they're not going smoothly.

The unpredictability of his shows adds an element of surprise and excitement to the audience interaction, which Cavanagh capitalized on throughout the night. Audience member Lenore Lopez said she has loosely followed Cavanagh throughout the years, having seen him in Chicago during the '80s, and commented on the consistency of his brand and style.

"His act has changed throughout the years, but it's basically the same with audience interaction," Lopez said. "At the comedy clubs I've seen him in, it's been consistent in his interaction with the audience."

Lopez said she particularly enjoys the "clean comedy" aspect of Cavanagh's show and drove from Lake Tomahawk for the performance.

In addition to his audience interaction and comedy skits, Cavanagh colored his variety show with original songs, both old and new, played on the guitar. He educated the audience on his fascination with dead animals in "The Possum Song" and had the audience laughing and clapping along to his original (albeit borrowed) drinking song fittingly titled "B-I-N-G-E."

He also gave the audience a taste of his "Cavalcade of Celebrity Birthdays," a beat he routinely produces on the popularly syndicated BOB & TOM (B&T) Show. The national all-comedy radio show broadcasts four shows five days per week, Cavanagh said.

"They highlight a lot of comedians," he explained further. "So for people like me, it's really been something that's put me on the map. Their fanbase is very strong and loyal."

He said he's done roughly 250 B&T shows in the past 20 years, which has allowed him to acquire a strong fanbase and following. Cavanagh said he tries to do a local radio show with a B&T affiliate when he travels for his performances, and when he was in Rhinelander he was featured with Duff Damos on WRLO.

Cavanagh not only has radio and stand-up comedy included in his long repertoire of comedy experience, but he's also appeared on several national television programs, including Comedy Central, ABC, Showtime and Comcast. He has also produced several original CDs, including his newest released in 2016 called "Love, Fish and Sausages."

In January, Cavanagh also taped a comedy special for Dry Bar Comedy - a popular online platform that features five-10 minute segments of clean comedy - which will be released soon.

"I've never had a television taping experience as pleasant as this," he said. "So I'm very positive and excited about it."

Cavanagh books a wide range of audiences, ranging from corporate shows to holiday parties, and from informal bar gigs to seated audiences in intimate spaces like the Nicolet stage.

He said there is a huge difference in his shows depending on the venue and crowd.

In comedy, you have to listen and pay attention, so he said he prefers to have a seated audience that is ready to participate and listen. The quality of the show increases exponentially when there's a seated audience, he said, because he can deliver higher-caliber, wittier jokes.

"The more intimate you can make the space, the better it is for comedy," he explained.

Throughout his Nicolet show, his thirst for laughter, passion for genuine human connection and down-to-earth personality became readily apparent to all.

"I really do think people leave my comedy show with a better attitude towards, I hope, everything," Cavanagh said. "An hour and a half of laughter makes you feel better."

"Every joke hits someone in a different way, but it can also help people get through a particularly hard time in their life," he continued. "I'm lucky every day I've been given the opportunity to get on stage and entertain."

Although Cavanagh was able to share his gift of laughter with the Nicolet audience, the college has had to cancel many of its upcoming performances due to the restrictions enacted in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

For an updated list of cancellations, visit Nicolet Live's website.

For more on information on Cavanagh's schedule, visit his website.

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