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Omaha Magazine

A Laughing Matter

Aug 22, 2023 02:55PM ● By William Rischling
Zach Peterson

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.

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There is a sort of ease that passes over the crowd when a comic takes control of the room; a shared knowledge that the individual guiding the experience promises smiles, laughter, and aching sides. However, comedy is an unforgiving career wherein financial security is far from assured. Nonetheless, Omaha maintains a thriving comedy scene—thanks in no small part to premier local talent, like Zach Peterson.

Between running the Omaha chapter of Don’t Tell Comedy, operating his own brand under Broken Magic, and lending support to area comedians, the Iowa-born comic keeps a hectic schedule.

“I started when I was 27,” Peterson reminisced. “I remember because it was a big year for me; a lot happened. I got into comedy and graduated college in the same year. I was in punk rock and hardcore bands, and I was always the singer. I wasn’t really musically talented in any other way like my friends were, so they kept on doing music and I had to find my own thing.” 

Peterson's recollection was laced with hard-won humility. While a firm direction remained elusive well into his late 20s, Peterson’s patience paid off when he embraced the comedy stage.

Peterson continued, “Some of my friends were like, ‘Hey, we're making videos’ […] and then some of those people started doing stand up. I started doing stand-up [too], and just seemed to really fit.

“I remember going on stage for the first time and it felt like, ‘This is the thing I'm supposed to do.’” 

As anyone who has attended a basement show can attest, being a punk rocker is not for those wary of the spotlight—an experience that steeled Peterson to the fickle, at times unpredictable scrutiny of stand-up audiences.

In regard to anxiety before a show, Peterson said, “It doesn’t happen so much anymore. After 13 years of doing it, I don't care. I can get on stage, and it's a non-event. I just have more fun now because there's no stakes. There’s less pressure to do well every single time; so long as I’m having fun, [and] the audience is having fun. I put my sense of humor out there instead of doing what I think other people will find funny, and sometimes it takes a little bit longer to get people on board. But if I’m not doing material that I like then it’s not nearly as fun.”

An unavoidable pitfall of comedy is the attention-seeking heckler. From videos of awkward interactions—and even physical altercations—the harassment of working comics appears to be a common, if not viral, occurrence.

Peterson’s view of this phenomenon is rather nuanced, claiming, “I think the perception of heckling is far worse than the actual problem of heckling. One of the last times I hosted at the Funny Bone there was a couple that was just fall-down drunk, and they were a pain in the ass—but they were just drunk, you know? Most of the time the venue will take care of it for you. And if someone's really ruining the show, then you have to engage […] it sucks, but it's part of the job. 

“I like organic crowd work. For me, being an old person that just likes jokes, it can be a bit disheartening to see people try to get unique moments instead of letting them happen organically, but that's the way that things are going. People end up forcing heckler interactions, they want stuff for their TikTok—but at the same time, that's the game. And I don't blame anyone for playing the game.”

Peterson emphasized the necessity of including the audience in the performance while still maintaining control over the room. It’s become second-nature to him now, like breathing or taking a morning leak.

“Say you're performing in a club and you sold 15 tickets. It happens more than anyone wants to admit,” Peterson chuckled. “One of the best things you can do is engage the audience, because you're not going to get the big thunderous laughs that you want. Just make sure that everyone there has the best time possible. Sometimes, those are the most fun.”

Peterson concluded by celebrating his fellow comedians and the Omaha comedy scene at large.
“There's a community, there's a culture, and there's a whole thing going on that people may not be aware of,” he explained. “Dylan at The Backline [Comedy Theatre] serves as a great community hub for comedy in Omaha. And they run the Omaha Comedy Festival, which is phenomenal. I've done probably 60 to 70 festivals around the country, and that one's legit. Colleen and Daisy at The Funny Bone create a great environment for comedians to get in front of big crowds and professional comics […] I encourage people to be part of the community.

“You need more people to give a damn. I love it. It's changed my life in dramatic ways—but you have to really be passionate about it.” 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.  

Photo by Bill Sitzmann.


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