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Grab your hot dish, pour yourself a beer or three, and fire up the old YouTube channel – Charlie Berens’ got something to say about rural Wisconsin, cripes almighty.
Using drink recipes and direct promotions, Berens hopes to shine a light on rural Wisconsin’s struggles during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Berens produces “Manitowoc Minute,” a series of parody videos in which Berens plays a small town news anchor who retains his regional accent as a point of pride, if not clarity. Dressed in a plaid shirt, camouflage jacket, a tie, and a baseball cap, Berens talks about the news in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and around the country.
Manitowoc, a town of over 32,000, is a typical Rust Belt town, Berens said. It’s located on the west coast of Lake Michigan about two hours north of Milwaukee. It’s best known for its shipbuilding and crane industry, he said.
Through “Manitowoc Minute” and other videos he’s done over the past three years, Berens has brought to light how to speak Midwestern, how Wisconsin dads react to tornadoes, and what it’s like to be a husband in Ikea. Phrases like “grab a beer or tree,” “some of yuse,” and “keep ‘er moving,” pepper the short clips about life in the Midwest. They’ve created quite a following for him in his home state of Wisconsin, and all over the Midwest. It’s not unusual for his videos to go viral within minutes of his posting them.
Now, he’s using the videos he has filmed during quarantine to help support farms and hospitals in Wisconsin’s rural areas.
During the Covid-19 quarantine, Berens said he found himself looking for things to do.
“Everyone was bored and wondering what to do, and I thought, everyone drinks, right?” he told the Daily Yonder in an interview. “So the first one I did was on an Old Fashioned. And the census was sitting on my table. Doing the census is so important. And I say that because I didn’t know what the census meant, and when I found out, I thought I would mention it in the video.”
The Midwest, he said, so far has one of the highest rates of filling out the census – not that he’s taking all the credit for that.
In one quarantine video “How to Make a Bloody Mary – Quarantine Kitchen,” Berens called his father, a doctor at Children’s Hospital Wisconsin. His father asked people watching to send masks and other supplies to the hospital. The response was so positive, other hospitals called Berens to ask him to mention them, he said in a later episode of “Manitowoc Minute.” That led to poll workers asking him to talk about people coming out to work at the polls for the special election in April.
“My point is this, if hospitals are desperate enough to ask a guy in a duck jacket and no pants,… sorry, spoiler alert,” he said in one episode. “If hospitals are desperate enough to ask me to ask you for equipment, then it don’t make sense for me to ask you to go hang out at a polling Petri dish and further overwhelm the hospitals.”
In some of his quarantine videos, he promotes local dairy farms – for the milk and ice cream he uses in 1950s dinner club cocktails, and the cheese he uses to make a hot dish.
“Dairy farmers are very much a part of the culture of Wisconsin,” he said. “They’re having a tough time during the quarantine. But they were having a tough time before that with the tariffs. And they were having a tough time before that too. Culturally speaking, I think it’s very important that we support these rural companies that don’t necessarily always get the attention they need.”
Berens, who grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee, attended the University of Wisconsin – Madison and graduated with a degree in journalism. His career took him across the country as a news broadcaster. But the pressure to lose his Midwest accent, among other things, helped him realize news wasn’t his gig.
“I didn’t really like news. It’s not what I really wanted to do,” he said. “So I decided to do stand-up. And one of the characters I created was a guy who didn’t get the voice lessons like I did.”
So far, he said, he’s not sure if the videos have increased sales at the places he’s mentioned, but he has gotten some pretty nice gift baskets out of the deal. He said he looks forward to a time when he can get back out on the road, doing stand-up in small towns.
“I’ve done tours of my stand-up routine, and I’ve done tours of small town. I just love them. It’s fun to be in those places” he said. “Sometimes, the towns become a little bit like a ghost town, but some places have these beautiful theaters and great little bars. Maybe now that we all know how to work from home, more of us will be moving back to those rural areas to support them.”
All we can say is…”Keep ‘er moving!”