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Charlie Berens gets interrogated — by his little sister

December 12, 2022
Bridget and Charlie Berens make a W sign with their thumbs and forefingers.

UW–Madison student Bridget Berens and her brother, alumnus Charlie Berens, throw the W sign. Charlie will give this winter’s commencement address on Dec. 18.

Sometimes Bridget Berens can’t believe how long ago her brother attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

“He graduated all the way back in 2009 — seriously, he’s that old,” says Bridget, a junior journalism major at UW–Madison.

Bridget’s brother is Charlie Berens, Midwest comedian and creator of “The Manitowoc Minute.” Bridget sat down with her big brother for a Q&A in advance of his appearance as keynote speaker for winter commencement on Dec. 18. The two siblings are among the 12 children of Molly and Dick Berens of Elm Grove, Wisconsin — Charlie is second oldest, Bridget is second youngest.

Bridget: Of the siblings who went to Madison, who’s your favorite?

Charlie: Bridget, because she’s right in front of me right now. However, I’ll deny ever saying this if asked.

What were you like in high school? Did you always want to be a comedian?

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a musician. I didn’t know that I wanted to do comedy, but I did always want to be a writer. The earliest thing I wrote in grade school was a story about a dead squirrel. In middle school, I would write songs or stupid poems. I’ve been keeping journals since I was a kid. I’ve always been a writer, and the form of the writing was never important necessarily. I wanted to do music for a while. What I was trying to do was find a way to connect with people through writing that took many forms. When it was music, the most important thing was the lyrics. And then I got into journalism, mostly because Andy, our brother, was editor-in-chief of the Daily Cardinal. I only did it because he did it, but then I saw the impact of writing stories. That’s what got me on the journalism track.

Who from your family inspires your content?

 I steal content from pretty much all of you. I don’t know if you know this, but at family parties, I will rudely stop a conversation if I hear something funny so that I can write down what one of you said. Some would call it plagiarism, but since it’s my family, I would call it borrowing. With a family as big as ours, there’s a revolving door of content.

What are your best memories at UW–Madison?

One of my favorite memories is when I was hanging out by the Capitol and it was a winter day and you could take a shortcut to get back to my house. We lived over by the Arboretum at this point on High Street. So I was taking my ice-fishing route home right across the bay, which would cut the walk time in half. I got out to the ice and saw steam rising from the lake and thought to myself, “Ah, I don’t know. There’s a lot of steam coming off this ice, maybe this isn’t a good idea.” And then part of that steam cleared, and I saw somebody else in the distance who was doing the same thing. I get up to this guy, and then I realize it was my brother Billy. I turned to him, and I went, “Hey,” and he said, “Hey… we shouldn’t be out here,” and I went “Yeah, no.” Then we walked home together. Neither one of us fell in, but we probably should have. I don’t recommend that, but it was a good memory.

Where were your favorite spots when you lived in Madison?

Memorial Union was a good hang. Usually when I was working, I went between Memorial Union and College Library, where I would watch “Lost” on the computers. That’s how old I am. I also did homework there too, on occasion. But a lot of “Lost” procrastination.

What do you miss the most about college?

I miss the excitement of having nothing to lose. You’re starting from scratch, and the world is very big because you can go anywhere and do anything afterwards. I think I’m seeing it through rose-colored glasses to a degree because even then, I remember having some pressure. But in retrospect, there shouldn’t have been. And I would’ve told myself to relax and take chances.

I ended up taking chances anyway, but the ability to meet so many people from so many different places is a special feeling. You’re choosing your own adventure in part of life. And that’s what I did when I left UW because they laid the groundwork for me to make those choices. I’m very thankful for Wisconsin for preparing me with the skills to make the career choices and life choices I made in the following years. UW has a great alumni base to connect with and meet. I’ve been all around the country working, and everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve met someone who was a former Badger.

What is some of the best advice you received at UW–Madison?

In my last journalism class, Lewis Friedland ended the class saying, “Be skeptical, not cynical.” I think that’s great advice going into life. Be skeptical, and keep your guard up to a certain degree, be inquisitive, and ask why. But avoid going down the path of cynicism, where your assumption is everything is messed up and nothing can be fixed. Cynicism breeds bubbles of people where there isn’t a lot of communication between people, but a kind skepticism creates bridges. Skepticism helps you get to the truth. Cynicism amplifies and distorts reality.

What is something you remember from your graduation?

It’s a cocktail of sadness and excitement. You spent so much of your life trying to get into the school you want to get into. You’ve spent so much time getting papers done and exams finished. I think graduation might be the first time in my life I realized how quickly time goes by. It was a bittersweet day. But one thing I remember was seeing the friends I made here all together one last time, and it made me appreciate the time I spent at Madison.

Any last piece of advice you want to share with the graduating class?

Trust that everything’s going to work out. Don’t let momentary loss rob you of great moments in your life. If you miss out on a job opportunity, don’t let that take away from hanging out with your friends on a Friday night. Understand that you went to a great school, you’ve got a great support system, and you may not see these great things work out right away. Just remember it’s going to work out. You may not know how, but have some faith that it will. My hope is that this faith will allow you to live in the moment and enjoy all of the joy, struggle and hardships that lead you to wherever you want to go.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.