If you would have told Michael Orensteen 20 years ago that today he would own a comedy club, he wouldn’t have believed you.
“I’ve always been funny, off the cuff,” he said. “But I never would have thought I’d have gotten into it (comedy).”
But a combination of events in his chosen career—that of an airline pilot—led him to change altitude with the MinneHAHA Comedy Club, in Shakopee.
“I knew when I was 5 that I wanted to be a pilot,” said Orensteen, now a 44-year-old who lives in Eagan. “My favorite part of vacations was being on the plane.”
Orensteen, who moved to Edina from Connecticut when he was 13, joined the U.S. Navy after high school. But because his eyesight didn’t meet the requirements, he was more of a flight navigator while in the military. After his discharge, he enrolled in a two-year aeronautic science program in college and started working on a commercial flight career.
“You gotta work your way up the ladder,” he said.
And that’s what Orensteen did, landing his first job with Mesaba Airlines, then American West, and then, in 2000, United Airlines. It was his dream job, but after the September 11 attacks, in 2001, about 10,000 pilots were placed on furlough. Orensteen was one of them.
From Layoffs To Laughs
”I did three minutes during open mic, got a few laughs and caught the bug."
Orensteen knew many pilots who went to fly for airlines overseas or got out of the business altogether to return to school or join the military. Orensteen took a job at a Home Depot and waited to be called back to his old job. In 2004, a nephew visiting from Texas convinced him to go to a comedy club and, from there, Orensteen’s life took another turn.
“I did three minutes during open mic, got a few laughs and caught the bug,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, Orensteen took a job with Apple Vacations, piloting flights from Detroit to Mexico and the Caribbean. He also met another pilot who happened to be opening a Detroit comedy club. He has since met several pilots and flight attendants who do comedy.
“Maybe we have a lot to joke about,” he said.
In exchange for helping with the Detroit comedy club’s website, Orensteen got the chance to perfect his act and learn about the business.
“They also had me at 'eat for free,'” he said.
Even after United Airlines called him back to work, six years ago, he continued performing and thinking about opening his own comedy venue in the Twin Cities. With the closing of Knuckleheads, in Lakeville, where Orensteen first tried out some material, he thought he could fill a void.
“There are definitely parts of the metro that lack comedy entertainment,” he said. “The south metro is one of them.”
He came up with the name—MinneHAHA—and started putting shows together at area restaurants while looking for a permanent space.
“You need a restaurant,” he said. “Eating, drinking and comedy is the best combination.”
It helped that Orensteen’s father had experience writing business plans and helped him hone one for this venture. He got the MinneHAHA name out there by attracting sellout crowds at the Steak & Ale in Bloomington and partnering with a couple other places in Burnsville, but none felt quite right.
“I needed someone who appreciated what I had to offer,” he said.
Changing His Flight Path
Enter Gus Khwice of Dangerfield’s restaurant.
“Without hesitation, he said yes,” Orensteen recalled. “I’m very fortunate to have someone like Gus to work with. He knows how to sell the entertainment.”
Comedy has helped his restaurant business and been a perk for customers, Khwice said.
“We wanted to see if it was something the community would be interested in and, sure enough, it’s been a success,” he said.
United furloughed Orensteen again three years ago, and Orensteen is again waiting for a call to return. He works during the week giving computer certification exams at a Bloomington company and then, after work Friday, heads to Shakopee to set up for shows. He brings in local and national comedians, and says there’s no shortage of either in the Twin Cities.
“We’re not hurting for talent, that’s for sure,” he said. “These are professionals.”
The fact that he’s a pilot first who was once in the military shows in the discounted ticket rates he gives to airline workers and those in the military. He also gives a discount on the $13 rate per show to those with AAA memberships.
For Orensteen, the thrill of performing now is almost second to putting on the shows and watching the comedians.
“Comedy is a good release,” he said.
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing American Dream,” from Patches across the country at The Huffington Post.