Dudley Riggs, the witty showman whose name became synonymous with sketch comedy, gave Twin Citians and the world loads of laughter while providing a proving ground for future Hollywood talent.
Riggs, 88, died Tuesday in Minneapolis after battling health problems.
“He was our boot camp toward show business,” comedian Louie Anderson said after hearing the news. “When we went on to travel the country or went to the next level, we had some kind of idea of what we were doing — or at least knew enough that we could pretend we did.”
Riggs is best known as the owner and producer of the Brave New Workshop, America’s oldest improvisational sketch comedy troupe. Besides Anderson, its alumni include “Daily Show” co-creator Lizz Winstead, actors Carl Lumbly (“Cagney & Lacey,” “Alias”) and Melissa Peterman (“Reba”), and former Sen. Al Franken, who started performing at BNW with his “Saturday Night Live” partner Tom Davis while in high school.
“The opportunity to perform at the workshop night after night, to be able to hear an audience at such a young age, that was invaluable,” Franken said by phone. “He was a tremendous influence on me and Tom Davis, and really started our career.”
Pat Proft parlayed his experience into a screenwriting career, with such comedies as “The Naked Gun.”
“I wouldn’t be anywhere if the Brave New Workshop wasn’t there,” Proft said. “I could be doing radio in Fargo and there’d be nothing wrong with that. But if it wasn’t for that place that Dudley built and the Comedy Store [in L.A.], two places I bumped into, my life would have been very different.”
Riggs’ widow, Pauline Boss, said her husband “was in rehab for some bladder problems and then was hospitalized for eight days. Then they noticed an infection in his leg and that took six weeks of infusion. Then he had to go to rehab for that, and that was about to end today. Well it did, didn’t it?”
Riggs was born Jan. 18, 1932, in Little Rock, Ark., to Lillian Crocker and Dudley Riggs, owners of an itinerant circus. He came by his love of entertainment in part by ancestry — British cavalrymen who were honored by Queen Victoria for their skills in campaigns in India. Over the generations, that expertise with horses morphed into equestrian shows and the circus.
“Dudley’s British grandmother was the babysitter who taught him manners,” Boss said. “His mannerisms and his love of tea, served in a china cup, came from that side. But he was also unusually ahead of his time in the way he was accepting of people. He had friends from many walks of life, and being in the circus, with people who some would consider the sideshow, made him very open.”
From childhood, he worked in his family’s touring shows, becoming an acrobat, circus aerialist and clown. Well into adulthood, he led a rewarding if unstable life of travel. He told the Star Tribune in 2010 that it was challenging. “I’ve been in denial about that, because it’s a little tough when you say that for the first 30 years of my life, I didn’t have a personal mailing address,” Riggs said.
He suffered injuries along the way. He also nearly caused an international incident in 1952 when, on a tour of Japan, he shook the hand of Emperor Hirohito’s son, Akihito, while dressed as Alfonse the Clown.
“When they performed in the circus overseas, they got paid in cash, and you could bring back only so much,” said Dane Stauffer, a former BNW member who later wrote a show about Riggs’ life. “His dad would buy cameras but Dudley bought an MG [car] and a cappuccino machine. When his circus vaudeville days were over, he wanted to create a classy, red-velvet coffee shop.”
His was the first espresso machine in the Midwest when Riggs and his first wife, Ruth, settled in Minneapolis in the late 1950s and opened Café Espresso at University Avenue and E. Hennepin.
In the beginning, he saw satirical revues as a way to promote the coffee shop. Instead, comedy became his stock in trade as he built Brave New Workshop into a nationally renowned improv powerhouse that rivaled such troupes as Chicago’s Second City. Riggs himself was known for reading the newspaper out loud to provoke laughs.
“To me, his role was his unbelievable passion for legitimizing improvisation and sketch comedy,” said BNW’s current co-owner, John Sweeney. “He probably spent the beginning of his life having to legitimize things that he did in the circus. And he did that without taking a grant. He understood the balance between art and commerce, that you could make a living doing work that was funny and meaningful.”
Riggs owned the workshop for 39 years before selling it to Sweeney and partner, Jenni Lilledahl, in 1997.
Peterman joined the company after Riggs stepped aside, but he inspired her nonetheless.
“Growing up in the Twin Cities, as a girl who wanted to be on ‘SNL,’ I knew who he was and I knew I had to work there,” she said. “If someone said they were in the cast of Dudley Riggs, you knew they were the best and the funniest. It was a badge of honor and it still is. I am grateful for the time I spent on that stage. I know it made me better, work harder, and I learned so much. He created a place for comedy to be fearless.”
A December service is planned. Survivors include children Paul Riggs of Crystal, Dr. Ann Boss Sheffels of Maple Grove and David Boss of Fort Collins, Colo., and grandchildren Erin Sheffels, Bethesda, Md., Sara Sheffels, Cambridge, Mass., Hayley Boss, Fort Collins, and Christopher Sheffels, St. Louis.
Riggs regarded his company members as family, and often regaled them with stories of his travels — tales collected in the book “Flying Funny: My Life Without a Net.” He also helped them deal with challenges.
Stauffer recalled an episode when he was directing a holiday show that included a duet between Joseph and Mary, whose lines included, “Teen runaway, they just don’t believe, teen runaway, how I could conceive.”
“We did a preview and there were letters saying how dare you mock the Almighty,” Stauffer said. “And I asked Dudley, ‘What do you think? Are we on dangerous ground here? Should we rewrite it or take it out?’ ”
“He said, ‘Well, Dane, it’s my opinion that God has a sense of humor. [Expletive] them if they can’t take a joke.’ He was really devoted to free thinking and satire, and to the tonic that that catharsis provided.”
Neal Justin contributed to this report.