La Crosse Local

E.284: Kenny Ahern | Family Entertainer

Listen to “E284: Kenny Ahern | Family Entertainer” on Spreaker.

That’s a big part of what I do.  I try to bring joy. I want people to leave my show happier than they were when they came in.

We connect with entertainer and La Crosse Riverfest staple Kenny Ahern, we talk improvisation, physical comedy, music, dance, circus arts, audience play, and more. We chat touring globally, what people can expect from his shows and what’s next from this versatile performer.

Special thanks to our Podcast Sponsors!

Amy Gabay 00:00
This podcast is brought to you by People’s Food Co Op, a community owned grocery store in downtown La Crosse, Wisconsin and Rochester, Minnesota that promotes local farmers and producers through an emphasis on fresh, healthy, sustainable food. Anyone can shop, everyone is welcome. For more information, visit them online at This podcast is also brought to you by Trempealeau County Tourism. Whether your idea of fun is bicycling, hiking or canoeing, afterwards head into the heart of one of their welcoming communities to experience historic architecture, independent shops and locally owned dining establishments. Visit Trempealeau County Tourism online. We connect with entertainer and La Crosse Riverfest staple Kenny Ahern. We talk improvisation, physical comedy, music, dance, circus arts, audience play and more. We chat touring globally, what people can expect from his shows and what’s next for this versatile performer. You can find more conversations, food reviews, live music and events on our website I’m Amy.

Brent Hanifl 01:09
I’m Brent.

Amy Gabay 01:10
And this is La Crosse Local.

Kenny Ahern 01:13
My name is Kenny Ahern, and I was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Spent a large portion of my childhood and late teen years in Woodbridge, Virginia, and I found my way to La Crosse, Wisconsin in 1990 when I married my wife, Brenda Johnson, who’s now Brenda Ahern. And we both traveled as clowns with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and she’s from La Crosse, and we ended up settling here. That was over 30 years ago. So La Crosse is definitely my adopted hometown.

Brent Hanifl 01:45
How do you get from, you know, into touring around with the circus and everything like how does that happen?

Kenny Ahern 01:51
It was a teacher’s fault.

Brent Hanifl 01:53

Kenny Ahern 01:54
Back in Virginia, I was at a community college and had an English professor that knew that I was interested in comedy, and had done some some work in the community. And he suggested something that I wasn’t even aware of is that Ringling Brothers and Barnum Bailey Circus had a Clown College. And the circus was coming into town to the D.C. Armory in Washington D.C., went and auditioned there on April 1st, 1983, with an intent to write a paper about it. And it turns out, you know, me being so relaxed, and doing my thing, I got accepted to the program. So four months later, I was down in Venice, Florida and learning and training to be a fool for the rest of my life.

Brent Hanifl 02:41
You have it on your website, and it kind of struck a chord with me, your shows just from seeing them in the past. There’s so much that goes into improvisation, physical comedy, music, dance, circus arts, you know, sort of the audience engagement component. It sounds like it kind of fell into the circus performing component but like, is there people who have influenced you from them? Or is it a wide variety of people?

Kenny Ahern 03:04
Well, you know, unbeknownst to me, I was being influenced, you know, from a younger age. You know, I was, I’m old enough to been able to watch the tail end of Rea Scouten and then you know, the heyday of television variety shows Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson, Sonny and Cher, Shields and Yarnell. People back in the day and around my age, you know, in your late 50s, they were a mime duo. They had a variety show in the 70s. And you know, shows like that. Dick Van Dyke, really huge influence on me is well, I’ve evolved. I started performing wearing you know, the typical clown nose and Wagan floppy shoes, never lost the baggy pants, I still wear the baggy pants. But I think as I’ve evolved, my character has gotten stronger. And I’ve needed less of stuff on me to be able to communicate with the audience.

Brent Hanifl 04:00
I’m pretty much just aware of you from RiverFest. You know, it just seems like ever since RiverFest has been there. I grew up here, you’ve been there in some capacity. Just looking on your website, just digging into you know, you also tour globally, nationally. How was the last two years for you as a performer with COVID and everything like that?

Kenny Ahern 04:19
I guess it’s you know, I’m always a positive person. But certainly at times, it was really hard to be positive because a big part of who I am is getting out in front of an audience, making some fun for everyone involved. And I wasn’t able to do that. I had a lot of friends, you know, all over the world that were successful doing zoom presentations, but then I saw a lot of really talented people do a really bad job doing it as well. People that I know they’re just crazy talented, but the format just didn’t work for them. And for me, how audience interactive, what it is that I do and the world that I have to create on the stage that I’m on, you know, I committed early on that virtual worlds just really wasn’t going to be my thing. That I didn’t think it was a good way to connect. I did one virtual theater performance. It was about halfway through the pandemic. And they just changed things out. It was at the right Performing Arts Center in Minnesota, they had said that they could bring 50 people in for my performance, I couldn’t bring them up on stage. But there would actually be, you know, live laughter in the audience. And the Minnesota had just changed it that as far as the dynamics of the theater I was playing, and I think it’s about a 1500 seat theater and they could let 50 people be in the theater. Ten minutes before the show, the stage manager came in and knocked on the door and said, 10 minutes to show. And then they came at five minutes to call and it was a really, really soft knock on the door. And I when I opened the door, the stage manager stepped back and I go everything okay. Yeah, you know, those 50 people that we said are going to show up and I said, oh, yeah, he said, they’re not showing up. So audience interactive entertainer, you know, I had bits that I was going to do the interactive amount in the house and 2500 school students, were watching via virtual for my performance. And there I was, I had to do an hour show. And I’d say that’s probably, that’s where I really tested my improvisational chops was to kind of do my thing. I Romper Roomed it, I talked to people, fake people on screen, as best as I could. And then I went and go do my pieces. And, you know, I normally don’t talk as an entertainer. But there was something I had to do. So I did with that show. And at the end of it, I’m just deflated. It’s just like, I just bombed. And they said, oh, by the way, here’s a copy of the performance, we put it on a hard drive for you. And it took me, oh my, it took me almost a month before I can even watch it. You know, ever that thinking about promo and marketing figure. Well, you know, if I take the sound out, and I go to a couple of clips, there’s some cool shots of my set and me doing my thing. But that kind of affirmed my choice. That yeah, that world’s just not for me. But I was fortunate that, you know, I was able with my business, I was able to get funding, as many performing artists were. And we’re also lucky to is, you know, we’re a two job family. My wife is a schoolteacher in the La Crosse School District. So between the two of us, I basically was my wife’s teacher’s assistant, as she did virtual schooling.

Brent Hanifl 07:47
Breaking away from COVID, getting back into performing live shows. How’s that been for you? I mean, is it just like, old?

Kenny Ahern 07:56
Yeah. Well, it’s, you know, that the first gig that I had back, you know, I told the presenter, I said, you know, and this isn’t, you know, I’m not saying this in a virtual sense, but you’re probably going to need a hook to get me off stage. Because I just had all this energy and creativity just like wanting to explode. And I really had to, I had to reel myself in. Because it was a very kinetic, very huge energy. And when I was on stage, you know, it kind of reminded me of the time when I performed at the Pump House, my first show in La Crosse, and it was in 1990. I had come from the circus, where I was used to doing like, three minutes set. That’s what you did, beginning, middle and end for your comedy in the circus. And then you get out. It’s called get in, get the laugh, get out. So I had 45 minutes show booked at the Pump House, solo show. And I was so excited. And with what I do, you can’t really rehearse. I can rehearse the skills, but the interactive stuff, I can’t. And so I set my stuff to music. And I had a 45 minutes show, and I did all of my material in 20 minutes. For the rest of the time, it was just me out there being my best authentic self trying to make people laugh and my wife sitting in the audience, just laughing and laughing and just seeing how much I was struggling. But I pulled it off, you know, but that’s kind of how it was when we came out of the pandemic. And I did that first show and it was a theater show. And I just really had to do some meditation. I really had to do a lot before the show just to contain my energy. So I’m supposed to go out there and and you know, do a 75 minute show. I can’t do another have another Pump House experience where that I did that. So all in all, it was a great learning experience. I’m glad to be getting back to what I’m doing. I still have to adapt because I’m bringing people up on stage. You know, I’m still oh, you know, as far as how I’m doing that, a lot of adapting. And I’ve made that work. I just came back from Florida, I was down there for almost a month doing shows. And they went really well.

Brent Hanifl 10:11
I would imagine, you know, a ton of people in La Crosse has seen your shows before. For those who haven’t seen it, or maybe just moved to the area, what can people expect from your shows? You kind of talked about the interactive and crowd work, but if you could, you know, a short description, could you do an elevator pitch on it, or?

Kenny Ahern 10:24
Sure, you know, for me, I’m a multi generational performer. A family comes and adults are going to see a different show than kids are going to see. There’s going to be a couple of things that are going to fly over the kids heads that are going to make the adults laugh. And then there’s going to be goofy silly stuff that younger kids are really going to enjoy. And that’s really a big part of what I do is I try to bring joy. I want people to, you know, leave my show happier than they were when they came in. And I take that very, very important. I use the circus arts theater, improvisation music, dance, and I do all that without speaking a word. I really don’t do a lot of talking when I perform. And it’s not that I would, you know, you would call me a mime or a pantomime. It’s, I just don’t see a need to have to talk I get communicate to the audience, and to get my point across and create some laughter.

Brent Hanifl 11:20
So what’s next for you? You know, you seem very positive about the future and your shows, what’s something coming down the road that you’re excited for?

Kenny Ahern 11:26
Well, you know, probably right now, right? When the pandemic broke, and they shut everything down, I was on a 17 city theater tour. And the last five shows that I had as part of that theater tour, you know, we’re I thought were canceled, but it turns out, postponed. So I’m going to be heading out west and picking up those five shows and do those. And you know, it’s funny, I think is anyone you chase your dreams and what you want to do, whether you’re a performing artist, or whatever. And for me, it’s always been to perform more regularly in a theater. And here I am, I’ll be 60 in October. And I’m all sudden finding that what I do, and the culmination of what I’ve done all these years have now made me interesting to theaters now. So I’m actually starting to do a lot of touring in theaters, which is nice to be indoors. And doing that versus, you know, the fairs and festivals, which I love. But I’m finding that I’m doing a lot more touring. And I’m very excited about that our kids are out of school and out on their own. So it’s just my wife and I who’s retiring soon. So I think we’re going to be hitting the road again, just like when we were on Ringling.

Brent Hanifl 11:31
Nice, so full circle. So if people want to find out more, maybe check out those shows. What’s the best spot for them to go to?

Kenny Ahern 12:32
That would be, go to my website That’s a great place to check out and find a little bit. Really the you know, the best news to get would be on Instagram or Facebook. And it’s just Kenny Ahern Comedy and do that on either of them and it’ll pop up and that’s where I put the latest news. I don’t perform locally a lot. My big performance here is always RiverFest. And you know, a lot of people don’t realize that it’s actually, the stage, the family stage that’s at RiverFest, that’s my stage. That’s what I tour with. And so it’s just a great opportunity for me to be in my hometown perform for my friends and family and very importantly be able to sleep in my own bed at night, which is sweet.

Amy Gabay 13:32
La Crosse Local Podcast is a production of River Travel Media. Do you have an interview idea you’d like to share with us? Message us on Facebook at La Crosse local. Find out more about us at and you can subscribe to the La Crosse Local Podcast on your favorite podcast app. If you like us, rate us five stars. We appreciate it.

About La Crosse Local

La Crosse Local is an arts, food, and entertainment podcast and publication for La Crosse County and its surrounding communities.

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