Episode 121: It’s A Wonderful Manitowoc Krampus

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Klaubauf-style Krampus in Debant, Austria
© Stefan Tschapeller Photography

Writer Al Ridenour introduces us to the spokesmodel of dark Christmas, the Krampus. Also, comedian Charlie Berens, the man behind the hit YouTube series, “Manitowoc Minute”, keeps ‘er movin’. And science fiction author Robert Reed shows us what “It’s a Wonderful Life” looks like in the multiverse. It’s an encore presentation of the holiday-tinged episode of BETA. Because BETA is the gift that keeps on giving and we all get duplicates of gifts once in a while, don’t we?

Featured in this Show

  • Europe's Spiritual Bogeyman, The Krampus, Invades The US

    You may be dreaming of a white Christmas this year but chances are that you’re not dreaming of a Krampus Christmas. Krampus is the stuff of nightmares.

    These days, Krampus is making his mark in American popular culture. He’s the subject of movies and television shows, but the mythical creature’s backstory remains mysterious. So, it seems like now is the perfect time to change that. After all, this is a Krampus story. Our timing couldn’t be more perfect, could it?

    Al Ridenour is the author of “The Krampus And The Old, Dark Christmas: Roots and Rebirth of the Folkloric Devil.” Ridenour told WPR’s “BETA” everything that you could possibly want to know about Krampus.

    “Krampus is a folkloric devil figure that appears on the eve and also on the day of St. Nicholas’ celebration, the celebration of the Catholic saint. So that would be the fifth or sixth of December. And this is all happening in German-speaking regions, Alpine regions. So that would mean southeastern Germany, Bavaria that is, and western Austria.”

    Ridenour says that there’s a lot of variety in terms of what Krampus looks like because there are different versions in different regions.

    “There’s ones that are covered with goat hides and then, if you’re in an area maybe where dairy farming wasn’t the business, it might be covered with straw even. But the common look of the thing is some figure covered with hides and wearing horns on his head.”

    The bottom line is that the Krampus looks like “a furry devil.”

    Vintage Christmas postcard depicting Krampus. Dave (CC BY-ND)

    St. Nicholas and Krampus work together as a team, as Ridenour says, in a bad cop-good cop way.

    St. Nicholas visits homes and talks to the children. He asks their parents how the kids have behaved over the past year. Most of the children behaved well so they receive some kind of treat.

    “But there’s always a warning at the end of that visit in which he welcomes the Krampuses in,” Ridenour explained. “So they come storming into the house with their switches and they all wear bells on their belts, which makes for a much more startling appearance when about six of them burst into a little home.”

    Here in the United States, Krampus is frequently described as the “anti-Santa Claus.” But Ridenour says that this conception of Krampus is misleading.

    “Austrians and Bavarians are very confused when they hear that. No, he works under St. Nicholas. And it doesn’t have anything to do with Santa Claus per se because that’s a figure associated with Christmas,” he said. “They have sort of two little Christmases in these parts we’re talking about. They have this St. Nicholas Day and then they have the (Dec.) 24, 25. There are other figures associated with that. It would be either the sort of American import who they just call the Weihnachtsmann, the Christmas Man, and he looks like our Santa Claus. The Catholic regions, they have the Christ child, the Christkindl, as the gift bringer.”

    St. Nicholas, right, and his companion Krampus participate in a parade on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2001, in St. Johann in the Austrian province of Tyrol. Kerstin Joensson/AP Photo

    Ridenour has a vivid memory of the first time he saw men dressed up as Krampus, which is probably described as Krampus cosplay. It was in Bad Gastein, south of Salzburg in Austria.

    “My first actual encounter with a real, live, mythical animal was driving in a taxi going from the train station up to my hotel,” Ridenour recalled. “And I was so excited. I would just see the cab lights would catch these — what looked like bigfoot — or these giant furry animals crossing the road. And there was snow swirling down. And I would hear this huge clanking sound because I had never actually heard the sound in person. These bells are really large so it’s not quite the little tinkly bells you might imagine. So this godawful crashing metallic sound and then these huge things covered with snow shambling across the road.”

    Ridenour recalled an incident that he witnessed at a Krampus parade in Munich involving a frightened young boy:

    “That really made an impression on me because I believe that we are a little overprotective in our society and kids don’t have the opportunity to sort of test and prove themselves. The kid was visibly trembling and he was sort of hanging back. And I think he wanted to leave and his parents were like, ‘No, stay here. You’ll be happy you did,’ And so the Krampuses are coming closer. And the performers are usually attuned to what’s going on. So one of the Krampuses sort of got down low like you do if you’re trying not to scare a dog and you make yourself smaller. And he puts out his hand and the boy takes his hand and then this huge smile explodes over his face. And as I watch him, I’m realizing everybody is watching this scene. And you could just see the pride on the kid’s face and everybody around him’s smiling. It’s just like an important moment for that kid to have tested himself and seen he can do it. It’s okay.”

    According to Ridenour, the reason that the Krampus tradition survives in its homeland of Germany and Austria is because it’s a tradition that people grew up with. He compares the house visits to plays that family members and their relatives put on together.

    But he says that here in the U.S., Krampus has been embraced for the opposite reasons.

    “People looking to reinvent Christmas, that’s always happening. There’s this notion that it’s the opposite of Christmas, that it’s an attack on Christmas, which that’s what it is to some people here, but not what it is traditionally,” Ridenour said. “But I think that coming out of the punk rock era, there was this idea that this figure’s kind of an icon of rebellion against what people think of as their mom and dad’s Christmas. Or people will say it’s against the capitalist Christmas.”

    Ridenour continued, “The Krampus is many things to many people. I know what it is traditionally, I see it in L.A. so I know what it is to other people. But sometimes those two attitudes cross. I see families that think of themselves as very alternative but every year they’re back at these events that we do and they’re bringing their kids so it is its own tradition.”

  • The Badger Within: Comedian Charlie Berens On Loving, Lampooning Wisconsin

    “Keep ‘er Movin.’”

    It’s not just a Midwest axiom anymore. It’s now the signature catchphrase of Wisconsin YouTube star, Charlie Berens.

    Berens employs it often — along with a series of other local idioms he endears and playfully mocks — on his weekly vlog, “Manitowoc Minute.” His videos offer a satirical recap of local, national and international news overstuffed with kitschy humor — all done in an exaggerated Sconnie accent.

    The episodes have found a sizable audience in and out of state.

    “My No. 1 job is to make people laugh and to make people enjoy themselves and forget about whatever,” Berens told WPR’s “BETA.”

    “I come from an improv background and the No. 1 rule in improv is don’t think, so I just try to do what I feel like and I’m wrong a lot of the times. If you’re wrong often enough, you’re right sometimes,” Berens said. “Don’t be afraid of being wrong; just be afraid of not doing.”

    Berens is able to lampoon the state’s idiosyncrasies because they’re very much engrained in him. While his character is an extreme parody, it contains a lot of himself.

    “It couldn’t come across as authentic if it wasn’t a serious part of me and who I am and how I grew up,” Berens said.

    In addition to — or because of — his successful web series, Berens has taken his character on the road. He is touring Wisconsin for his “Oh My Gosh” tour. He said he has no qualms about playing up the Wisconsin caricature in front of local audiences.

    “That’s the cool part about all of it. The culture here is very much to joke about yourself, joke with yourself, laugh together, drink together,” he said. “It’s fun to be a part of it.”

    Berens said playing so many cities in Wisconsin can present challenges to keep his material fresh and updated, but he enjoys the challenge.

    “Normally a comedian is not going to go to a market as small as Wisconsin. Usually they’re going nationally. I mean they will come to Wisconsin, but they won’t come to Wisconsin and play all these different cities that I’m playing,” he said.

    To develop material, Berens took a popular segment from his show — “The Craigslist Kicker,” where he buys or showcases the quirkiest items for sale on the online retailer — on the road as well. Literally. He purchased a used ’82 VW Rabbit from Craigslist, camouflaged it and crisscrossed the state with it — for as long as it would run.

    “(We) just took it all the way up to the Apostle Islands. Took it to a Mohican veteran’s pow wow on the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation and went by Lambeau with it,” Berens said. “I got a lot of material about Wisconsin by just seeing it in kind of a different way.”

    Berens’ comedic chops are also put to the test when he comes home for the holidays. He is one of 12 kids and jokes that “any economy is the wrong economy” for exchanging gifts with his siblings. So, the Berens clan executes a Secret Santa exchange, with a twist.

    “This is my favorite part. We exchange a gift with somebody, who we picked at Thanksgiving, but then we do this Kris Kringle roast of them,” Berens said. “You get them a gift, but nobody really cares about the gift. They all just spend time just trying to find the best roast of their sibling or mother or father.”

    Berens uses this finely-honed quick wit to provide commentary on the news.

    The spirit of “Manitowoc Minute” is that it highlights Wisconsin quirks and stories to a national audience while providing a decidedly Dairyland spin on national news. Berens is at his best when those two intersect, as was the case this past year when a controversial prom photo from the Baraboo School District went viral.

    “To allow that one to slide is to normalize it and I think that does more damage than to address it, say it was wrong and move on,” Berens said.

    He knows in a deep purple state he’s walking a fine line of potentially alienating a sizable cross-section of his audience by dipping into the realm of political satire. Berens feels his approach keeps him on the right side of that line.

    “I want to address the issues with levity and I don’t want to personally attack people. I think we have too much toxicity in politics and even in comedy,” he said. “If you’re saying something I agree with, I know because of the way you’re saying it, the person who doesn’t agree has already turned you off. So then whose hearts and minds are you changing? I would argue you’re not changing as many as you could.”

    That approach seems to be working.

    Berens was invited to sing “Roll Out the Barrel” at a Green Bay Packers game. There is a growing inventory of shirts featuring his various catchphrases. There’s even a signature “Keep ‘er Movin’” beer. For his part, Berens is excited that people still enjoy the show and he wants to keep doing it.

    “I think what I really try for the show is to be positive and find positive comedy to help people enjoy life more and not deny that things aren’t maybe always going great, but try and laugh along the way.”

    Editor’s Note: This interview also aired on Wisconsin Life Friday, Dec. 28, 2018

  • 'It's A Wonderful Life' Morphs Into 'It's A Wonderful Lives'

    What if the holiday movie classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” took place in a multiverse? A world in which there were multiple George Baileys, multiple Marys, and multiple versions of Bedford Falls that could play out in an infinite number of ways? Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer Robert Reed came up with this very premise and the result is his mind-bending short story, “A Woman’s Best Friend.

    “If you look at it as being a multiverse, alternate-universe scenario, then it becomes this rich place to play in,” Reed told WPR’s “BETA”. “Where they have basically two worlds in existence, I would perceive an infinite number of worlds. And so I just decided to put Mary out there in the snow, on her way from the library out to party that night in a town that’s kind of rough by our standards.”

    “But these people are extremely wealthy. And what I decided to do, I mean this society is extremely different from ours. And I’d like to do it as a set of layers,” Reed said. “I discovered as I wrote, I discovered each layer of the oddities. Of course, I wrote something from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ because I write something about everything that happens in my life. And everything I see is all viable fodder.”

    So how does Reed define the multiverse?

    “Infinity times infinity. Basically, anything that’s even remotely possible happens infinite number of times. You don’t have just two worlds in play with each other but there are all sorts of ramifications. In some sense, it’s a fine playground for me as a writer. In other sense, it’s kind of the opposite of drama. Since everything that can happen will happen, no single event ever really matters much in the end. Because everything will happen.”

    Reed offered a brief description of his story: “A city librarian is walking through the snow. She comes upon a man named George. And George is lost, George is very lost. And she realizes right away how he is lost and why he is lost. And she takes pity on him and she takes care of him. In that sense, very little happens in the story. It’s not a long story. But it’s basically George coming to terms with his new reality.”

    “If I was to write a story from Clarence’s point of view, I would say he’s not human, he never was human, but he has a great deal of power,” Reed said. “He has the kind of power that an angel would kill for. He basically can move through the multiverse at will. And he does things and he sees things and he reacts to things. And one day, he was watching ‘IAWL’ on our world on TV and thought, ‘I can do that, too.’ And he went out and found himself a suicidal man who looked an awful lot like Jimmy Stewart. And found a woman for him who looks an awful lot like Donna Reed. And the rest is history. And he set up the situation. If I was writing it from his point of view, I’d paint him as being a whimsical entity, God-like.”

    So how does this alternate version of George’s wife, Mary, know that George has committed suicide?

    “Apparently, her world is a dumping-ground for exactly this sort of person. They’re pretty open to it and they understand the situation and they have an explanation waiting,” Reed said. “They’re much more advanced than we are.”

    In a recent story for the science fiction/fantasy website, io9, staff writer Germain Lussier explored the question of whether or not “It’s a Wonderful Life” is actually a science fiction/fantasy film.

    “OK, I see the science fiction in it, I see the alternate universe,” Reed said when asked this very question. “I think it’s like Santa Claus, it’s that kind of magic. And I think that’s as far as people go with it in terms of the audience does. They would never put it in the same category as ‘Star Wars’ or Tolkien or any other fantasy.”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Maureen McCollum Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Karl Christenson Producer
  • Doug Gordon Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Al Ridenour Guest
  • Charlie Berens Guest
  • Robert Reed Guest