CEDAR FALLS, Iowa --- Don "Donzilla" Tjernagel had no intentions of becoming a touring stand-up comic. He really just wanted free coffee.
The Waterloo native moved to Las Vegas to finish college after an injury left him without a football scholarship at the University of Northern Iowa. As he walked to class every day, he'd stop for a latte at a coffee shop, which he soon found offered a free drink to anyone willing to get on stage at open mic nights.
A year later Tjernagel had his own show on the Vegas strip.
"I'm a big Norwegian from Iowa. People probably thought I looked like Lurch and was 14, and that was probably pretty funny in itself," Tjernagel said. He earned the name "Donzilla" from a Comedy Central announcer, saying he was so big he'd eat Phoenix.
The comedian is back in Iowa and will headline "Comedy 101," a showcase of local comedians from Cedar Falls Stand Up at UNI's Strayer-Wood Theater Friday at 8 p.m.
He credits his success in comedy --- shows at the Las Vegas Hilton, Monte Carlo, Bourbon Street Hotel, a national tour, multiple CDs and DVDs, and the title of the youngest comic to have his own show on the strip at 22 --- to hard work and persistence. After those coffee shop open mics, he fell in love with an art form he had never thought about pursuing.
"I would change my comedy to perform at poetry readings, I'd open for bands, I'd open for wet T-shirt contests. Anywhere that had a mic, I'd perform," Tjernagel said.
All that success hasn't left Tjernagel jaded. He always features local talent as his openers, and requested to work with Cedar Falls Stand Up after seeing them perform at an open mic night in July.
"It reminded me of 1998 back in Las Vegas. They were brilliantly devious. Those guys were just excited to be up there, and I was ecstatic to see stand up in Cedar Falls," Tjernagel said. "When I was getting started it was an uphill fight for me to get a show in the area and I never got help. I want to leave it better than it was for me."
Tjernagel hopes to give the five performers from Cedar Falls Stand Up a taste of a comedy show at a large venue. Their dark, sometimes dirty brand of humor is just what he likes to see.
"If comedy is done honestly, it's not clean," Tjernagel said. "Comedy comes from truth and pain. It's meant to be a release. No one wants to hear about a guy's perfect life, perfect wife and perfect kids. They want to listen to someone who's going to make them feel better about themselves."
Cedar Falls Stand Up member Tyler Daniels said the performance will be the first comedy show for a lot of members.
"There aren't many opportunities for stand up in the area," said Daniels, who will be performing Friday. "We don't have our own club, we put up fliers ourselves and now we're performing at a venue I've walked past hundreds of times. It's kind of a sign that you're on your way. It definitely says something about what we've been able to do in about a year and a half."
Tickets are $10 at the door. To pre-order, call (319) 429-0447. Students and community members are welcome for the 18 and over show. Audiences can expect impressions, dirty jokes and observational humor with plenty of shock value.
"The crowds in Iowa are smart; they get the references. They read the warnings and know it's an adult show. Every once in a while you get someone that's easily offended," Tjernagel said. "It's like a lady walking into an adult bookstore and getting mad. It's like, 'Didn't the sign tell you where you were going?'"