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Leading Off: Remembering Brad Stewart and the comedy culture he built in Lincoln

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I met Brad Stewart in the spring of 2019. He was paying the bills by making sandwiches while trying to get a Sunday night comedy showcase at the Zoo Bar some much-deserved ink.

It was hard to believe that less than a decade earlier, he was considered one of comedy’s up-and-comers.

Brad Stewart

Brad Stewart built his Zoolarious comedy show into a Sunday night feature at the Zoo Bar.

He’d left Nebraska days after his 21st birthday, a few too many credits short of his bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, in search of acting fame in Southern California.

He quickly discovered stand-up comedy. Just as important, it discovered him.

He was opening for the late Joan Rivers, which was beginning to open doors for the native of Arapahoe.

Coming back to Nebraska was never in the plans. Then again, neither was his father’s Lou Gehrig’s disease diagnosis or the help his elderly mother needed in caring for him.

Stewart came home without having to be asked twice because that’s who he was. Family came first.

Stewart, 48, died on Monday. Damn cancer claimed another good one.

He might not have realized the comedy stardom he’d hoped for, but he leaves behind a lasting legacy in the Zoolarious showcase that was becoming known nationally.

In eight years of promoting – and hosting – the Sunday night shows, he brought in a number of well-known comics, including Derek Sheen, Eddie Pepitone and Alonzo Bodden.

“He put his heart into it and it was amazing to watch,” said Pete Watters, owner of the Zoo Bar. “He was relentless in building it up. He kept going and going.”

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Stewart's logic about Zoolarious was spot on. If given a reason, comics playing a weekend set on the east or west coast might lay over in Lincoln for a Sunday night show on the way home. And playing a room like the Zoo Bar, with its rich jazz history and downtown charm, only added to the experience.

“Brad Stewart created Nebraska's hippest comedy show to date,” said Pepitone, the New Yorker also known as "The Bitter Buddha" who headlined a Zoolarious showcase in July.

The Lincoln appearance by Pepitone, the subject of a television documentary who has also appeared in several sitcoms, brought pure joy to Stewart, mostly because he knew the people of Lincoln were in for something special.

“Brad was an undeniable talent who was also the biggest fan of standup I’ve ever met,” said Sheen, who lives in Seattle and headlined Zoolarious last fall. “It’s rare to meet a comedian who takes almost more joy in watching his friends discover one of his favorite comics than he did in performing himself.

Brad Stewart mug


“Brad didn’t just help create a comedy scene in Lincoln. He created a community. I miss him terribly.”

Lincoln’s comedy scene extended to local music and the arts and was one that Stewart talked about frequently – especially with his friends.

“His support was more pronounced than anyone I can think of,” said Mike Semrad, a local musician and executive director of Lincoln’s Jazz in June series. “We always talked about how we can make the scene better and more supportive of one another. It grows, we grow. His obsession for doing that was immense.”

In February, Stewart's career took a distinctively different turn when Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann hired Stewart to be his administrative assistant.

"I've always been interested in local politics," Stewart said at the time. “… And it’s a nice change from the food service industry.”

That illustrated the self-deprecating charm and humor of Stewart. He didn’t hide from his sandwich-making past. He embraced it.

Now we’re left wondering what will become of Zoolarious. Not even Watters knows at this point.

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“Comedy is just not my forte,” he said. “If someone came up to me and said, ‘Let’s keep it going,’ I would be all ears.”

Maintaining what Stewart started seems like the proper way to keep alive his legacy. But Watters is right. It's going to take someone with the network of connections that Stewart had built, not to mention a lot of energy.

Finding someone like that will be no small task. Nor will it happen overnight.

Maybe today, the goal shouldn't be moving forward as much as it is remembering him, while honoring him with a small gesture.

Here’s an idea: At the first Zoolarious showcase, Ed Salazar, an Omaha native who Stewart met in California, opened the show by high-fiving every member of the audience.

The preshow high-five became a Zoolarious tradition. No matter how big the crowd, the show didn't start until every audience member had been sufficiently greeted with a high-five from Stewart.

Give someone a high-five today in honor of Brad Stewart. He will be missed.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7391 or

On Twitter @psangimino


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