"You have no idea what a chubby little cash cow you are," Mike Polk says to his housemate.
The name's Macduff, star of "I'm a Stupid Cat," a 60-second compilation of Polk's pet laying around the house, walking around the house, and generally being a cat around the house. It's all spliced together with minimal editing and even less production value, and set to a jingly tune.
Holy hell, that guy's bringing me food
this food sucks but I don't even know it
Now I'm shitting in a box because I don't give a fuck
and the guy throws it out for me.
The internet loves cats, and the internet also loves to mock people who love cats. And so "I'm a Stupid Cat" was a natural hit on
two fronts: almost 7 million clicks on YouTube and counting.
It's just another notch on Polk's internet résumé, which has been collecting zeroes — pageviews, not dollars — for quite some time now, all beamed out from the 34-year-old ginger-haired comedian's Lakewood
apartment. That's where the four-pawed performer in Polk's viral video is currently scampering around, blissfully unaware of his fame.
Of course, Macduff really isn't that big a cow: 7 million clicks are worth a lot less than you'd think — though one guy did offer Polk $1,000 each to make three more identical cat videos with similarly nonsensical, vulgar lyrics. "He e-mailed a couple of months ago, but I'm just getting around to thinking about it," Polk says. "I'm not very financially motivated."
Polk works for Break Media, an L.A.-based online property that rakes in dough mainly from videos — original and otherwise — be they songs or sketches or clips of babies sleeping in watermelon. His role there is two-fold: He writes ad copy for products like Mike's Lite Hard Lemonade when those companies buy ads on Break, and he works with a creative team on original, funny stuff.
But "I'm a Stupid Cat" wasn't for Break. Earlier this year, Polk restructured his deal, taking a "big" pay cut in exchange for the freedom to make stupid cat videos and other nonsense on the side. There are just too many ludicrous ideas in that head of his, and restrictions are kind of a downer.
Polk's done plenty of popular work for Break too, and before that for HBO Labs, a digital creative division of the cable powerhouse that was bought out by Break. Along the way, Polk was behind the videos "One Semester of Spanish Spanish Love Song" (6.8 million views), "Ooh Girl, an Honest R&B Song" (9.3 million views), two "Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Videos" (8.3 million combined), and a host of other series, sketches, one-offs, and vids with a more local flavor. ("LeBron James Is a Bitch," anyone?)
Then there are his continued efforts with Last Call Cleveland, the sketch group he co-founded at Kent State University more than a decade ago that continues to perform locally and nationally. He also does stand-up and humor writing.
So what is he doing here, some 30 million views later, in his Lakewood abode, with its wood-paneled living room walls decorated with pictures of family and friends and Terminal Tower and the old Municipal Stadium? Why not live in, say, L.A.?
"I wish it were more complicated — this is a boring story — but I have a decent job now that gives me a lot of freedom and lets me move at my pace. I love Cleveland. I really do. I've been here a long time, I have a lot of family here," he says, referring to his parents in Westlake, his two sisters in Lakewood, and the girlfriend who "ain't dumped me yet."
"I'd move if I had to — say, if I got fired. Luckily I don't have to. And it's not as pressing to move somewhere else with what I do.
"Cleveland's my speed."
All right, then. What's next?
"Want to go to the thrift store? I can drive."
The Unique Thrift on Lorain has made appearances in Polk's stand-up act before: "My favorite day is Mondays, because that's half-priced Mondays. If you're a people watcher, and you thought there were some interesting cats normally milling about, do yourself a favor and go on Monday and check out the people who don't want to pay retail thrift-store prices. Check out the guy who was there on Wednesday and says, '$1? For a suit? I don't think so, assholes; I'll see you on Monday.'"
On this late-autumn evening, Polk is here for two things: a suit for his Art Garfunkel Halloween costume and a bike helmet for a bit in a new clip-type, Soup or Tosh-esque web series he's doing for Break that debuted in December.
Polk's previous big web series, "Man in the Box," was a long-running spin on the average cubicle dweller's life. It was the first original scripted work Polk did for HBO Labs, who found him through The Phat Phree, a humor-writing collective including former Last Call member and current Alan Cox Show co-host Chad Zumock. Polk's "Look at My Striped Shirt" essay, a hilarious and vicious parody of the Red Bull-chugging bro culture of West Sixth Street, caught the eye of an HBO Labs honcho.
"I literally came home drunk one night from West Sixth after enduring it and wrote that really drunk," Polk says. "There were misspellings, I didn't remember writing it the next day. It was a mess. But then it started getting kicked around."
That bit of self-deprecation is typical of Polk. Everything is explained with the basic, rehearsed gist of Ah, it's nothing, I was just fucking around. From the production values on his homemade videos to his explanations of the stroke of genius that birthed them, the theme is the same: It's all hastily made.
The cat video: I was just filming my cat.
The "Hastily Made" franchise: I just pointed my camera around and said some bullshit over it because my friend needed a video that night for a show.
All anyone around him can talk about, however, is how smart and hard working he is.
"I read a lot of writing, have seen a lot of things, but Mike has that distinct voice," says Fran Shea, the onetime HBO Labs boss who discovered him. "His writing is tight, it expresses different ideas, it's all very strong, and you can tell how very directed he is."
Former Last Call member and former Scene staffer James Renner: "He has studied comedy. He works very hard on it."
Current Last Call member Mark McKenzie: "Mike's the most prolific comedy writer I've ever met."
Danila Koverman, VP of the Creative Lab at Break: "For as whacky as comedians' reputations are, he's wonderfully dependable, hits deadlines, and is very productive."
Polk, it seems, tries hard to fight that perception. After the tourism videos went viral, he did interviews on his front porch wearing a bathrobe and holding a bottle of whiskey when the local news cameras showed up.
"They wanted to meet me here, there, in front of Tower City, whatever," he says. "I told them, 'Come over here if you want.' So I was just sitting in various states of undress while these poor reporters — they have no clue to begin with — they have no idea why they're there. It was probably a little dickish."
It was sort of dickish, but it also upheld an image.
If Polk suffers from one other overriding perception besides the I'm just fucking around, anyone could do this look of his videos, it's that he's a Cleveland comic. Not a comic from Cleveland, but a comic most adept at making people who know Cleveland laugh.
That's not true, of course — his body of work disproves it. But it's a perception nonetheless. "Mike Polk's act is extremely local," fellow comic Michael Ivy once said of him. "I could wrap up his act in one line: 'Boy, Parma sure makes Willowick look like Brunswick, right? Am I right?'"
But whatever local mining Polk does has also scored with viewers far and wide. For one thing, he's responsible for creating the single most enduring moment from the 2011 Browns season. It was this simple phrase: Factory of Sadness.
It hadn't even existed in the Browns fan's lexicon until a few weeks into the season, when Polk posted a video of himself talking to a darkened, empty Browns Stadium shortly after the orange and brown lost in singularly dispiriting fashion to the Houston Texans.
One week and a half-million views later — it's now closing in on 1 million — the clip was being quoted by fans and turned into T-shirts and passed around by sports media folks nationwide.
Like most of Polk's videos, it was concise; not so much a rant, but a string of lucid, funny statements about our lovely football team — "Do you understand how low our expectations are?" — topped off with a one-two punch line: "You are a factory of sadness! OK, see you Sunday."
There was also "Please Stay LeBron," his parody of "We Are the World" that dropped in the days leading up to The Decision, when LeBronomania hit 11 across the country.
"It was a sellout to try and save my job," he claims now. "Break was probably having questions at that point about me. Nothing of mine had blown up for them yet. The video, in the end, was awful. Embarrassing and awful. But it got them a lot of ink, it blew up for three days, and landed on CNN. But then it got yanked by — God bless him — Quincy Jones for copyright reasons, and that was perfect for publicity."
It succeeded despite me, you see. It was Quincy Jones. All Quincy Jones.
Polk has found the perfect trim gray suit for the Garfunkel costume. Paul Simon is now making noise about canceling, but that would actually be pretty perfect for a Garfunkel costume — obviously Paul Simon would be at a better party.
Three shirt options selected from the women's blouse aisle are in tow. A black bike helmet has been procured, as has a vinyl copy of Billy Joel's Glass Houses. That last one is not ironic or for a bit, just for the joy of Joel.
In all: $14?
"Nope. $7. Half-price Mondays."
Matters of comedic artistry, integrity, and evolution are best discussed over hot dogs and booze, so Happy Dog is the next stop before Polk hops over to Bela Dubby for its weekly open-mic night. Especially because Polk likes a few drinks in him before hitting the stage. OK, mainly because Polk likes a few drinks in him before hitting the stage.
Polk's start under the spotlight came at Kent State, where Last Call Cleveland was born among a handful of like-minded students making a college TV newscast. That led to sketches on the station and live performances around campus, both of which were incredibly popular in those days before the internet — you know, those heady times when you actually had to leave your house.
"You'd have to tape something and mail it off to get something on the internet in those days," says Polk. "Because it took like an hour to upload one video."
He scored a job right out of college, putting his communications degree to use as a bartender. "I did that sad move where you stay the year after college and hang around bars," he says. "Even after I moved up to Cleveland, I'd drive back an hour away to Kent. Eventually, I was making that drive home pretty drunk three or four nights a week, which isn't healthy, with $90 in my pocket. I was like, 'I've got life by the balls!'"
Up to Cleveland and more bartending, this time in Avon Lake — at an "even worse bar" in a locale that sports a weird combo of "hillbillies and yuppies, and hillbillies and yuppies who then bred, which is even harder to describe, but they love free happy-hour buffets."
Polk landed a job on "The Block" on Channel 43, a mid-program break-in bit with plenty of man-on-the-street high jinks. To start, he received the princely sum of $150 a week. Then there was the in-game announcer gig for the Cavs, a short-lived experiment for both sides that, despite Polk's love for Cleveland sports, never really worked. "There's only so many times you can feign excitement for DiGiorno pizza," he says.
Polk did venture out to L.A. — for an internship at a "doomed to failure" internet comedy channel. But no sooner did he hit Cali sand than he landed in the hospital with a nasty bout of ulcerative colitis. Alone, sick, and broke, he came back to Cleveland, got noticed for his striped-shirt screed, and landed his first real job at HBO Labs.
"My teeth were a mess at the time," he says. "I was mostly happy for the insurance."
Through all of that there was Last Call: a sanctuary of sorts, one that has existed long enough for a whole cycle of comics to come and go.
"It went from being a billion Second City improvisers to a billion stand-ups over the past ten years," says co-founder Aaron McBride, who along with Polk, Mark McKenzie, and Matt Zitteli make up the current lineup. "I'm still waiting for the sketch-comedy boom."
That boom has yet to come, but Last Call did build a following and wrote material even Mad TV thought was funny enough to rip off. The group is a mainstay around Cleveland throughout the year, occasionally performing its original Way Off Broadway production Michael Stanley Superstar (in which Polk plays Cleveland's rock & roll Messiah in a tragically phony beard) and making annual trips to comedy festivals to drink and make other people laugh. These days, mainly to drink.
"We're all comedy nerds who like seeing things onstage that we've never seen before," says McKenzie. "At the same time, we've been doing this too long to think that there's some L.A. agent lurking around every corner, looking for the next Cleveland-based, all-white-male sketch-comedy group.
"Sure, Mike does a lot of stand-up, videos, and what have you, but we're the sketch comedy wife he keeps coming home to," he says. "We consistently put out."
Polk goes out of his way to give credit not only to the other members of his group, but also the other working comedians in Cleveland — far superior comedians, mind you. He's terrible at stand-up, he says. Some would disagree. But he wouldn't be as popular and well known at stand-up if he didn't have a finger in any number of comedic projects online.
He continues to experiment and branch out, partly out of pure necessity in expanding the outlets for his avalanche of ideas, and partly in trying to take on more serious, more potentially lucrative engagements. Most recently, he's tried his hand at a couple of 30-minute comedies; he's received healthy rejection for all of them.
"I'm not going to write Arrested Development," he readily concedes. "But Mitch Hurowitz started writing for the Golden Girls. You can grow. And for every person that writes Arrested Development, someone has to write According to Jim. I'll write According to Jim. I'll write Whitney. Hell, I'll write Whitney According to Jim. I'm not looking to reinvent the wheel."
Hot dogs, beer, and Jameson put down, it's showtime. An announcement over the Happy Dog speakers touts the evening's trivia contest.
"We'd win, but we have to go."
Polk doesn't do open-mic nights at Bela Dubby anymore. Tonight is an exception. "Let me go up there and eat it for your story, it'll be good," he e-mailed earlier.
Stand-up as a whole is something you can tell Polk has a conflicted relationship with. For the fifth or sixth time, he reiterates that he's terrible at it. If anyone wants to know the names of better comics to see, he can provide them. He's not very good, he promises. His live stand-up CD actually begins with the same assurance.
No One Is Even Listening, taped on a recorder straight from a big-box office store, was the brainchild of a friend who "tries to motivate" Polk. It's uneven but it's funny, and "Three Letters to My Student Loan Officer" is exceptional.
"I still have never listened to it, but it's out there," Polk says. "I forget that it happened, but every month I'll get a check for like $53 from iTunes and an e-mail from someone in Canada that says they liked it."
Polk doesn't play the Improv every time he goes out, though he does play the Improv from time to time. His stand-up world is centered primarily around neighborhood bars.
"Most of my gigs take place in a building connected to a laundromat and a Dots," he says. "But it builds character. I did a gig two months ago at Elyria Quaker Steak and Lube in exchange for all the wings I could eat. I assure you I got the better end of that deal."
There are 10 or so comics — all but one of them dudes — waiting to perform at the Lakewood coffeehouse, and 20 more folks on hand to watch. Open-mic comedy nights are a bit like karaoke, without the convenience of a back-up track or material written by someone else. Working comedians are there to try out new jokes, newbies are there to grab the mic, and Mike Polk is there to eat it for the sake of a story.
"This room is really pretty rough, frankly," he says. "Hell, it's rough when I'm doing it. I'm not blaming these guys. I'm just spouting crap. I don't even go up there anymore. One guy asked me for advice once. I said, 'Number one, don't ask for advice from a guy 10 years older than you who just did the same open mic you did."
The evening's performances are a mixed bag, from the trio from Jacksonville in town for a birthday party to a series of other random young folks stumbling forth and racing to their punch lines.
But it's fascinating to watch. You can study, if you pay attention, when a punch line has gone a beat too far, when a phrase has been repeated one too many times, when they should have waited for the laughter to stop, when they should have forged forward with another joke, when the clatter of bottles is louder than their voice.
"The youngsters, when they score with a joke and it hits, they love that feeling," Polk says. "They want to go back to it immediately. But it's like trying to go back to your high school after you graduate." Or sticking around college one year too long.
Polk's mini-set is by no means a barn-burner either — but it is more polished, confident, and, well, funny than anyone else's.
Some recent Facebook updates to start: "I wonder if teen vampires read fantasy novels about the lives of heavy middle-aged secretaries as a form of escape."
Then a riff on cats: "I buy the cheapest cat litter. They shit in it, for fuck's sake. So I'm at the pet store buying the cheap cat litter when a woman stops me and says, 'Don't buy that.' I'm thinking maybe she found some cheaper cat litter."
Then a ditty on Red Lobster's perfectly good thrown-out furniture, followed by a bit about dating women his own age: "It's like shopping for pumpkins the night before Halloween. Eventually you say, 'I'll take that lopsided one, or that rectangular one, or that black one with three kids.'"
And finally, a tune from his Break original "The Ex-Girlfriend Song" — which, incidentally, didn't fare so well online.
Applause, applause. Then jokes from the next comedian about having to follow Mr. Cleveland. Polk takes notes after his five minutes are up, jotting down what worked, what could work better with some changes, and what not to do ever again under any circumstances.
Then he sits back and belts out raucous laughter the rest of the night — and not pity laughter either. You can tell in the tenor of his voice. It's honest.
Afterward, one of the Jacksonville comics stops him and chats for 15 minutes. Polk is warm, receptive, friendly, and hands over his card, slipping into completely non-sarcastic ambassador mode. Yeah, the next time you're up here you should try this room. They cater to out-of-towners. It's a good crowd, a good room. Just sign up and you're gold. Yeah, e-mail me the next time you'll be around. What's your comedy tour going to be called? Oh, that's clever. Nice.
And with that, open-mic night is finished.
"Do we have to drive into the lake so you can have an impressive story?" Polk asks.
"Or can we just get one more drink?"
Nobody likes to hear about anyone else's fantasy football team. But we'll make an exception for Polk. His is named Los Diablos Blancos, so coined because he drafted only white players. Why?
"1. I thought it'd be an interesting sociological experiment," he wrote in a blog post.
"2. I'm an asshole."
Tonight his opponent has Ray Rice going in Monday Night Football against the Jaguars. Corky's in Lakewood is just around the corner from his house. No one will be there, they have TVs, liquor, and as Polk points out, it should be "especially miserable and loud for no reason at all." If Rice manages only a few points, Polk's crazy band of honkies will lose.
The bartender waddles in from her cigarette, and in between drink orders, which takes longer than it should given the four patrons currently in the bar, hears Polk exclaim, "Fuck! Son of a bitch. Ray Rice can't get another first. That's how tenuous the situation is for my Los Diablos Blancos."
This naturally begs her to ask if he's rooting for the white team — the team wearing white jerseys, that is.
"No, the color of their skin. Their race."
She casually moves away, but not before asking, "Not a big fan of the blacks?"
"It's a joke," Polk explains. "I wish I could have black players. I cherish black players. They are good at sports. I have guys named Wes, Danny, and Jordy on my team. It's a mess."
The waitress responds with numb silence.
Corky's, incidentally, is the sponsor of Polk's kickball team, a squad that is surprisingly embarrassing considering "it's a game invented to make retarded grade-school children feel like they're being included."
But that's not the point, nor is it particularly politically correct. The point is Mike Polk is sitting in an empty Lakewood bar, as has been his choice for years, since the very first viral hit, despite his bosses and other creative types asking him to head west. Such is the life he's deftly crafted for himself.
"Everyone would love to have Mike in L.A.," says Fran Shea, the former HBO Labs chief. "I can't tell you the pressure he's got to move out here. A lot of people come out here and do less work by trying to do more work. He never seems to have to try and get work. It's a value system for him, one that's not possible out here. I admire it."
"I'm sure the CEO begs Mike to come here," says Danila Koverman, Polk's boss at Break. "But he loves his family. Every time he's out here, we ask him to stay. Sure, he'd have different opportunities here, but he's choosing a different balance and quality of life."
Some in the Last Call family say Polk's not really down with fame. Not scared, that's not right. Just not a fan. Different man, different ambitions.
"The whole fame thing wasn't his thing," says Zumock. "Much like me, we're both Northeast Ohio guys. We love being here. We love our families. That's more important to him than anything. He doesn't handle that other stuff well, as talented as he is. He doesn't like it."
Given Polk's inclusion of Michael Stanley in his comedic repertoire and the perceived uncanny similarities between the two — Polk could grow a dynamite mullet if he wanted to, just so you know — folks like to wonder if Stanley's past and present is Polk's future. As in: destined to be a fringe celebrity in a one-horse town. It's the sort of lazy comparison that is a hallmark of every Polk interview, including this one.
"It's an angle that many people like to take. Including writers looking for an angle in an otherwise pedestrian and dismissible story," he says. "And I can't blame them. Because otherwise, what is this really about?
"I don't pretend to know Michael Stanley, but from what I understand, he really wanted to break out and be a big star. And to aspire to that and not make it could be perceived as tragic, I suppose. But I really have no such desire," Polk says.
"I don't want to be famous or want to make a billion dollars or anything. That's not all that important to me. And you can't fail to realize your dream if you don't really have one. When I'm in California for work, I don't stare at the Hollywood sign at night and tell it that 'someday I'm going to own this town!' I haven't written myself a check for ten million dollars and post-dated it five years. I don't have that drive or that desire. For better or worse.
"Besides, when you look at it, Michael Stanley has had a pretty good run. He got to be a rock star for a few years and he's been getting paid good money to play Golden Earring's "Radar Love" eight times a day ever since then."
Ray Rice runs for another first down. Los Diablos Blancos are done. One more Jameson from Corky. Then goodnight. After all, gotta be up earlyish to write taglines or a new song, or to empty Macduff's litter box.
"You know, the first time I was here I saw a woman getting fingered on the pool table," Polk offers. "No joke, right there. I was the only other one in here. Some white-trash couple. The guy made eye contact with me like, 'Yeah, this is happening.'"
Odd selling point for a bar.
"Eh, this place is my speed."