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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."
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