Why Cleveland kicks as for up-and-coming comedians -- and the audiences that love them

The Funny is Everywhere 

Why Cleveland kicks as for up-and-coming comedians -- and the audiences that love them

The news of Big Dog Theater's final days reverberates around the humor community and explodes in the emotional echo chamber of Facebook in late December. Another one for the local comedy history books, ladies and gents.

Despite the ceaseless flurries and thick slush along Euclid Heights Boulevard, dozens of improv fanatics are descending on Coventry Village. A beloved performing arts institution, you see, is shutting its doors after an ambitious two years of funny. To simply stay home ain't an option tonight.

For Cleveland's improv crowd, the news is another notch in a long succession of similar developments (the Cabaret years, Second City...). The theater had come to be one of the many backbones, some permanent, some transient, of an incredibly tight-knit community.

"When we started, it was predominantly to put on the best live shows and offer some of the highest quality training in improv," Big Dog owner Don Mitri says. Looking ahead, there's still a future for the project. Nomadic and enterprising, Big Dog's legacy remains a significant part of the area's comic-riddled family.

The theater's home at the Centrum in Cleveland Heights was a breeding ground for amateur performers and fans of improv alike - that much will never be forgotten. The place was, in the end, home to many.

Across town in Lakewood, another snowy night greets eager boozehounds and guests of a weekly improv outing at Mahall's 20 Lanes. The stage is lit, the performers out in the lobby kinda working their improvisational muscles by running through some of the evening's festivities.

"WELCOME! to the Cleveland Improv Jam!" No microphone here. Just energetic voices and an audience thirsting for humor.

From east to west, small rooms to big clubs, these events offer a distillation of Cleveland's yuk-it-up comedy scene: the improv, the stand-up, the sketch - all very entrepreneurial, all very communal. And from performer to audience member, a sect that thrives on the very nicheness of local culture.

"You gotta look, but you don't have to look too hard," Mitri says with a chuckle. "Funny is everywhere in Cleveland."

***

Ramon Rivas II is nursing a bottle of water against the back wall of Cleveland's storied Hilarities 4th Street Theatre. He's hosting a weekend run of stand-up here, something the 28-year-old self-described DJ of comedy does monthly, sharpening his wit and intertwining material new and old.

The room feels vast and remarkably cozy at the same time. There's a very clear kinship at Cleveland's houses of comedy. People come to laugh, knock back a few among friends and do little more beyond that.

"It's a great place to kinda start and develop," Rivas says of his hometown. He's come up in the local scene and he's also done time in Chicago. From his early days gigging at the now-extinct bela dubby in Lakewood to his current whirlwind week-long scheduling tour at venues around Northeast Ohio, Rivas has attained more than a bit of intimacy with the humor that Cleveland has to offer. It is everywhere, he notes. Audiences are starting to realize that. For the funny people and those aspiring, hoping, honing to be funny - working the stand-up circuit, writing sketch, performing improv - it comes down to how badly you want it.

His weekly Chucklefck gigs showcase that ideal. Rivas draws in comics of all ilk: Names you may recognize - maybe a Hannibal Buress or Rob Delaney, or a Bill Squire or even a Mike Polk, Jr. - and others you surely won't.

"I see so many people start and then disappear completely. Or fade out and then fade back in," Rivas says. "It's great that in Cleveland, from Saturday through Thursday night, you can get up and do an open mic."

Then - he's off. Bottle of water in hand, he heaves onward and approaches the stage at Hilarities, ready to kick off the evening's main event, ready to tap into the energetic vein in the room to feed his habit.

***

Down along the west bank of the formerly celebrated and rather decrepit Flats, where a comedy club lies in a concrete desert of vice, a crowd is buzzing. The Cleveland Improv, one of the two canonical comedy joints in town, is lit up in brilliant columns of emerald that accentuate that shining neon beacon of humor: IMPROV!

Pablo Francisco is headlining a weekend run here and the locals are giddier than all hell. But the stage needs warming up. Local up-and-comer Dan Brown heads toward the mic just minutes after sketching out some impromptu ideas on a cocktail napkin in the back of the room and running through his set. No time to waste now, though: He's flashing a confident smile onstage.

His set revolves around the down-to-Earth humor that gets a lot of love in Cleveland. (Comedy 101, of sorts: Know your audience.) Taking cues from the likes of Brian Regan and Jim Gaffigan, Brown zeroes in on the sweet spot of his material. He touches on the malaise of growing up in Cleveland, garnering awkward nicknames from his buddies and getting homemade let-downs for Christmas. He's honed his chops over the years, hitting those open mics and the Northeast Ohio circuit.

"I was out almost every night of the week," he says. With a goal of performing at 250 shows in 2012 (accomplished!), Brown wasn't interested in sitting on the sidelines. And you can't be. "You just have to keep going at it. You have to put yourself out there and continue putting yourself out there."

A few years back, he passed through Improv manager Dave Schwensen's stand-up workshop at the notable venue. It's an institution for those both dabbling in and diving into humor; Schwensen is a longtime purveyor of knowledge of the stage. His three-week workshops admit 10 budding comedians each session and he's overseen more than 700 students ranging in age from 13 to 72.

Schwensen's seen both sides of the stage - the funny stuff with the fame (or lack thereof) and the business goings-on behind closed doors. He spent his formidable years performing as a young man in New York City and later took on talent coordinator gigs, helping to cast sitcoms and line up names for comedy specials and clubs.

"I know what you need to do when you get up onstage," he says of the tight-rope act performers walk each night. You can hit 'em in the funny bones, but you've also got to have that, oh, je ne sais quoi that will catch the eyes of talent scouts and Big Names - if that's what you're in it for. "This is a business and you can make a living doing this," Schwensen says. And Cleveland's the perfect place to learn something like that. He's seen the big-market club circuits, but the Northeast Ohio native knows that there's a wellspring of talent and opportunity here.

"I always knew Cleveland had a good scene, even when I was working in New York and L.A.," Schwensen says, squinting his eyes and running through the years that led him back home.

The Cleveland Improv, the local offshoot of a storied history begun in 1960s New York City by Budd Friedman, remains a Valhalla of sorts for up-and-comers. And the history therein shows the strength of our local humor ring.

***

"I think [Cleveland] is really starting to get a name in the country," comedian Chad Zumock says. He's taking a moment to consider the city in the longview, leaning back in his chair and riffing on this sort of renaissance we've got happening in town.

Contrasted against the bright lights of bigger cities, the idea of "Cleveland" is more likely to be accompanied with a witheringly sad trombone melody, a punchline unto itself for decades. But on the ground, the picture comes into focus and an ecosystem begins to show itself. There are the big clubs, the amateur open mics, the sketch groups fleshing out scenes in campus buildings and beyond. The multitude of venues grew slowly over the past couple decades, with a brilliant sense of immediacy and critical mass only coming into its own in the past five years or so.

A sharp difference among comedy markets is in the potential for stage time here, which is a near universal acknowledgement when talking shop with area comics. Zumock relays stories of his two years in Los Angeles, where he'd drive 45 minutes or so just for a hot five minutes with a mic. Thanks to the enterprising young men and women working to make it possible, in Northeast Ohio - from deep in Lorain County to the borders of Geauga and everywhere in between - stage time is ample. ...If you're willing to work for it.

"That's so valuable for an up-and-coming stand-up," he says. With a wide smile that flashes intermittently, he explains that this sort of middle-of-the-road market is fertile ground for anyone looking to get involved with the performing arts. Look closer: Funny is everywhere in Cleveland.

One of Zumock's recent endeavors, The Scumbags of Comedy, comes complete with a booking angle that highlights one of the more interesting aspects of working the Cleveland circuit. Namely: Hard-working comics have to think outside the city as the end-all, be-all.

The Scumbags take their show to the farther reaches of our borders - gigging in places like Barberton and Lorain. It's mandatory work, Zumock says, because it gives comics the chance to stretch their legs and audiences the opportunity to let the show come to them. Also, more often than not, it gives comics that *big-time* opportunity to perform for free beer and/or sandwiches at the bar.

Rivas chimes in and says he's spent many nights working for no pay, aside from tall boys of PBR on the house. He doesn't drink, though. So, literally for free.

Reddstone, in Cleveland's yuppie-but-not-really Battery Park neighborhood, attracts quite a gathering during the week with the Chucklefck open mic night gigs (Mondays) and recording sessions for the Awkward Sex Show podcast with Carey Callahan in tow (Tuesdays).

On the one hand, you've got the premier independent stand-up room in town. On the other, you've got a quirky-meets-emotional live audio recording. And both events are thriving.

"It's indicative of a healthy comedy scene that there's a place for that type of weird show," Rivas says, referencing the Awkward Sex Show. "In years past, there would be no audience for that."

Along with comedian Dave Flynt, Rivas has conjured up a sustainable turntable of local and regional comics during Chucklefck's open mics. They've bloomed into standing-room-only, pack-'em-in-like-sardines affairs. The explosiveness sorta reinforces that very real sense of community.

Reddstone - and Chucklefck's other hideout, West 6th Street's The Blind Pig - is yet another outlet, a little incubator of humor.

"It's been cool to see that kinda develop and congeal over the years," Rivas says. The room is packed. Some nights less so, but often enough the sessions at Reddstone attract hordes thirsty for the type of interaction that only a comedian can provide.

"There's a young nucleus of people who are all at the open mics," Rivas says. He elaborates, saying that Cleveland is home to a multi-tiered house of comedy. You've got the names like Polk, Squire, Ryan Dalton, et al. Then there's this aspirational subset of young guns working the microphones across the area. As he's scheduling out the next few months of shows, Rivas says there are always several people he's never heard of or met before, all requesting a slot on an upcoming evening. New comics trying to break onto the stage.

A decade ago, the influx of talent certainly wasn't as noticeable - when it was happening at all. The rooms just weren't there to support such a movement. Now, with actual opportunities and engaging audiences awaiting, you've got outlets for comedy on a level Cleveland had never before seen.

"You need those rooms to be able to go and develop that new stuff," Rivas says. Breeding grounds are essential for any endeavor based on creativity and performance. Zumock stopped by the Chucklefck gig recently to flesh out his latest gags. He dropped in to throw down a quick set alongside others who were just getting started in the game. It's that multi-tiered structure at work.

Brown, three years into his own comic journey, explains that you've got to stay on top of the open mic schedule. He co-hosts a show Thursday nights at Sachsenheim Hall over on Denison Avenue, but he's hit the local circuit over and over again, becoming a regular at some of the area's best rooms.

There's the solitary writing, the mental riffing for hours on end, the reviewing of contemporaries' approaches to the craft - but it all comes down to stage time in the world of performance art. In comedy. Stand-up sets are measured in minutes - often enough, of the single-digit variety. It's the currency of the craft. And in that respect, at least, Cleveland is a city of tremendous wealth.

Rivas, in asking an increasingly common question, illuminates the growing pains of a city that hasn't yet figured itself out: Why are so many Clevelanders spending so much money and so much time on the local "sports" teams? There's actual success and more than a handful of Wins to be found on stages in every neighborhood this city has to offer.

An analogy worth pondering.

But it really hasn't always been like that. Zumock, chiming in, says he watched as stand-up rooms started opening up on a more widespread level over the past decade. The Jim Tews-originated Chucklefck helped put a dent in the city's west side. Small rooms were widening fissures in the under-the-radar perception of stand-up as entertainment. Zumock points to Bassa Vita Lounge on West 117th Street as a bellwether of the flourishing open mic scene to come. And flourishing it is.

"I take pride in being a part of that and helping to get that wave going," Rivas says.

***

The informal cast of the Cleveland Improv Jam knows a thing or two about trying to maintain some regularity around town - and attracting a crowd at the same time. The group once had a weekly home at bela dubby in Lakewood, coincidentally where Chucklefck's life also began. Then bela dubby closed. So the group took on a new weekly home at Sullivan's Irish Pub, across the street. Then Sullivan's Irish Pub closed. So the group took on a third. new. weekly. home at Mahall's 20 Lanes, further down Madison Avenue.

Thankfully, Mahall's looks to be in it for long haul and the alley's owners have the keen senses to promote talented performers.

Brightly lit letters adorn the back wall and sunshining bulbs cast light onto the stage. "OK! We're gonna play a little game now..."

Everybody's in on it: The performers, the audience. To know thy comedy scene, thou must be thy comedy scene. Or something like that. The point is: Everybody is putting in the time necessary to cultivate the community. Cleveland's cultural assets - the comedy, the restaurants, the music, the DIY makers - are awesome in so many ways only because they're grassroots phenomenons built on the backs of people who give a damn. There's nothing easy about any of this, as any ass-busting comic will tell ya. But no one here is interested in "easy."

"It's an ever changing scene," Angry Ladies of Improv co-founder Marjorie Preston says. She and her co-performers find themselves working out their skills on the Cleveland Improv Jam stage most weeks and she's watched the area's venues and performers shift and evolve quite a bit over the years. "Someone goes off to New York and ends up on TV. Then you'll find some up-and-comer... And somebody local will start something interesting like This Improvised Life and the Awkward Sex Show."

Across town, later in the week, Preston is joining a group of sketch comedians and writers in the final hours of rehearsal for their Feb. 1-2 feature show, "Is Speed Dating an Olympic Sport?" The Public Squares, a sketch group revived in 2012 after years of dormancy, is back with a fervor. It's sort of an enriching blend of the over-the-top visual hyperbole and subtle wordplay - comedic ingredients cooked al dente.

The Public Squares' efforts also highlight a common thread in the lives of young comics: The desire to perform or write comedy is typically born as a simple hobby, a nightcap to their otherwise busy-as-all-hell personal lives.

And so, fitting the Cleveland mold, the community deepens. This all-inclusive family isn't taking itself too terribly seriously. (It's comedy, for chrissakes. It's comedy in Cleveland.)

"The way the business is designed, you have to go to New York or LA. But that's if you want to get something out of the business," Rivas says. "If that's all you want out of things - to [perform comedy] every night - then you can do that here."

The Cleveland Comedy Festival, five years in now, and the debut of the Accidental Comedy Festival via Ingenuity Fest last year are two cogs in the outreach machine that helps grab unwitting comedy fans and lure them deeper into our city's sprawling array of events! shows! funny stuff around every corner!

"There are people talking nationally about Cleveland as a comedy scene. Whether they're saying it's good or not is irrelevant," Rivas says. "The fact that they're even saying it is what matters, where four years ago that wasn't something people even talked about..."

Mitri's reassembled Big Dog Theater hosted an evening of comedy with the Shaker Heights Arts Council soon after the venue shut its doors at the end of last year. He says he accomplished his goals and the goals of many budding performers in the past few years via Big Dog's presence. But there's more work to do.

"Nothing stops. Nothing dies. It just moves in a different direction," Mitri says. "It's always evolving."

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