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.

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