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The Funny is Everywhere 

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

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"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.

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