A New Boom: Cleveland's Rebirth as a (Comedy) City

Cleveland is a weird city and I mean that in the best way possible. When I started performing in April of 2008, we were mostly a LeBron-based economy. The comedy scene was unknown to me and everyone else in the city. There was only one weekly comedy show: Monday's Chucklefck open mic hosted by Jim Tews. The shows were mostly attended by comics and a handful of awkward people, and, for some reason, a lot of cute girls who K.I.P. (knit in public).

Aside from that, there were the two comedy clubs -- Hilarities and the Improv.  There were random shows at bars in strip malls. There didn't seem to be much going on in the scene OR THE CITY. I didn't really understand why, because I'd grown up in Lorain, and even though Tower City has a lot of blanket stores, it was a huge improvement over the Midway Mall of closed stores. We couldn't even sustain a food court McDonald's. THAT SHIT'S BANANAS.

That's around the time Forbes named us the most miserable city in America. That's when LeBron took his talents to Miami. That was the breaking point.

It's an odd thing that happens when your economy bottoms out: You get scrappy and survive. That's something I've picked up from a lot of successful people: when your safety net is cut, you just have to figure out how not to fall, no matter how drunk you may be.  I'm pretty sure what kept us afloat was our desire to escape through food, drink and entertainment. 

 I was living in Chicago the summer of 2010 but couldn't find a grown-up job because I went to every interview with a fanny pack and jorts, so I moved back to Cleveland. There were a lot of people doing good comedy out of Cleveland (@BillSquire @jimTews @RyanDalton @MikePolkJr @PattersonComedy) the scene was small. Jim and I resumed hosting the Chucklefck open mic before he moved to NY and became the first Cleveland-based comic to make it to the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal.

When visiting other cities like New York/Chicago, the sign up for open mics routinely had lists upwards of 60-80 comics each doing three minutes. There are also showcase style shows in the backrooms of bars, rock venues, coffee houses, Laundromats, sex shops and so many other types of places every night of the week. All that set the good shows apart is an audience, usually 20-30 people.

  People have and will ALWAYS COMPLAIN THERE'S NOTHING TO DO IN CLEVELAND. So instead of accepting the lack of things going on, I took a page from the bigger cities' scenes and searched out venues to run small, intimate shows every week/month and build an audience from there. Doing my own thing because goddammit, too many jobs drug test.

A lot of other people had a similar intuition. Chris Hodgson had gotten drunk in New York and bought a food truck. He came back to Cleveland, a few vendors at West Side Market gave him a week of credit and HodgePodge truck was born. It was the first food truck in the city. In fact, when he tried to get permits from the city they thought he was a hot dog cart and were upset when there was only hot dog cart paperwork. This led to him to becoming one of the countries top young chefs, with a hand in multiple restaurants in Cleveland. Dozens of food trucks now roam Cleveland. EVEN ONE WITH TINY DONUTS!

People that loved bikes but weren't into wearing socks started forming packs. Their critical mass rides went from a few dozen to over a thousand. Which scared the bejesus out of visitors from the suburbs. Places like Joy Machine opened to cater to the upswing in demand. The city is responding to the movement, adding bicycle lanes on major roads and adding paths to the ever-improving Shoreway area./p>

We have a new T-shirt economy! Mike Kubinski at CLE Clothing Co. now operates three physical locations and Tony Madalone combined a food truck with T-shirts and has a T-shirt truck. Really cool shirts, but terrible for late-night snacks. Glenn Infante had already been making Cleveland sports-based designs that were getting very popular. His brand, iLTHY, has grown into a bricks-and-mortar store as well. Plus there’s a host of other artists & designers taking haven in yet-to-be-developed areas like Chinatown and Waterloo. /p>

Most people have heard of Chucklefck.com shows, or at least are aware there's a ton of comedy happening all over the city right now. Comics from around the country are wondering what's going on with this growing scene. The last time I dropped in at Lakewood Village Tavern, which hosts a weekly Wednesday-night sign up/go up mic, the list was over 30 people long! We even have some puppet comics, which is terrifying and disconcerting but indicative a strong, vibrant and extremely weird comedy city. 

In January I'm moving to Chicago so that I can focus on performing. I'm taking this chicken and weed-based comedy act on the road.  I'll be back monthly for shows at Great Lakes Brewing Co. and to do Tiny Talk Shows and eat all the sandwiches available. 

I'm very happy to be leaving to spread the Cleveland comedy gospel knowing that there's such a strong nucleus of comics working on their craft.  Zachariah Durr will be taking over the Tuesday night show at Reddstone.  Brian Kenny and Robbie Bourne will be taking over the Thursday night show at Blind Pig. Comedians from around the country will continue to add Cleveland stops to their tour because this city loves to laugh.

As always, check out chucklefck.com for what's going on around town for comedy. And go out to SOMETHING, whether it's comedy or music or a restaurant or a bar -- you'll have a good time. 

Follow along with Ramon at @BlazerRamon.

For more from the Comedy Issue, click here>>

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.