The Funny is Everywhere

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

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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."

About The Author

Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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