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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

In Advance of Next Week's Shows at Hilarities, Jim Tews Talks About Launching His Comedy Career in Cleveland

Posted By on Wed, Feb 19, 2020 at 1:15 PM

click to enlarge MINDY TUCKER
  • Mindy Tucker
A veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, comedian Jim Tews studied film at Cleveland State University while launching a standup career here in the early 2000s.

Tews returns to town next week to perform at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 26, and at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 28, at Hilarities. The Feb. 28 show will serve as a release party for Oatmeal, his very funny new album that features a standup set he recorded at a small San Francisco club.

Tews, who lives in Ridgewood, Queens with his partner, two cats and a dog with an underbite, talks about his career in this recent phone interview.

You were in the Coast Guard for a number of years. Were you the funny guy in the Coast Guard?
Sometimes. That’s not the best title to have in that setting. I was more like the guy getting in trouble.

But you survived for a few years.
Yes. I did four years, which is a standard enlistment. I was stationed in Cleveland and that’s how I ended up in Cleveland for ten years.

You started your comedy career here. Talk about what that was like.
It was an interesting experience. It was easy to find gigs. I was always into standup but I got the bug when I was active duty. I needed an outlet. I don’t know how I found it, but it might have been through an internet search for open mic comedy. I found this open mic at a sports bar in North Olmsted. I don’t know if it’s still there. It’s called No Excuses. They had a comedy open mic every Thursday or every other Thursday. I went and watched one. I thought I could do it. The next time, I went and signed up, and I’ve suffered ever since.

What was your first performance like?
I think it was pretty unremarkable. I do have video somewhere, but I haven’t put it online yet. I remember being pretty scared, and I remember writing everything I was going to say word-for-word. I was always a stronger writer than performer. I felt better writing things out long form. I had printed pages of what I’d written. I did two jokes in five minutes. That’s not something you want to do with right out of the gate. You want to tighten it up a little bit. They were stories with attempted punchlines.

Where in Cleveland did you regularly perform once your career launched?
At that time, the Improv was a little more accessible than Hilarities. They had a monthly amateur night. You would go during the day on Monday at noon, and they would have auditions during the day. You would do two or three minutes. Sometimes, they would critique your set or just tell you to come back. That became the thing to do. When I got out of the Coast Guard, I moved back to Pennsylvania for a little bit and then back to Cleveland. I had some roots and decided to go to college there and was in a relationship at the time. When I went back, I started hitting the club stuff a little harder. I would regularly go to the Improv on those Monday afternoons with all these other people who didn’t have jobs. You can imagine when you have comedy auditions on a Monday afternoon, you get the craziest people or sometimes people who have good jobs and can take an hour. I don’t know if they got the cream-of-the-crop during that time slot. It would have probably been better to open up the auditions a little more, but it was what it was, and I met a lot of people I’m still friends with.

When did you move to New York and what was that transition like?
It was kind of rough for a while. I was in Ohio and then moved back to Pennsylvania for six months to save up money. I lived with my sister. I found a place in New York and a freelance job that had some consistency to it. I was writing for a website. I had enough to make rent every month if I did the writing job. I just wanted to get there and figure the rest out. That’s kind of what I did. The first six months to a year was very difficult. I was 30. It wasn’t old, but you don’t want to be sleeping on a mattress on a floor when you’re 30, which is what I was doing. It wasn’t even my mattress. I moved into this apartment with three relative strangers. I had an air mattress. They had a mattress that the last person left and there were no bedbugs on it. They asked me if I wanted it, and of course I wanted it. I didn’t want to want it, but I wanted it. I was doing catering jobs and figuring out comedy in New York, which is an entirely different beast. I didn’t do a lot of the barking. I just did open mics and tried to hang where I could go. I went that route.

When did the Undone Sweaters, your Weezer tribute act, come together?
That was like five years ago now. That was just a fun side project. We haven’t played together in a while because we’ve been busy with our other things. It started with me and two other comedians, who are from Ohio too. They asked me to do a show that was standups doing anything but standup. I chose to play Weezer songs on my guitar. They organizers played music too and wanted to something together. We got along really well and our director friends were looking for something to shoot. I had the idea for the weird Weezer tribute band. Everyone was on board. We started doing that and we wanted to perform live and not embarrass ourselves, so we just practiced. It was fun, and we put way too much effort in it. We’ve gone on tour two or three times.

Talk about this new album, Oatmeal. Where did you go to record it?
I went to San Francisco this time. I did my last one in Cleveland because I know people there like me, and I could fill the room. For the next one, I didn’t know if I wanted to exhaust my Cleveland friends and family again. The label had this room in San Francisco that gets a good audience on the weekends and is rigged for recording. It’s a small venue with something like 50 seats.

Did you know the people in the audience.
No. It was a random audience. It was an audience of people who had never heard of me. I was a little scared of, but that’s how I perform 99 percent of time. It’s weirdly risky. The audience isn’t loaded. It’s not like half the people liked me, and I knew I had that.

Your bit about taking mushrooms and then crying is pretty funny. Is that a true story?
Yes. It’s very true. I don’t mind drug jokes, but I don’t want to do things unless they’re based on some sort of personal experience. The point of that joke isn’t the drugs. It’s the crying thing. It was a larger point I was trying to make, and the drugs played a key part.

What other projects do you have in the works?
I don’t have anything set in stone. I do some animation stuff. I like doing that stuff, but I’m also reluctant to do it because it’s so time consuming. I like to take a broad look at all the things I feel like doing and see which one tickles me the most.

How’d you learn how to draw?
I used to be a caricature artist at an amusement part. Animation was always an interest of mine. I took some drawing classes when I lived in Cleveland at Tri-C. It’s so time consuming. In the last couple of years, some software has helped make it easier, and I’ve gotten better at it. When you do standup, it’s hard to set yourself apart even if you’re good, so it’s good to have another thing I could do that I know many other people can’t do. I need to figure out how to leverage it and make it a supplement to how I do comedy.

Talk about what your show here will be like.
I would love to tell you that it’s all new stuff. It’ll be new to people in the audience who don’t know me. For the Wednesday show, I will do a mix of old and new. I’ll play the hits. Friday’s show will be different. It’s the album release show. Mike Polk and Bill Squire and Mary Santora and Juanda Mayfield will do the show. I will host the show and do some standup. I’ll also have a set of cards that have my certain talents written on them. An audience member will draw a card and between comics I will perform that’s not standup. One of the talents is caricatures, so I’ll bring up someone from the audience and draw a caricature. I also play the saxophone. I might call them “challenges.” I have trouble figuring out what I should really focus on. I might have the audience score me and then whatever scores the highest is what I’ll pursue for the rest of my life. If it’s not standup comedy, so be it.

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