You may not recognize the name Mike Polk Jr., but if you’re aware of a little site called YouTube, you might be familiar with some of his work, such as his viral video “I’m A Stupid Cat” (currently at more than 13 million views) and the aptly named “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video” (nearly 8 million views to date).
Between his YouTube videos, his stand-up, his work as a sports humorist on Fox 8 Cleveland, and a bi-weekly column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Polk has cultivated a passionate fan following that has spread beyond the borders of the Buckeye state. His comedy album, Baseless Arrogance: Live from a Bowling Album, recently debuted at number-three on iTunes, an impressive accomplishment for a regional comic who rarely performs outside of the Cleveland area.
“It’s still hanging around on the chart, too, somewhere around one of those Ray Stevens albums from the 1970s, I think,” Polk said. “That’s the nice thing about it being a comedy album as opposed to a music album. I’m only competing against comedians. I’m not competing against Rihanna or something like that. I’m just trying to beat a Brian Regan album from the 1990s.”
Born in Warren, Ohio, Polk graduated from Kent State University. He got his start in comedy by performing in sketch groups until he found he was the last man standing. “I used to do sketch forever, then all those dudes got married and had babies and couldn’t hang out anymore, so I started doing stand-up out of necessity,” Polk said
His video work has appeared in some unlikely – and high-profile – places. Clips from “Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video” made it on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” and in Michael Moore’s documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story. He serenaded Kim Kardashian on Telemundo with his ballad “One Semester of Spanish – Love Song,” a performance that also went viral on YouTube.
Though he has had success on YouTube, Polk said there’s no sure-fire recipe for going viral.
“I just keep putting stuff out that makes me laugh and makes my friends laugh, like the YouTube videos and things,” he said. “And I’ve had success with that, but my success-to-failure ratio is still pretty bad. For every video I put out that tales off, I have 20 that die on the vine with 72 views where the only comments are Viagra ads.”
Polk is proud to call Cleveland home. In addition to his work on local television and the Plain Dealer, he wrote a comedy book entitled “Damn Right I’m from Cleveland: Your Guide to Makin’ It in America’s 47th Biggest City,” a backhanded love letter to his hometown. Thanks to the ubiquity of YouTube and other technology, Polk has been able to enjoy success and grow a fanbase all over the country, without having to aggressively tour to get his name out there, something he said he doesn’t particularly care to do.
“The technology has developed where anybody can do this. You don’t have to relocate to New York or Los Angeles,” Polk said. “You can get yourself out there in so many ways. It’s not like the old days when you’re sending VHS tapes to the Omaha Funny Bone and hoping that the manager isn’t in a bad mood and just throws it in the trash. Now people can pass it around if they like it, and that’s how you get attention. You can write or create from anywhere.
“The benefit of the advanced technology that we have that wasn’t around even 20 years ago is the accessibility it offers everybody,” Polk said. “It used to be that you had to make a deal with somebody and get something recorded. Now, I know comics – even in the Cleveland area who have only been doing comedy for a couple months – who think ‘It’s finally time to finish my album.’ Because of the technology now, all you have to do is press record on your iPhone and record some set. Whether people are enjoying it or not or whether it’s good or not, it doesn’t matter; you just made yourself an album. So the freedom of that is very cool, but there’s not as much of a gatekeeper there as there used to be. That’s why I think it’s rewarding when (my album) does decent numbers on iTunes. It’s hard to break through because there’s just so much stuff out there.”
Polk produces weekly television sketches pertaining to the Cleveland sports scene, which often attracts a sports-minded audience to his shows. However, his stand-up is more than local references and Browns jokes, which can present challenges when his audience so closely associates him with just one aspect of his act.
“A lot of people come out to see me and they just want to hear about sports. I also do some political stuff. That’s touchy in comedy because you have a decent chance of ostracizing a large portion of the audience at a given time,” Polk said. “It just so happens that a lot of sports fans also don’t agree with my political leanings necessarily. So I’ll catch some shit from people who say ‘I didn’t come here for this political shit. I came here to hear how bad the Browns are doing.'”
“It comes down to content and finding your voice,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate that people have found and enjoyed my stuff enough that they back me up and continue to follow me.”
Polk performs “The Mike Polk Jr. Show Live” at 8 p.m. every Tuesday in the cabaret lounge at Pickwick and Frolic in downtown Cleveland.
For more information, go to http://www.mikepolkjr.com/