Comedy in Cleveland: The (Mostly) Complete Oral History

cleveland oral history 2

Ramon Rivas II is a stand up comedian and eminent Latino from Cleveland, OH, but his role in Cleveland comedy goes way beyond either of those two descriptions.  He is the latest in a short list of dedicated comedy personalities to take on the unofficial role of keeping the comedy scene vibrant in Cleveland. He was featured in the documentary ‘Make Fun’ and has been lauded in festivals and competitions all over the United States, and now he’s created this brilliant oral history of his city, with commentary from club owners past and present, big personalities and comedy stars including Sinbad, Dave Hill, Jim Tewes and two dozen others. Ramon Rivas is producing and hosting Cleveland Against the World in New York City at Union Hall on March 4. It’s a showcase of comics done good from CLE + some special guests he’s met in his travels. Get more information on Facebook and get tickets here!

Cleveland was once great. The Rockefellers earned their money here before escaping to New York. George Steinbrenner tried to buy the Indians, was denied and settled for the Yankees. Cleveland was an industrial city built on the foundations of steelyards, shipyards and the auto industry.

Those industries all slowly died over the past few decades. As they crumbled, Cleveland’s regard in the national spotlight waned. The misery spread, with the narrative of Cleveland going from a vibrant metropolis to “the mistake on the lake”. It came to a point when Forbes listed Cleveland #1 on their Most Miserable Cities list in 2010. There was a huge backlash to that notion from the people who call Cleveland their home.

The good thing about bottoming out slowly over the last 30 years is that when the country experienced the recession of the early 2000’s, Cleveland had already been adapting and developing itself into a city with a vibrant hospitality scene including some of the country’s best and most surprising restaurants and a very chill collection of bars and breweries. The city has experienced a renaissance the last few years, and the comedy scene has returned to being a breeding ground for relevant and ascendant stand up comedy.

The comedy that sprung from the city was prolific, with notable performers like Bob Hope, Steve Allen, Tim Conway, Arsenio Hall, Steve Harvey and Drew Carey all spending time developing and honing their craft in Cleveland before ascending to become stars. But, where did they hone it? The pillars of the comedy scene in Cleveland– as I knew them before I started working on this oral history– would be the triumvirate of clubs that have existed in some form in the area since the 80’s: The Improv Comedy Club and Restaurant, Hilarities 4th Street Theater and The Funny Stop.

Hilarities just celebrated their 30th anniversary. The name is steeped in history. Jerry Seinfeld got the news his series was picked up while working at the club (Seinfeld recently said Hilarities was one of the best comedy clubs in the country during a recent AMA). Nick Kostis opened the current entertainment complex on East 4th Street in the heart of downtown Cleveland 13 years ago. The street was bleak at the time, and the ambitious complex which includes a restaurant, cabaret space, martini bar, champagne lounge in addition to a 400 seat comedy theater seemed out of place.

Fast forward to current day, and Hilarities is the crown jewel of an entertainment boulevard that is bustling with restaurants owned by Iron Chefs, bars and music venues. Taken somewhat for granted by locals, the club imports some great top flight upcoming national talent (Jay Oakerson, Joe Machi, Kumail Nanjiani, Natasha Leggerro, Nikki Glaser, Al Jackson, Jay Pharoah) along with more classic comedy club performers (Rocky LaPorte, Bobby Collins, Bobby Slayton, Jeff Allen, Sinbad) and some of the heaviest hitters in the business (Dave Attell, Russell Peters, Sebastian Maniscalco) and is truly one of the most beautiful spaces for comedy in the country. Kostis laid the foundation for one of the main arteries that visitors and locals experience while in downtown Cleveland.

The IMPROV always seemed daunting. With the IMPROV name rich in history, the CLE branch has been known for bringing in top flight national acts since they opened. As an up and coming performer it seemed intangible to even think about performing there. They used to run a noon audition once a week for comedians to go and perform for just the GM and other comics in an empty show room. It felt pointless, but offered something that is alarmingly lacking in most comedy clubs: contact. Performers were able to get face time with the person who booked performers and ran the shows at the club and were given honest, direct feedback. That can be an intimidating and infuriating experience for performers, but is much more humanizing than the typical “ghost” presence of most comedy gatekeepers. Seinfeld’s documentary Comedian features a few scenes in the former location of the club (a place where I was fortunate enough to see Patrice O’Neal live). Since moving to it’s new location on the west bank of the Flats, The Improv has come to be the premiere urban comedy club in Cleveland, bringing in established and upcoming names (Lil Rel, Rickey Smiley, Sommore, Bruce Bruce, Aries Spears, Sean Patton, Greer Barnes, Deon Cole)

The Funny Stop is located in Cuyahoga Falls, about an hour south of Cleveland. There, owner Pete presides over a space that is high on nostalgia and growth. Their Tuesday amateur night has offered countless comics their start. With shows running Tuesday -Saturday, the Funny Stop has carved itself a niche by offering affordable comedy to the Akron area. Pete curates an interesting mix of comics that sound made up (The Grandma from Hell, Michael Trixxx Magician), nostalgic names (Gallagher, Screech from Saved by the Bell), upcoming comics (Jim Tews, Nick Vatterott, Drew Thomas) along with some of the most respected comics in the country (Jim Florentine, Rich Vos, TJ Miller). All while working local talent and moving them from host to headliner before anyone else would. A welcoming space for performers and audience members. Also, the owners twitter timeline is almost Iron Sheik level greatness.

When I started comedy back in 2008, that was it. Those were the only spaces that comedy existed as far as I knew. So comedy was available in Cleveland, but it was not abundant. It was not ingrained into the fabric of the city. Yet. What follows is an oral history with Cleveland comedians from the last few “classes” about what comedy WAS like in Cleveland over the years.



NICK KOSTIS (Owner Hilarities 4th Street Theater):
I was working at Little Bar (behind Johnny’s) downtown and we would entertain a lot of the comics that would be coming to perform at the old Cleveland Comedy Club. It was the only legit comedy room between NY and CHI where comedy was the core entertainment. It seated maybe 150 people and would just be jam packed. Used to be a greek night club before it became CCC. Back then, I’d go there, throw money in the air, break some plates and go home. Became a comedy club mid to late 70’s.

SINBAD (comedy & fashion icon):
I started coming to Cleveland in 1983. The Cleveland Comedy Club was one of those places that if you were working there, you knew you were doing something right. It was a benchmark.

Hilarities opened a 300 seat theater in Cuyahoga Falls in 1985. The owner of Cleveland Comedy Club was a bit resentful of someone opening a club in his own yard (he viewed state as his playground). A lot of comics were given an ultimatum of they couldn’t work at Hilarities because of Cleveland Comedy Club. Before we opened, my business partner and I went to NY and met with agencies, went to clubs and watched and met comics and invited people out to perform at our club. A lot of people viewed us as crazy but we wanted it to work and did what we could to make that happen.

In 1986, Hilarities opened downtown in the warehouse district. We didn’t pay attention to anything but our own sense of what’s good/bad/right/wrong. What’s the saying, if you believe it you will achieve it? We built a 500 seat room in the warehouse district which was DEAD at the time. There was nothing there.  The tag we got from the press, Len Boom Boom Goldberg from WMMS (THE voice of rock and roll and big advocate for CLE getting the Rock Hall) coined the phrase “Hilarities Comedy Hall, Cleveland’s Carnegie Hall of Comedy.” The Improv opened in the powerhouse in the late 80’s.

JEFF BLANCHARD (Comedian, Actor, Radio Personality, Dad)
I started performing in 1987 at the old Hilarities downtown in the warehouse district. I was a theater guy, and just wanted to diversify my skill set and TRY stand up comedy. The Cleveland Comedy Club was already on the way out to make way for what would become Jacobs Field (currently Progressive Field where the Cleveland Indians play).


LEE HERLANDS (GM, Cleveland Improv)
I built the club in 1989. My claim to fame at the time was “Bernie Bernie” a song about the popular Browns QB. That got me connected with all the media outlets in town. I met with Mitch Kutash, he’d opened a few Funnybones but eventually got the idea to call up Bud Friedman in LA to ask about franchising the IMPROV. Bud looked at stand up comedy as a legit art form. So when Bud and Mitch met in CLE, saw the theater district (which is the largest theater district between NY and CHI) he saw a city that had potential as an artistic destination and said ok, let’s do it. The Cleveland Improv was one of the original 3 national IMPROV locations to open.

The Powerhouse in the Flats was scheduled to reopen in 1989. The pitch for investors was “A TGIFridays above an Improv” to reinvigorate the space. The comedy boom was in full swing, then as soon as we opened, a recession hit. We didn’t get hit too hard, because comedy was still an affordable option for entertainment. We were packed, we ran shows Tues – Sun, with a monthly open mic on Mondays that was packed out.

We were forced to leave our digs in the warehouse district January 1996 when the old RTA bought the building on W 6th. By the time we left, the area had exploded. But we were the first ones there. We had some good will and a lot of people pulling for us, and help came from strangers. We were very fortunate to be able to keep putting on shows around town. A lot of business people feel like they’re self made, but I’m living proof. No man is an island. You don’t exist in this world by yourself, it’s all inter-related I got help from a lot of people who gave me an opening here, an opening there, a conversation here, a connection there.
I signed the lease for the current space in 1998, and didn’t open it until 2002. From when I had to vacate Hilarities Comedy Hall in 1996, we operated from the Hannah Theater, which had been dark for 12 years. It was Ray Shepardson, who was credited widely with saving Playhouse Square, that encouraged us to utilize the space. It had been the legitimate road house between NY and LA from vaudeville days. Tom Hanks had studied stage work there over summers early in his career. But when we went in there, it wasn’t part of anything.

After Hilarities closed downtown, the old Cabaret Dada space at the end of 6th street was still running regular sketch and improv shows. That eventually folded (Cabaret Dada still offers sketch shows in a different venue today), I got to the point where I was bouncing back and forth to Chicago working Second City and eventually just started liking stand up more than theater. Cleveland was a great place with the abundance of clubs, so I was fortunate to be able to immediately start working a lot.

RYAN DALTON (Stand Up Comedian, Actor. Balding)
In 1996/97 I was miserably working as a car salesman. I knew I wanted to do comedy. There was one club in CLE (Improv) and one in CUY falls (Funny Stop). The Improv would NOT use locals, it was just known. Don’t even bother. Partly because there was no Cleveland comedy scene so there was nowhere to perform & foster their talent.

I was just looking for stages, and I knew the only way to get up at Improv was to do the workshop. So I did that. Funny Stop would let you do guest spots periodically, but you had to put in face time and hang out there. One thing that stuck with me from workshop, was you got to get onstage at least once a week. At the time I was like man, that’s going to be tough. So I started a show in Kent at a bar with a sketch group my buddies were in Phat Phive, I would host for their show. Then that group kind of idled and a comic buddy of mine helped me turn the show into just stand up. After a few years, I was able to get good enough to start getting paid work at the Funny Stop. On top of that, I was running my own show and I realized that was the easiest way to get a piece of the game.

CHAD ZUMOCK (Stand Up Comedian, Radio Personality)
I was in a sketch group with high school friends called “The Phat Phive” and we would perform at the Robin Hood in Kent back in 1998. At the time, Second City Cleveland also came to CLE and there was a huge surge with Improv and Sketch in this area. The stand up scene was seemed distant to me. The only stand ups I knew were Dalton, Burge, and Hot Carl who were doing every Monday in Kent.

MIKE POLK (Stand up comic, Sketch Performer, Actor, Author, Web Savant)
There really wasn’t a farm system for comics when I started (College TV stuff: 1999 Sketch stuff: 2002 Stand Up: 2005). You pretty much had to magically learn how to be a comic on your own with no audience and become competent with very little stage time before getting hired to work in a club. Which is obviously a tricky proposition.

JESSE ALISON (Stand up comic, Improviser, Actor)
I was working at Second City Cleveland from 1998 through early 2000’s, then I started meeting some stand ups. I was remodeling a theater that was doing sketch shows, and one night the host didn’t show so I just put down my spackle and did it myself.


Mike Polk and Ryan Dalton


JOE HOWARD (Stand Up Comedian)
I was a skateboarder, always Emcee’d skate demos and contests, got laughs teasing people at these events, some really big ones. I crushed at one and ended with “I’ll be at the Improv next week” as a joke but then I thought, wait, how do you do that? Thought I could do stand up, but had no clue how to do that in Cleveland. Then I saw an ad in the paper for a comedy class at Improv and did that in 2001. None of the people in my class were any good. I wrote jokes at my job and then tried them on friends.
The Improv was completely different at the time they weren’t using any local talent. They would have people fly in or drive to HOST! 1st time I walked in there it felt like showbusiness. All the pictures, I was intoxicated.

TIM CORNETT (Stand Up Comedian, Gentleman)
I started just before my 20th birthday around 2000, and Cleveland didn’t have white comics when I started. I think Dalton and those guys were in Kent. B.E.T. and guys that had Comicview credits (smiley Joe Wiley, Cool TLC, Quinn to a certain extent) ruled the scene. Which was great, I feel like a lot of the chops I learned in those days are still effective today.

But it felt like there was nowhere to get up, Hilarities was closed. I would go do the Robins Nest (with Cornett) every week and I would go bomb every week, for years because there was nowhere else to do comedy in Cleveland. It felt very isolated. Not like a community, just somewhere I was going.  None of us thought to start anything else because none of us were any good. It was a weird, strange time. People would constantly bomb but randomly do great. It was enough to get going.

There just weren’t a lot of mics in town at that point. There were none downtown and really just one on the Westside and it was booked. So you had to become friends with the loud drunks who ran it in order to get stage time. There were urban-legend-like rumors of a room on the East Side that I decided to explore at one point. Turned out to be an all black room. My blonde girlfriend at the time and myself were the only white people in attendence and neither the crowd nor the comics were anxious to allow that to go unmentioned. I asked if I could go up and do time and they let me but it was essentially a prank that I pulled on myself.

ROB O’REILLY (Stand Up Comedian, Youngest Comic* on TONIGHT SHOW) *at the time
When I first started, in 2001, I was 16 and knew nothing about comedy. I started driving around to open mics I found listed in the Cleveland Scene. They were rough rooms, but relative to other cities, they were good open mics. Open mics in Cleveland actually have audiences at them, and if you’re funny enough in your first minute, you can get them to listen. Open mics in NYC or LA are just full of other comedians, who are too busy writing their own set to listen to you most of the time. And you get max 3 minutes.

I moved to Las Vegas at the urging of Joe Wiley after a year. Which was the worst comedy scene ever. It may be better now, but whenever a comic says they are FROM Vegas, I make an immediate character judgment. Moved back to CLE, right as a new batch of comics was starting (Jim Tews, John Wellington).

About 2001, The Improv started having auditions for work. It was like the Cleveland comedy Berlin wall fell. But you had to show up on a Monday at noon and perform in front of no one. I auditioned for Sarah Ni and did well enough that she let me start doing guest spots then over enough time, they passed me as host.  In 2002, I had handed over the reins of my show in Kent to James Burge and would pop in periodically, but I was now living in Cleveland. I knew I had to get involved with everywhere that had a stage in town.

We were able to help that space (Hannah Theater) get open and back publics eyes to get off life support, and it enabled us to stay in the publics minds and continue building our good will. Finally opened this complex in September 2002.

JASON LAWHEAD (Stand Up Comic. AXS TV, Tours with Bill Burr)
I started in Comedy in late 2003, performing was almost never accessible. I was an employee at a club when I started, but I used that to my advantage and started a show at Basa Vita with Mike Farrell called the Grimey 90. We’d bring over feature acts from Hilarities with Nicks blessings and it became a really hot room.

Jason (Lawhead) had been a waiter at our old club in like 94, 95 maybe. He moved, we lost track of him. When we opened, he walked back thru the door. He wasn’t performing yet. Just came in for a waiter position. Mike Farrell too. They eventually rose up to management.

While they were working here, they started their room. They asked if they could take over feature acts. I appreciate them asking and gave my blessing if the artists wanted to do another show, and the guys wanted to make sure someone would get them there and back to the hotel, go for it. Since it started so late, the staff would head over to the show after we closed up, so we got to see a lot of acts there. We had been doing an open mic ourselves, but it was short lived. When you spend $5 million dollars on a place you have to have some standards what’s on the stage so we got rid of it quickly. So that room served a purpose and helped us start to get some of these local guys into our rotation.

DAVE HILL  (Stand Up Comedian, Author, Radio Personality, Musician, Sex Champion)
I hadn’t really thought about doing comedy when I lived in Cleveland. I remember seeing a few listings in Scene or wherever that comedy was happening but I never saw any of it.

DAVE ARENA (Stand Up Comedian, Bald Yet Hairy Dad)
I started when I was 30, so back in 2003. Saw an ad for “auditions” at the Cleveland Improv. It was just a rehearsal, we were able to go every Monday at like 11am and perform in front of each other and Lee. Then Lee would give us feedback and bust our balls.

NELSIN DAVIS (Stand Up Comedian, Actor, Caramel Tan Icon)
I started back in my mid-20’s, so it was around 2004. I had been a reluctant class clown in high school, but I was super shy and socially awkward. Then my uncle took me to this place the Robin’s Nest and I did their open mic. It was a dope space, it was in the middle of the east side and west side so it was by the hood but far enough away from the bad part that it was good. The space fit 150-200 people so after a while, they were still doing the open mic but a few buddies and I started producing our own monthly series there. We’d pack it out, 2 shows a night for like 8 months then greed sunk in and it fizzled out.

MIKE IVY (Stand Up Comedian, Anime Afficianado)
It was kind of rough, you start something and you really don’t know what to do. I heard there were some people doing comedy around Cleveland (Tim Cornett, John Wellington) so I found them and this place called the Robin’s Nest but it was the worst place. I did the monthly open mic at the Improv and that was the 1st time I did shows that actually mattered.

Mike Ivy performing

Mike Ivy performing ©Rustin McCann

I would do noon auditions for comics to get ON the open mic. I didn’t want the clubs open mic to be a bringer show. We were filling the room with paids, so we wanted to give the audience a good show. Auditions would just be whatever comics were auditioning and me. Most weeks 15-20 people would all go up and do sets, then I would take them out to the bar area one by one and tear down their sets for 4-5 minutes. While I’m doing that, the rest of the guys are in the showroom bonding, talking and eventually some writing groups started popping up. That cluster is where the guys who do the Cleveland Comedy Festival got together.

The clubs were more accessible then than they are now, I was able to get guest spots at Hilarities all the time and the Improv was doing that noon audition every week. Now, it’s more closed off.

You just did it anywhere you could. There was Robins Nest on the east side, Bela Dubby on the Westside, there were always random indie shows you could make a couple bucks on, I’d come up to Grog Shop/Bside and do their poetry stuff. I would do anything. It was just a fearless situation because I knew I had to work at it.

JIM TEWS (Stand Up Comedian as seen on Last Comic Standing & Louie, Author, Director, Filmmaker, Cat Dad)
There were a smattering of bar shows, not many open mics but the clubs were it. Hilarities and the Improv were comedy clubs like I saw on Insomniac with Dave Attell, so they just felt right. The Improv’s amateur night was always packed, all the way back to 2003. Comedy felt as accessible as it does today, but I wasn’t thirsting to perform every day. I didn’t need to be satiated with performing nightly the way you do as you develop in comedy. But at the time, it was more than enough for me to be a comic.

Tews, Wellington, Cornett and Squire and I all started there at the same time. Well Cornett was already doing it for awhile, he’s been doing comedy for 30 years now lol. The scene then was good. I did my first amateur showcase at the Improv and did relatively well. You know how when you think you killed but then look back on it several years later and realize how crappy it was. After the show, I think Farrell came up to me and asked me to do Bassa Vita. Great vibe, Lawhead would host and they packed them in there. They would bring in features and headliners from Hilarities.

I didn’t know anything about the stand up scene until Polk, McBride and I started going to the smoky Bassa Vita on Wednesday nights to see Dalton back in 2003-ish. That’s where we met Lawhead, Farrell, Mr Sunshine and all the other guys. We would go make fun of everyone bombing because we were sketch nerds who thought we were way funnier.

It was good for a while. But then the scene kind of cratered out. Comedy felt like a fraternity back then, we had no audience, no leverage so we were “ALLOWED” to perform…

When we all started, we would push each other. I mean we would crack up when one of us bombed or a joke fell flat cause we knew what we were capable of. Then each of us would move on, etc People moved, they quit, etc.


cleveland comedy posters

Cleveland Comedy Posters

Worked like 60+ hours a week at one of the clubs, only to be treated as an employee. It’s obvious now that I’m older, but cleaning up vomit and fishing out rats actually COST opportunities. It’s a rough chip to get off of my shoulder. But that’s how things worked in LA/NY, you’d be a door guy, you’d get moved to a regular performer from there after a certain amount of time. I know that’s not how Cleveland works now.

When I started doing guest sets at Hilarities, I had been ushering and auditioned in front of the booker and then they gave me some hosting gigs and now I felt like ok, now I don’t feel like an amateur anymore.

I approached the clubs from a real outsiders perspective, because there wasn’t a lot of urban comics working that side of the scene, especially at Hilarities or the Improv, so it almost seemed impossible to get in those spots, they didn’t know you, you didn’t know them so it took a while to even break in to the Improv. I was pretty much by myself, I didn’t get under anybodies wing. The more I did it, the more I started to connect with people and build certain things.

JOHN WELLINGTON (Stand Up Comedian, Co-Founder Cleveland Comedy Festival)
I’d been doing comedy in college and a bit in Pittsburgh before I moved to Cleveland in 2003. I found this website which was a message board that made Cleveland look like there were a TON of pro’s living in the city. When I got here, I realized most of those guys were just doing open mics, and there weren’t as many of those as I thought.

In business or in life, if you compete with somebody across town, they gotta raise their game. So when Hilarities opened, I knew the Improv was going to have to step it up because they WEREN’T the only folks in town anymore. Sometimes when there’s multiple clubs in a town, the clubs take out that rivalry on the comics and tell them you can work here OR there for headliners or features, but for hosts it didn’t matter.

Early on, I got in a convo with Nick, who said “I don’t care if you perform next door to my business, as long as you’ll come back and work for me.” Lee tried to give me shit about working both clubs, and I was like man, we gotta get up places to get better.
Around 2003 I decided I’m going to build an exit strategy and blueprint to get out of my day job and get into just being a comic. I won the funniest person in Columbus award which got me in the door with Dave Stroupe, who books clubs all around the country. So I started opening doors.

I moved to LA in 2004 for non-comedy reasons. I would just go to the Hollywood improv every night, get drunk and watch Chappelle, Rock, Cook, Gaffigan, Attell murder and that’s when I jumped into stand up head first – never stopped after. I got a million gigs I didn’t deserve and I was afraid of getting exposed because I told people I was doing standup longer than I was, so I moved home to grow and I would go out and showcase every 6 months. When I got back, I saw a little surge going on that wasn’t there before.

If you let things happen, they’ll happen. Around the mid 2000’s, the city realized the value of what was happening around the club on 4th Street, that streets are as much for people as they are for cars. So now we have a pedestrian walkway with some of the best restaurants in the country lining each side. East 4th Street has become a destination. The big thing about that if anything could happen in Cleveland, you had to pick a place that wouldn’t get lost in it’s surroundings. I found a small place to build a big place.

How do you create a sense of being in a city, in a place that’s forgotten how to be a city? So here you got a street that’s what, 100 yards long? Very narrow, when you’re on this street you don’t feel like you’re in Cleveland anymore.

Back then, you actually had to establish yourself and get into different rooms and places in order to become a comic. Nowadays, people perform on A show at A spot and start saying they are A comedian, instead of realizing they’re just aspiring to be such. It’s led to a lot of over saturation.

Moved to NY in 2004 because I knew I was doing the same thing over and over, hosting at the clubs and getting better, but I knew I needed to leave to level up. So I went somewhere I could get tested constantly. LA felt like too big of a deal then. I was too small of a fish to attack it ready. I’d talked to enough comics at the clubs who told me to go NY if I wanted to get better stand up.
The whole point of moving to a new place is to be in that new place. Before I moved I got passed and had a ton of road work so I was using the money to pay to live in NY, but I wasn’t in NY as often as I needed.

DAN WILBUR (Stand Up Comedian, Author)
I started performing in the summer of 2005. I had done some hosting things while I was still in high school at Saint Ignatius, but nothing that wasn’t heavily attended by students so I don’t count that. I started performing regularly when I got to Bard College in upstate New York. I’d come home for winters and summers and dip my toe into the Cleveland scene.

Around 2005/2006 JD Sidley and Mark Hannum and myself started batting around the idea of running a comedy festival in Cleveland, mostly because there hadn’t been one here before. After a few years of too many meetings with too many people we found a space that would let us run on the weekend and started the Cleveland Comedy Festival in 2008.

I moved away Nov 2006, I moved to San Diego first, I was 3 years in & knew I wasn’t ready for LA or NYC. So I went to cut my teeth somewhere else, which was a close shot to LA. It was a good smart move, I basically started over proved my self in that scene over the next 4 years and then moved LA Jan 2011. Cleveland prepared me in the sense that it’s a large part of who I am and why I had the persistence to start & continue to pursue comedy. Cleveland made me real. That’s my advantage in any place I go LA, NY, or Jackson Mississippi.

I moved to Portland in 2006 until 2008. I was ready to get out of Cleveland and heard that it was a cool city. The open mics in Portland would have the headliners come out to shows, which was really cool. Cornett came out eventually and we really thrived out there. Portland then felt a lot like Cleveland has the past few years.

MIKE HEAD (Stand Up Comedian, Actor)
Back in 2006, friends of mine told me go down and take the Improvs comedy class. I had no interest in doing comedy. I was bored. My buddy said try it, I had no idea how to get into it. If I didn’t take that class I probably would never have done it.
Meeting different comics kept me going, I hit the Funny Stop and Basa Vita, Bela Dubby. It was back when like Rob O’Reilly was hosting. Godfrey came over there one time!

I started visiting during the summers while I was in college and found out about Bassa Vita. It was a really hot room I think Wednesday nights in the basement of the Lakewood bar. Unbelievable crowds. It definitely had a certain vibe to it. They were the type of crowds you could not offend. The more irreverent the humor, the more they liked it. My best jokes in that room were about the Holocaust and very dirty sex jokes.

It was a grimey time. The old heads would try to put you on shows for barely any money, have you going out of town and if you weren’t as business savvy because “I just love telling jokes”, you’d just get abused like a comedy prostitute. So going through that hardened me. I was really in lone wolf status until this past year. Which isn’t the best way to go about things.
But the other side isn’t great either, when you take people under your wing sometimes they get too far under there and you start focusing less and less on what YOU need to do because you’re trying to bring somebody else up. Sometimes they wind up pulling you down to their level as they’re working towards yours and you can get squeezed in the middle. It’s a weird mix of selfishness and team player.

CARRIE CALLAHAN (Stand Up Comedian, Essayist, LGBTQ Icon)
I started in 2006. From early on I got booked on showcases often. Which had a lot to do with me being the only young woman in the scene. Being booked a lot is the upside to being a token, and then there are downsides too. My perception of the clubs at the time was that they didn’t book a lot of women, and that the crowds at the clubs wouldn’t like me unless I did a lot of jokes about being a slutty mess.

Comedy club crowds do love jokes about slutty messes, moving past that is a real challenge for female comedians, and the ones who get good enough do figure that problem out. I just was nowhere near mastering the craft enough to figure it out. I started the original Chucklefck because I wanted a room I controlled where I wouldn’t get creeped on that maybe some NPR’ish people would come to.

I avoided doing comedy in Cleveland after I started because I was afraid my parents would come and I’d get grounded for the rest of my visit home or something. But then, not to be morbid, but my mother died and my dad doesn’t go out very late, so I wasn’t as afraid to do it when I came home anymore. I was doing a book tour for TASTEFUL NUDES and I did a Q&A with Ramon and had him open for me. He invited me out to do some of his indie shows and they were cool.

I do remember going to that Monday at noon audition at the Improv every single week for all of January and it was the first time I met guys who were actually trying to do comedy. Guys that actually gave a shit about comedy, that weren’t just trying it out. I love Lee. He’s that mean guy who tells you the truth about your act and you hate him, then you get good, realize he was right, and find out he’s actually kind of sweet. Whenever I pictured in my head what a comedy booker is like, I envisioned Lee even before I started doing this.

My base of operations in NY had become too expensive, so I essentially had to retreat back to Cleveland in 2008. It’s just a cheaper place to live. If your goal in comedy is to only be a road comic, Cleveland is an amazing place to live. There are a huge number of places to perform a few hours away from the city. After moving back, I got on Comedy Central’s Live at Gotham. Not from living in NY though. My buddy Steve Byrne was managed by Levity, he asked me for a tape and submitted me to them and they put me on the show. Not because I lived in NY or LA just because my buddy vouched for me.

I started hosting at the Improv in 2008, before that was all indie shows, politicking shaking hands and kissing babies the old school way. I would enter different contests from the radio and whatever companies and get invited to go to these other places.

RAMON RIVAS II (Stand Up Comedian, Eminent Latino, Founder of
I was working at a law firm as a copy clerk and saw an ad for a comedy class in the paper with a guy named JD Sidley. I signed up for it, showed up and was the youngest person in the class by 20 years. Everyone else seemed to be doing it as a “bucket-list” item. Comedy classes can’t really teach anything, but it did give me a 1st performance date (April 9, 2008) and told me other places I could go and keep trying it out around town, one of which was CHUCKLEFCK which Jim Tews was running at the time. I started just showing up there every week to soak up comedy and met a lot of random comics and saw some guys that were doing it professionally out of Cleveland stopping in to work on new stuff. It was a revelation. I remember seeing Mike Polk’s hastily made tourism video there the day he made it for a clip show Tews was trying.

I started showing up every week whether I was performing or not. Always bothering Jim about stage time. One week, I sat too close to the stage and Tews started bantering back and forth with me. It was funny. Somehow, I got him to agree to let me co-host the show and I brought in an old elementary school desk my dad stole from a closing school and we turned into a 2 man host team, like a very obscure Kumail Nanjiani & Jonah Ray with a real rundown version of the Meltdown before either of those things existed. Fun stuff started happening.

YUSUF ALI (Stand Up Comedian, Heavy Instagrammer)
I started out at the Funny Stop amateur contest in 2009 and did this guy Prince James’ weekly open mic. That was it. There wasn’t much going on, but I hit those every week to get up. I was hungry for it but couldn’t find places to perform. I’d approach the clubs as someone who was trying to figure out how to become a comic, but I didn’t feel like one yet. Then I met a few comics who told me there were shows up in Cleveland, so I started going to Bela Dubby and Lakewood Village Tavern and soaking up even more comedy!

Tried to move to Portland in 2009 with a bunch of other comics. Looking back, relying on other young comedians is a terrible idea, so of course it all fell apart. So I wound up coming right back to CLE. It didn’t feel like staying there I would yield anything that I wouldn’t yield in CLE.

cleveland comedy oral history comedians


BRIAN ALLEN MITCHELL (Stand Up Comedian, Improviser, Sketch Performer, Ex-Jehovah’s Witness)
I started in Akron around 2010 so was only 10 minutes from Funny Stop. Pete remembered me after a while and started to put me up regularly. The prominence/accessibility of comedy at the time was lacking, but there were still cool shows starting to happen in Kent and Cleveland.

I’d say Cleveland was a little lonely until I found Tews’ mic. School was too. It seemed like no one was doing stand-up seriously. There was no real community. I think you built a nice community with Tews. With people who were actually excited to nerd out about comedy and perform. I didn’t find a similar community until moving to NYC officially. I really learned a lot from open mics in NYC because they were actually full of comedy people, not musicians.

I spent the summer of 2010 living in Chicago working a non-profit job, and was doing comedy ALL THE TIME. It was amazing. I was very happy. There were so many indie produced shows in CHI that when I came back to Cleveland in the fall I decided to find some small spaces to run indie shows. With the hope that a slice of that happiness I felt in CHI from performing so much could merge with the natural happy that Cleveland gave me.

Jim Tews was moving to NYC, so I inherited the Chucklefck open mic. I started to produce a bunch of other rooms under that umbrella. Over the years, they developed a great reputation. Even though the shows never got mainstream press due to the PROFANE nature of the name. But it worked out, anyone who would get offended by the name Chucklefck would probably be a really lame audience member. Paired with the other shows Chad Zumock and Mike Farrell were running around town, suddenly most weeks there was a fair amount of shows to do.

Yes I moved in Nov of 2010, coming up on 5 years. The reason for the move…I had always wanted to move to NYC but I didn’t have a great reason to pick up and move my entire family. Vicki won a scholarship to a local make up school but when paid enrollment wasn’t high enough, they revoked it. So I suggested that since she wanted to do make up for TV why don’t we look at schools in NYC and then we both would have a purpose to go. Obviously the rest is history with her. (Dave’s wife currently does make-up for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon)

BRIAN KENNY (Stand Up Comedian, Yeller)
I tried stand up a few times in college and then emailed Jim Tews to do Bela Dubby. He had just moved, so he gave me Ramon’s email for the Chucklefck shows. I thought that’s what comedy was, waiting to get put up every few months. Those shows were everything. After about a year, I met Yusuf and Joe Whelan and they exposed me to all the other open mics that were going on around town. My 1st two live comedy shows I attended were George Carlin when I was a teenager, and then Jim Jeffries at Hilarities. I asked Jeffries if he had any advice for a new comic just starting, he just said “nah” and walked away. Hahaha

I had a girlfriend, we were getting married, and once that happened she helped me realize that I needed to do something different, I was doing the same clubs over and over again spinning my wheels. So in 2011, I entered into all sorts of Comedy Festivals. I went to a local talent agency with my reel, and they said they’d use me for stuff as long as I was willing to learn. So I got into some of those comedy festivals, and there happened to be bookers or managers or runners of comedy clubs at these things and that created a lot of brand new opportunities for me. And also put me around other up coming performers at the festivals to see what they were doing.

• World Series Of Comedy winner in 2011 got me a lot of road work
• Laughing Skull Finalist in 2012 and Jeff Singer one of the guys who runs JFL Montreal saw me. Invited me to come to NY to audition for the fest and killed that and got into
• Just For Laughs 2012
• Best of Midwest at Laughfest 2013. After the fest, I was driving back to LA to work on Sullivan and Sons and only had $300 in my bank account. I won the contest, which included $2500 prize money, which was really a godsend.

It was the whole thinking outside the box and doing something different, changing my mindset from “I’m a comic that gets paid to do this, I’m not going anywhere that’s not paying me” to “I’ll pay to go do this festival for free and pay upwards of $800” in order to bet on my talent. That was another one of those humbling moments, and I started to be more open to go work on new stuff at open mics and the indie shows popping up around town.

Now, comedy is in STYLE. People are so much more encouraging & friendly. That’s the big difference: people are nicer now. When I moved to Portland, that’s what that scene had: a close-knit group of comics with friendly audiences, and headliners that came to the mics. Headliners going to an open mic blew my fucking mind the first time I saw it. CLE now is a lot like PDX back in 2007 but we have a few advantages they didn’t.

Tim Cornett

Tim Cornett ©Rustin McCann

Cleveland is like a cheaper, less pretentious Portland. You can AFFORD to be a comedian here. One that eats EVERY day. You can focus all your time on comedy and your overhead is about 1/5 of NYC and LA prices. I’ve done the math, megabussing to Chicago 3 times a week is cheaper than an APT in Chicago. I don’t do that, but I could!

When I first went to CHI, the CHI scene made the CLE scene look really bro-ish in comparison. The dudes weren’t relying on jokes about fat girls to the extent the CLE scene was. They leaned on sexist tropes, no doubt, but there was also ambition there to have other material so you could get on tv. That ambition wasn’t really in Cleveland at the time. There was an accepted narrative you had to go to another place to get enough stage time to get good enough to go to LA or NY.

When I came back to CLE, I think in 2011, things had really changed. There were way more rooms. There were women performing. The content of people’s jokes had been elevated. I think having Just For Laughs auditions here was a turning point- there was like a sense that the work a performer did in Cleveland counted, you could potentially get good enough here that you didn’t have to make a stop-over in a place like Chicago before you went to one of the coasts.

For a while I felt like the bridge between classes, there were the older comics and then a really great crop of new guys came along (Ben Palmer, Curtis Cook, Brian Mitchell). Then they all started to move. I started making regular trips to NY and CHI from 2010 on, and would try to just bring back a slice of what comedy was like in those cities back to town. At one point, I was curating comedy shows in 11 spaces around town. I did that in order to perform more since I wasn’t working at any of the clubs or on the road at all.

The best room was this small, upstairs lounge of a bar that fit 50-100 people. Comedians like Hannibal Buress, Amy Schumer, Nikki Glaser, Trevor Noah and so many more passed through that tiny space as far back as 2011. Beth Stelling & Ryan Dalton recorded albums there. I moved the CHUCKLEFCK open mic there and some weeks there were more people coming to watch amateur open mic performers than when a bigger name would come to town. It was very weird. My experience in other cities at open mics led me to believe that NO ONE ever came to purely amateur open mics. In addition to the open mic and the bigger names, I would do my best to bring my friends/peers I was meeting in other cities through town when possible, utilizing a whole number of random venues.

I moved to LA back in 2012 for 2 years. There’s less significant stage time there. There are places to perform, but some of it feels meaningless. You’re just doing it in front of a bunch of comics, if you’re not cool with those comics so they’re just standing there judging you. It’s not like there’s a real audience where you can sit and watch the game film and adjust your material to them. If you can survive the whole “mean girls” aspect of that city you can start to get comfortable but it’s a big difference from Cleveland.

JIMMIE GRAHAM (Stand Up Comedian, Dark Charmer)
I remember growing up and we had HBO and my dad loved watching stand up specials, and I remember just sitting by him and waiting for him to laugh so I could laugh. It was always in my life. Even comedy fans eventually FORGET about it, that comedians existed. In 2005, I was 16 I hopped in a van and went to NYC and stumbled into a show at UCB and saw Brett Gelman and Jon Daly doing CRACKED OUT and it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen and flipped my comedy light back on. In 2012, I went to a Chucklefck show at a weird DIY punk church space. It was Ramon, Liza Treyger and Kenny DeForest. Kenny gave me some advice and told me to just get into it.

The need to drive everywhere and lack of a UCB type of training space led me to NYC in 2013. I moved out there and took improv courses because I wanted to be a well-rounded performer without limitations. NY supplied an opportunity to unlock what was buried under ex-jehovah’s witness clutter.

Since 2012 I’ve been working at Hilarities a lot, now I’m at the point where I’m working there so often that I just walk around like I own the place. Compared to when I started, now there is a day-to-day involvement in comedy.

I started hosting at Hilarities and have gotten to work with some really amazing comics there. I love comedy and Cleveland, so I always offer to take comics around to do stuff if they’re into it. If you just stay in your hotel room, of course Cleveland is going to suck. So I’ve taken a lot of comics to my favorite hole in the wall soup spot, Superior Pho and been able to develop a rapport with these people in other cities, which makes my travels out of Cleveland a bit easier to navigate.

It wasn’t easy to decide to move to LA with my wife (in 2014) when you love a place the way I love Cleveland. It’s a great, cheap place to live. I loved it for what it was. For me, if I was working I was out there doing it, but when I was home I was home. What made it even harder, was then the scene in Cleveland took this huge jump after Ramon Rivas started running some stuff and I could do dope shows in my backyard on top of working the road. I wanted to make it out of Cleveland but it wasn’t going to happen. Something had to change. So I knew we had to go or I had to quit.

Cleveland helped me because it’s a nurturing environment. People watch each other’s sets so there would be camaraderie between comics at mics. That doesn’t happen in LA. There’s a level of desperation in LA, no one sticks around to watch stuff, it’s very paper-thin. If I was younger I feel like LA would make me pick up bad habits. If you’re unsure of what you’re doing and you’re impressionable you’ll roll with everyone else. So that might affect your comedy.

I don’t know what people’s goals are in Cleveland any more. Like, I don’t know what a guy 2 years in is planning for their career. Back when I started, I figured OK in 2 years I’d be headlining this club, that club. Now it seems more of a nebulous thing that really varies from person to person.

I’m starting to work at the clubs now because I’ve gotten enough reps, and doing those main stages really makes you a comic. That’s the validation. Like “I’m making paying customers at a comedy club laugh loudly. I am a comic.” Ha!

Cleveland is a place where you can figure it out. You can figure out your craft AND your business. Also, you can have a dog here. Comedians in this scene have pets. It’s beautiful.

When I come back to Cleveland now, I’m always wondering, “what shows can I hit?” because there are so many in the Akron/Kent/Cleveland area. I don’t think I would have thought of that 4 years ago. I just want more strong comedians to come out of Cleveland – kind of like football recruiting. It’s time to see more Cleveland products get output, not just LeBron and Marcs Grocery stores.

The venue that was the main hub for Chucklefck shows sold to new owners, who ripped out the stage in 2014. So now it’s a slowly closing restaurant. That paired with getting denied by the patent office for the name being “too profane” led to me saying fuck it and changing the name to Accidental Comedy. It’s now a group of comics dedicated to enriching the arts in Cleveland. It’s been interesting to operate a vibrant community of artists and patrons without a set home. Been able to do one off and special event stuff with bigger national acts and weekly series featuring locals at other places around town, and the people follow. It’s some real pied piper type of shit.

Ramon Rivas and Dave Hill

Ramon Rivas and Dave Hill ©Rustin McCann

If everybody stays organized and holds their selves to a certain quality of work, the scene will continue to grow. But if they get too caught up in the “I want fame and attention” and don’t focus on the jokes and the writing and being consistent, they’re gonna fuck it up. So it depends on who meshes with who.

Now it can almost be a little TOO buddy-buddy, and there’s not enough friendly competition. I don’t have to HATE you to want to be funnier than you. I used to have the “I’m going to do this on my own” approach and it doesn’t work. Now I feel like if we all pool our resources and focus on one goal, we can elevate each other and make Cleveland’s scene grow into a new Atlanta or Chicago where there’s a rich network of places to perform outside the major clubs.

Cleveland is starting to get a real positive reception from people for the 1st time ever, and I definitely think that can help the city turn into a very viable comedy hub. It’s a great training ground to get better if you’re not quite ready for that Chicago/NY/LA jump.

So as you can see, Cleveland is a city with a tiny yet rich history of comedy. It functions as a perfect place to grow and fail anonymously while allowing performers opportunities at many levels to work their craft. The scene has grown and shrunk in waves over the years, but the core of being a comedian in Cleveland hasn’t changed. To end this piece, I’ve asked folks to try to identify what attributes make up a Cleveland comic. Their answers follow below

Comparing it to New York, I don’t know if it has a common sensibility. There is a bit of a common thread, but I don’t know if I can describe it. It’s a midwest kind of vibe. Cleveland comedy has a vibe of an ALL FOR ONE, it’s not like a coastal thing. I don’t have anything to compare it to. Everyone in NY just talks about drugs and tinder. I don’t know what other small scenes are like, but Cleveland feels very supportive if nothing else. I feel like if you want to do this and you start to get involved, you are accepted and will find yourself in good company very quick. It feels very welcoming. It did back when I started too.

Hard work — i think its the same thread that makes Clevelanders diehard sports fans – we’re all coming from hard working families that are weird as hell and we will always root for them

I always tell people if you’re funny, you can put them jokes in a suitcase, they’ll travel. But Cleveland audiences definitely build you up. They’re developing a Philly/NY type of behavior where if it’s not so raw, so real and you can’t translate it to them, they’re not going to accept it. You’re not gonna make it.

Most of Cleveland comedy is just from a more honest place. The realities here are so brutal that it’s hard to just live in the fantasy aspect. So it makes you address stuff in your own personal life to the crowd and if you can’t make them they can’t hear that, they can’t hear anything. I feel like there’s certain realism to it.

I feel like coming out of Cleveland, you’re constantly trying to fight for respect for your area. You find out that people break shit up into NY/LA/Chicago/The South/Everybody else. So if you’re not in one of those groups people figure “Oh, it’s Cleveland no ones funny from Cleveland” so it turns into something like the hunger games; I’ve GOT to put on for my district. As we continue to get behind the strong solid events and go out on the road and meet other comics and build a name for Cleveland, and people start associating US with Cleveland then we’ll be legit to everyone else in the country.

What I see mostly looking at CLE from the outside is not just the quantity of stage time but the quality. We’ve talked about this before and Ramon had a huge influence on this. I mean as good as NYC is for quantity, I’ve come back and done “open mics” as you call them with anywhere from 30-80 + actual audience in the seats. You can’t get that here. Performing in front of a real crowd (who aren’t tourists that can’t speak English) is rare. That’s the biggest difference. Here it’s like grinding it out in the sweaty gym and then I’d come home and do one of your shoes or the CLE comedy fest or Funny Stop and then I’d find out that my hard work was paying off. Or realize certain things weren’t working and needed help.

Cause even though there is a lot of stage time here there are a ton of comedians. Nobody can possibly keep you top of mind for shows no matter how good you are. I’m sure in CLE, and you know this being a booker, there is a pretty easy to identify pool of good comedians that you can pull from. If you want a woman, there may be 1-3 good ones at any given time. Here there are 100. And 400 black comics. And 300 Jews and 150 Indian comics. The timing worked out good for me because if I was still in CLE now with the comedy scene you have, I don’t think I’d move!

The thread is the Audience, they really are a great group of people. Like, people genuinely want to see you succeed. Ramon is the best example of it, people really want to see him succeed. When he gets to that TV level I think a lot of CLE people are going to take personal satisfaction from it. They helped you get there. Which circles around to my Cleveland philosphy: I have a life here…which feeds my standup. In the early part of my career I was ALL comic, all the time, which burned me out.

We laugh the most at hardships. The sunnier/wealthier cities have a different approach because their environment is different. They find other shit, maybe more imaginary shit to joke about. Our shit is real and emotional-driven.

Yusuf Ali

Yusuf Ali ©Rustin McCann

On the east coast, crowds like jokey-jokes. Like one-liners where there is a very clear punchline, and it’s probably not an honest punchline. In other words, it’s a fictionalized scenario from which you’re getting laughs. But on the west coast, crowds really appreciate honesty. It doesn’t have to have a ton of punchlines, as long as it’s a really honest sounding true story that people can relate to. On the west coast, if you try to tell a jokey-joke, it feels hacky. I’d say Cleveland is closer to feeling like an east coast room, but it’s somewhere in the middle. Makes sense since geographically it’s in the middle but closer to the east coast I suppose. I’ve noticed that Cleveland comics tend to be very self-deprecating. A lot of our laughs come from complaining about how crappy our lives are.

I have noticed that Cleveland crowds generally are a little less PC than the rest of the country. I think it’s the blue-collar nature of the city. I always love performing in Cleveland when I return. I love that it’s such a small scene. I’m used to performing in LA and NYC, where you get lost in the shuffle. But in Cleveland, I feel more important, like I’m one of the dozen or so comedian success stories. The specific crew of guys I started with in Cleveland are all really funny. Guys like Bill Squire and Jim Tews.

I think if there’s a thread with Cleveland comics it’s self-deprecation and having a great love but sense of humor about the city. I think Mike Polk’s Cleveland tourism video sums it up well. To an outsider, Mike’s video (Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video) probably seemed like it was mocking Cleveland, but I saw it as a love letter. I think the Cleveland comedy scene is great. The shows have all been really fun and the acts have been strong. I’ve never had the feeling like “Oh, I’m in Cleveland- this isn’t nearly as good as New York or LA or London” or something. It’s been solid every time.

Now it feels like an ecosystem outside of the clubs, and they’re almost scared of the clubs. They do all these bar gigs, it’s like 30 people that are kind of their friends in the crowd and they’re pulling laughs but at a club there’s grown ups that have real problems. You have to entertain them. It’s different than a bar. You gotta be able to connect.
Stand up is more popular, you can point to podcasts. That’s the reason. All the most popular ones are by stand ups, they talk about stand up, it’s the reason Louis CK and Kevin Hart are selling out theaters. You know who was selling out theaters when I started? NO ONE. Maybe Carlin. No one else was. Lots of weird people that want to do stand up are getting tabbed and get the itch to perform from listening to podcasts or seeing shows and open mics.

Joe Howard

There’s a huge difference between NY and LA sensibility, and I feel like Cleveland is right in the middle. There are some high-energy people like Polk who feel more LA, and guys like Ryan Dalton and Ramon Rivas feel more like east coast/NYC vibe. Everyone’s a little different, but the common thread is that Cleveland crowds are HARD. They’re some of the hardest places I’ve worked. So when we go other places, it just feels easier because Cleveland comedy is like the training room. It definitely preps you with 2 major clubs with different demographics and it preps you for a variety of styles and gets you quick on your feet, which helps you prepare for life in either coast.

In this day and age of YouTube, there’s nobody who’s discovered unknown. There are a lot of comics who don’t have much substance to their act, but they have a million pics of them onstage. I’ve always been the inverse.
People hear “Cleveland” and they make a judgment of what you’re going to be, I’m the oldest guy in the room a lot of times. Recently went to an LA area club and got to do a set. Did my best and the owner of the club came up to me afterwards and was like “what…how long have you been doing this?” and I got passed that night.

I feel the sensibility of Cleveland comics is knowing what you have, keeping your mouth shut and then you get on stage and you just deliver. You don’t say another work when you get off, you just let your talent speak for you. In LA, people are wired to tell you about what they’re in the running for or working on.

When I started, you had to get into the clubs to get work. And now, the clubs are on their way to starting to close again. Half the clubs are these big restaurants, the shows that people want to go to now are at places that are intimate, flat fees where there’s no drink minimums to adhere to. I think comedy will continue to find it’s way into places that were not thought of conventional places to view comedy, and that will be advantageous to comedians.

Now, I have a place I started to build in 1998. I don’t open til 2002. And now, I’m questioning the scale of what I wanted to do was fine in 98. But things change, the economy, the city, the population shift is taking a bigger bite out of this area. Now I got an elephant on my back, and I don’t have an elephant appetite out there to serve.

You got people making big investments for their set ups at home, so there’s unprecedented commitments being made to home entertainment, so the culture is changing. Meanwhile, Cleveland is investing 3 BILLION dollars in infrastructure to the area, more young people are moving back into the city. We have unprecedented growth. In a city built for a million people, the downtown is expanding like crazy. The town in its history never had more than 2,500 living downtown. Now, it’s up to 12,000 with projections to 20,000. Now, 20,000 people does NOT make a city. But in a place this size, it’s a game changer because the dynamic I shifting.

What I see now that I didn’t see before, everyone seems so much more connected with the world. Than anyone did 30 years ago. So I feel like the comics then vs now, not that they were humble, but they were in touch in a different way. Many of them didn’t really aspire or think of what could happen. This is just a compulsion that grabbed them.

It’s very similar to my old business. I was in a people business. I worked in the mental health field. I often feel like I’m operating a mental health clinic, in what I think the impact of comedy is. Dennis Wolfberg, God rest his soul, would close his show in 1985 with “Thank you for coming out and supporting live comedy, it’s important and it contributes to the culture.”

So to me, that’s a high calling. We are lifting peoples spirits, whether it’s our food, drinks, the comedy, the paint on the wall. It uplifts and it doesn’t degrade people. I have great admiration and respect for the role of the talent, and I want to elevate them too. I want to give them a surrounding that’s not beer stained floors, something that gave the artform respectability but not pretentiousness.



Ramon Rivas is producing and hosting Cleveland Against the World in New York City at Union Hall on March 4. It’s a showcase of comics done good from CLE + some special guests he’s met in his travels, and if you’ve been reading this story and you’re anywhere near New York City you won’t want to miss it.  Get more information on Facebook and get tickets here!
Back in Cleveland, the 5th Annual Accidental Comedy Fest will take place August 26-28 details at

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Ramon Rivas II is a stand up comedian and eminent Latino from Cleveland, OH. Ramon's chill comedic vibes have made him a stand out performer around the country. His efforts through have played a small part in helping establish Cleveland as a comedy hub in the national scene. An alum of SF sketchfest, Chicago's Comedy Exposition & NBCUniversal/Second City's Breakout Comedy Fest & The New York Comedy Festival, where he was selected by Comedy Cental as a Comic to Watch, a huge honor for an unsigned talent from the middle of America.
Ramon Rivas II
Ramon Rivas II
Ramon Rivas II is a stand up comedian and eminent Latino from Cleveland, OH. Ramon's chill comedic vibes have made him a stand out performer around the country. His efforts through have played a small part in helping establish Cleveland as a comedy hub in the national scene. An alum of SF sketchfest, Chicago's Comedy Exposition & NBCUniversal/Second City's Breakout Comedy Fest & The New York Comedy Festival, where he was selected by Comedy Cental as a Comic to Watch, a huge honor for an unsigned talent from the middle of America.