what's so funny?: cleveland's alt-comedy scene is drawing national attention

At Touch Supper Club, where Emily Davis hosts a weekly comedy night, she tosses in a riff about moving to Cleveland because it's where her car ran out of gas. But Davis, who hails from Syracuse and has lived in New York and L.A., actually moved to Cleveland for its comedy scene. That’s not a punch line... It’s the truth.

A year ago, Davis and her best friend, Louis Alloro of SOMO Leadership Labs, were living in New York when he recruited her to relocate to Cleveland. She’d been working the nightly standup scene, cajoling the same group of friends to come see her at ubiquitous open-mic nights, trying to stand out in a city with too many comics.

So Davis said yes, surprising even herself. Her reasoning was simple: She could do what she wanted in Cleveland -- but for far less money and with fewer important people noticing.

“In New York, at a certain level you’re just performing for comics,” she says. “Here, you get an actual audience. You get to work out material. There’s an independent show almost every night of the week in Cleveland. The scene here is such a gem.”

Of course, the bright lights of L.A. beckon. Davis lived there for a few years before moving to New York, and she might return at some point to pursue comedy writing full-time. But for now, she’s happy crafting her voice in Cleveland.

“I don’t want anyone who’s paying attention to see me now,” she says. “I need at least three years to develop my material before I let anyone like a talent scout see my work.”

By many accounts, Cleveland’s comedy scene is thriving. Not long ago, there were few venues beyond major clubs like The Improv and Hilarities, meaning budding comics had to travel if they wanted to test material on new audiences. Today, however, there are dozens of regular open mics from which to choose throughout the city.

Cleveland’s comedic rise can be attributed largely to the entrepreneurial, DIY energy of a new generation of artists and performers. Local comedians like Mike Polk Jr., Ramon Rivas II and Zachariah Durr are using the power of social media to tap a younger breed of fan who thinks it’s cool to watch rising talent test out new material in bars, coffee shops and bookstores. Suddenly, it seems, comedy in Cleveland is everywhere.

Perhaps the most visible brand of the Cleveland alt-comedy scene is the Chucklefck series, which is produced by Rivas. Started as a once-a-week alternative to the big clubs where locals weren’t getting mic time, Chucklefck now hosts multiple shows per week. Held largely in smaller venues like Reddstone and The Blind Pig, they’re packing the house. 

On a recent Monday night at Reddstone, the standing-room-only crowd was filled with 20-somethings when 10 local comics took the stage for their five-minute sets. While the material often was hit-or-miss, the crowd was forgiving, and polished performers like Rivas still managed to whip the crowd into uproarious laughter. 

“I love Cleveland and comedy, so it’s great to be able to put those two together,” says Rivas, who grew up in Lorain and attended Denison University for a year before dropping out and stumbling upon his calling at a Tri-C comedy workshop. These days, he works at Superior Pho and spends every evening at comedy shows.

Rivas got inspired to build Chucklefck into a Cleveland comedy brand a few summers ago while living in Chicago and attending four to five shows per week at neighborhood joints. When he returned, he wanted to replicate that experience in Cleveland, so he did. Since then, he’s also reached out to big names in comedy using connections and his popular Twitter account. He recently brought New York-based Hannibal Buress to the Grog Shop.

“Cleveland went from not having any identity nationally to people talking about it,” Rivas boasts. “[Comedian] Jeff Singer considers Cleveland a hotbed for comedy night now.”

The local comedy scene isn’t just about standup. There also are sketch comedy and improv groups like Last Call Cleveland and Something Dada. There's also a new monthly variety show called the Super Show, which takes place the first Wednesday of each month in the lower lever space at Happy Dog.

Zachariah Durr, host and creator of the Super Show, says that over 70 people showed up for the first event in February. And it's not just a matter of quantity but quality. “It’s a more informed audience," he explains. "They know they’re coming to see something different. They have a very clear-cut idea: ‘I like this kind of comedy and I know how to find it.’”

Durr, a native of North Royalton, recently returned to Cleveland after living for six years in New York. While there, he worked on a YouTube show he created called Food Party, which was picked up by IFC and produced for two seasons. Durr moved back to town because he was “tired of having roommates” and wanted to live where being an artist (he designs props and puppets for national clients) is easier.  

These days, he works out of his Gordon Square apartment, taking advantage of cheap real estate and the contacts he built up while living in New York. He constructed the Asian carp heads that will be worn during the Last Call Cleveland vs. the Asian Carp show staged this month at PlayhouseSquare.

Of course, the comedy world isn’t all laughs. Not only are audiences brutal and fickle, but the best material is often authentic and personal, requiring performers to take big risks. For local comics like Emily Davis, that means being able to stomach the silence.

“You have to be okay with failure, with bombing,” she says. “To get the joke to a certain place, you have to get it out there. I’m working to harness that energy to motivate me.”

Although Davis’ parents (who both have real jobs) never fully approved of her decision to pursue comedy, she was inspired to make the leap into the field after a lucky stint working for Dennis Hopper in L.A.. Davis met Hopper in 2008 while working for the Las Vegas film festival. When he hired her as his personal assistant, she had the opportunity to manage his amazing art collection, meet friends like actor Don Cheedle, and hear Hopper’s amazing stories about Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol in the 1960s.

Being in his presence inspired Davis to pursue her own creative voice as a comedian. Hopper already was sick with cancer when she met him, and he died two years later.

“For a while, I just hoped to get out of bed," she recalls. "It made me reevaluate. Being around my family was important. Being an artist and learning to express myself was important.”

Though comedy is hard work, she says, doing it in Cleveland makes it a little easier.

“We had 20 comics at an open mic last Wednesday. In New York, I had to work so hard to get people to come see me. Here, it’s not so hard. People in Cleveland love to laugh.”
Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is a journalist, essayist and poet whose work has appeared in many regional and national publications. He is Managing Editor of Fresh Water Cleveland and Editorial Director of Issue Media Group. He has earned Master's degrees in English/Creative Writing and Public Administration from Cleveland State University. Originally from Cleveland Heights, he lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood with his family.
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